It’s been a year since the release of Red Dead Redemption II and what a fine game it was. But now the dust has settled and it has had more time to resonate with me, I thought I’d take a look at just how great it was and ask if it still is? Now, there will be quite a few comparisons to the original RDR in this one… and just for the record, when I refer to ‘the original RDR‘ or ‘first’ I do mean Redemption not Revolver. Just thought I’d throw that in there to appease all those pedantic people.
So for me, the big question I aim to answer is how RDR II has held up? But before I got to that, I need to paint a picture of just how excited I was for the release of Red Dead Redemption II. Quick pre-warning, there will be SPOILERS ahead if you’ve not finished the game.
Back in 2010, Rockstar Games (when they were releasing top quality titles consistently instead of milking online modes and microtransactions and then releasing one game every ten years) released the first Red Dead Redemption. This was a coming together of a few of my favourite things. It was Rockstar Games when they were at the top of their game, mixed with a Wild West setting. RDR was heavily inspired by classic Western cinema, especially the Spaghetti Western sub-genre. If Sergio Leone had ever gotten in to making games, he would’ve made Red Dead Redemption.
For me, RDR was/is one of the most perfect games ever created. It had a great story, fantastic characters and of course, tip-top gameplay. Since it’s original release up to today, I’ve lost count of how many times I have played and finished RDR. I remember first finishing the game and then as soon as the credits finished rolling, I started a new game. I know I must have completed the game at least five times in the first twelve months of it’s release. I’ve also played through it a few more times over the years since then too. When it was made backward compatible for the Xbox One a couple of years back, I played through RDR again. Then it was given a 4K update… and yes, I played though it once more before the release of RDR II. And you know what? I played though it again fairly recently just a handful of months back. All told, I’ve lost count of how many times I played and finished RDR over the last nine years, but I’ve got to be in double figures easily. RDR is like an all time classic movie that you just never get bored of watching, it’s the gaming equivalent of Die Hard, The Terminator, The Blues Brothers, Goodfellas, The Breakfast Club, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2…
For me, Red Dead Redemption is the greatest game I’ve ever played to date. So when the sequel (prequel) was announced, of course I was excited. Us RDR fans had been waiting almost a decade since the first game was released. The year long delay from it’s original reveal to it’s release was like waiting a lifetime and as soon as a concrete release date for Red Dead Redemption II was announced, I booked two weeks off work. It took me less than three minutes from when the release date was announced for me to reel off an email to work putting in a holiday request, an email I had already pre-written and just needed to put in the dates. The girlfriend suggested we go away somewhere nice and warm, get some sun. Me? Nah, I’m playing Red Dead Redemption II.
That day my pre-ordered copy came though my letter box at 9:17 am on the 26th of October, 2018, I tore through the package like an excited 6 year old on Christmas Day. The two greatest days of my life up to that point were the birth of our daughter and RDR II release day. The cellophane was cleaved and mutilated from box which was quickly opened and the disc removed to be installed within seconds, as my Xbox One X waited for it’s food. Two discs, two Blurays? This was going to be gargantuan. The install time felt longer than that one year delay of the game as I sat there watching that instillation bar slowly fill. And then, it was ready to play, finally after eight years… RDR II was here. I got the cervezas ready, sat back and began to play. Seriously…
I played thorough Red Dead Redemption II and had a lot of praise for it. But that was a year ago and the way I measure a great game is if it’s still great after a decent period of time. As I’ve already covered, I’ve played through the first RDR many times since it’s release in 2010 (at least five times in it’s first year) and you know what? I’m sure I’ll play though it again too. But how does RDR II stand after twelve months? In short, it doesn’t, at least not for me personally.
I’m not saying that RDR II is not a great game, it is, it’s amazing. But looking at it now as apposed to my initial reaction last year. It’s problems and issues are much clearer to me. I think most of RDR II‘s problems come from one simple fact, the game was overproduced. The lack of Leslie Benzies and his direction is painfully apparent in the game. If you look back on previous Rockstar games overseen by Leslie, including the first RDR, they are sleeker, tidier, much more refined. The main problem I have with RDR II is that it contains a lot of unnecessary filler. No one at Rockstar was there to stop and think ‘do we really need this?’. So everything was thrown in even when it was not needed. Case in point… the hunting.
I’ll be honest, I think the hunting mechanics in RDR II are amazing. You have to track the animals, you can use binoculars, or a scoped weapon to spot them from a distance. Then there are the different quality pelts. You can have low quality, one star skins or much higher quality three star ones. And adding to that, the weapon you use to kill the animals can damage the pelts, so if you want to maintain the quality, you need to use the right weapon and even ammo. Different quality skins can will fetch different prices when you sell them, plus the quality is also important for upgrades, etc. To know which weapon to use, you have to study the animals, maybe even kill a few to better understand them. Then there is the fact you give of an odour the animals can smell, so best to hunt downwind.
Seriously, the hunting in the game has so much crammed into it, you can’t help but adore the attention to detail. Some dedicated hunting games don’t have this level of detail and mechanics in them… which is the problem. I’m not playing a dedicated hunting game, I’m playing RDR II. In order to upgrade your camp in the game, you have to hunt and most of the time, you need pristine skins. Now because of the random nature of the spawning of the animals, there is no guarantee you’ll get a perfect pelt to use. Adding on the that, some animals are rare and only spawn in one or two spots on the map… if they spawn at all that is. There’s an upgrade that requires two perfect cougar pelts. Now cougars only spawn in two places on the map. To get this upgrade I had to hunt cougars and only cougars for five days to get perfect pelts. Often the cougars that would spawn had lesser skins, often they just didn’t appear at all. Five bloody days and I wasn’t doing other things then a bit of hunting on the side, I was just hinting cougars… five days, real world days too not in-game days.
Remember the hunting in the first RDR? See the animal, kill it, skin it, get pelt… job done. No studying animals, no worrying about using the right weapon and ammo. It worked and worked well, so why add all this added guff? I’m not saying the hunting didn’t need to be improved or that it shouldn’t have been, but more a case of it doesn’t need all the crap thrown in that it now has. It’s too much. Again, I think the hunting mechanics in RDR II are great, if I was paying a hunting game.
Now let’s look at fast travel… which you need to hunt to get an upgrade for your camp to do in the first place. With a big, open world game like RDR, you need fast travel. Even if you don’t use it, it’s just a nice thing to have just in case. So let’s assume you’ve gone though the tedium of hunting to get the fast travel upgrade in RDR II. Now it’s time to use it. So you can only fast travel from your camp and only to the towns on the map, which is massively restrictive as you have to go back to your camp each time you want to fast travel elsewhere and then, your options are very limited. Now, you can get trains to go from train station to train station, you can also get stage coaches to go from town to town. The options are there, but still restrictive. The boundaries forced into the fast travel make it pointless most of the time. Look at the fast travel in RDR. Set up a camp anywhere (as long as it wasn’t too close to a town) and fast travel anywhere on the map, to any town, even your own placed way-points. That’s it and you could get to any part of the map with ease. Bearing in mind the the map is RDR was smaller that the map in RDR II, meaning fast travel is far more important in the sequel… so why make it far more restrictive? That’s not an advancement, it’s several steps backwards. Just like the hunting, it’s adding obstacles that simply don’t need to be there.
Carrying weapons. In RDR you could hold and carry any of the weapons you find and chose from any of them whenever you wanted. You can’t do that in RDR II. Once more, it restricts you to one main weapon and one pistol. Your horse now holds all your weapons, so if you ever want to change things up, you have to get to your horse and go through the pain of fiddling around with the awkward weapon wheel (more on this next) to change a gun. So you’re in the middle of a gunfight and the shotgun you have just does not have the range to take out the bad guys, need to swap to a rifle? Tough. You now have to find your horse or call it into the middle of a gun fight to change your guns. This was never a problem in the first game. You just swapped the weapon whenever you wanted cos you could hold whatever you wanted.
These few examples are a big issue for me, the restrictions the game put on you or the over complications of things like hunting. It slows the game down it makes things a lot more awkward then they needed to be.
Now for that awkward weapon wheel thing I mentioned. Just as with the hunting, it’s overloaded with options and, if I recall, there are actually three inventory wheel things to navigate. You have one for your weapons, one for your inventory and then another for your horse items. Again, look at the first game, it’s just so much more streamlined and easy to use. But with RDR II, everything is overtly complicated just to do something so simple.
So you have the weapon wheel where you keep your weapons (surprise!). Using it seems pretty natural to be honest, but it’s not without it’s issues. I’ve already covered the whole carrying weapons thing and that is the main issue with it. But then there are the other wheels added into the mix and using them requires so many button presses and varying combos, it just gets awkward. There are so many multiple button presses within other button presses that you end up playing a mini game of Twister with your fingers and game controller. Look at using the fishing rod as an instance. After you awkwardly select it, you have to use the same button to bait the thing as you do to put it away. One you do by just pressing the button and the other by holding it. Of course, you’ll often forget which us which so end up putting the rod away when you mean to bait it and visa versa.
This is an issue with pretty much everything in the game, because there are so many options and variables, there are just not enough buttons on the controller. So many buttons end up doing double or even triple duty while you have to hold or press another button, making the controls a lot more finicky then they need to be. Just doing something as simple as talking to an NPC can prove tricky as you first have to lock onto the person to bring up yet another set of new button presses and if you do that while forgetting you have your gun out… well you’re in trouble. The amount of gun fights I have gotten into when I didn’t mean to is ridiculous. I think one of my biggest gripes with RDR II is the overall controls, everything is just too convoluted and counter-intuitive. Don’t even get me started on the crafting in the game with it’s numerous menus, items, button presses and so on. Everything is so damn slow.
I think the controls in recent Rockstar games have begun to feel a little dated, I thought as much back with GTA V and RDR II has not improved anything, it’s gotten worse. I don’t know but it seems to me (and others) that the controls in RDR II want to do their own thing when you want to do something else entirely, it just feels like a continual fight. It all goes against your muscle memory and instead of pressing buttons on an instant that feels natural, you have to check and double check the button prompts that not only are you holding down the correct button to bring up specific options/menu, but that you also press the right button while ensuring you are holding down the correct button… and then check to see you have the right button prompt on screen to press.
There there is the inclusion of RPG/survival elements. The cores to your health, etc. They just didn’t need to be there. I’d love to play a hardcore survival game set in the Wild West era and RDR II incorporated minimal elements of such a game… but it didn’t go far enough with them to make them effective, so they came across as pointless. Instead, you get this kind if limbo game caught between an action/adventure title and a survival game, and it doesn’t quite gel. Overall, Red Dead Redemption II felt very confused to me as if it wasn’t sure exactly what it wanted to be. Is it trying to be a hardcore Wild West sim with strict rules and overtly complicated menus RPG style or is it trying to be an action packed sequel to the first game?
I also need to address the very slow pace of the game. I had no issues with the storytelling, I thoroughly enjoyed it in fact. But man, this game is so damn slow. Things like the fast travel I’ve already covered. But just doing something as simple, as going to the start of a mission can be a chore, especially when it’s over the other side of the big map. The game is gorgeous to look at, especially in 4K and all the very slow horse travelling is great at first because you can take in the beautiful scenery the game offers. But after a while, it all begins to grate and you just want to get to the place you need to be at and crack on. The very limited fast travel does not help (unlike the first game), so you have little choice other than to just sit on your horse and get slowly bored. Occasionally, you might come across a random encounter to make your journey a little less boring, but how may times can you shoot the chains off a fleeing prisoner before you get bored? About three is the answer to that, but it happens dozens and dozens of times. This isn’t like GTA where you are in a car travelling at speed and having to weave in and out of traffic as you make your way to your location, that’s pretty exciting and holds your interest. RDR II is about slowly trotting along on a horse and not doing much of anything. I suppose you could stop off and do some hunting… if it wasn’t so damn tedious.
But speaking of the slow pace, I do need to bring up the epilogue of the game. Man, this was boring. I wrote an article on how the most boring part of RDR was my favourite and explained why too. I still stand by that. I loved the ending where you play as John Marston trying to make a name for himself as a farmer, the slower pace was a welcome change after everything that came before it and the slow building of tension was amazing. A very similar thing happens in RDR II after the main story finishes and Arthur dies… but it’s just horrible. Playing as John again was a nice surprise, but the whole thing is tedious and drags on for way too long. Teaching a ranch owner’s son how to ride a horse, having to go into town to buy materials to build a house… and then having to build said house, having a date with your wife and getting a photo done, etc. It was all utterly pointless. It worked in the first game as there was a sense on unease, foreboding that something was going to go wrong now John was a free man (and it did)… but we already know the story of John as RDR II is a prequel, so we know he’s not in any real danger. There was nothing to fear or be concerned about at all. Just a really long winded and tenuous epilogue leading to the exact point we knew it would.
As I said at the start, I think Red Dead Redemption II has been over produced. Just because you come up with an idea to include something, doesn’t mean you should include it. The whole game just needed ‘editing’ down a bit and no one was there to do such a thing. I’ve already mentioned how I have played and re-played the first game a lot over the years including at least five times in it’s first year. I played and finished RDR II and yes, I started a new game… but I’ve never really played it much since then. It’s only while writing this just now that I realised that I’ve not bothered to go through the game a second time because everything felt like a chore and I got bored quickly.
RDR II, while more advanced, feels like several steps backward from the original game. It’s over cluttered with filler where it didn’t need to be, it’s slow and gets boring several times . I’ll happily agree that RDR II is better written with a stronger story. I’ll even say that Arthur Morgan was a better realised character than John Marston… but the first game just played much better and John felt like a more fun character to play as too. It didn’t have all the unnecessary filler, it didn’t feel like it needed trimming. But RDR II does.
RDR is a slender and stream-lined athlete, it was the Muhammad Ali of video games, cocky and arrogant but utterly charming and had the talent to back up it’s reputation. But RDR II is Eric ‘Butterbean’ Esch, it’s big, brash, overweight and while it packs a punch to get the job done… you can’t help but think how great it could be if it lost some weight. Watching a Butterbean fight is entertaining, but you really want to be watching the legendary Rumble In The Jungle instead.
I liked playing Red Dead Redemption II, it has more than a few moments of greatness. Elements of the game are pure genius, but also felt underwhelmed and disappointed by it at the same time. I feel that that is what the game is, a collection of great moments and not a great game as a whole. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back and finish my second play through of the game, even a year later, but I do know I’ll most definitely be going back to Red Dead Redemption again in the future. It’s just a far better and leaner game.
Now that is out of the way, I can start my Halloween specials for this year…