I completely bought into the hype for Red Dead Redemption II. When the game first got announced, I watch the initial teaser trailer with glee, having really loved both the story and the gameplay experience of the first Red Dead Redemption. As more information started coming out, I decided to stop paying attention so that as much of the game could be a surprise as possible.
Note: The last time I did this was when the Dark Knight was coming out, and I managed to avoid seeing the Joker’s make up until I was in the theater… it was awesome.
When I started up RDR2, I was surprised immediately when I was put in the shoes of Arthur Morgan instead of John Marston, the first game’s protagonist, who was apparently lost. An hour or two in, I went on a mission to retrieve John Marston, and thought, “All right here we go! I’m going to be John Marston now!” After that mission, I suddenly realized that this game had an entirely new protagonist.
Surprises like this have kept coming up throughout the game, frequently based around the simple premise that this game is, in many ways, focused on being as realistic as possible. For example, you can carry a certain amount of guns on your horse, but as soon as you get off your horse those guns aren’t available to you unless you remembered to pick them up while you were still on or next to the saddle. I mean, it makes sense… If your guns are on your horse, and you walk away from your horse, you can’t get those guns anymore. But you know what, it’s not very fun for that to be the case! This is a game involves a lot of shooting… Most of the missions follow the same basic structure. One, ride your horse to a location. Two, get off your horse and walk up to the location. Three, shoot some stuff. I’m not here to gripe about the repetition of the mission structure, and I don’t mind shooting things, but if you’re going to make me shoot things all the time, let me have my dang guns!
Another place where the game strives to be realistic is in how the citizens of the world respond to an outlaw. As you’re riding on your horse across the landscape (which is a very big landscape, which you will ride your horse across a lot), you often come across little side events, emergent storytelling moments where somebody’s been kidnapped, or attacked by wolves, or is robbing a stagecoach, or some prisoners are overpowering their guards… All of these things make the world feel alive! I like coming across them and interacting with the world in the small quiet little ways that I know aren’t going to be experienced by the mass of people playing this game in exactly the same way… It’s neat! I mean, really, this is what I like open world games for… I like them for the weird little things that happen in the world, and RDR2 is absolutely full of them!
The problem is that a lot of those situations encourage the player to react with a crime. For example, I had a situation once where I heard a man screaming for help, and saw that he was bound on the back of a horse being ridden by an outlaw. Naturally, I shot the captor and then freed the captive. In thanks, he let me know a tip that he heard from the outlaw, specifically that a doctor’s office in a nearby town was running a side-hustle out of the back room. The game popped up with a little note saying, “Hey, you’ve got a robbery opportunity available.” ”
Neat,” I thought, “Let’s do crime!”
Unfortunately, while all this was happening, some rando rode by on his horse and saw me, Arthur Morgan, outlaw extraordinaire, standing over a dead guy. Naturally, the dude got spooked and started running away. I responded as any rough and tumble outlaw would… I hopped on my horse, chased the snitch down, and shot him dead in the street. Naturally, that murder was witnessed by another civilian… So I killed him as well! And so on, and so forth… I ended up killing five or six witnesses there, and somehow still got a bounty on my head… Even though no one who saw the act got away, the law was still on the lookout for Arthur Morgan.
It wasn’t a dead or alive bounty or anything like that, so I decided I was probably fine to go do the robbery still. Very carefully, I put my bandanna over my face, confronted the doctor, and busted into the back room, where several people pulled guns on me. I had nothing for it but to pull my own gun and start shooting. After dispatching the vulgar criminals, I started rummaging around in the back office as the Wanted meter started going up on the top right corner of my screen. By the time I finished looting, I had about $50-$60 of pilfered funds, and a posse of about 20 armed officers waiting for me. I got into a huge shootout and was eventually run down and killed.
All right, so the crime didn’t go well… No biggie! Except, wait what’s that? Unlike Grand Theft Auto, the Wanted System in RDR2 doesn’t decay over time. Once you have been identified as Arthur Morgan, a bounty gets stuck on your head and sticks until you pay it off. Between the witness murders, the criminal murders, the robbery, and the lawmen murders, I had a bounty somewhere in the hundreds of dollars in the city of Valentine, all for a robbery side event – that the game prompted me to do! – that only gave me about $50 or $60 to begin with. It sucked! It discourage me from participating in the world!
And this is the big problem with this game… There is just a ungodly amount of stuff that you can do, but a lot of it isn’t very fun to engage with.
I tried to hunt a bear, shot him point blank in the face with a double-barrel shotgun, and he mauled me to death. Sure, that’s realistic… But when I spent like 15 minutes trying to find a dang thing, and then I got a clean shot on his face, and I still died, it sucked!
Rob a train? Get a bounty!
Save a kidnapped damsel? Get a bounty!
Enter into a sharpshooting bet and accidentally walk away without paying up when you lose so that the dude pulls a gun on you and you have no option except to shoot back or die? Get a bounty!
It did come to my attention in discussing this with some other people that apparently I was doing crime wrong. It seems that when you have first committed a crime, you can just run the heck away to avoid getting identified, which means avoiding the resulting bounty. This is better than what I was experiencing, but it means that all the crimes that you commit have to be super frantic. For instance, referencing back to that doctor’s office side-hustle earlier, I was only in the office for a few minutes and I had a huge amount of lawman outside. If I had just got smashed and grabs, I might have walked away with a meager amount of loot, but not getting the full haul also isn’t very fun.
The real crummy thing about all of this is that I’m still playing Red Dead Redemption II. I can’t help it… I like the story, the world is beautiful, and I like the idea of participating in the emergent storytelling… I just wish that the game seemed more interest in rewarding me for interacting with the world, instead of pushing realistic consequences on me. I mean, not for nothing, but this is a video game! Sure, it’s nifty that I can shave Arthur Morgan’s beard, and that it grows out again… But the fact that I can’t just choose a longer beard style without chugging down hair tonic and then waiting a couple of real world days is frustrating! Just let me do the dang thing!
Red Dead Online is actually available to me as I finish writing this, and I’m going to go play it as soon as this posts. I’m hopeful that the online multiplayer component is more arcadey and less sim based… if it is, I might never go back to single player. If it’s not, I may just abandon this game entirely for one that’s more fun.