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Red Dead Redemption 2 - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Playing as an actual gang of outlaws
  • Organic interactions with NPCs facilitate role-play
  • World is immaculately constructed
  • Fast travel is diagetic
  • Feeling like living in the game world
  • Risk / reward for mundane actions
  • Survival mechanics without the tedious micro-management
  • The mission where you and Lenny get drunk in the saloon
  • Seriously! Getting drunk with Lenny!
  • Cinematic Cam is finally useful!
  • AAA product with no micro-transactions, loot boxes, or season passes ... yet

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Repetitive mission design
  • Having killed more people than can possibly live on the map
  • Guns-a-blazing design discourages careful, deliberate play
  • No real pressure to make money illegally or amorally
  • Tiny, hard-to-read tutorial messages and hard-to-discern icons
  • When you try to mount your horse, but you punch someone instead
  • Hyper-realistic details make un-realistic details stand out

Overall Impression :B-
Immaculate cowboy fantasy; not so immaculate mission design

Red Dead Redemption 2 - cover

Developer:
Rockstar North, Rockstar San Diego

Publisher:
Rockstar Games

Platforms:
PlayStation 4 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $60 USD

Original release date:
26 October, 2018

Genre:
open world, action, western

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature, 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Intense Violence,
Nudity, Sexual Content,
Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol,
In-game purchases

Player(s):
single player,
with separate online mulitplayer

Official site:
rockstargames.com/reddeadredemption2

Once again, Rockstar is absolutely abysmal when it comes to its tutorials. It gets the very first one right, by displaying the prompts on the bottom center of the screen, below the subtitles. That's for the basic movement controls that should be common sense. Once it gets into the more complicated and esoteric stuff that isn't intuitively obvious, it falls back on the tried-and-failed method utilized in Grand Theft Auto V of printing a tutorial prompt in a tiny black box in the top corner of the screen, during the action of the game!

Even if you are lucky enough to notice that there's a tutorial tip while you're in the middle of a horse chase or shootout, it's still hard to read and decipher the tiny text and button icons. There's no option to use a larger font or to rescale the UI if you're playing on a less-than-huge TV. Rockstar, listen, I'm playing the game on a console, from my couch, with a wireless controller, ten or so feet away from a 46-inch TV. I'm not 14 inches from the screen. Use a readable font!

Tutorial prompts appear in tiny, hard-to-read black boxes in the corner of the screen,
often in the middle of an action sequence, in which your attention is on something else.

We did buy a much larger TV over Black Friday, so the UI is now much easier to read, and my girlfriend might even go back and play games like Monster Hunter: World and Assassin's Creed: Origins now that the TV is big enough to read the damned text on the screen.

It doesn't help that there is no way in-game to review any of the tutorial prompts that you may have missed, nor is there any way to view the controller mapping. There's a "Help" section in the pause menu that does contain a large amount of information, but that only helps if you know what you're looking for. If you couldn't read the tutorial prompt because you were busy in a gunfight or horse chase or whatever, then you're not going to know what you're even supposed to be looking for if you try to look it up. It's like opening up a dictionary, but not knowing what word you're trying to define. The controls for this game are very complicated, with lots of buttons being overloaded to multiple, context-sensitive commands, and with certain commands requiring that you hold multiple buttons. I'm constantly forgetting the controls for fist-fights, and I can never remember the dive/roll button for the life of me. It would be very nice to be able to pause the game and double-check the controls if you're coming back to the game after having not played for a few weeks or months, or if you come across a mechanic that hasn't been tutorialized or practiced yet.

It's hard to make out what many of these icons are supposed to represent.

This is further exacerbated by the use of tiny icons that are still hard to decipher on the 75-inch TV -- and were impossible to read on the 46-incher. Seriously, if you're playing on anything less than a 60-inch TV, you need hawk eyes to be able to read this stuff! Often, I would see one of the horse icons above my mini-map flash red with some un-discernible icon, and I had no idea what this icon meant. It was over the horse's health icon, and kind of looked like it might be a steak, so I tried feeding the horse, which did nothing. Besides, why would Rockstar use a steak icon to indicate that you need to feed a horse? Horses don't eat steak. After some digging online, I discovered that this icon maybe means that my horse is dirty, and I need to brush her or run her through water to clean her.

Similarly, in base camp, there are three icons in the top right corner that are tiny and un-discernible. They are supposed to represent the camps supplies: food, medicine, and ammunition (I think), but damn if I could tell which one is which. The glut of articles and forum topics explaining just what these icons mean tells me that I'm not the only one who had this problem.

Living in the game world

Once you get through the tutorials and start playing the game proper, you'll be rewarded with a massive, immaculately-detailed, and well-realized world that feels like a living, breathing place. Unlike many other open world games and RPGs, Red Dead Redemption 2's simulationist design truly provides a feeling of living within this world. There's a bevy of context-sensitive animations that make everything feel so organic and life-like, and which really help to immerse the player in this gritty, realistic setting.

The game world is immaculately constructed and detailed.

I've seen plenty of complaints about these time-consuming, laborious animations on the internet, and at first, I thought that I was going to loathe having my time wasted. I was all ready to draft up a review complaining about Rockstar being arrogant and over-indulgent. But as I played the game more, I have to say that I came to love them.

People complain that they take too long and are cumbersome to perform. I say that these detailed animations force the player to be more judicious with your time in the game -- not because of some arbitrary time limits within the game, but because stopping to loot every corpse, search every drawer, pick every flower, or skin every animal takes up so much of your time. That time is often limited in indirect ways.

This is also one of the rare open world games that really gave me a feeling of "living within the world". So many open world maps feel like they are nothing more than convoluted mission-select screens, with the space itself and the distance between points of interest feeling meaningless. The immersive sim qualities of Red Dead, however, manage to bypass most of these issues.

Laborious animations and inventory restrictions make exploitative play difficult and time-consuming.

Whether I'm stopping to track a pristine animal for a hunting side mission or to craft something at the camp, studying an animal that I've never encountered before, or helping a random stranger in need, or stopping to change into a winter coat as I head into the frigid mountains, or racing back to the fur trader before my pristine animal corpse starts to decompose, or setting up camp to sleep off a near-death encounter, I always feel like I'm playing a game, rather than simply running to the next mission marker or quest-giver.

Survival mechanics are less tedious than other games.

There's a bit of a survival element, but it manages to get by without the tedious hunger, thirst, sleep meters and so forth. Instead, your health, stamina, and Dead Eye (time-slowed aiming) have a "core" attribute that slowly degrades over time or when you take damage or overuse the relevant ability. The lower the core, the slower your actual HP, stamina, and Dead Eye meter recharge. You can restore these cores by consuming various food, drinks, and snake oil tonics, or by sleeping. Each consumable will restore different combinations of health, stamina, dead eye, and cores, and may also fortify a core (which makes it resistant to depleting for a period of time). Your cores will also be influenced by the temperature, your character's weight and health, and other factors.

There is a fast travel system, but it's very limited and mostly diagetic. Rockstar sort of offsets this by allowing the player to automate travel in real time. If you have a waypoint on the map, you can activate the "Cinematic Camera" and hold the gallop button to have the horse automatically follow the path to a destination. It's kind of like letting a companion drive the car in Final Fantasy XV. If you want, you can even set the controller down, make a sandwhich, read a few pages of a book or magazine, do some push-ups, or put an episode of Star Trek on your laptop to kill the time. It also means that you're actually having to travel in real time throughout this world, learning its layout and getting a real feel for the land, where the different locations are relative to one another, and the distances between them.

The "Cinematic Cam" acts as an automated travel option that replaces fast travel.

Risk / reward cowboy

The limitations of time (and also of inventory space) create a cost-benefit scenario for even relatively minor mechanical interactions that helps to keep me focused on the task(s) at hand. For example, since looting corpses and searching drawers and cabinets takes time, you can't do it in high pressure or time-sensitive scenarios. You have to chose what to prioritize. Just got caught robbing a house, and the resident ran off to alert authorities? You'll only have so much time to loot the house before they show up and put a bounty on your head. Having to take time to pull a specific weapon our of your horse's saddle means you need to have weapons prepared in advance. It all makes even minor interactions feel more thoughtful.

Compare this to something like Skyrim (one of my favorite whipping targets, even though I like the game just fine). Skyrim makes fast travel so easy and trivial that it encourages the player to fast travel back and forth between towns and dungeons literally picking up every single item from the dungeon to sell to shopkeepers in the town. You pick up every sword, shield, armor, potion, and trinket until your carry weight is as close to full as you can get it. Then you fast travel to any town on the map, sell it, fast travel back to the dungeon, and repeat the process until that dungeon is stripped clean of everything that has any value at all. Skyrim makes that easy, and it quickly breaks the entire in-game economy. Red Dead does not make that kind of abuse easy.

You won't be breaking the in-game economy by fast-traveling to and from town selling loot.

Yeah, sure, most of the time, you're looting corpses and homes without bounty hunters, rival gangs, or the authorities closing in on you. In those cases, you can spend as much time as you want stripping corpses and homes clean, and it would be really nice if your NPC companions wouldn't rub salt in the wound by nagging you to hurry up. It's not my fault it takes 5 seconds and 3 button presses to pick up a can of beans! Get off my back!

However, those rare moments when you are trying to loot a home quickly before the local deputies surround you are tense. I was amazed to find that these little time-wasting animations were actually adding value to the game! That little bit of risk / reward gameplay is well worth the inconveniently-slow animations the rest of the time. After all, it's better for the rules to remain consistent whether you're under threat or not; otherwise, it just feels cheap.

It's a fine line between organic immersion and time-wasting fluff, but I'll be damned if I wasn't surprised to find that I think that Rockstar manages to straddle the line perfectly.

Looting bodies or homes before enemies catch up to and surround you is intense!

That is, when the cracks and seams in its immersion aren't exposed by silly A.I., bugs, or non-nonsensical behaviors. You can shoot up an entire town, but it'll be fully-populated the next time you come back. You can pay off the bounty, and everybody will apparently forget everything you did, so long as it didn't happen as part of a story mission. As beautiful as the game looks, pretty much any aspect of the game's simulation will break down if you look at it too closely or for too long. Because of how richly-detailed and immersive the world is in general, anything that feels unrealistic or unnatural stands out so much more.

It's almost as if Red Dead Redemption 2 has hit a sort of "mechanical and environmental uncanny valley" that makes the tiniest of imperfections seem that much more noticeable and significant. Most of the time, it's easy enough to ignore, but the game also frequently goes out of its way to point out some of these little irregularities.

The Woodpecker Problem

Perhaps the most memorable instance of this uncanny valley effect came from one of the game's early hunting tasks. These hunting tasks in general can be a real pain in the ass, since the game isn't terribly forthcoming regarding how you're supposed to go about it. I don't recall the game ever informing me that I needed a specific type of weapon with a specific type of ammunition. Maybe it was in one of those easy-to-miss tutorial tips? Anyway, I had to look that up online after several hours of failed hunts.

Animal carcasses start to decompose after a while, unless you put them in your satchel.

It's also ridiculously annoying that you have to hold every type of requested animal for a given hunting task and turn them in at the same time. You can't catch one animal, turn it in, and then go hunt for the next. Animal carcasses decompose after a while, except for when the animal is tiny enough to fit in your satchel. So you have to hunt the animals in a specific order, otherwise, you'll have to catch them all within a couple in-game days so that they don't decompose before you can mail them off at a train station.

Hunting request carcasses must be submitted in bulk.

Whatever. That's easy enough to work around, once you know about it.

What really drove me crazy, however, was trying to find a woodpecker. And this is where the "environmental uncanny valley" comes into play. I expected that hunting a woodpecker would go as follows: I'd hear the sound of a woodpecker pecking away at a tree (should be a very distinctive sound, right?). I'd stop, activate Arthur's "hunting sense", then scan the tree trunks for a perched woodpecker. Once I find it, I'd expect to pull out the bow and arrow and shoot it.

This is not the way it works, however. Birds are never in the trees. They may fly out of trees as you ride by, but you can scan the tree branches all day and never find a bird in it, even if you can hear them chirping and singing away. They don't spawn until they take flight. Same goes for woodpeckers. Scanning the trees for a pecking woodpecker was the absolute wrong way to look for one! You have to scan the skies, trying to pick out a woodpecker from all the other birds in flight.

I was expecting to find woodpeckers perched on tree trunks,
not in the sky looking completely indistinguishable from other birds.

With all the detail in this game, all the animals with all their varied behavior scripts, Rockstar couldn't be bothered to make a woodpecker behave like a woodpecker. And then they go out of their way to point this out to the player by asking us to hunt one! They could have asked us to hunt a hawk, or an eagle, or a duck, or any of the other birds in the game that have their own animal-specific scripts and behaviors. But no, they chose to make us hunt a bird that is completely indistinguishable (in looks and behavior) from any of the other random songbirds that litter the skies.

I'm also really confused as to why the designers gave us these hunting tasks in the specific order that they did. The first few hunts are for things like rabbits, squirrels, rats, chipmunks, and small birds. These are among the smallest, fastest, and hardest-to-hit animals in the game. The birds in particular are a challenge because they are hard to discern when they're flying, are too far away to lock on, and it's hard to track them in flight, especially since you can't aim directly overhead unless you're in first person. I highly recommend using first-person when hunting birds!

Why couldn't we start with larger, easier-to-hit targets like deer instead of tiny, hard-to-hit targets like squirrels?

I get that these are some of the most harmless animals in the game, and therefore are "easy" to hunt in that you're not likely to die while hunting them. But finding them and tracking them can be a real pain. Why couldn't we start out with something like a deer, or even a coyote? Those are relatively large, are much easier to spot while riding the horse along the trail, and have a much larger profile (making them easier to hit). Those would be much better introductions to hunting than a fracking rabbit!

In another instance, I stowed some animal carcass on the back of my horse with the intent of donating it to the gang. But then I made the mistake of triggering an ambient event that included a cutscene, and when I emerged from the cutscene, the carcass had disappeared. Thanks for wasting my time, Rockstar.

Don't worry Aggro, you're still the best video game horse

There's other mechanics that are paradoxically over-designed, but also conservative in their implementation. Perhaps the most obvious is the horses. You can buy horses or tame your own wild horse (though there's never any mission in this game to find and break your own horse, unlike the first game). Once you own a horse, you give it a name, and while it is your active horse, you have to feed it and brush it to keep it clean, and it develops a bond with you as you spend more time riding it. They aren't overburdensome to take care of, but it seems that the designers clearly want the player to have to spend enough effort on them to become attached to them. In fact, when the game first released, I remember seeing many a Tweet and Facebook post about how sad people were when their horse died, and eventually how it had become such a common occurrence that they had resigned themselves to the fact that the horses keep dying.

Horses can be named and customized, and need to be regularly fed and brushed.

I really do not understand why or how people are getting so attached to these horses. Despite the maintenance requirements, the horses aren't treated like a character in any way. Each horse has attributes for speed, handling, health, and stamina, but none of them have a definable personality or character about them. Your bonding level with a horse will unlock certain advanced horse-riding actions, but no one horse is any more or less obedient or personable than another. None of them are particularly skittish or brave. None of them are any smarter or dumber. None of them will become so loyal that they'll kick any bounty hunters in the face if they try to mess with you. None of them will try to stick their noses in your satchel to look for carrots or sugar cubes.

If a horse dies, you just get a new one. Despite what the game (and the internet) wants you to think, the horses aren't characters; they are just interchangeable vehicles.. I never missed a horse when it was gone because none of them ever do anything to particularly ingratiate themselves upon me, or incur my wrath. They control like an extension of the player character, rather than feeling like an independent animal (like Aggro from Shadow of the Colossus). Heck, I honestly couldn't even tell much of a difference between horses with different speeds. Basically, it all comes down to what size and color you want.

Horses don't have enough personality to really mourn them if they die.

In the end, I feel like all this extra horse maintenance is moot. It doesn't really add anything to the game. Don't worry, Aggro, you're in no danger of being supplanted as video gaming's best horse. Aggro is such a good girl, yes she is!

The game also lets you customize outfits and guns. The gun customization seems unnecessarily complicated, but whatever. There is a mechanic that requires you wear warm clothes in cold weather, or else your health core will deplete. That's the only mechanical impact that clothes have. You don't have to wear certain clothes for certain tasks, or change clothes to avoid being recognized by townies after a crime, or even put on a jacket when it rains. As long as you keep an outfit with a warm jacket stored on your horse in case you wander into the northern mountains, you're find. Being able to buy new clothes and change outfits is something that probably would (and should) have been in the game anyway, so it's nice that Rockstar managed to find some way to attach a mechanic to them, even if it still feels mostly moot.

I really wish that jackets weren't part of outfits though. I would much prefer if I had 2 or 3 outfit slots, and then could also store 1 or 2 jackets on the horse (maybe a light, fancy jacket and a heavy, winter jacket) which would go on top of whatever outfit I was currently wearing. They let you equip hats and gloves separately from the rest of the outfit, so I don't see why they couldn't do the same with jackets.

You need to wear warm clothes when it's cold, but otherwise, clothing never affects gameplay.

Also, it would be really nice if we could enter a name for our custom outfits, so that when we're changing outfits at our horse (which doesn't have a preview), the outfits have a label that is more descriptive than "Custom Outfit 2".

Outlaws on the run

Perhaps the best element of the game's design is that it puts us in the role of actual outlaws this time around, rather than a former outlaw working for the authorities. The premise of working for a traveling gang on the run really does facilitate much more open-ended, libertarian gameplay without sacrificing character or narrative. There is no pressing, overarching goal (like finding my missing loved one who is in imminent danger, or saving the world from an apocalypse) that feels like it should take priority over collecting animal skins, picking herbs, burglarizing houses, or playing dominoes for hours on end.

The only overarching goal is to make more money -- by any means that you feel are necessary!

Portions of your loot are donated to the gang, which provides a strong purpose to your sandbox shenanigans.

The fact that the gang needs money and provisions also provides much stronger purpose to the side activities and sandbox mayhem. You can rob strangers you meet; hold up trains and stagecoaches; burglarize homes; sell stolen jewelry, horses, and wagons to fences; and other illegal activity, not to mention killing and looting rival gang members or pillaging abandoned buildings -- all in the name of earning a buck. You can spend this money on your own resources, weapons, ammunition, clothing, horses, and other accessories, or you can donate it to the gang. The gang's money will go towards upgrades to your camp that will provide the whole gang with additional ammunition, food, and medicine. You can also buy things like a fast travel map.

Honor among outlaws

It's too bad that the gang's need for money isn't more intrinsic to the game's design. Despite the fact that this approach does provide a sense of purpose to your exploits, and does facilitate open world exploration and mayhem, it does kind of slide to the backburner. Put simply, there's rarely any pressing need to make money to begin with. The gang will get along fine whether you spoon feed them dollars or not. They're not going to go starving if you fail to bring in food, they won't freeze to death from lack of clothes or blankets, the camp won't get raided at night by bandits if you don't provide enough ammunition and guns. You won't get any "GAME OVER" if you neglect the camp and everyone starves to death. That's not even an option for a "Hard Mode".

Despite Dutch's insistence to the contrary, you can progress the narrative without contributing to camp at all.

The idea is very sound, but the execution could have been better.

A few of the upgrades that you buy for camp with provide you with bonuses (more ammo, healing items, etc.), but that's about the only incentive you have to keep the camp's supplies stocked, and its coffers full. The camp's supplies and money doesn't even act as a gating mechanic for further story missions. When you complete one story mission, the game will unlock the next one, regardless of what you've done in camp or in the open world. So you can power through the story and completely neglect the camp, and nothing changes! Like, at the very least, Rockstar could have made it so that the conclusion of each chapter is gated off unless the camp is fully supplied and/or a certain amount of money has been donated. Nope. The donations do absolutely nothing!

You will never be pressured to do any of the illegal or amoral activities that the game allows.

This means that there's never any pressure on the player to do any of the illegal or amoral activities that the game allows you to do. You will never be so desperate for money that you'll feel pressured to compromise your morals and honor and stoop to robbing houses or trains or stagecoaches. Which means that the bounty system, the witness system, the ability to scare or threaten witnesses, and the disguise system -- all of which are tutorialized at some point early in the game -- all feel pointless. You can maintain your honor as high or as low as you want it to be because the game is completely afraid of having to force the player to make difficult choices.

This is further exacerbated by a bank robbery mission less than a third of the way through the game that gives you a couple thousand dollars payout! I immediately went into town and blew a bunch of it on clothes, gun customization, horse equipment, and provisions, but couldn't spend all of it. I went through the rest of the game having over a thousand dollars sitting in my pocket at any given time, with nothing much left to spend it on. Even without that one mission, when other missions are giving me hundreds of dollars, but supplies only cost a buck or two each, the economy eventually breaks, even if I'm not exploiting fast travel and looting mechanics to strip dead bandits naked and sell everything of value in the game world.

I love how lively the damp is!

The gang makes up a bit for its mechanical deficiencies by being exceptionally well-characterized. This gang is very lively and personable, and the gang's camp actually provides you with a lot of immersive role-play opportunities. The player can walk up to any other gang member and have a small conversation with them. These conversations are surprisingly well-written, as Arthur and his companions will often talk about recent missions and events in the game and refer back to events that happened previously. These conversations all feel impressively organic and believable, and Arthur almost always seemed to say exactly what I was thinking he'd say. In some instances, I would walk up to another character thinking "I wonder how their day is going?", and when I greet them, Arthur asks "How's your day been?".

Other characters can also come up and talk to Arthur, and you can hear them out or shoo them away. And they'll also have ambient conversations that you can eavesdrop on. If you greet them during one of these ambient conversations, Arthur will often butt in with something relevant to say. Again, it's all really impressively well-written and executed!

Conversations with camp characters provide opportunity for immersive role play.

Being railroaded

Unfortunately, most of this libertarian freedom goes out the window the moment you start a mission. Even certain side activities and ambient quests will take away your freedom. Every mission is tightly scripted and choreographed, and leaves you with virtually no freedom to approach a situation the way you would like to. Worse yet, so many of these missions become repetitive: ride your horse to a place while people talk at you for five minutes, kill a couple enemies in a scripted set piece, then get ambushed by a whole town's-worth of people. It's exactly the same as the structure of the first game.

And this isn't like the first Red Dead Redemption, in which being dragged around in circles by government bureaucracy and having control of your life taken away from you is the entire theme of the game. In fact, this time around, the overarching theme seems to be freedom and personal determination. Yes, there's other themes of the dangers of blindly following a charismatic, but ultimately incompetent, leader, as well as motifs of the aftermath of the Civil War, racism and slavery, and the characters' feelings of the new-fangled world leaving them and their ways behind. That's all well and good, but the overall ludic theme of the game (which is supported by the narrative) is that of rugged, libertarian individualism.

The overarching theme is libertarian self-determination and freedom.

But that freedom and ability to self-determine is taken away as soon as you talk to a quest-giver.

This game stubbornly refuses to let you do a quiet job and make a clean getaway. Every mission expects or forces you to go in guns-a-blazing. The design routinely discourages careful, deliberate play so that no matter how carefully you plan and execute some dubious behavior, the game will force you into a shootout with an entire town. Every mission needs to end in an epic gunfight that would be the climax of a western movie. Even side activities and ambient events seem to always give you a WANTED level, and often require you to kill half a dozen or more people.

I swear by halfway through the story, I must have already single-handedly killed more people than could possibly live within the entire map! I walk into a town that has four houses and a few shops, do something illegal, and twenty "lawmen" come out of nowhere and start shooting at me. Did the sheriff deputize the entire town? Where do all these people live? Then after killing them all, I pay my bounty and go back to the town ten minutes later, and it's fully-populated and nobody recognizes me or cares that I'm there.

Story mission have you repeatedly killing entire towns'-worth of people -- just look at the bodies on the radar!

Listen, Rockstar, every mission does not have to be a movie climax. And if you are going to make a movie climax, why do you insist that every mission has to be the climax to The Magnificent Seven? My personal favorite western is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. You know what the climax of that movie is? It's a three-way Mexican standoff. Literally two minutes of three guys staring at each other, hovering their hands over their gun holsters, while Ennio Morricone's brilliant score plays in the background.

I wish the game were less The Magnificent Seven, and more like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

It's damn good, tense, drama.

I wish this game were less like The Magnificent Seven and more like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Heck, even Magnificent Seven builds up to the climactic gunfight over the course of the entire movie. It doesn't have an epic gun fight every twenty minutes.

OK, I guess there is one Mexican stand-off in a later chapter of the game.

OK, there is one Mexican stand-off. It's late in the game, and over in a moment, but it's there.

I got excited when I was given a mission early on to rescue a fellow gang member from prison in another town. I thought maybe this mission would be presented as a sort of puzzle in which I could break him out guns-a-blazin', or by sneakily breaking him out under the cover of night, or trying to sweet-talk, bribe, or blackmail the deputy into letting him go. Heck, maybe they'd just let me pay bail! I had almost $300 at the time. Nope, the only way to proceed with the mission was to use a tow-cable to break down the wall, then go through a gunfight in which I must've killed the entire population of the town twice over.

In a post-Witcher III world, there is absolutely no excuse for such a big-budget, open world game to be this railroaded!

In yet another example of how frustratingly railroaded certain quests and activities are. I encountered a woman on the side of the road who was trapped under a dead horse. I helped lift the horse off of her and offered to give her a ride home on the carriage that I had recently hijacked (and was on my way to drop it off at the carriage fence). We started driving into Valentine, but I had to stop at the post office to pay off a small bounty so that I wouldn't have any trouble in town. But that 10 seconds that I spent walking up to the counter to pay the bounty was apparently too long for this woman to wait, and I had no way of telling her that "I'll be right back". The ungrateful bitch hopped off the wagon, saying that she'll just walk home instead. Any potential reward or honor points that I would have earned for taking her home were lost.

Don't deviate from the script of a side mission or ambient event, or you'll break it.

Save-scumming won't save you

To make matters worse, I tried reloading the most recent autosave in the hopes that I could redo that little quest and risk going into town with the bounty to see what (if anything) would happen when I took the woman home. Would I get a monetary reward, a unique weapon, would she invite me in for "coffee"? Hey, it's a Rockstar game... But that's not the way that autosaves in this game work. Instead of reloading me on the road in my jacked carriage, the character woke up in some random spot outside of Valentine. Not only did I not have the opportunity to redo the quest with the injured woman, but the carriage that I had jacked was gone, and I lost out on the opportunity to take it to the fence.

Suddenly, I have a better appreciation for how Bethesda's autosaves work. If Bethesda's games break or provide an outcome that you didn't anticipate, you can easily go back to and autosave and pick up where you left off. Not so in Rockstar games. If Rockstar's intricately complex games break down, you're stuck with whatever it gives you. In fact, I was just coming off of playing through Fallout: New Vegas again, and the lack of player agency in Red Dead (compared to New Vegas) was especially glaring.

Speaking of autosaves, the save system may also be bugged. I had to reload a save after having discovered the second treasure map, so I went back to collect the map again, completed the cutscene of Arthur picking up the map, received a notification saying my treasure hunting skills had improved (or whatever) only to find that the new map no longer appeared in my inventory. I reloaded again, and had the same problem. Wonderful. Thanks for making me wander the map for nothing.

Mission design lets down the brilliant open world play

I might not necessarily mind the on-rails nature of the missions if only there were more mission variety. "Linear" isn't a bad word. Some of my favorite games are tightly-choreographed, linear experiences with relatively little player freedom -- games like Shadow of the Colossus, Portal, and Silent Hill 2. The problem here is that Rockstar is constantly forcing me to resolve every mission by simply taking cover behind a waist-high wall or rock or tree and play whack-a-mole for a couple minutes.

Linearity is fine when the whole game is designed to provide a tightly-choreographed experience.

The gunplay isn't very good. You just stay behind cover, and pop out to shoot bad guys, occasionally using the Dead Eye to get some easy headshots. If you're playing with the aim-assist on, then gunfights are almost trivialized. You just look in the general direction of an enemy, hit the "aim" button, pull the trigger two or three times, duck back behind cover, and repeat.

All the open world elements of this game that encourage player expression and freedom are fantastic! But the boring, linear missions really let the game down.

Open world games should be open in most (if not all) aspects of design.

This failure to commit to truly open game design is the same complaint that I have with Skyrim, Fallout 4, Assassin's Creed, and so many other open world games and franchises; and a genuine commitment to open design is what I love about games like The Witcher III, Fallout: New Vegas, and Metal Gear Solids 3 and 5. This juxtaposition in design philosophies has been a problem with Rockstar games since Grand Theft Auto IV and the first Red Dead Redemption, but those games at least somewhat justified their restrictive mission designs by tying it into the themes of the narrative and the characterization of the protagonists.

Red Dead Redemption 2's mission design just feels lazy, and is in complete juxtaposition to the game's themes and simulationist sandbox design philosophy. That simulationist sandbox design, however, is an incredibly detailed and organic realization of cowboy outlaw life. As much as the missions bored, annoyed, and frustrated me, it's still hard to not recommend this game for all the things that it does well.

Rockstar has had problems with restrictive mission design since GTA IV and the first Read Dead Redemption,
but those games at least tied the restrictive design into the narrative's themes and characterization.

With more interesting and varied mission (a la The Witcher III), Red Dead Redemption II would be an easy "A+" game, and a new gold standard for open world gaming. It has a good enough story to be a masterpiece. It has solid enough minute-to-minute gameplay. It uses its open world better than the vast majority of other open world sandboxes. It certainly has the technical chops and attention to immersive details. But sadly, despite all the money, all the development time, and all the possible employee abuse that went into this behemoth, Rockstar couldn't be bothered with making decent missions.

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Other Game Reviews I've Published

Alan WakeAlan WakeAlien: IsolationAlien: Isolation
Amnesia: a Machine for PigsAmnesia: a Machine for PigsAmnesia: the Dark DescentAmnesia: the Dark Descent
Among the SleepAmong the SleepAssassin's Creed IIIAssassin's Creed III
Assassin's Creed IV: Black FlagAssassin's Creed IV: Black FlagAssassin's Creed: OriginsAssassin's Creed: Origins
Axis Football 18Axis Football 18Back to the Future Episode OneBack to the Future Episode One
Backbreaker FootballBackbreaker FootballBanishedBanished
Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham CityBattlefield 1Battlefield 1
BloodborneBloodborneBloodborne: the Old HuntersBloodborne: the Old Hunters
Call of Duty World War IICall of Duty World War IICatherineCatherine
Cities SkylinesCities SkylinesCities Skylines: After DarkCities Skylines: After Dark
Cities Skylines: Green CitiesCities Skylines: Green CitiesCities Skylines: IndustriesCities Skylines: Industries
Cities Skylines: Mass TransitCities Skylines: Mass TransitCities Skylines: Natural DisastersCities Skylines: Natural Disasters
Cities Skylines: ParklifeCities Skylines: ParklifeCities Skylines: SnowfallCities Skylines: Snowfall
Cities: Skylines: Match Day & ver. 1.4Cities: Skylines: Match Day & ver. 1.4CitiesXL & Cities XXLCitiesXL & Cities XXL
Dark SoulsDark SoulsDark Souls Artorias of the Abyss DLCDark Souls Artorias of the Abyss DLC
Dark Souls IIDark Souls IIDark Souls II: Scholar of the First SinDark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin
Dark Souls IIIDark Souls IIIDark Souls III: Ashes of AriandelDark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel
Dark Souls III: the Ringed CityDark Souls III: the Ringed CityDead Space 2Dead Space 2
Death's GambitDeath's GambitDemon's SoulsDemon's Souls
Devil May Cry 5Devil May Cry 5DmC (Devil May Cry)DmC (Devil May Cry)
DOOM (2016)DOOM (2016)DreadOutDreadOut
F.T.L. (Faster Than Light)F.T.L. (Faster Than Light)Fallout 4Fallout 4
Fallout ShelterFallout ShelterFar Cry PrimalFar Cry Primal
Final Fantasy XIIIFinal Fantasy XIIIFinal Fantasy XVFinal Fantasy XV
FirewatchFirewatchFive Nights at Freddy'sFive Nights at Freddy's
Game of Thrones (Telltale series 1-2)Game of Thrones (Telltale series 1-2)God of War (2018)God of War (2018)
God of War IIIGod of War IIIGone HomeGone Home
Grand Theft Auto VGrand Theft Auto VHellblade: Senua's SacrificeHellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Kingdom Come: DeliveranceKingdom Come: DeliveranceL.A. NoireL.A. Noire
Lifeless PlanetLifeless PlanetLollipop ChainsawLollipop Chainsaw
Mad MaxMad MaxMadden NFL 11Madden NFL 11
Madden NFL 12Madden NFL 12Madden NFL 13Madden NFL 13
Madden NFL 15Madden NFL 15Madden NFL 16Madden NFL 16
Madden NFL 17Madden NFL 17Madden NFL 18Madden NFL 18
Madden NFL 19Madden NFL 19Mars Rover LandingMars Rover Landing
Marvel's Spider-ManMarvel's Spider-ManMaster of Orion: Conquer the StarsMaster of Orion: Conquer the Stars
Maximum Football 2018Maximum Football 2018Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom PainMetal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain
MiasmataMiasmataMiddle-Earth: Shadow of MordorMiddle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Middle-Earth: Shadow of WarMiddle-Earth: Shadow of WarMonster Hunter: WorldMonster Hunter: World
NCAA Football 11NCAA Football 11NCAA Football 12NCAA Football 12
NCAA Football 13NCAA Football 13NiohNioh
No Man's SkyNo Man's SkyPapers, PleasePapers, Please
Portal 2Portal 2Red Dead RedemptionRed Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption IIRed Dead Redemption IIResident Evil 2Resident Evil 2
Resident Evil 7: BiohazardResident Evil 7: BiohazardResident Evil RemasteredResident Evil Remastered
Rock Band 3Rock Band 3Room 404Room 404
Shadow of the Colossus (2018)Shadow of the Colossus (2018)Sid Meier's Civilization VSid Meier's Civilization V
Sid Meier's Civilization V: Brave New WorldSid Meier's Civilization V: Brave New WorldSid Meier's Civilization V: Gods & KingsSid Meier's Civilization V: Gods & Kings
Sid Meier's Civilization VISid Meier's Civilization VISid Meier's Civilization VI: Gathering StormSid Meier's Civilization VI: Gathering Storm
Sid Meier's Civilization VI: Rise and FallSid Meier's Civilization VI: Rise and FallSid Meier's Civilization: Beyond EarthSid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth
Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth Rising TideSid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth Rising TideSilent Hill 4: the RoomSilent Hill 4: the Room
Silent Hill HD CollectionSilent Hill HD CollectionSilent Hill: Shattered MemoriesSilent Hill: Shattered Memories
Sillent Hill DownpourSillent Hill DownpourSimCity (2013)SimCity (2013)
SimCity BuilditSimCity BuilditSomaSoma
Spider-Man: Edge of TimeSpider-Man: Edge of TimeSpider-Man: Shattered DimensionsSpider-Man: Shattered Dimensions
Star Trek TrexelsStar Trek TrexelsStar Wars Battlefront IIStar Wars Battlefront II
StellarisStellarisStellaris mod: New HorizonsStellaris mod: New Horizons
The Amazing Spider-ManThe Amazing Spider-ManThe Amazing Spider-Man 2The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Elder Scrolls V: SkyrimThe Elder Scrolls V: SkyrimThe Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim DLCThe Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim DLC
The Evil WithinThe Evil WithinThe Evil Within 2The Evil Within 2
The Last GuardianThe Last GuardianThe Last of UsThe Last of Us
The SaboteurThe SaboteurThe SwapperThe Swapper
The Witcher 3 expansionsThe Witcher 3 expansionsThe Witcher 3: Wild HuntThe Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
This War of MineThis War of MineThis War of Mine: the Little OnesThis War of Mine: the Little Ones
Tomb Raider (2013)Tomb Raider (2013)Total War: AttilaTotal War: Attila
Total War: Rome IITotal War: Rome IITotal War: Shogun 2Total War: Shogun 2
Total War: Shogun 2: Fall of the SamuraiTotal War: Shogun 2: Fall of the SamuraiTrineTrine
Tropico 5Tropico 5Ultimate General: Civil WarUltimate General: Civil War
Uncharted 3: Drake's DeceptionUncharted 3: Drake's DeceptionUntil DawnUntil Dawn
What Remains of Edith FinchWhat Remains of Edith Finch 

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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