By Samuel Caranicas ‘21 // Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Video games are constantly evolving. There are endless amounts of new technologies, devices, and breakthroughs that constantly bring about innovation and change to the industry. In recent years, however, there’s been a sort of plateau; a majority of this generation can be characterized by tired sequels, release scandals, and HD remasters. Triple A Gaming has been in need of a game-changer for some time, and I feel it’s finally upon us. Red Dead Redemption 2 may be my favorite game of all time. I enjoy virtually everything about it, save for minor inconveniences here and there. It’s a beautiful, dense, and electrifying game. It takes the same Rockstar formula we’re familiar with, packs it with detail and slows it down significantly, creating a deeply engaging, contemplative experience. Its top-notch storytelling, intricate gameplay, and dense atmosphere all work in tandem to weave a cinematic gaming experience unlike any other I’ve played.
Many people praise Rockstar for the quality of their writing, so this may be controversial: I don’t think Rockstar typically writes their games well. Their plots are interesting, but their characters and dialogue are almost always lacking. In Grand Theft Auto V, the characters felt like caricatures. Trevor Philips was little more than “the crazy one”. Side characters were often written like walking jokes carrying on-the-nose commentary, rather than like human beings. The first RDR suffered from the same problem, to a lesser extent. Red Dead Redemption’s own wiki describes the character Irish as, “your typical… Irish stereotype.” But Red Dead Redemption 2, while relying on cliches to a degree, creates believable characters with real depth. The characters feel more human, the interactions are more natural, and the exposition is less noticeable than what video games typically offer. We get to hear the protagonist’s internal monologue throughout the game, and it adds an extra degree of life and depth to Mr. Arthur Morgan. It’s a nice little touch that I haven’t seen in other games. I don’t think I’ve played anything else as well written. The writing is a huge step up for both Rockstar and gaming as a whole, and I hope other developers take notes. This game deserves to be a hallmark for video game storytelling.
The well-written and fleshed out characters lend a lot to the story, which I’ll admit is not as open-ended as was anticipated, but I still enjoyed it. Rockstar clearly intended to create an epic, cinematic narrative with lots of setpieces, rather than a more fluid experience like we saw in GTA V. Apart from a handful of sequences that felt a bit too scripted, the on-the-rails nature of the story was never too noticeable, and it made for some truly spectacular moments and visuals. I think Rockstar may be attempting to explore how interactivity can enhance a film-like experience, rather than solely focusing on sandbox gameplay. This direction doesn’t land with everyone, and for good reason―a lot of gamers don’t like control being taken away from them―but it landed with me. This cinematic style of storytelling needs some tweaking to mesh with the open nature of the rest of the game, however. While I found it engaging, the more I played, the more I felt a disconnect between the story and the rest of the game. There’s this living, organic world surrounding a rigid, on-the-rails narrative and it can sometimes be jarring to switch between the two, as during story missions certain mechanics are often blocked off. Additional player choice, such as more options to complete objectives (not too much, to preserve the cinematic elements), would reduce this disconnect and satisfy some of the disappointed players.
This disconnect is only exacerbated by the fact that even the simplest of mechanics are highly-detailed and add a great deal of depth. Many have argued this detracts from the experience, that in the pursuit of realism many mechanics are overcomplicated, but I disagree. I completely understand why many players have complained about needing to use specific types of ammo and weapons while hunting, for example, but I enjoyed that element immensely. I always found hunting dull in previous Rockstar games, and this new dimension is something I’m thankful for. Additionally, it not only requires players to be more actively engaged in the hunting process, it also encourages use of other mechanics, such as crafting and shopping. The details within these mechanics are all closely interwoven with each other, to create an unprecedentedly-detailed and cohesive gameplay experience.
The world, rich in its mechanics, feels difficult to control here. I believe that may be another reason why some players are unsatisfied, but I don’t think this is a bad thing. Many people want games to make them feel in control of every situation, and most games provide that feeling. But RDR2 takes a more realistic approach. Arthur controls perfectly well and feels responsive, so that’s not the issue. But, non-player characters are relatively unpredictable when approached, just like real life, and horses can be a little tricky to control before building a bond with them. Players also need to account for witnesses and bounty hunters, among other things. This creates the sense that this world is not just a playground. Of course it can be, if you’re into that, but there’s a lot more to the world this time around. Rockstar seems more interested in delivering a meditative, rich, atmospheric―and realistic―experience here. Many players argue the quantity of slow animations, inability to carry all their weapons at once, and the need to clean their horses and weapons are all merely hassles that further remove that sense of control, which is completely understandable. I agree regarding the inability to carry all my weapons. But the slow and abundant animations add to the wonderful atmosphere, and I do feel a connection to my horse (named Bubsy 3D) as a result of caring for him. In the first RDR, where horses are just cars with legs, I feel no connection to them. As far as cleaning weapons is concerned, it takes about 10 seconds every few hours, and disregarding that mechanic still allows players to use the dirty weapons without any issues. I understand the complaint, but it takes mere seconds and is basically optional, and in my opinion only adds to the game’s wonderfully slow pace.
However, the game still has some issues, although none have been too major to significantly detract from my experience. As mentioned before, the inability to carry more than four weapons at a time is inconvenient. Players need to remember to take their weapons from their horse before beginning an encounter, otherwise they’ll have to run all the way back with only a revolver to protect them. And when enemy fire scares the horse away, then it really gets annoying. This leads to my next complaint: the limited distance that horses hear player calls. More than once, I’ve had to spend way too much time running into close enough range for Bubsy 3D to hear my whistle. This is my biggest problem with the game, which is honestly a good sign. My final complaint would be that sometimes, animations don’t fully execute, and I’ll need to press the button a second or third time to actually succeed. This happens quite often, and no animation is safe. Players may be annoyed by this lack of responsiveness, most likely due to the complexity of the animations, but these minor issues detract little from the overall experience.
Luckily, the game’s rich atmosphere more than makes up for any of these complaints. The graphics, lighting, sound, music, and environments are all drop-dead gorgeous. Even the loading screen makes me tingle. It’s the best looking and best-sounding game I’ve ever played, which I believe is a huge part of what makes its cinematic narrative so successful. The magnificent lighting, music, and sound design turn what would be a mundane cover-based shootout in any other game into an exhilarating standoff. The way the moonlight reflects off my horse and I as we ride through the night never fails to make me feel like a badass, and it looks incredible too. The guns sound amazing and have a serious kick to them; they’re some of the most satisfying weapons I’ve ever used in a game, especially the shotguns. The sounds of the wildlife and general world ambience are a treat to listen to: elk calls in the distance, a train traveling by, the sounds of flowing water. It all begs you to slow down and take it in, to stop and dwell in its glory. An immense amount of care and detail was put into this game’s world and atmosphere, and in my opinion, that’s the real draw here.
Red Dead Redemption 2 seems to be an attempt, as odd as it is to say, to shift their primary focus from quick and intuitive gameplay to a slow-paced and atmospheric, narrative-focused experience. And, due to their status, the industry may follow. Yes, Rockstar added and fleshed out many gameplay mechanics, but most of these changes were detail oriented and even slow players down in some cases. For example, the ability for the player’s hat to fall off, and then the ability to pick it back up, contributes nothing to the gameplay but a lot to the atmosphere. The same goes for cleaning weapons, taking baths, grooming, etc. The core gameplay offers a lot to chew on, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like it takes a back seat here. For all the new details, the core mechanics themselves remain virtually unchanged from previous Rockstar titles; all the attention was on the atmosphere. And I couldn’t be happier about that.