Is Rockstar Games' latest Wild West blockbuster too much of a drag?
When the police chief from South Park drops real-life murder investigations to go home and argue with his wife about who’s having the more fulfilling life in Red Dead Redemption 2, you’d be safe to assume you had an all-consuming time-sink phenomenon on your list of things to punch your way to on Black Friday.
The figures say ‘life-devouring smash’ too. The prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption – essentially Grand Theft Tonto, since it was a Wild West version of the GTA series from the same developers, Rockstar Games – RDR2 sold 17 million copies in its first fortnight, despite sounding like a fake Taiwanese Star Wars figurine. I certainly sat down to it expecting not to see daylight for a week and, when I did eventually drag myself away from the completed game, to be so thoroughly immersed in the experience, GTA-style, that I’d instantly start hog-tying joggers on Plumstead Common.
Instead, a couple of weeks into the game and just 24 per cent down, for the first time playing any Rockstar game I’ve encountered (and I’ve played Manhunt) I’m seriously wondering whether to persevere with it. So if you’re also a Red Dead dawdler who hasn’t already finished all sixty hours of the thing, let’s break down the pros and cons of ploughing on…
Boy, is it slow. You might think, during the long, cold training levels of Chapter One, as your beleaguered Van der Linde gang hole up in a mountain snowdrift to lick their wounds from being driven out of Blackwater, that your character Arthur Morgan trudges about so leaden-footedly because of the weather and terrain. Oh no. Give him a nice warm shack down on the prairies to loot and he’ll still move around like a man with a hangover on a planet made of treacle.
Get further into the open world of the game, and the whole thing moves at a glacial pace. If the relatively brisk RDR was a marathon of Bonanza episodes, this is Robert Altman’s noir western McCabe & Mrs Miller. How many times, you might well ask yourself, do I really need to go fishing before I get that we’re living an ‘authentic’ turn of the century outlaw life? Am I really going to have to trot on horseback across that entire, gigantic map from one rabbit-hunting mission to another (clue: yes)? Did I really just spend five minutes of my life mucking out a virtual pigsty?
The game is laid out in chapters (there are six, with two epilogues), and I crawled to the end of Chapter Two feeling the same sense of dutiful relief with which I finished Ulysses – and things weren’t helped by my beloved horse Gluestick dying from falling off a cliff in the final mission, forcing me to begin the long bonding process afresh with a new steed, Frenchburger. I’m so bored of endlessly following yellow lines across ranges that I’ve long since stopped answering cries for help from passing white dots, just to get the journey over with quicker; the scenery might be stunningly rendered, but it’s still just countryside and I’ve no greater urge to sit and gawp at it than I did with the equally impressive rural vistas of The Witcher 3 or Assassin’s Creed: Origins. And what’s that now? You expect me to go out of my way to hunt out and document a dozen breeds of armadillo and skunk? I’m here to rob trains and gun down lawmen, motherfucker – do I look like Chris fucking Packham to you?
It’s unnecessarily fiddly
From the moment you first ride into Valentine and hit the General Store to stock up on provisions, you know you’re in for a tiresome learning curve. Whether you’re buying food, guns, horses or whatever, you’re presented with a bewildering array of options, all with slightly different stats and effects, often laid out in a dry, endless catalogue of services and goods that makes the act of stocking up or upgrading in RDR2 resemble a long, wet Saturday in Argos. Heavy mistakes come easy too – I accidentally spunked my first, hard-earned $50 bounty windfall on a fancy saddle I hadn’t yet bought a horse for.
Then, out on the prairies, the notifications will keep on coming like pestering texts from the gym you never finished joining, or your mum. You have to eat to stay healthy. Not too much though, or you’ll get fat. Have you topped up your cores with some rest or rations? Have you got the appropriate clothing on for the weather conditions? Did you shave this morning? Oh and are you keeping your horse clean? Because your horse’s health will take longer to recover if it’s dirty. Everybody knows that. There’s an old cowboy saying about it: ‘clean horses stay healthy – programme bullshit, get wealthy’.
And heaven help you if you want to move the game along by visiting your home camp. Here, thanks to the Minecraft Effect, you’re bombarded with opportunities to upgrade, stock up and go hunting for horns and pelt to help decorate the place, as though you’re playing some kind of Wild West Grand Designs rather than the most exciting game of the year. Did no-one tell Rockstar that base building was the shittest part of Fallout 4?
Nothing makes me want to turn off a game quicker than spotting the formulas early. When you realise there’s a huge map to explore but only three or four different sorts of mission to tackle in it – infiltrate a fort or castle (Assassin’s Creed); emancipate a town from the bad guys (Just Cause 3); clear a settlement of cult mentalists (Far Cry 5) – you instantly start to dread the drudgery ahead. RDR2 is already showing signs of rankling repetition. The bounty hunts are starting to pile up. The treasure maps are proving tediously fiendish. The entire hunting mechanic – you can now follow the tracks of an animal in Dead Eye mode, because everyone’s psychic since The Witcher 3 – suggests a whole lotta tracking side missions to come.
The set pieces
Once you’ve dragged yourself across country to the major action missions, they certainly live up to the GTA and RDR standard. Once or twice a chapter you’ll find yourself leaping onto speeding trains from horseback to take out the driver and blow the doors of the treasure carriage, or breaking a pardner out of jail in a hail of mud and bullets. Rather than the endless trots across the plains, these are the moments you get truly lost in RDR2, and I relish the ones to come.
Having slaughtered an entire trainload of enemies aboard a train out of Valentine, I decided to stay onboard and see where it took me. I eventually tumbled off in Saint Denis, a kind of 1920s New Orleans metropolis transported into Morricone country. Ornate French quarter balconies, plush speakeasies and random British blokes wandering the streets looking for someone called Graham – Saint Denis isn’t just a city I’m itching to explore, it’s a sign that RDR2 has a far wider scope than RDR, attempting to tell the story of America’s journey from lawless savagery to industrial civilisation.
Having the hero of RDR as a bit-player in RDR2 is a masterstroke. I’ve spent dozens of hours with John Marston in what feels like a previous life. We took on the Williamson gang together, raided Mexican army outposts and comprehensively fleeced the hombres of Nuevo Paraiso at Texas Hold ‘Em. I’m inherently invested in his story and that, plus the knowledge that I’ve never yet been disappointed by the inventive twists of a Rockstar game’s latter stretches, is what drives me on through the plodding mid-section of RDR2.
So saddle up, Frenchburger. We’re off, once more, into the great wide yonder.