I loved my time with Red Dead Redemption (RDR), which is saying a lot. I tried Red Dead Revolver, Call of Juarez and Gun, to name a few, but no Western game could capture what makes the genre so appealing to me until I played RDR. Its version of the Wild West, with an enormous sandbox, abundant wildlife, rough-hewn characters and fun, varied gameplay is a classic.
So why is its sequel so difficult for me to fully embrace? Red Dead Redemption 2 shares the same bedrock foundation, shows the same impressive polish and travels the same hard scrabble path, but there are elements -- early on at least -- that undermine the freedom and fun that its predecessor so carefully cultivated in its enviable open world.
It's worth noting that I'm 7% through the story (Chapter 2). Of course it's not far, but my enjoyment of other games I likewise have just begun (i.e. Assassin's Creed: Odyssey and Marvel's Spider-Man) does not bode well for a quick return to RDR2 despite its positive elements. Indeed the game starts off strong with compelling characters in dire circumstance.
But during the opening segments my enjoyment and anticipation began to wane. While I do prefer games like RDR2 that not only allow the story to unfold but also incorporate training into the story in an organic way (like Witcher 3, vs. Witcher 2), this game takes so long to do both that I yearned to veer off at a hard gallop despite the world not being open for exploration just yet.
Players are certainly rewarded for their patience with fascinating characters that are well-written and -voiced, a story of survival and competition that is harrowing and believable, and a world that is impressively rendered. But long exposition and horseback riding plus sometimes contrived training exercises grow a little tedious.
Once free of this introduction I eagerly set out for the nearest town, though once there I couldn't help but yearn for the relative comfort of a linear path. And in some ways, this free roam world is linear, too, as your behavior is shoe-horned by game design. It's difficult to not run afoul of townsfolk or lawmen, or even the game's efforts to simulate settler life.
It didn't take long for someone to take issue with me, though all I think I did to offend was stand too close. In full view of others, he began assaulting me, so of course I fought back. Unintentionally I killed him. But instead of self-defense, townspeople turned on me for killing him and started shooting. I think I eventually turned myself in to avoid killing the entire town.
The next time someone insisted on fighting me, I fought back sparingly, hoping that eventually they would abandon the fight. Instead they persisted and nearly killed me so again I was forced to end their life. Thankfully there were no witnesses. It doesn't help that everyone has a bad opinion of me and any transgression seems likely to provoke a response.
I don't recall this kind of reaction to the (former) outlaw protagonist of RDR. And besides, this reaction is counter-intuitive to me. As a known outlaw, people should steer clear instead of provoke confrontation at every turn. One writer encouraged players to greet EVERY passerby to improve one's standing, and I assume over time player actions might moderate these initial reactions.
But as with other design choices, this seems heavy handed. Having to eat and sleep to maintain health and stamina is not unusual, but here it (as well as shaving, bathing, etc.) feels like busywork, especially when practically the same care has to be taken with one's horse. Speaking of, a horseback spill over a relatively small and low boulder cost both my avatar and horse most of our health.
Riding at a gallop such an obstacle can be difficult to spot in time, especially when your horse will ride or leap over it in most other games. Likewise, I accidentally rode across the path of a wagon and killed my horse, and turned my ride too close to a passing train and killed it. Admittedly, I'm accident-prone, but these early incidents were made worse by the other design choices.
Thankfully there are welcome gameplay elements like random encounters when outside town (a writer even suggested players should steer clear of population centers to fully enjoy what the game has to offer). Protecting people from assault or rescuing them from kidnappers at full gallop with guns blazing, far from wary spectators, proves fun especially when there are no consequences.
In fact core gameplay elements like shooting, hunting and horseback riding are as solid as they were in the prior game. Targeting, whether with gun or bow and arrow, works well and sneaking or taking cover provide solid assists. Riding, too, is intuitive (except for sometimes unforeseen obstacles). Third person provides a good perspective; whereas first person can be limiting in a gallop or firefight.
Out in the countryside one can engage in such gameplay with abandon and relive the unbridled joy of RDR while riding across verdant landscape, hunting game on foot or engaging ne'er-do-wells in tests of gunslinging skill. In these moments, the game shines. Again, the foundation is solid, it's just the upgrades that are questionable.
I don't want to walk/ride around towns on egg shells, which is what it feels like at least in the early going. Perhaps it improves with time and some townsfolk TLC, but I don't really want to spend the time nursing myself, my horse and bitter townspeople. I know many are fine with this gameplay and even enjoy it, but I'd just as soon get back to the rollicking Wild West I know and love.
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