Rockstar Games is considered one of the most successful video game companies in the industry. Releasing landmark title after landmark and helping create a popular genre we all know as the open world sandbox. These wide-open environments are filled with content and secrets to uncover.
They have received slack over the years for their business practices and have even been put on public news for how their games were some of the first to be targeted towards an adult audience. Grand Theft Auto 3, their first major open world sandbox, was criticized by news outlets for its use of drugs, mass murder, featuring prostitution, allowing players to run citizens over with cars, and much more. In certain third world countries they banned Grand Theft Auto 3 from being sold. Rockstar Games is one of the most controversial game studios out there, but they are also one of the most daring game studios out there. Tackling mature themes, addressing modern society, and pushing the boundaries of what their game engines can process. Creating believable worlds, memorable characters, and over the top moments that can only be done within a Triple A game. Everything these gentlemen release sells like hotcakes with Grand Theft Auto 5 being one of the highest selling games of all time. Their titles have been massively acclaimed and there’s no stopping the mass amounts of money they rake in each week. They don’t call them Rockstar for nothing and even if you’re not a major gamer you should have at least heard about one of their games. Most commonly Grand Theft Auto 5 as it is one of their defining titles of the last decade and is considered one of the best games ever made. Perfection in the eyes of many.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the sequel to the popularly acclaimed Red Dead Redemption released in 2010. The first Redemption was more of a reimagining of a property Rockstar Games failed to thrive off of, Red Dead Revolver. They wanted to take the formula they made with Grand Theft Auto 3 and apply it to the wild west, but they failed to do so, and Revolver didn’t stick around with that many people. One of the few reasons Revolver failed was maybe because of the hardware at the time and Rockstar Games wasn’t able to tell the narratives they have now back then.
The Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 console era came about, and developers were now able to do more, and luckily Red Dead Redemption was the perfect chance to see what this new hardware could do. When Red Dead Redemption released it blew up bigger than Rockstar Games expected. Not only did they prove they could take their iconic open world formula somewhere else, but they were more than just gangsters and fancy cars. Red Dead Redemption had a memorable setting, action packed moments, and told a beautiful tale about leaving the past behind. It was remarkable and several review outlets considered it one of the greatest games of all time. Many were hoping Rockstar Games would follow up or reconsider touching the Red Dead franchise again, because they were just madly in love with what they got. A couple years passed by, and Rockstar Games releases more ambitious open world sandboxes. L.A Noire was one of the first major detective mysteries to hit the market that wasn’t a click and point, and of course the previously mentioned Grand Theft Auto 5. Rockstar Games was on fire, but around 2016 was when they announced their biggest project yet. A sequel to the western many alike grew up with. The public was finally getting Red Dead Redemption 2, which would serve both as a sequel and prequel to the characters and world. Everyone was hyped for Red Dead Redemption 2 and as time passed that hype train only got bigger and louder, practically transforming into a swarm.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was going to be the biggest, shiniest, and technically advanced open world Rockstar Games ever made. With an incredibly high million-dollar budget made from previous games, Rockstar Games was going to take a golden leak upon the entire industry. Weeks were spent working on Red Dead Redemption 2, and soon those weeks turned into months. Several messages were sent out notifying people of the game’s delays, and there was a point where the developers were working harder than they should have. One of the several controversies that surrounded the development of Red Dead Redemption 2 was crunch culture. The workers within Rockstar Games were forced to work more than one hundred hours per week to get the game working and out by the time they anticipated. They were being paid on the clock, and this led to Rockstar Games being a toxic place to work at. Around 2018 they were adding the final touches and the full product was released later that year. Sweat, tears, and mental health was spent to make Red Dead Redemption 2 the most highly polished and funded product that could come from the video game industry. Luckily the game was a massive success upon launch. It sold millions of copies, became one of the fastest selling games Rockstar made since GTA5, and received perfect review scores from nearly every major review outlet, currently being one of the highest rated games on Metacritic sitting at ninety-seven. Many consider RDR2 to be the pinnacle of Rockstar Games, a true masterpiece. It was apparently a perfect video game that didn’t deserve to be criticized for any faults or flaws because what it did well out masked them. Nobody really took the time to properly critique Red Dead Redemption 2, but at the same time nobody wanted to ruin the fun for anyone. Everyone was in the heat of the moment and that’s fine. It was a different time and games like Red Dead Redemption 2 were rare to see.
It’s been nearly four years since Red Dead Redemption 2 came out. People are still playing the game and discovering what the world has to offer, but overall popularity and discussion has died down. The dust has finally settled and now it’s the perfect opportunity to finally start picking away at this goliath of a video game. Red Dead Redemption 2 has been one of the highest requested games for me to review. Friends, folks online, and even relatives have asked me to look deep into this game. Enjoy it with them and restate the fact that it is, to them, the greatest game ever made. The thing is, I used to actually have a review of RDR2 on my website. I was just starting out as a reviewer, and publishing reviews for the sake of publishing. I was naive and didn’t put any thought into my work, delivering half-baked content rushing content out hoping for the best. I beat Red Dead Redemption 2 because everyone else was talking about it and slapped a perfect score just to be like everybody else. I didn’t properly look at it, and shortly after I deleted my original review as well as a bunch of others.
With all that said, I loaded the game back up, started a new save, began a new journey, and finally finished up the epilogue. Let me say this very clearly. This game is a technical marvel and is still one of the most visually impressive games in the market. The world is vast, brimming with beautiful wildlife, and it’s one of the coziest games you could play during a midnight sitting. The amount of detail to movement, character animations, gestures, and even the opening of a door is impressive. The story is well written, and all the characters are lovable which we’ll address more soon.
All these factors are great, so forgive me and everything I’m about to say. Red Dead Redemption 2 is not a perfect video game. In fact, it’s not a very fun video game to begin with. I have more complaints with this than any other open world sandbox I’ve played, but why? How come all a sudden a game everyone loves is frustrating to me? That’s why we’re here today. This was going to be a regular review, but I found it so hard to pick away at RDR2 without addressing the major problems. Today we’ll be discussing my love-hate relationship with Red Dead Redemption 2. What it does wrong, how nobody noticed, and what we can learn from these design decisions.
Part 1: Walk Like a Drunken Sailor (Controls)
Red Dead Redemption 2 has some of the worst controls I’ve seen in a video game. Movement feels stiff, unresponsive, and it takes a while for it to finally click. One of the more important factors in an open world sandbox is how you traverse the world, but your character feels really clunky as the game struggles to figure out exactly what you want to do. Part of this problem is to blame on the game engine Rockstar uses. It’s a physics-based engine they specifically designed for their games where every object including limbs is weighed toward the ground. That means your character is lifting each limb little by little as they step forward. That allows the character to move around realistically like ourselves, but it also means they move extremely slowly. It can take you more than five minutes reaching one side of town to the next, and that’s not something you want from basic maneuvers. However, you can speed up the movement of your character.
By holding down on the run button, otherwise the X button on the Dualshock 4, your character will begin to move slightly faster. Well, that didn’t make much of a difference because the controls still feel stiff and all a sudden my character is worse to control! He doesn’t make sharp turns as easily and when I need to come to a stop he seems to slip around. This is extremely bad, because if you’re wandering in the middle of the street, you may risk bashing a pedestrian over or getting run over by a wagon. You don't want this because you can get arrested for disturbing the peace. Then there’s the ability to go beyond walking and fast walking! The ability to run which you do by mashing away at the X button! This feels genuinely terrible. Not only is it worse to control then the other two, but why do I have to mash away just to run? Wouldn’t it just make more sense if I double tap on the X button to speed up instead of having to mash away more than I really need to? Chase sequences on foot would be so much better if I didn’t have to do this. Movement isn’t just bad for your character, but it’s also bad for your horse.
This game not only contains the worst character movements, but also the worst horse controls I’ve seen in a video game. To gallop at a decent pace, you hold down the X button, but to speed up you press the X button a couple times. This is fine, until you figure out that to maintain a fast speed you have to mash away the X button as well. There’s no getting away from mashing X. Players have made the analysis that to move faster you have to time the X button to the rhythm of the galloping. That is false, because I mashed away and turned out to be the more responsive option. Your horse isn’t all that great when navigating around sharp turns, and when you are going at full speed and need to turn around a city block you may run into a pedestrian and get arrested for running them over. This happened to me a couple times when venturing through cities and honestly it was really annoying. You don’t have that many options to zoom out the camera, and the camera auto adjustment that is there when turning isn’t fast enough to show me what is in front of me before I hit it. This forced me to navigate cities slowly with my horse, which isn’t bad, but it kills more time than it really should. I’m surprised they didn’t add in the option to speed your horse but stop mashing away the X Button when you reach the right speed. Then hold down the stop button to slowly adjust to a slower speed. That way you don’t have to constantly mash away the X button when going on long distance trips. Speaking of which!
Part 2: Across the Empty Valleys… Again (Travel)
The game certainly has a beautiful world to traverse across and it’s quite a peaceful world in fact. It’s easy to let go, hum a song to yourself, and just enjoy the sounds of peaceful running waters and deer hopping across the road. There are forests full of pine trees, snowy mountains, dry desert sands, and those grassy plains which stretch on for miles. It’s a sight to behold, but there comes a point when that beautiful world becomes annoying to traverse.
It’s the backtracking which made the traversal of Red Dead Redemption 2 annoying for me. How come? I’ve backtracked a lot in previous open worlds, and I never seem to be bothered by it. Well, it’s more like having to do it as part of missions. Each chapter focuses on a new township, and the game has to reposition your camp to a closer area so that going to town won’t take so long. Main story missions can be activated in either your camp or somewhere in the said township. This is expected but imagine having a quest that takes place in camp and has you traversing to the city. You ride to the city, do your thing, get dragged to another area, do that, and possibly get dragged back to the camp to end the quest. Now imagine you have a quest that takes place in the city and the game forcibly places you back at camp. That means you have to traverse all the way back, down the same road, and to the place you need to go within the city you just traversed. Some missions do allow you to choose between riding back to camp or not, and other times the travel time will be fast forward so that you don’t have to steer the entire ride. However, that’s not always the case and you'll be forced to traverse the same valleys again. It’s also made worse with how you can’t set your path freely and have to follow a line on the radar in the left bottom corner of the screen. This is insulting. It feels like playing Dorothy and following the yellow brick road, which is pretty ironic because the line on the radar is colored yellow during missions.
You’ll traverse across empty valleys until something interesting happens. Usually an ambush, a gun fight, or being forced to get off your horse and pick up an object and then get back onto your horse as part of the mission. What happens in between the long rides waiting for interesting bits to happen? You talk with your companions. You talk for a really long time with your companions, and you have no choice but to listen. Unable to fast forward or skip what basically nails down to a cutscene. Some may say these conversations develop character or personality similar to the boat scenes in God of War 4, but where it differs is that I had a little more control over how long the boat sequences lasted whereas in Red Dead Redemption 2 you are forced to hear them ramble on. Half the time this information adds nothing to the story, because the characters are stating facts you already know because it was debriefed to you in either the mission description or before you set out for that location. Basically, these discussions are nothing but padding that help the main missions reach a runtime of plus thirty minutes as the developers wished. You just wasted my time, and these discussions are one of many reasons why the campaign length of Red Dead Redemption 2 is fifty hours. Not because of the story or major events, but I’m betting at least 2/8 of it is because of these meaningless horse ride talks. They could have at least provided some more choice over how long these discussions last.
Part 3: A Free World Full of Restriction (Mission Design)
One of the most important aspects of an open world sandbox is the amount of choice offered to the player. Not just giving them the ability to explore but figure out how they tackle a single problem. Showcasing the mechanics, what they do, and allowing them to experiment. A good example could be Breath of The Wild and how you can walk, fly, horse ride, shield surf, swim, and climb towards where you need to go. Elden Ring and how a boss has a specific attack pattern and speed, but you have numerous builds and weapons to use to beat them. The Phantom Pain and the numerous tools they have to let you go loud and quiet. There are moments in these games where the pacing and direction gets extremely linear, but you are given the options to experiment and figure stuff out on your own. Then there’s the other design approach. The guided approach. The design approach Horizon Zero Dawn, Ghost of Tsushima, and most commonly the Assassin’s Creed has. You are given an objective but are guided towards it. Going against this objective will lead to automatic failure, a game over, and forcing you to follow the way the game wants you to. However, the player is given guidance towards this objective. That way they don’t linger around too long and get plopped into the sequence where the fun stuff really starts to happen. I prefer the first design approach more, but if the second approach is done really well it can be fun. Signaling to the player when to take opportunities and feel awesome.
Red Dead Redemption 2 seems to be very confused on what style of open world it wants to be. Outside of the main story you are allowed to explore and get creative. Hunt down critters using either quiet or loud weapons to then skin them and obtain meat. You can threaten a bank keeper to open the vault, sneak towards it yourself, or blow it up using dynamite. You are given not only a multitude of guns, but also throwable objects that are quiet and eliminate enemies instantaneously if you aim for the head. You have all these options to experiment, but the main story doesn’t allow you to be creative in. If you’re in a stealth sequence, you are forced to be silent or will be punished for being loud. If you want to take another route that isn’t the one you are supposed to follow, you are punished. If you need to navigate to a building but decide to take a different approach, you are punished.
There’s no better example of these restrictions than when you are required to sneak into an oil plantation to steal some papers later in chapter six. In this mission, Arthur is tasked by Eagle Flies to quietly sneak into an oil plantation to retrieve documents proving the natives own the land. At the very beginning he tells you can either sneak in by yourself or catch a ride in one of the oil wagons. A traveling oil wagon is spawned when the section begins, but you can still sneak in without it if you want to. The game signals an option you can take but doesn’t force you into doing this. For the rest of the mission you’d think you would have a little more choice. Turns out you don’t. Your honor goes down if you kill any guards in the plantation, so it discourages you from using any weapons. Even the quiet ones like bows and throwing knives which would be efficient. Imagine if the honor goes down if someone finds the body, but it remains the same if you find a place to hide it. There are a couple boxes that let you climb onto the rooftop of the main building. The way the building is laid out is that the bottom floor is like a rectangular box, but the top floor is half that block. Leaving side windows, you could easily climb into. At the end of this mission, you actually climb out of a window to escape. The player can attempt to climb onto the roof, but if they try to enter the office containing the documents this way they are instead punished. Why? You clearly set up this choice, but don’t make it available until the end. This mission is just poorly designed in general, because while it has ideas it doesn’t make proper use of them. Meaning the mission falls flat.