Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018 PS4) – Rockstar

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review (PS4 2018)

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You and your camp explore a number of towns in the game and, more often than not, make your mark….

Red Dead Redemption 2 set out its stall clearly in the run up to release. Here you were going to find the most beautiful, immersive, lived in open-world seen in gaming and a new bar would be set for not only how you interacted with virtual worlds but also how these worlds interacted with you. Sweeping vistas dominated promotional materials as details of all the activities you could do were drip fed. Fancy camping? No problem. What about good old-fashioned hunting? Well, there were hundreds of animals to track down for trophies. Everything from shaving to alchemy was considered, and each adventure would be unique and bespoke. The fact Rockstar has exceeded expectations with this world is something to be celebrated, as here truly is the most remarkable (and visually stunning) gaming world created. What’s not cause for celebration is that, as your time with it wears on, this bright world fades to become background to a tiring, repetitive and cumbersome cover shooter.

But let’s start with that world. The scale is breathtaking – true there have probably been larger open worlds before – but none that have simply felt this huge and real. As you transition down from the mountains into more temperate zones, and then onto deserts before finally reaching cities and swamps the world feels like as if it breathes and moves around you. You can imagine, after you switch off your console, that life here continues. This isn’t a world built for you, or a world for your adventure, this is a world that just so happens to be the setting for your story as well as the story for the hundreds of other characters you encounter. It is a feat that I have never encountered in a game before.

What helps give it this sense of scale is the sheer number of systems at play, and the options to the player at any given moment. While you are hand-held along an opening few missions, after descending from the mountains you could wander off for tens of hours before continuing with the story. The world feels truly alive as you know around the next corner could be a cougar waiting to pounce, an ambush from a rival gang, or simply someone in need of a helping hand. There will be sheep to hustle, buffalo to hunt or a bounty to collect.

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The camp is an important tool in the story providing not only characters and resources, but acting as a centre to your increasingly unsteady world.

At the centre of your world, and at so many of these systems, is your camp. You are a senior figure in a gang of outlaws trying to get back on its feet after a job gone wrong – and as such you have certain responsibilities. Along with the more generic side missions the camp offers, it also expects things from you. There is stew to eat, to replenish health, but only if the camp cook gets fresh meat. There are places to get ammo and tonics, but only if you pay to upgrade the camp. You start feeling a responsibility for the place, and the more time you invest in the camp the greater the rewards you reap. Most telling perhaps is in a game of this size, the only way to fast travel anywhere is to make a serious investment in your camp to unlock a map. Otherwise, get used to your horse.

But beyond your camp, over each hill there is something new to explore. A trip to the doctor to pick up medical supplies quickly turned into an inadvertent heist as I noticed a locked door at the back of the shop. A quick stop at a saloon started a game-long mission of tracking down (and helping) numerous ex-gunslingers and opened-up hours of completely optional (and incredibly polished) missions and stories. When you are in the fictional south-west, tracking down a zebra to return to a circus master, you know that you’re in a unique world.

For this reason, if you are setting out on this game, I would advise against the fast travel option. Red Dead Redemption 2 almost prides itself in its slow pace, and (for the most part) this pays off. Everything requires a button push from the player – shaving, tying up your horse, holstering your weapon – very little comes for free. While sometimes this is frustrating, forcing the player to travel over large areas really shows off the world at its finest. With fast travel, this merely becomes another gaming world, but by taking your time (and bonding with your horse) you will run into the numerous side activities and see the many sights that this incredible world has to offer.

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Sometimes it feels just unfair on other games. I mean look at that, and there are hundreds more of these waiting.

And for the first half of this game, as it introduces you to the world, the game is at its breathtaking best. The world very much is the game, and vice versa. Story and side missions are tied to showing off systems and areas – essentially dozens of mini-tutorials that teach you everything from horse-bonding to poker. It is when you move away from there, and carry on with the story missions, that things quickly fall apart. The story takes you across the world, introducing new towns and areas to you (though theoretically everything is accessible from the start) as your gang and camp are forced to flee from one fictional state to the next. While this offers up fresh settings, and shows off the world beautifully, the same cannot be said for the gameplay. Unique missions are soon replaced by second-rate shootouts that feel almost arcade like at points and follow a near identical pattern. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told to ride to an area, watch a cutscene which contains an argument, take part in a shootout and then flee fending off enemies before getting to a safe place. Different skins are placed on this mission type, sometimes it’s a canoe, sometimes it’s a jail break, but they feel and play identically. This is shown in sharp light as one story-beat takes you out of the world for 1-2 hours of gameplay. Without the open world to distract you, to freshen things up between missions, the game becomes a slog of repeat cover-shooter style missions. When ,finally, back in the real-world things don’t get much better, as further story-events effectively close off a lot of exploring and encourage you to see the story to the end.

This reliance on cover-shooting missions also highlights another weakness of the game – the awkward controls. In a game so reliant on immersion, any small fault can snap you out of the world and unfortunately these occur regularly during shootouts. The miss-time of a button is the difference between pulling out your weapon or getting out of cover – and the site of your character calmly standing up and walking forward (without your apparent instruction) during an intense fight is a real atmosphere destroyer.

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Expect to be doing this. Alot. And it’s not that fun to start with.

The one saving grace of carrying on with the story is the narrative itself. While the missions become tiring, the arc of your characters (as well as Dutch, the leader of the gang) almost make it worth the slog. As Dutch descends into madness, falling from your surrogate father to a paranoid mad man, your own character is coming to term with himself, events in his life, and the changing nature of the world around you. If not exactly original, it is still enthralling and supported by a cast of likeable, diverse and engaging characters. The performances are also pitch perfect, bringing out genuine empathy as events unfold and I found myself actively invested in the well being of my character, my horse and some of my fellow camp-members (but mainly my horse). The story also provides the games most memorable moments as visuals, atmosphere and an insanely good soundtrack regularly come together to provide jaw dropping scenes. Technically I was controlling them I suppose, but it says a lot about the strengths and weakness of this game that I often preferred watching the game to playing it.

The story is only let down by a confusing pair of epilogues, that you are forced to play through to “finish” the game. Without spoiling too much these epilogues aren’t directly linked with the main story and feel deflating after the highs of the main adventure. At 60 hours it’s not like the game isn’t long enough without them, and I found their addition confusing – adding pretty much nothing to the experience.

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At some points this game just drips atmosphere.

Overall Red Dead Redemption 2 is very much a tale of two games. On the one hand you have the most immersive and lived in open world that gaming has ever presented. You could spend hundreds of hours here, doing whatever you chose. Becoming a master fisher or hunter, chasing down bounties or simply exploring the stunning landscape are experiences like few others I’ve had in games. The story is compelling, beautifully acted and chock full of so much atmosphere and emotion it is almost unfair – it has characters and performances that will live with me for a long time. This world, these characters and this story deserved a game fitting of the setting – but unfortunately in this aspect Rockstar didn’t deliver. Clunky controls, and boring copy-paste missions make getting to the end a slog. It’s a real shame as I am struggling to recommend one of the most beautiful and unique games of the year – but ultimately for me it wasn’t worth it.

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