This week, Yahtzee reviews Red Dead Redemption 2.
Well, I managed to get through the story of Red Dead Redemption 2, and I have to say, I'm quite shook; possibly the emotional impact, more likely from delirium tremens. Didn't have a single moment to myself; Saturday afternoon, I was like, "Oh boy! I finally reached the epilogue! Maybe I'll actually have Sunday free to relax on!" Eight hours of additional story later, "Fuck me, my definitions are out of date! I had no idea that 'epilogue' now means 'entire second game'!"
Rockstar Games used to reliably put out at least one game a year, but Red Dead Redemption 2 - or more accurately, Red Dead Revolver 3, or more accurately, Grand Theft Auto with Angry Cowboys 2, or more accurately, The Game Where the Horse Does Plop-Plops - is the first game they've brought out since 2013. Oh dear, Rockstar; did GTA Online's little spine finally break, and now you can't wring any more cash out of it? Or more likely, were you sitting atop your giant pile of money one day and thought to yourself, "Maybe we should spend some of this money on something, 'cos I'm starting to suffer the effects of oxygen deprivation"? The result is about what you'd expect, although I'd have expected the horse to be pooing diamonds for how fucking indulgent this game is. All right, Rockstar, I know your sandbox games tend to have somewhat sprawling plots, but just give us a quick summary of RDR 2, and don't be too confusing. "Well, RDR 2 takes place before RDR 1--" Oh, you fucked it up already, Rockstar! "2" doesn't come before "1"! Always had a blind spot for numbers, haven't you? That's probably why the ninth GTA game was titled "GTA IV".
So while the first Har-De-Har was set in the last days of the Old West, Har-De-Har-Hoo is set in the last-but-one days of the Old West, when the gang of idealistic outlaw Dutch van der Linde is seeking a place to hide out after a botched robbery. In fact, this is the plot of basically every chapter in the game: Dutch plans a robbery, the robbery fucks up, we move hideout to the next relevant area of the map, new chapter. We play as Dutch's Number Two, a cowboy so generic that when the game started, it took about ten minutes of dialogue-heavy riding through the snow for me to figure out which of the several generic cowboys with speaking parts was the one I was controlling, and our protagonist's personal arc consists of gradually realizing that Dutch doesn't have a plan and might just be a complete arsehead, something the audience figured out the first time they saw his soul patch.
I must say, it's nice to be playing a sandbox that isn't by Ubisoft, especially because Rockstar's sandboxes are always less focused on mechanics and numbers and more on story; there's very little in the way of RPG elements or ability upgrades. In stark contrast to Assassin's Creed Flaw-dyssey, where I was switching to new, better weapons and armor every three seconds like a teenage boy going through Kleenexes, I got through the latter 40 hours of RDR 2 using the same Lancaster Repeater, to the point that I was wondering if the ejection port was wide enough that our marriage could finally be consummated.
Which means, the game runs into the same problem that RDR 1 had in that none of the side activities or missions offer much benefit besides money, and there's not much to spend that money on, besides haircuts and apples for your horse, which help keep your horse's stamina and health up, and when your horse goes plop-plops, you can congratulate yourself on having made a contribution. You can also buy food and supplies for yourself to appease the mild survival elements, but you can just as easily pick them up lying around everywhere for free. Or, hunt rabbits, and by "hunt", I mean "fail to notice getting crushed beneath your charging hooves like a lost toddler on Black Friday".
Allow me to quickly throw a little speed trap in front of the pedants stampeding this way: yes, you can buy upgrades for your gang's camp, which add the vital effect of scattering more tinned peaches around or improving the communal stew, none of which have much profound impact on moment-to-moment gameplay, with the glaring exception of the fast-travel map. I would advise saving up to unlock the fast-travel map as soon as possible, and then blowing all your money on hats, because as beautifully-realized as the world and its characters are, most of what you actually do is go on very long horsy rides and then get into a token shootout that the NPCs who brought you here pinkie-promised wouldn't happen this time, but which we all knew damn well had to happen, 'cos it wouldn't be a game otherwise.
Rockstar sandboxes are somewhat formulaic: you're always a cynical mercenary-type who regards everyone he meets with open contempt but always does what they ask him to do anyway, and every single story mission plays like a tutorial for a gameplay mechanic you're never going to use again. The writing's usually what saves it; Dutch's gang consists of about twenty distinct and diverse characters, all of whom you can organically converse with and get to know as, at the back of your mind, you wonder when and how all the ones who didn't appear in RDR 1 will inevitably die. Dutch's gang being so well-realized contrasts glaringly against every other gang, family, police force, and Boy Scout group in the world, consisting of a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of generic thugs for token combat's sake.
But this is where a sort of "pure role-playing" element comes into things; when the gang decide to have a celebratory piss-up, will you role-play as someone who mingles at social functions, joining in with the singing and getting rat-arsed, or as the kind of person who goes to bed at nine and bangs on the wall for the rest to keep it down? Either way, you'll always be role-playing as someone who has lost all sensation in their arms and legs and can't even walk up to a dog without accidentally kicking it in the head, because Rockstar's engine still prioritizes "realistic" physics and momentum above our being able to effectively move around.
What they set out to do with RDR 2 was create an immersive world where you can just roam, discover, and let things happen to you; shame that that goes completely out the window the instant you start any mission, during which, you're constantly yelled at by NPCs until you follow a rigidly-determined sequence of events, with all side activity and random encounters gagged and locked in the car boot so the aforesaid NPCs can drone on about bullshit for the whole ride. It's not forcing you to enter missions, but you can only drink in the scenery and hogtie suffragettes for so long.
Frankly, RDR 2's realistic world only impresses me the same way I'd be impressed if you drank a liter of cooking oil, more so by the effort than the wisdom behind it, because so little of what you see and do in RDR 2 is actually fulfilling on a story or challenge level; the horse going plop-plops sums it all up nicely. I can't envision a scenario in which a lack of horse plops would knock a half-star off an otherwise-perfect score, but there it is, a drop in an ocean of pointless decadence. And this isn't one line of code, "Horse_plopplops = 1"; someone had to texture and animate it, and trawl sound effect libraries for the ideal "plop-plops" sound, and they could've been using that time to cradle their children, or make something creatively fulfilling like Obra Dinn. The fact that someone had to do it for their job makes me think of a restaurant manager loudly humiliating a waiter 'cos he thinks it'll impress the customer; well, it doesn't, Mr. Rockstar, and now I'm going to have to be very cautious about ordering the meatballs.
- Relevant weasel: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I wonder if Dutch owned a device with which to cook food and I wonder if he referred to it as his Dutch oven
- So does a cowboy evolve into a horseman