Red Dead Redemption 2 is enormous. Like, two discs enormous in an age when games no longer come on multiple discs. I'm barely over 25% of the way through the main story - not even accounting for the side missions and activities I could spend time with - and seen but a fraction of the world... but I'm itching to talk about it.
So... let's talk.
I loved Red Dead Redemption. I might've loved it more than Grand Theft Auto V in fact. I loved the Wild West setting, the writing, the characters, the depth. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a literal return to that world - or, rather, a first visit, as it's a direct prequel featuring many of the same characters and locations - but with more of everything. Wads more.
It's also very much a Rockstar game. It shares its DNA with the GTA series - the controls are familiar, the writing and humour offers the same giddy swerves from maturity to broad satire... and the visuals make it feel like part of the same lineage. And - with some serious caveats - I like that it's part of that family.
As with everything Rockstar does, it's a deliciously epic game, and though I might have grown tired of open world adventures featuring forests and mountains, and the character models might not be the best, there's something alluringly grounded about RDR2's look. What it lacks in flash it more than makes up for in grittiness and scope.
Why am I talking about RDR2's graphics first? Because I want to get it out of the way before I launch into an impassioned tirade about everything that drives me mental about this game.
Somebody pass me a bib; it's time to start foaming at the mouth!
There are many, many things I don't like about Red Dead Redemption 2. I don't know whether any of these issues will be resolved as I get further into the game - like fast travel almost has been (more on that momentarily) - but from the first quarter of this experience... a lot of it is a massive pain in the arse.
And get this: I think much of that is intentional.
Everything here seems to be trying to get across the notion that life in the Old West was hard. Everything you do feels like an effort.
Missions are multi-part mini-epics - rescuing a fellow gang member from jail requires you to first speak with the sheriff, then find a way to get your mate out of his cell (dynamite? Or that conveniently-placed steam engine with a rope and hook attached? Or just shoot your way in?)... and then embark on a shoot-out with the local law officers, escorting the wayward gang member to pick up his guns, then finding your horses, and then fleeing while being chased.
That sort of thing is the main event; there's a ton of other stuff to consider either side of the big story beats, and a lot of it isn't especially exciting.
As part of a criminal gang, you not only have to look after yourself - which obviously means not dying in gunfights and making sure you eat enough and get enough rest - but also your stupid horse (which similarly needs rest, feeding, and brushing), and the rest of your gang and assorted hangers-on.
There's an element of base-building; earning money can upgrade your camp, giving you access to more gear and new gameplay elements.
Such as... fast travel. Sort of. In a game with a map the size of RDR2, you'd think fast travel was a given. Unfortunately, at the start the only way you can get from one place to another is to walk or ride on your horsey. They've tried to lessen the tedious impact of this by implementing a "cinematic mode", whereby you can set a waypoint, set your horse a-running, and sit back while the screen ratio is reduced and the camera angles switch at random.
Except this isn't very well explained, and it doesn't make the journeys any quicker, but you can at least check your phone while it's happening. Except don't do that, because if you don't keep an eye on things your stupid horse has a tendency to run into trees, or trains, or buildings, or off of cliffs, or into people - instigating a shoot-out that'll require you to drop out of cinematic mode in order to deal with it.
Frankly, the whole horses-running-into-things issue happens so frequently, I've no idea how Rockstar's beleaguered staff didn't address it. It's a massive, massive issue. But at least it's one that can be put down to an element of unforeseen brokenness.
Other problems with Red Dead Redemption 2 are there by design...
Do you remember Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, where they added a whole ton of extra busywork which stopped you from just getting on with the game? You know: like when you had to exercise to burn off the belly you'd developed from eating too much junk food? Yeah, well... expect a ton of that sort of thing in Red Dead Redemption 2.
For instance, you're expected to do chores around your camp - yes, actual chores. You know: those things you put off doing in real-life because they're not as much fun as, say, playing video games.
The need to maintain your community, your horse, your gun, your self... your reputation... they're all barriers keeping the player from what most of us expected to be getting up to in Red Dead Redemption 2. Tie that together with the interminable travelling, and you've got a game that's challenging in ways that video games normally aren't.
Aside from your stupid horse - which is clearly the way Rockstar wants you to travel, so that you can have random encounters en route to wherever you're going, and appreciate the scale of the map - you can get around via train or stagecoach (both of which use up in-game money). Or you can purchase an ill-explained upgrade for your camp that allows you to travel instantly to previously visited locations. Providing your stupid horse is nearby. Though you can't ever travel instantly back to camp; you have to ride.
Which is utterly baffling.
Why have they done this? Horse riding is nice and all, and the scenery is lovely... but the novelty soon starts to wear off, as it would with anything you might spend hundreds of hours doing.
You can also add to this sense of heaviness the movement and combat, which is laboured to the point of teeth-grinding. It's essentially a decade-old control system; you move slowly, buildings and objects get in the way, the cover system is hit-and-miss, it takes an age to reload. Even locking onto enemies with your slow motion Dead Eye ability lacks grace in the midst of a firefight.
Hunting can be a way to raise money, your skills, and the health of your campmates, but once you have taken down a deer or a rabbit, you then have to skin it - taking up to 30 seconds - carry it back to your horse, load it onto the back, and then return it to the camp butcher (who is likely at least 5 minutes-plus ride away).
And on the journey back it'll probably fall off the stupid horse at least once, and you'll have to pick it up and put it back on. And might've attracted flies in the interim.
I'd attribute this to Rockstar wanting you to feel the constant uphill battle of frontier life, but - let's be honest - the control system is much the same as you got in the contemporary setting of Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008. Which is to say: ignoring 10 years of player-friendly refinement.
I get that this is the Rockstar model, but I also wonder how much better the game would've been if they had fixed the controls and streamlined everything. And the truth is... I'm not sure whether a smoother, less clumsy system would've improved the game. Something about what you have here feels entirely appropriate; this isn't an arcade game. It's a cowboy simulation.
So, here's the thing. For the first 8 or so hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 I hated it. I came to it straight from loving Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and it seemed tediously cumbersome and broken by comparison.
I felt like an Olympic gymnast who'd been hobbled by an obsessive fan. Wheelchair-bound after a lifetime of cartwheels and flips, stuck in some dingy home office doing paperwork and making things to sell on Etsy, when I'd have rather been out there winning medals.
And then something changed.
The diversity of the missions, the breadth of the world, the variety of encounters... even just sitting around the campfire to sing a song or play a game of dominos... somehow Red Dead Redemption 2 has started to win me round. In a very insidious way, it has become to get under my skin in a way that few games ever do. Even as I'm typing this I'm wondering if I can bunk off work for the day to play it.
I mean, there's an old woman's house I want to get to, because I've heard she's got some valuables stashed away. And I think we're going to have to move camp soon, because the rumour is out that we're being watched. Somehow, the law is always two steps ahead of us, and the local gangs are out for revenge, and... and... you get the idea.
I no longer feel like I'm playing Red Dead Redemption 2; I feel like I'm living it. And what's really annoying is that I can't even articulate why that is... whereas I could spend a week telling you in great detail about the game's flaws and all the things I don't like.
Everything is a little bit busted and nothing is intuitive. There are far too many buttons and controls for a console game. The map alone requires two button presses to access. Even switching weapons often requires you to rummage around your stupid horse's saddle bag.
That is, if your stupid horse is even nearby. Still, it might be in whistling range - quick whistle and it'll come running, right? Eventually. Oh... it's out of range. Oh, and now I've been run over by a stagecoach. And my hat has come off. And now I've been attacked by some blokes who thought I was looking at them funny.
WHY DO I KEEP WANTING TO PLAY THIS GAME?!?
I'll tell you why: because this feels like the games I thought I was playing when I was growing up. Despite the scale and the production being vastly superior, it reminds me of games like Skool Daze; a dizzying sandbox, where your actions bring new and unexpected adventures, and the controls were toilsome, but there was a indefinable, magical, ambition underpinning it all, holding it together.
The difference between then and now is that in the 80s games were limited by the technology. RDR2 feels limitless. I think I could spend years in this world - much as I did with Grand Theft Auto V.
Except, I am much more seduced by RDR2, even though my character, Arthur Morgan, is a bad guy. For now I'm choosing to play him as one with a good heart, who cares for the people he's aligned himself with. Already the story is showing me that he's got a history which belies his grizzled, alpha male, exterior, and all the things that I hate about the game are also the things that are building a connection between me and him and the world he lives in.
The chores around the camp, keeping my people alive, conversations and favours... it's all building a sense of community - with people who don't really exist. Somehow, I'm learning to respect my stupid horse - massive half-deaf, half-blind, idiot that it is - and the land, and the game itself. There's a distant rumble of thunder on the horizon, and I know my heart will break once the storm arrives.
SCORE (THUS FAR): 1/10 and also 9/10