As I reached the climax of a pivotal chapter-ending story mission in Red Dead Redemption 2 ’s last third, I found myself with an overwhelming urge to take as many screenshots of the mission’s events as possible.
It wasn’t because the images in front of me were stunningly picturesque – they were – but rather because I wanted to have something to look back on to recall the cathartic euphoria I was experiencing in that moment. I didn’t want to forget how awesome playing and experiencing that sequence first-hand felt. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced in a video game before.
In no more than twenty minutes’ time, the set piece was over. With the gun smoke cleared and the dust settled, I regained control of Arthur after he made a few brief remarks to his departing companions. I sat motionless for a moment, relishing in the awe-inspiring course of events that I had just played through. As the exhilaration subsided, I inevitably concluded that it was time to move on. I opened the map, placed a marker on my next destination and sighed as I realized my progress was being impeded by a fifteen-minute commute on horseback.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a fascinating departure for Rockstar. It isn’t a game about satirizing caricatures of western ideals nor is it a fast-paced romp through larger than life set pieces. Rockstar’s latest wild west epic is all about painstakingly recreating the American frontier at the turn of the 19th century while telling a surprisingly straight-laced story therein. While the meticulous attention to detail can be dazzling, its brash insistence on adhering to realism makes so much of RDR2 straight up boring.
The game UI is stained with the perpetual presence of health, stamina, and deadeye meters that have to be incessantly maintained by sleeping, eating, bathing and shaving – none of which are actually fun. So much of your time is spent on keeping your character and horse in shape so that you can get to doing the things that are actually fun.
These meters (or ‘cores’ as the game calls them) have a looming presence over everything you do, tinging everything with a feeling of stress and anxiety that’s almost impossible to avoid.
What makes matters worse is how selective the game’s application of realism is.
The realistic world the game surrounds you with stands in stark contrast to a number of game mechanics. RDR2 tries to tout its system of interacting with other characters as having the complexity and nuance of real-life interactions, but it eventually just boils down to pushing one button to say something nice and pushing the other to say something mean. The mingling NPCs eventually just become obstacles that you have to avoid while riding through town lest you be smacked with a hefty bounty for equestrian homicide.
The number of enemies that you’re pitted against adds to the overwhelming dissonance. They want each person you encounter to feel like a living and breathing human being, but then you’re required to mow down the denizens of an entire town for a single mission only to return soon afterwards and see no lasting ramifications of your murderous rampage.
There is also a morality mechanic integrated into Red Dead Redemption 2 that makes no sense and feels like a relic from a bygone age. It’s especially baffling that such a black and white morality mechanic is implemented in the same game that relishes in the fact that chopping wood and skinning animals takes about as long as it would in real life.
The game’s story is rife with themes of good vs. bad, but the morality system makes you feel as though there can only be one or the other. Want to be evil? Good luck trying to do anything because everyone gets upset with you. Prefer being good? Great, that seems to be the only feasible option anyways because having good morality leads to free items, money handouts, and discounts in every shop.
The simple act of looting a dead NPC in the middle of nowhere can result in worse moral standing if that NPC just happens to be an innocent person. It makes no sense and doesn’t gel well with the narrative that highlights humanity’s shades of gray.
Needless to say, the vast majority of RDR2 was an exercise in patience and frustration. Whenever I was met with a long journey that I knew would be a test of my attention span, I pushed through with the lofty hopes that I’d be met with an adequate reward for my persistence – that was nearly never the case.
You do have the opportunity to fast travel, but you can only do so from your camp or from specific junction points for a sizable fee. You still have to spend a good chunk of time getting to a fast travel location and staring at the trees and your horse’s backside. They try to alleviate the monotony by throwing in random encounters along the road, but they quickly begin to repeat which causes them to lose their attractive veneer and exposes the game’s clunky calculations. Traveling just isn’t fun, and you’re required to do so much of it.
After seeing the best stuff that Red Dead Redemption 2 has to offer, I still keep wondering whether or not it was all worth it. I’ve spent over 100 hours with it, but less than half of that time was enjoyable. For every captivating story mission there were dozens of monotonous minutes spent getting to quest givers. Each tension-filled hunt for a valuable pelt was undercut by having to manipulate the game’s underlying mechanisms just to get the animal to show up. Every one of the excellent stranger missions ends just as soon as it begins – leaving nothing but another long trip to your next destination in its wake.
Stepping away from Red Dead Redemption 2 with nothing but the amorphous post-game left, I feel like one of Arthur Morgan’s assaulted robbery victims: RDR2 was simultaneously painful and exhilarating, but it’s left me battered with bruises and scars that might never heal. I’ll never get that time I spent with it back, and I feel it’s my duty to warn potential participants. It may be the most unique open-world game out there, but it has taken steps in a direction that I cannot force myself to enjoy.
It’s a landmark in game design due to its uniqueness and attention to detail, but it’s also an awkward pivot for a developer known for making bombastically fun sandboxes. Rockstar has painstakingly crafted a work of art with Red Dead Redemption 2, but it sacrificed making a fun video game in the process.