It has been a month since Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption II hit shelves and it will probably take many more before the public have had a chance to take all of it in. It's a product of eight years of development and (allegedly) 100 hour long weeks of crunch. The volume of hand-written (!?) diary entries, recorded dialogues, beard-growing and grooming and meticulously animated horse rearing speaks to an immense effort and achievement. Red Dead Redemption II might just be the most "game" ever created just by fact of its massiveness.
But is bigger always better? The reviews say one thing, but for me personally I'm sad to say that Red Dead Redemption II is one of the least enjoyable times I've spent with a game this generation.
It's argued that the open world genre has leaned too heavily for too long on procedural generation of content. Players have become wise to the tricks developers use to create 100s of sidequests with only minor differences between them. After a decade of Elder Scrolls, Assassin's Creed and Far Cry titles ruling the release calendar it's inevitable that fatigue would set in. It's also inevitable perhaps that a game like Red Dead II would come along and stick it up to these titles by making a world that feels like it's brimming with unique content at every corner. Red Dead II is designed to disrupt the prefab design approach of games like Skyrim and Fallout 4 and has instead filled its world with a detail that doesn't just feel like some product of an arcane, reusable algorithm.
Red Dead II has appeared to design itself like an interactive narrative where the more time spent absorbing the details of the world the more rewarding Arthur's story ultimately becomes. Arthur is a sort of western Nameless One (Planescape Torment's protagonist) recording all this experiences in a private journal. This journal is the internal monologue of Red Dead II and it's where most of Arthur's character is filled in during the first half of the game when it is still hard to build an impression of him by his actions alone. Attentive players will also find all the familiar Rockstar snark if they read the other written materials in the game, like the catalogues inside shops. Players will come to understand more about the different leading actors in the story if they ask them about what they are reading (or literally read what they are reading for themselves). Red Dead II is bursting with purely optional narrative details like this that it never feels like you can take it all in at once glance.
There's a level of attention given also to managing and controlling Arthur that's a step above other games trying for similar. The weighty contextual animations for every action Arthur does and the way they are sequenced together rarely "breaks" in a way like we are used to in games these days. Arthur has to carefully take every weapon out from his saddle when going into a potential firefight. The thesis statement of it appears to be to build a game which showcases that E3 vertical slice polish but then to sustain and spread it over a massive map and lengthy story. It's the sort of mind-boggling ambition that can't be met by a clever algorithm generating 70 outposts with different geared guards with appropriately scaled loot drops.
But for all the good work done by Rockstar at curating unique content and rarely repeating itself Red Dead II can lack the simple yet surprising ways that a "smaller" game like Breath of the Wild uses to make its gameplay emergent. BOTW might not have had Red Dead II's strong narrative through-line but what it had instead was a great feeling of synthesis between its different physics, environment and AI systems. Swinging a fire sword near some dry grass would cause a wildfire to spread and inflame enemies' wooden clubs while also causing a draft of hot air which you could then use to escape danger and pick enemies off with arrows. Or there is the ingenious ways players used the stasis mechanic to exploit the physics of explosions to transport themselves across the map. BOTW is a game geared towards constantly rewarding player inventiveness and the degradable/replaceable weapons were in service to this idea.
In Red Dead 2 meanwhile a lot of your interactions with the world feel much more carefully controlled. A lot of the time it will be through a pop-up contextual dialogue box with options like "greet", "antagonise/defuse" and "callout". If you get apprehended by the law you also have "surrender" (which can be faked out by drawing your pistol when the law's guard is down). The AI is apparently dynamic in cases such as like how the lawmen can apparently remember crimes you did. This can affect how quickly you can re-acquire a bounty. But the ways in which the game gives the player direct control to affect any of this are strictly limited to these dialogue menus or are never exposed to the player at all. The hooks don't exist for the player to really latch onto and play with these possibilities.
For all the feeling of BOTW's synthesis between discrete systems Red Dead feels like it suffers from fragmentation. Fragmentation is of course a theme of the game as the new of the twentieth century is on its way to come in and break up the old ways, which is what Dutch and his gang are trying to rebel against. But the fragmentation I mean is how the a lot of the different systems and design decisions in Red Dead II don't always feel like they amount to a cohesive whole. Like how the stranger interactions, events made to make the world feel less alive, actually achieve the opposite by how often they are repeated. Or how most of the money making activities in the game are undermined by an imbalanced economy where story missions can give bigger payouts than any homestead robbery. And so on.
The mission design in Red Dead feels hardly evolved from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. There is undoubtedly more dynamic tech used here for environmental destruction and the Rage physics/collision engine is more convincing than it ever has been but the high-level design can still play out in a very familiar fashion if you've ever played a game by Rockster. Join a gang member and follow the waypoint to point A, chase down a guy or engage in a shootout, get some vital info for the next big set piece or score and then gallop back to the endpoint of the mission. There's great craft here when it comes to how well curated these sequences are but so little room to manoeuvre within the strict boundaries set by the designer. The game will even go so far as to pick your weapons for you, or prevent you from flanking an enemy as you will "abandon" your gang.
What I was reminded of with my time with Red Dead II is how much of the director's hand you can feel during a sequence in Naughty Dog's games. Uncharted or The Last of Us both have sequences where the player is led by the hand through a diorama and every shot and animation is picked deliberately for its effect. But within this same space you can't break out of the sequence to do what you want. Many of Red Dead's missions are like this but extended over a ~60 hour open world game. So there can be this maddening tension between an amazingly crafted open world and a stultifying mission design which doesn't exploit all of this world's possibilities. There are 107 mandatory story missions in Red Dead II so these are difficult problems to excuse if you are not a fan of heavily curated sequences.
A counterpoint to this is Red Dead II's very in-depth hunting system. You hunt animals and skin their pelts for crafting (most crafting items are cosmetic with only the satchels giving and real utility in-game) and eat their meat/donate to Pearson the camp cook who will include it in the stew. It is in the hunting that I found the game to be its most open. You can have week long camping trips in Red Dead II where you live off the land as a sort of hunter gatherer cowboy, picking herbs to season the game you've just hunted as you look for that ever elusive 3 star grizzly bear pelt to make that nice rug for the base camp-fire. It is here where the different systems neatly complement each other and match the slow, deliberate pace of Arthur's movements. The top-level design decisions start to make a lot more sense.
But the problem with this is that Red Dead II isn't a hunting sim. Hunting is just an optional side-activity. Red Dead II is an open-world outlaw action title which happens to have a serviceable hunting sim packaged in. It doesn't need to be stressed that the hunting isn't what draws people to Red Dead II (even if it's some very nice hunting). Which is another area where the game feels fragmented again, at least for me. There is a stark division between these free-roaming excursions in the open wild and how restrictive the game feels during the story about Dutch's hopeless rebellion* from the modern world. That division is something I never managed to shake off during my playthrough so while I can admire the content creation in Red Dead II I find that the "game" part of the game feels as confused and hopelessly stuck in the past as Dutch. I recognise that this will be an outlying view when all's said and done, but the overall impression I'm left of my time with Arthur Morgan is that it was a time mispent. Much like Arthur's and John's lives as outlaws, perhaps.
*(Also why didn't they call this Red Dead Rebellion? It actually fits)