by Jed Pressgrove
Red Dead Redemption 2 is another glorified riff on Grand Theft Auto III, best enjoyed by those looking to control something of a juvenile delinquent in a sandbox. The game tries to gussy itself up as an immersive western in a world full of possibilities, but even a 10-year-old could make a grocery list of everything that developer Rockstar botches along the way.
The game’s “You can be a cowboy” conceit comes from its attention to the details of everyday life. You have to eat, but eat too much and you become overweight, which affects health and stamina. You have to clean your horse, as well as ride it for uneventful distances so as to feel the toil of travel. You have to take baths (or have, predictably, a woman do the scrubbing for you, with her hand seemingly going straight for the protagonist’s crotch when all you told her to do was wash one of your arms — an open world indeed!). One could go on and on. While these rote activities are neither fun, nor inventive, nor representative of everything that would need to be taken care of in a western setting, the intention is for players to lose themselves in some sense of realism.
Rockstar can’t sell realism however, as Red Dead Redemption 2 is the same game where if you’re on the run after committing murder, all you have to do is stay away from the red part of your map and, later, pay a bounty at a post office. Rockstar fanboys might quickly point out that the player could clear bounties in the first Red Dead Redemption, but once you stop pretending that you work for Rockstar PR and consider that this sequel obviously wants its western setting to be more convincing, you might realize that the entire game is not consistent or creative.
It’s also difficult to become immersed when you have to press and hold a button — as opposed to efficiently tapping a button once — to make your character hitch his horse and when your character doesn’t do anything for 5 to 10 seconds before awkwardly getting down and performing the action. (Note: This scenario assumes that when you approach a place to hitch a horse, the on-screen prompt to hitch your horse will appear, which doesn’t always happen.) The lack of basic responsiveness in the controls puts a spotlight on the fact that you are playing a 2018 game that feels clunkier than the average title. This is the same kind of problem that, earlier this year, prevented Kingdom Come: Deliverance from achieving a degree of verisimilitude on the PS4.
Let’s say we want to be 15 years old and think of an open world game as a place to cut up and be a depraved, no-good, piece-of-shit maniac. You can’t do it in this game. You can’t, say, kill your entire camp and forget about all of those generic missions they send you on. You can’t even draw your weapon in the camp. The game actually forces you to move slower in the camp, just to remind you that these people are your friends (even though, after eating some community stew, Arthur Morgan throws the bowl and utensil on the ground like an entitled 2-year-old). Red Dead Redemption 2 is too conservative to offer real freedom and meaningful consequences, unlike 1997’s Fallout.
The silliest thing about Red Dead Redemption 2 is how clumsily it strives to be a good western by evoking elements of popular western stories. Dutch, the leader of the gang of which Arthur Morgan is a member, recalls the voices of western actors Richard Boone and Powers Boothe but carries none of their palpable menace. A prominent fistfight in the mud during the game clearly wants to compete with a similar scene in the third season of Deadwood, but it can’t because it barely takes enough time to build dramatic tension before the fight and drags on anti-climatically as you grapple with the delay between when you press buttons and when your avatar moves. Dutch’s gang resembles that group of lawbreakers in The Wild Bunch, and as with that (in)famous squad in Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant film, their mythological way of life can’t last in an increasingly modernized world. But even though Peckinpah’s film displays some sentimentality for the loss of myth, The Wild Bunch doesn’t have a musing as corny as the one in Red Dead Redemption 2 that goes, “We’re bad men, but we ain’t them, so it’s ok.” That bit, along with another character’s patronizing white-guilt observation about the plight of American Indians (“Poor bastards … we really screwed them over down here”), epitomizes the phony maturity on display in Rockstar’s latest tired nod to formula.