Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like Rockstar has turned a corner, but it might not be the corner fans were hoping they would turn.
Rockstar’s previous titles, both Red Dead Redemption, and Grand Theft Auto series had a lot of variety. Grand Theft Auto 3 through San Andreas focused on a satirical open world where the player could create his own brand of havoc. Grand Theft Auto IV created a more simulation-style game though fans had mixed reactions, though generally negative.
Then Red Dead Redemption moved back to allow the player to create their own fun, and Grand Theft Auto V returned to the satirical style Rockstar was known for.
I bring all of this up because Red Dead Redemption 2 is another attempt like Grand Theft Auto IV where the goal is to create a more realistic game. Part of the reason is while crime and urban gang life can be satirized very easily, westerns are no longer as common in pop culture, and while there have been amazing comedies in the genre, like Blazing Saddles, Rockstar made the assumption most fans would prefer a serious take on the western formula.
Perhaps they were wrong. While Red Dead Redemption 2 maintains a serious tone, it goes so far as to almost become a wild west simulation rather than a normal open-world game. The player still has the normal ability as a personified superman, where they can take too much damage, become a crack shot, and is the only person who seems to matter in the world. However, the game removes much of the niceties players expect. There’s no way to quickly travel around the world, skin animals, or even purchase items. There’s even a bounty system where if players are seen having too much fun (Stealing, harming NPCs, murdering, and more) they can get a bounty unless they deal with the witnesses.
Quite often players are given a menial task and expected to execute the entire thing. This has created some issues for some players where shoveling shit in a pig trough upsets them or creates situations where players want to get to the action quicker.
But Red Dead Redemption 2 seems more focused on these smaller actions, and the experience over the gameplay. The story and graphics always seem to be at the forefront, but just the simple act of riding a horse towards a town while the player sees wildlife he can chase after, smoke from a camp he can investigate, or other people on the trail shows the amount of detail that Rockstar invested in creating a realistic experience.
If you want to really experience the wild west, Red Dead Redemption 2 is going to be the standard for many years to come.
With an amazing world, the next question would be what can players do, and while the open world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is absolutely packed with content, there is also a story that Rockstar attempts to tell.
The opening cutscenes catch the player up to the current situation of “Dutch’s gang”, a group of outlaws on the run from the law, which the main character is a part of. This is a band of outlaws that have become tight knit. Rather than a couple of robbers getting together for a single heist, they are a group that follows their leaders even as they are being pursued.
Dutch and his cofounder of the gang, Hosea, clearly have inspired loyalty in the gang and you can actually feel the bonds between these characters. This is absolutely what people talk about when they discuss “Show, don’t tell” It’s easy for the game to tell you that Dutch is the leader, but the characters you meet and spend time with here are amazing. There are multiple members of this gang that feel like real people with actual problems.
While the characters are well designed, the story is weaker. The main thrust of the opening is to get away from the law, get settled, and make money. This however is the mentality of Dutch for the entire game until the end. It’s always about one more score and while that mentality is understandable, especially when one learns about Dutch, the issue becomes the story doesn’t really change for the first two acts of the game. The entire gang takes Dutch’s desire for one last big score as a necessity.
The third act does change the formula, and finally, some characters start to wake up but for forty to sixty hours before that point, the story was focused on the same topic and it’s not a great experience. Taking some time at the beginning of the game and showing a little more of why this gang is so tight-knit, or even showing the gang before the fall of the gang in the first mission would have been better because it would inform the rest of the game.
Shortening the first and second acts of the game from a monstrous forty hours to just twenty or thirty hours could have made that section feel less like repeating the same patterns and more visceral leading to the final act of the game. It also could have freed up time to show more of the gang’s history.
Without talking about those final chapters of the game, I can say that the story does resolve itself well. It’s one of the reasons that so many people praise Red Dead Redemption 2 and it’s storytelling. When it has a story it wants to deliver and a purpose, the scenes are well done, and the final ten to twenty hours are exceptional as are the first five.
The problem is those bookend such a large and dull section where much of Red Dead Redemption 2 seems to be repeating the same story beats, and truthfully that really harms the experience because it feels like the game is filled with the content just to elongate the experience rather than because it is evolving the story and narrative.
A similar problem happens with the gameplay. While Red Dead Redemption 2 has some amazing moments, much of the story missions feel the same. Most missions involve long rides where characters talk. This often comes moments after the player is watching a five-minute cutscene at the start of the mission.
But with a five-minute cutscene preceding it, another five minutes spent riding to a location while discussing topics with the other people on the mission feels excessive. Some of these conversations are excellent, and there are quite a few moments where the player feels like he’s riding in a posse, but having every mission have these travel sections gets old. There’s a handful of missions with cutscenes for traveling but these are the exceptions.
At the same time missions feel like they all run into the same pattern. After the cutscene and travel sections, the player often ends up in gunfights, and while this is typical for a Rockstar title, it feels worse here. I actually analyzed all the missions and found 72 percent of the missions had some form of gunfighting, usually a large shootout.
That means almost three-fourths of missions have you shooting it out with enemies and while there’s a couple of them that are small contained shootouts, many shootouts have double digits numbers of enemies, even when it makes little sense.
There isn’t a lack of originality in what the missions ask the player to do. There are all the classic staples of the Wild West story, though they get overused here. Bank robberies are a staple of the time period’s myths. And the player ends up robbing a couple of banks. There are also town shootouts and robbing of trains that are done a few times, and by the end of the game, it feels a bit excessive. At some point early in this game, the whole gang would be public enemy number 1 and have people chasing them no matter what.
But there’s never a point in these missions where a player has the ability to get a clean break. Ultimately if there’s the chance for some gunplay, Red Dead Redemption takes it and revels in it, though after a while it feels like it’s just what the designers were comfortable with but a space that is used too often.
The thing is while I have a real problem with the mission structure of Red Dead Redemption 2, I still love the game outside of the pattern. When the game isn’t looking for a way to get me into my next shootout, there’s a lot of fun to be had. The stranger side missions usually tell an interesting and unique story. There’s a lot of organic gameplay where the player comes upon an interesting event. Even seeing the event more than once gives players a chance to take a different approach the next time.
Hunting animals and eventually legendary animals is amazing, especially when the player gets a handle on it, and can secure the “perfect pelts” that the game uses to reward the player with different improvements.
The gang is fun to be around, and there are options to spend time with them and run missions that feel like they have a more interesting structure than random quests, but yet are more interesting and unique than the required story missions.
And while 72 percent of missions have shootouts, the 28 percent that didn’t were often interesting and gave a great experience. There are several excellent missions in Red Dead Redemption 2, they just weren’t the ones with the shootout because those were similar to every other mission in the game.
Ultimately, I think Red Dead Redemption 2 has some large flaws that I can’t ignore. I left the game a bit disappointed. Not that the game was poor or bad, but rather with all the money, attention, focus, and accolades Red Dead Redemption 2 has earned, the experience here feels so underwhelming.
The story shows it could be better if it tried for the entire game instead of the opening and closing. There’s enough mission to show the team had the talent to show something other than repetitive shootouts, and the stranger missions show there could have been interesting and inventive stories, but instead the main missions seemed to have one goal in mind, and it’s a goal that players will become tired of long before the credits roll.
Still, I can’t deny that while it’s not perfect, Red Dead Redemption 2 made me enjoy myself and because of that I will award it the arbitrary score of
I recommend this game to anyone who loves the idea of being an outlaw, just be prepared for an experience that might not be what you were hoping for. This isn’t Grand Theft Auto: Wild West.
If you want to see more of my thoughts on this check out my video where I break down the mission and look at the game a bit more. It’s available here: