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Red Dead Redemption2: The Nitpick Review

Red Dead Redemption2: The Nitpick Review
You can go to many places on the internet to find a general review of Red Dead Redemption 2 on the PC. Many of them will rave about it and give it 10/10. I don’t think I’m adding much by echoing those thoughts, so I’ve decided to dig deeper, now that I’ve dropped dozens of hours on it, into the true heart of the experience. This game is so much more than just an eye-dropping shoot ’em up, and if you’re interested in a deep dive that goes way beyond the pale into the beating heart of this beast, nightmares and all… well, you’ve come to the right place. This nitpick will be almost entirely spoiler free, so if you haven’t played the game, I won’t reveal major plot points here, just game systems and the structure of narrative.
Do the pros redeem the cons? That’s a loaded question with no easy answers.
Although trite, overused, and little more than blatantly low-hanging fruit, I present to you… The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. But we’re gonna start with the really nasty stuff first, so let’s call it The Ugly, The Bad, and The Good

THE UGLY

That’s gonna hurt in the mornin’

Mission design
There’s no getting around it. The mission design is generic, linear, and stale, copied wholesale from older games like GTA IV.  They built this immensely beautiful world, and then demand that you play through missions by staring at the radar screen and doing exactly what they say, when they say it. Directions are often banal and overly dictatorial. If you don’t approach objectives from the right angle, with the right weapon, at the right time, MISSION FAIL. Playing through missions from a gameplay standpoint is a boring chore that I find little enjoyment in, and it should never have come to this.

Given the budget and time spent making this game, this was a giant missed opportunity to provide more freedom with the mission parameters than their past games. You’re playing as an outlaw flaunting the law; shouldn’t the gameplay support this idea of personal freedom, and not fly in the face of it?

Here are a few examples; details will change, but the premise won’t. You’re told to park a carriage in a ‘secluded spot.’ A yellow circle on the radar tells you *EXACTLY* where to park it. Other secluded spots will NOT suffice.

Ignore the screen, focus your attention solely on the lower left.  RDR1 got this part right… so how’d they get it so wrong for the sequel?

This applies to every facet of missions, so it’s basically unplayable with the hud turned off; you’ll miss the constant string of directives. It’s a giant step backwards from RDR1, which had a giant yellow X to guide you in the *actual* world. So you could play sans hud.

Maybe Arthur’s satellite-fed GPS radar is all the realism we can handle. So just sit there and do what Rockstar says, when they say it. Don’t have fun. Don’t try to break the rules. What, you think you’re an outlaw or something?

RDR1 used yellow Xs to follow if the hud was off.

The Camera
The premise, the filters, and the resulting ‘photos’ are all GREAT. But..  you can only save 200 photos, and not locally.  It’s like there’s some sort of console limitation Rockstar couldn’t be bothered to remove when they ported to PC. And you’re not told of these restrictions in advance. So to preserve the photos on my roll, I had to go into the game, pull up the photo feed, individually upload photos to the Rockstar Social Club, and then manually download each one via browser. At that point, I had the joy of going back into the game and deleting the photos… one at a time.  After hitting the 200 limit, it took me 5-7 hrs over the course of a few days to do this for all 200 photos. Things improved drastically once I used nvidia’s screenshot button to save photos directly, which provides all the benefits of the camera and none of the mind boggling limitations.

Them’s some beeee-autiful filters

The Law
A game about outlaws should have a properly defined focus around being an outlaw. When you decide to be an outlaw, it should be a real power fantasy where you get to do things your way and tell everyone else to pound sand. But in reality, if you try to play as an outlaw, you’re gonna have a bad time. The wild west frowns on your desire to fire all of your guns at once and explode into space. Witnesses will take note of and report all of your petty misdemeanors no matter how far from civilization you think you are. This includes lightly bumping into someone, stumbling upon a crime scene, dealing with a gang that killed a sheriff, and even self defense. And what’s worse, there’s nothing empowering about having a bounty on your head. All missions and activities are locked off until you pay your bounty, so being a bad guy is more like constantly being put in time out. And if you go really wild, the bounty you accrue is often more than the cash you earn from your crime spree. See the problem here?

And your interactions with the law in this game are just bad. One of many frustrating encounters began after I accidentally bumped a stranger in the middle of nowhere; he started shooting at me. A witness popped up and took off to report me for bumping him, entirely ignoring the fact that he was the one firing shots.  I chased down and dealt with them… just in time for another witness to show up. While dealing with them another witness showed up. I’m supposed to be on top of a mountain, there are no towns, no houses, nada. And by this point the law magically knows a murder has been committed and 5 officers have spawned onto the scene out of thin air. Luckily my pocket gps started flashing red to let me know they were coming. Man, this is some wild west simulator! 2 or 3 dead witnesses later, I found myself on a beach with bullet fire exploding all around me, low on ammo, with a $5,000 bounty on my head and the dead bodies of about 30-40 lawmen strewn about. As they finally break my defense, I collapse into the surf next to the shredded body of my horse. With my final breath, I can only laugh maniacally over how this came to pass – I bumped into someone in the woods. Road rage, writ large.

I could begrudgingly accept the above if the law systems were at least built upon a good foundation. Nope. Lawmen constantly spawn out of nowhere, in numbers no small western community would ever be able to support. I understand that letting you ‘depopulate’ an entire town and keeping it empty forever would interfere with the story, but sending 50 mustachioed terminators after you for petty crimes just seems preposterous.

And yet they found time and money to really perfect horse poop.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, despite townsfolk operating on deeply complicated schedules and pathing throughout their days, ZERO attempt at this has been made with the law. Instead of planning your robberies around when the Sheriff and his posse are occupied elsewhere, you just have to accept no matter what crime you commit, they will know, and they will magically teleport there. You can rob a train, kill every last person on it, but your radar will still go red and they’ll spawn behind you in numbers. In especially hilarious cases, when passing through wanted areas, they’ll take out the middleman and just have you start taking damage every 2 seconds until you die without even bothering to spawn a triggerman to hold the gun. Solid.

For a game that forces me to craft and cook things one at a time because ‘realism,’ this is highly disappointing.  Don’t give me the ILLUSION that I can be an outlaw and commit crimes, only for you to spawn invisible Terminators with GPS tracking and magical guns. I just ultimately don’t understand how a game this large, this well-financed, whose very premise is being an outlaw… can have such horribly inferior systems for managing the law. Did they copy-paste this from GTA III’s source code?

Ludonarrative Dissonance
If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s basically the push and pull between the narrative being presented through the story and the narrative being presented through the gameplay. As mentioned in the intro, I don’t want to spoil things, so I’m going to keep this as vague and non-specific as possible, but if you have played the game, you’ll probably know the missions I’m referring to. The biggest two issues here are the inclusion of a morality meter that has almost zero tangible impact on Arthur’s actions, and gameplay forcing you to murder people by the hundreds, but the story acting like it was but a handful.

The Morality Meter
You’re given the option of playing as a nice guy with high honor, or as a horrible dirty outlaw with no honor. You’re probably never going to play as a horrible dirty outlaw, because it’s nothing but pain, Highness.

Outside of a few outlying places, this has ZERO impact on Arthur’s actions throughout the campaign.

BUT. The story dictates what Arthur will and won’t do. So let’s say you spend 45 hours in the open world playing Arthur as a nice guy who just got swept up in the wrong crowd… a man who helps people caught in bear traps, guides lost New Yorkers to where they need to be, leads drunks back to their houses, and saves women who have been crushed beneath their favorite horse when it just up and died on them. These 45 hours of honor building are completely undone by each and every 30-40 minute mission where you are forced to commit war crimes without Rockstar consulting your honor meter first. And not only are you required to commit these atrocities throughout the campaign, they actively drain your honor when the mission ends. So if you’re trying to play as a noble rogue, you’ll be rebuilding it constantly, as Arthur’s actions outside of your control decimate that rating regularly.
Which begs the question, why did they even bother with it? Rockstar presents players with a choice of how to engage, and then turns around and tells us the choice doesn’t matter. Early in the 2nd chapter something happens that just completely severed my connection with ‘Canon Arthur.’ He partakes in something so heinous that I can’t think of *any* justification for him doing so, especially if making honorable choices. That I have no say in the decision undermines – nay, contradicts – all of my open world gameplay choices as a kind-hearted rogue. Narratively, I have no problem with him being evil. Nobody claimed these guys were Robin Hood and his Merry Men, so doing truly horrible things comes with the territory. The problem is that it comes after you are falsely presented a choice of whether Arthur is a good man, or a bad one. If he’s a bad egg no matter what, why even bother pretending otherwise?

The lie detector determined this was a lie.

“Games need to be challenging!”
Like almost all of Rockstar’s games, the mission combat is often escalated beyond the scope of the narrative, presumably to ensure the game remains ‘challenging’ once you become a time-stopping cyborg. In the open world, this isn’t a huge problem; you are rarely forced into wholesale slaughter (I reload when witnesses railroad me into a recreation of the ending to Scarface), and exploration and finding things are the main objectives. But during the missions? By the end of the game you will have run up a death count that rivals the fatalities suffered by both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg – roughly 8,000. Do we really need to have multi-wave missions where you are slaughtering upwards of several hundred people at a time? The story features characters constantly asking what the worth of one human life versus another is, but – oh hey, it’s mission time! Quick, getcher guns and started mowing down everything in sight! It is ludicrous, given how often you are decimating their numbers, to think that a gang like the O’Driscolls could swell to the nearly 1000 members required to sate your blood thirst. At one point, having taken out upwards of 100 federal agents, the gang casually proclaims they better hurry up and move out within the next few days. You would think the US Army would have the place circled and bombarded with cannons by the next morning, but no, the story treats it like you overcame 4 or 5 agents, at most.

The Continuing Adventures of Murdy McMurderFace

You can’t have your cake and eat it, Rockstar. We accepted limitations like this when RDR1 came out because the open world cowboy concept was fresh and new. It’s been nearly a decade since then, and it feels like they didn’t even try to bridge gameplay and narrative. Finding a way to make a 5 person shoot-out dramatic would have so much more narrative weight than the swollen rivers of blood you swim through as you level up and start dead-eyeing people by the dozens, because dumping 50+ enemies at you every mission is easier than coming up with something that can measure up to the strength of the story.

THE BAD

This won’t end well.

Railroading – the bad kind.
I spent 5 minutes trying to figure out how to loot bodies after the first gunfight, only to discover that you CAN’T loot them, because you need to be “introduced” to the concept first.  Same goes for taking animal pelts, and almost every other function in the game.  Until Rockstar says something exists, the game completely disables it. At some point they need to make an open world game that’s just a LITTLE more open, especially when the controls are so similar across their games.

Couldn’t take a few hours to tidy this up, guys?

Outfits
For a game with roughly 10k costume and outfit combinations, it’s rather sad that you can only save 4 custom outfits. To make matters worse, the system is horribly cumbersome. If you modify a previously saved outfit with a new hat and want to save over the old one, you can’t.  You have to save it as a new outfit, and if all of your outfit slots are taken, you need to delete one first to make room. So you’re constantly deleting old outfits in order to save new ones, but since none of them are named, you’re constantly playing dress up just to figure out which one is which.
Crafting
I really don’t understand who ok’d the crafting system. There are TWO main places to craft items – with a traveling fur trapper in the woods, or with your cook in your camp. But unlike almost every other game in existence, where you use items you own to craft with, this game does it backwards. In order to craft something at your camp, you have to DONATE a pristine pelt in advance – having it on your person is effectively the same as not having it.  Once you donate, it will move the pelt in question to an invisible inventory, and then you can go craft.  Where this moves beyond ‘odd’ and into the ‘highly annoying’ category is this means you need to track who-gets-what in advance. Let’s say you stumble upon a pristine cougar – which can be difficult to take down cleanly. What do you do with it? If you don’t have a spreadsheet to track your progress, you need to visit your camp cook, see what the crafting options are, and then visit the fur trapper (they’re nowhere near each other, by the way), and see what he needs. Then if you decide it should go to your camp crafter, you need to drag it back to him. This is way more time consuming than it has ANY right to be.
And if you’re thinking, “Bah, I’ll just donate it to whoever is closer, that’s fine,” well, then you’re going to be doing double duty, because if you donate to your camp cook but he doesn’t need any more cougars in his invisible inventory, you just wasted the pelt, my friend.
No joke, this drove me so far up the wall that I had to make an interactive google spreadsheet with every single recipe for every single item in the game, just so I could check it off and have it automatically remove ingredients from my shopping list.

Updates based on X’d items to right.
This is my dedication.

I have issues, or a lot of time on my hands. Maybe both.

And if you’re wondering why I named the fur trapper Lloyd Bridges, just look at him. Is it Lloyd Bridges? You tell me.
Key mappings
This is a two-fold issue. For starters, having a single key stroke bound to so many things is unavoidably going to cause issues. The ‘E’ key is used for vaulting obstacles, mounting/dismounting a horse, choking random strangers standing next to you, looting corpses, and a few other things based on context. I’ve jumped off 30′ tall bridges trying to loot a body. I’ve choked a woman I’m actively trying to help because she was too close to my horse (cue the teleporting police). I mean, seriously, who thought “mount horse” and “choke” should be mapped to the same key?

Yes, it’s Lloyd Bridges.

And then, after fumbling with the menus for 20 minutes I discovered that the Key Mapping button only appears if you’re in-game. Pause Menu >> Settings >> Controls >> Keyboard & Mouse (that’s 4 layers deep).

Key Mapping isn’t grayed out. It just doesn’t exist. C’mon, Rockstar.  If you want it to be inactive on the main screen, GRAY it out, don’t REMOVE it. 

THE GOOD

Yeehaw.

There are a ton of really amazing things here. I know it doesn’t seem that way after the torrent of disgust I’ve spewed above. But let’s get into it. Visually and audibly, the game is a triumph.  And when it shines, WOW.  So does it actually end up ‘redeeming’ the above issues? Yes and no. The lawmen systems and AI are always terrible, to the point that I refuse to play the outlaw path because of how horrible this game handles criminal activities. Couldn’t someone with a voice have stepped in and reallocated the horse testicles team over to the Lawmen AI team? That aside… the stuff down here certainly helps offset some of the more egregious missteps.

I could do this all day.

The Camera
Once you get past the 200 photo limit, it’s a wonder.  The game can be paused at anytime, during combat, out of combat.  In a limited fashion, you can pull it up during cutscenes.  I’m afraid to tell you how many screenshots I’ve taken, but let’s just say… it’s a lot.

Mmmmm, variable lens focus.

I’m surprised this number isn’t bigger.

The Lighting
Without question the lighting in this game is the best I’ve seen.  So many little tricks and interplays of multiple light sources, god rays, etc. I can sit at a campfire and watch the bouncing light for hours.

Spoooooky

Objects get individually shadowed, shadows lengthen and shorten based on distance from light sources.  It’s exceptionally immersive.  The effort they put into the shadowing system really pays off. Multiple light sources will cast multiple shadows of varying sizes, in varying directions, and the results speak for themselves.

Shadowlicious.

The Audio
Sound in this game is up to par with the visuals.  When you walk around in broken down old houses, the wood creaks audibly, your boots scuffle, and in the wintry mountains you can hear the snow crunching beneath your feet. It really helps sell the world, and if you close your eyes and just listen, it’s a wonderful treat. When you explore different environments, it is striking how vastly different the soundscapes are.  When you’re near a beaver pond with geese in the background and woodpeckers in the trees, it sounds nothing like a forest filled with elk, rabbits, and whippoorwills. I’ve never heard a crow caw without a crow being visibly present.  I’ve only heard roosters at sunrise when I’m near a farm, same with sheep, pigs, cows.
The Characters
Much like a classic Bioware game, the writing for the characters and their performances are both top rate.  Even the side characters that only show up for a mission here and there are excellent. The main cast from the first game return, which means continuity for characters like Dutch, John, and Bill.
The Details
Hundreds of little details sell the world.  Snow gathers on your clothes; when you go near a fire, it melts, your clothes get wet, and then you slowly dry off.

Slushy

Mud sticks to anything that touches it, so if you end up tusslin’ in the swamp with your enemies, you’ll probably need a bath. It’s far more enjoyable than it has any right to be, especially when every single foot, hoof, and wagon wheel is tracked accurately.

Accidental or intentional, lamps, lanterns and random sticks of dynamite can become fire hazards. The system is not implemented as well as in Far Cry 2, as fires won’t propagate and spread across the heart lands, but during shootouts, knocked over lamps can cause minor camp fires and destroy tents, chests, and loot. Sadly, buildings can’t be burned to the ground. I tried. Multiple times.

Arthur is a dirty, dirty boy.

Tearin’ it up & burnin’ it down!

Zoom in on anything – it will be highly detailed.

Meet “Pierced” Brosnan

First person has a lot of custom animations.

The Natural World
Nature is truly the star of the show. If the law system is a hot mess, the nature systems are the polar opposite. The animals are EVERYWHERE, and they live their own lives with a complex pathing system.  This is a world where an owl will swoop down, grab a rat running around the outside of a barn, and then fly off with it, land in a tree, and eat it. Raccoons and snakes will have 2 am tussles in the middle of the forest. Eagles pursue squirrels, foxes go after rabbits. If you leave a body and come back later, you’ll find crows have pecked out the eyes. It all just comes together seamlessly. While exploring an abandoned house, I walked into a crate and knocked it over. Mice scattered everywhere at the disturbance.

You are a very fine person, Mr. Morgan, and I am very fond of you;
but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.

Cities aren’t neglected, either. The hustle and bustle gives them a real vibe, and it’s a wonderful change-up after spending a few hours huntin’ gators in the swamps to be able to go shopping in Rockstar’s version of New Orleans.

Cities have their own flair.

And it’s not just buildings. There are multiple NPCs in all of the major towns, each going about their own lives, on their own schedules. Your gang members will clean plates, pour coffee, do chores, go to bed… it’s the kind of amazing thing that really underscores why I’m so upset that NONE of this carries over to the lawmen, because they put an amazingly complex system into place for everyone else. It’s not often you can say a video game features larger crowds than you can find in the real world, but in a time when we’re social distancing, that is the case!

These guys are not practicing appropriate social distancing.

Hunting
There are jokes that the hunting in this game is better than actual hunting games.  I don’t play hunting games, so I can’t compare, but if I got the hunting component from this as its own game, it would feel like a complete experience. In RDR1 you could run your horse around like a madman, spray every animal in the face with bullets, and call it a day.  The process to be successful now is a lot different:

  • Find high ground with good view of the landscape
  • Pull out binoculars and search for animals
  • Locate a pristine animal, study, and track (use bait/scent cover if needed)
  • Approach from downwind silently w/ proper weapon/ammo
  • Get a clean kill
  • Plop corpse on horse, ride to butcher/camp/trapper, skin/sell/donate parts for $/crafting
On a related note, here’s a hunting tip.  Don’t lasso a buck and deal with it using your knife unless you have immediate bath plans.  This shopkeeper was freaking out.

… whatchu lookin’ at, pardner?

Weapon Upgrades
You can upgrade almost every weapon in a myriad of ways once you get cash.  Better scopes, better sights, better rifling, better stocks.  And beyond that, even just the visuals….  you can change metal types, engravings, wood types, varnishes, and even wrap them in leather or cloth to decrease fouling from gun powder residue.

$41 fer that gaudy mess?? Shuddup an’ take mah wooden nickels!

Upgrades
My favorite part is that the upgrades you can get are varied and numerous.  For Arthur, better gear means better carrying capacity and visuals.  For your camp, you can craft better tents, tables, stations, and decorations.  You just need the right animals for crafting.  It’s a sweet reward for hunting, and though your posse members won’t thank you, it’s nice to see the many visual upgrades you can craft.
The Verdict
Rarely have I played a game that swings so wildly from minute to minute. Every single mission is a deluge of pain as I’m treated like a 2 year old and forced to stare at the radar and do everything Rockstar commands when they command it. But the content and open world is absolutely amazing.

Sooo… do they offset each other? It’s such a hard thing to answer. Maybe? Sometimes? I’m conflicted. The 5-6 hours between missions where I’m just free roamin’ are wonderful. The linear missions are a total gameplay slog. But at the end of the day, what can I say? I haven’t even finished the campaign yet, and I’ve put in a LOT of hours. Not sure if that’s a badge of shame or one of honor, but I guess that’s the ultimate point here – much like the honor system, it doesn’t really matter. Good, Bad, or Ugly… I’m still here playing it to find out what happens next, enjoying both the beauty and atrocity of it all.

 

I’ve played a lot of hours.

Hi, Mom!

About The Author

Randal Lombardo

Randal is an OCD completionist gamer and multimedia designer who believes people that beat games in fewer than 100 hrs are speedrunning. He has an obsession with the Muppets, and his favorite game series include Mass Effect, the Witcher, and Red Dead Redemption.

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