It’s like downing a bottle of whiskey, but a hundred times as tedious

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Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)

I was half-watching this Western film on the telly the other day – apologies, I never got the name of it – and in it the well-hung main cowboy strolls on in to the saloon, orders a full bottle of whiskey and downs the whole thing in one, right there and then. And they say films these days are too unrealistic. He grabs plenty of attention with this stunt of course, and the net result of it all is the usual step outside, guns drawn, bury me with my money type of affair. And I’m thinking, God, how cheap was life back then?

Seriously, bump into someone these days and spill a bit of their pint and they’ll be OK with it and accept your apology, unless they’re Begbie. Do the same back in the late 1800s in the old West and it’s guns at high noon. And there’s no second chances if your hands understandably start shaking or you don’t quite get your shot on target or your opponent literally pulls a fast one on you – you’re dead, partner.

Plainly this sort of societal disease couldn’t much continue; anytime an inventor or a creator or an innovator threatened to bring forth a breakthrough in technology and help to advance mankind, I imagine some unhinged have-a-go hero took one look at the egghead, loaded up his Smith and Wesson, blew the guy away and that was that. We don’t do thinking around here, amigo. And so it was that Red Dead Redemption 2, after an agonising wait of over eight years of development, brings us to the effective end of what they called the Wild West.

There’s no glorification of the West here – you join your main protagonist, the likable Arthur Morgan, with him and his posse on the run. Forever slipping the noose of the Pinkerton agents, who have the temerity to try to impose law and order on America in the very earliest 20th Century. To survive, and almost more importantly to preserve their way of life, Arthur and his travelling troupe still pull off heists, jobs and robberies to keep money and provisions in supply. But the stakes are getting higher, the risks more foreboding, the loss of life more keenly felt.

After a beautiful though fairly slow opening section that has you and your horses out in the snow of all environments, you establish your first proper base camp and the world is open to you. And God, is it a beautiful world – it wins the title of most realistic graphics of any game at a canter, and that’s before you take into account the fully rendered horse testicles.

And these must be taken into account, because this was an eight year project don’t forget. It just makes me wonder how exactly one could even plan a project like this, cobble it all together. Get all the stakeholders paddling the same way, saluting the same flagpole and all that lark. Was it all sprints, stories, huddles? Were the horse balls a major priority to get done, an MVP? I’d love to know.

You’ll spend a lot of time on your horse, naturally. So you’d better give it a name, bond with it, and be sure to manually save your game in case your poor nag bites the dust on a mission. That’s what I do. Listen, what would the Lone Ranger be without Silver?  Horses may be highly identifiable to the law, but I need a professional horse to do serious work here, a geegee I can have faith in. And my trusty steed, Christ’s Chin, sent the locals running at the mere sight of it, such was its heroic presence in some of the grisliest shootouts to rock the West – I kid you not.

But let’s be honest here. It’s hardly the fault of the game, it hasn’t got any real way around it, but riding around on horseback is never all that fun in games. It was crazy in Ocarina of Time, the first time a lot of us experienced this mechanic. But otherwise, give me a car any day (lack of testes notwithstanding). It’s just never going to have that one over GTA.

But there’s a bigger problem here, to do with the user interface and inventory functions. All too often I’d start hobbling into the next battle set-piece, desperate not to look like a fool in front of my camp-mates, and twice as eager not to go out of tune with the game’s tightly scripted sequence of events, in case it laughed at me. It’s no good the game having all these establishing shots and dynamic views and 10 hours of voicework if I’m wrecking the whole thing by going “Wait a second lads, I’ve forgot me rifle” then doubling back to my horse to get it. Only it’s not there, so maybe it’s on a different horse or back at camp or in a storage chest somewhere or God knows, but it’s not here, and I won’t be capping any scoundrels without it.

It could possibly be buried way down in some hidden item sub-menu of yours somewhere, but too often, it’s not as comfortably simple as just pressing the button and out comes your trusty shooter. It seems that, among all of the tins of pilchards and tobacco and corn-on-the-cobs that you’ll be picking up, worth possibly 5 cents each in a store, someone forgot to give the guns priority. If you want to take a belt of whiskey in the midst of a firefight, like our man in the film, then you’ll find it easy. If you need to switch to double revolvers or throwing knives, then get ready to spin the Item Wheel of Fortune.

You’ll need to make a few adjustments to the game to make the control scheme and shooting bearable as well – otherwise you’ll be furiously mashing the button just to run at a fairly slow clip, and your aiming snap-tos will be way too slow and inaccurate. This can all be changed to your liking, but you have to wonder why they thought the default would be the best experience. Another example of Rockstar telling gamers what’s best for them.

The game, by its nature, is always going to be more slow-paced than GTA, where I revel in throwing clumps of C4 out car windows at pedestrians and pressing the detonator immediately. I know there’s going to be a big difference. Even so, it’s almost as if the cumbersome UI and item wheel and the tricky shooting mechanics are a comment on Arthur getting that bit old and rusty. You’ll certainly feel aged, trying to make sense of it.

Red Dead Redemption 2 can become, just slightly, a bit of a slog and I’m sorry, but I just can’t seem to play this one for eight hours straight like some. I’d get a headache looking at all the menus and slowly trotting around the vast overworld, getting to many juicy bits, but wishing for a much more convenient fast travel method. To be fair, the game is good about holding your attention here, with plenty of random events and NPC camps to find out in the wilderness.

You’ll feel just like that outlaw who downed the bottle of whiskey – uneasy on your feet, ready to collapse under the strain of it all, the expectation, the headspace needed. It’s enough to make you need a bit of a rest really. There’s an Online mode that you can use to blow off some steam here, although as I understand it, the online economy is way out of whack and microtransactions are surely on the way for designer horses so you can forget about affording anything good there either.

For graphics, landscapes, cinematics, quality of voicework and character & face models, Red Dead Redemption 2 has every other game beaten all ends up. But as a game? It’s mega fun for a time. But it can become slow going, and as for the missions, a lot of it is the same old Rockstar. As a huge undertaking, it’s a staggering game and it well deserves your time and purchase. But as a slice of entertainment, I think I’d still prefer to go back to the previous game and march John Marston into a watery grave instead. The first Red Dead Redemption was a game for the ages. This one isn’t.

25 January 2019

One thought on “It’s like downing a bottle of whiskey, but a hundred times as tedious

  1. Hopefully, if you bought Red Dead 2, you were a fan of the Red Dead 1 and Red Dead Revolver. A lot of people complain about the slowness and the missions, sure I get it. But the plot and story take time to develop, I just think people have no patience and want instant gratification from a game.

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