[Caution: Potentially Minor Spoilers]
The realism in Red Dead Redemption 2 is staggering. Everything about its world is meticulously crafted. It breathes life unlike any other game before it. With Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar have created a masterpiece of open world gameplay. I found myself spending hours just roaming the countryside, meandering from place to place, occasionally arriving in a tavern, having a drink and a round of poker. I moved at a leisurely pace, being totally unconcerned with how long it took me to get to my next story mission. The lack of easy fast travel meant I was forced to explore the world, and I truly enjoyed it.
I spent most of Chapter II as far away from Horseshoe Outlook as I could be. I roamed up through the Grizzlies in the north and hunted a legendary wolf. I had been to Wapiti Reservation, Annesburg and Saint Denis before the story took me to them. I had spent more time living the life within the game than I had actually progressing the story, and it was magical. RDR2 gave me the feeling of being apart of a world more so than any other video game I’ve played before. Rockstar are the kings of detail, and the slow pace meant that I had all the time in the world to appreciate it.
Night and Day – the two customised revolvers I use more than any other weapon.
And therein lies the problem.
As you might expect from a AAA game in 2018, RDR2 has a story. A very long, behemoth of a story that dwarfs even other long winded AAA stories. And at first, as Arthur and the Van der Linde Gang try to navigate their way through a world that is becoming increasingly hostile to them, the meandering nature of the game works. It follows the natural order of things. At Horseshoe Outlook your sole task is to find ways for the gang to make money. There’s no plan, no single objective, so it makes sense that you would take your time finding things to do. It makes sense that Arthur would do jobs for strangers and go hunting and fishing and playing poker in a tavern until the crack of dawn. But as things begin to escalate, and the story most certainly does, this style of gameplay, this slow pace, starts to make less thematic sense. As the law begins to close in on the Van der Linde Gang, and they are forced to move camp at increasingly smaller intervals, the story missions ramp up in their intensity, but the gameplay underpinning it stays at the same slow pace. The same meandering country stroll. With the only fast travel options available to you being the map at camp, (which only allows you to travel away, not back), and the stagecoaches and trains (which both only travel to and from towns), and the missions nearing the end of the game becoming more spread out, you often find yourself having to travel long distances by horse, slowing the pacing to a crawl. Nearing the end of the game, as the Pinkertons push ever closer to the gang and put the pressure on, it makes very little sense that Arthur would be wasting his time gathering up a bunch of fake circus animals for a man in drag.
This is the heart of the issue, because pacing is important. As the story ramps up and the stakes are raised, the pacing should start to speed up as well. I’m aware that taking away freedom in an open world game is a cardinal sin for gamers, but having missions dump you in the middle of nowhere, when the next one is halfway across the map, breaks the intensity that the later missions are trying so hard to achieve. I found it increasingly frustrating that, in my efforts to keep the story moving at a pace I felt it should move, I was constantly hampered by the way the game is designed. Having to trudge on back to camp after yet another shootout with scores of enemies to do the next mission, only to be spat out again to repeat the process, just made me want to turn the console off. It’s because of this I’m still yet to actually finish the game, as the story seems to drag on and I became far too frustrated to continue. And that’s the saddest thing, because the story is compelling. I want to experience the end. I want so much to push through and finish it because spending so long around this merry band of outlaws has made me attached to their fate. I want to see them through, in the same way that Arthur, as he grapples with his own doubts about Dutch and the gang, still wants to make sure they all get out alive. Rockstar have fostered such an amazing sense of comradery within the characters of the gang that I also feel invested in their survival. Rockstar are telling a great story with RDR2, it’s a shame that the underlying gameplay tries so hard to pull the wind out of its sails. Or, ah, the air out of its lungs as it were…