The prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, Red Dead Redemption 2 looks set to be the best-reviewed game of 2018, the Xbox One version currently sitting at an astonishing 98/100 on Metacritic, with the word masterpiece being thrown around a little too carelessly for my liking. Perhaps I might do my best to redress that imbalance. The previous entry was a game I was not as enamoured with as much of the gaming community, finding the gameplay somewhat repetitive and too sparsely distributed across its gigantic open world, on top of finding its story, by nature of its open world format, too fragmented and predictable to create a sense of real drama.
Unfortunately, although this game retains some of the strengths of the last game, principal among which is it's compulsively playable and under-utilised old west setting, it also maintains its weaknesses. The biggest of these is that the game consists of about 25% actual gameplay and 75% riding on horseback from one location to other many miles away, usually with someone by your side trying to fill the awkward silence. The game is like one long car journey with a stranger who insists on making conversation.
I can't help but feel that the game is borrowing a lot of its character weight from the earlier game too. I wonder if I would have cared about a character like Dutch van der Linde had I not killed him at the end of the last game. The game is undeniably enriched by its predecessor in terms of its characters, although this does make playing through the game a decidedly melancholy affair, seeing how this band of outlaws, to become so ruthless and cutthroat in the future, started out as a crew of anti-establishment renegades pursuing their own utopian dreams of a new life out west, eventually laid low by just one more moral compromise after another until their talk of hope and honesty sounds painfully hollow. Despite somewhat being a blank slate the player character Arthur Morgan is a tragic articulation of this descent, fiercely loyal to the gang's leader Dutch and carrying embers of resentment to the young rogue John Marston who we played as last time, and with the sword of Damocles that he wasn't in the game to which this is a prequel hanging over him, we know that there's only one way his story can end and deep down he knows it too. There is something of the Assassin’s Creed III (still the best Assassin’s Creed game and yes, I’ll fight you on that) in its hunting mini-games, frontier setting and the small band of homesteaders around you with the little tasks they all have, the missions are mostly mundane and the characters are mostly overly talkative mission dispensers but they do feel like a community.
Whether you have played the previous entry may affect your appreciation of this one, mechanically it is almost a carbon copy although with one added layer of depth to each mechanic, for instance when hunting you can now ruin the quality of your kill with too many bullets, they’ve added a fishing mini-game to the hunting, when using a repeating rifle you need to pull the trigger twice, once to reload and once to fire, which was reason enough for me to stick with a pistol, and you can now customise your weapons at gunsmiths as well as purchase new ones.
However, there isn’t much beyond this one additional layer, yes you can customise your gun but they’re mostly small aesthetic changes and slight stat boosts. You need to equip an overcoat when you go up into the mountains, that’s a nice detail but why not have clothes with other effects? Big pockets that change how much you can carry, thick leather that reduces the damage you take, light, loose-fitting clothes that make you run faster. Once you realise that that's all these features are, nice additional details, the game becomes a string of missed opportunities, it’s better than last time but nothing like what it could have been. The game also has an annoying habit of automatically changing which weapon you have equipped when on horseback that resulted in my character’s death. I was jumped by some highwaymen and the game decided I should pull out my bow and arrow instead of the six-gun I thought I had equipped.
The shooting was not far past passable in Red Dead Redemption 1 and it seems to have gone backwards since then, it feels very clunky which when combined to how rigidly on rails the main story encounters are results in the combat feeling either depressingly mechanical or completely disorientating during random encounters. The UI was pretty poor in the original, I hate item wheels, and the added depth makes it even fiddlier. To take a consumable, for instance a healing item, in combat you have to hold down L1, pull R2 while still holding down L1 to cycle from your weapons to your consumables, use the thumb-stick to select the item from the options wheel and then release L1 while the item is selected and that will use the item. It’s fiddly, overcomplicated and unintuitive. Rather than a simple health bar, you now also have a ‘core', five of them in fact, a health care, a stamina core, a dead-eye core for slowing down time for more accurate shooting, and health and stamina cores for your horse, and all of them have associated bars that determine your actual levels in these things, the core telling you how quickly each of your associated statuses will refill once emptied. If that sounds needlessly complicated it's because it is, and the bars denoting these stats are a very small cluster around your radar that requires constant maintenance. The game also throws occasional pointless quick time events, those pointless bits where a game will present you with what is basically a cutscene that freezes every ten seconds until you push a button to move it on.
The game does make several improvements over the previous entry, mainly in its story, there was a dissonance between the original game’s John Marston’s motivations: bringing down his old gang in order the be reunited with his wife and son, and what the game allowed you to do, go hunting, gamble, commit crimes, shoot innocent people etc. Here Morgan has no real end goal or clear moral objections to criminality so the dubious activities of the average gamer feel more in character and more well balanced than in the previous game. There are actual rewards to tempt you into criminal behaviour as opposed to “I wonder what would happen if I did this?”
If you’re a fan of the original or other open world games like the tedious and absurdly overpraised The Witcher 3, then there’s a good chance this will be game of the year for you, but personally I see it more as a one-and-done game that like the original won’t be bringing me back for a second play-through and will have me back replaying Dark Souls 2 for the 12th time in fairly short order.