Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2) is genuinely a milestone for the games industry, it will be a game that is looked back on as one that raised the bar in a fair few important ways. Personally, however, I'm still not sure what I think of it.
It's definitely very good and I definitely enjoyed it a lot, but in ways I usually judge games, I'm not sure it left as big of an impact as some other games I've played this year. I'm also not sure it hasn't.
I finished the campaign a few weeks back and I haven't played it since, mostly because I want to save more of the 'rest' of the game for when it hopefully comes out on PC. However, I have been thinking about it quite a bit in these past three weeks, which is usually a good sign that a game has left a significant positive impression on me.
A change of pace
I have a theory on why I am struggling to conclude my thoughts on this game, and I think it's possibly that in many ways, this game is very unconventional (for a gigantic AAA blockbuster). It's a game that, through a greater focus on simulation, forces a different pace than your typical AAA action game, even from your typical Rockstar game.
It notably caused frustrations among many players in their initial impressions, the game does a lot to prevent you from rushing around. It guides you into a more methodical, careful and deliberate style of play - from the controls (which I think are a mistake), to the real consequences in the simulation to you and your character.
In the truest sense of the description, this is a role playing game. Yeah, it doesn't necessarily tick all the boxes of what we traditionally think of as 'role playing games', but the game tries very hard to make you play the role of Arthur Morgan and consider what that means to the story and the world that he inhabits. It does so by giving real consequences to simple things like bumping into an NPC and to not paying attention as to where or how fast you're riding your horse.
Some complain these things make the game a bit too realistic and this kind of realism makes the game a chore to play at times. I can understand that, but over time I really came to appreciate the weight this design philosophy added to the game. It creates a cohesive and consistent experience in the gameplay and narrative, greatly enhancing the experience of both as a result.
The game is a slow burn, it has unusual pacing and it sometimes feel a bit cyclical whilst you're making your way through the story. This made the experience feel less like a 2-3 hour film, where the build up is typically fairly linear (due to time constraints) and more like a TV series. Video games such as this typically do feel more like films, often very long films, but still - the goals of the games industry at this level are often to be film-like.
Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn't come across like that me and does feel more like a short TV series. It knows its end game and wants to use the ebbs and flows of a series format to establish and embed its themes. In the latter stages of the story, that cyclical characteristic of the narrative becomes clear - that it is the intention - and your experience of that meshes nicely with the realisations and motivations of Arthur.
I won't say RDR2 has the best narrative in a video game, I won't say it has the best acting, writing or plot (although aspects of these do peak among the highest in the industry at points). I will say that I believe it has managed to set a new standard in dealing with an age-old problem in video games, and that's the disconnect between gameplay systems, the linear story telling and the playable worlds these games provide.
Detail and technology
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the biggest leap in Rockstar world design since Grand Theft Auto 3 brought us its 3d open world. I'll be clear though, unlike GTA3, a revolution this is not. It's an iteration, it's also very much still in the 'theme park' category of open world games.
It doesn't 'get' open world games quite like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but what it does do is bring an unprecedented level of detail, quality and believability. Breath of the Wild brought constant "I can't believe that worked" type surprises, the surprises RDR2 brings are often in the astonishing amount of effort put into the game.
Let's start with the animation systems, the amount of unique animations for even the most mundane and infrequent action is incredible. It's not just quantity - it's that they have so many and they're of the highest quality, in an open world where the number of variables to account for is high. This is linear-single-player campaign level stuff, but more and better. How they justified going to these excesses is beyond me, but it added a lot to the game I believe.
Moving on to the wider technical quality, no open world Grand Theft Auto game, nor the previous Red Dead Redemption game has ever launched in such a good state. It has pretty good performance (though towns can be a bit rough), but more impressively - a very stable and clean image. I'm a snob when it comes to image quality and performance - and even on a base PS4 - this game didn't disappoint.
It looks absolutely fantastic, the rendering technology is - like the animation system - on the level of top tier linear-single-player games, except in an open world. It nails the atmospheric effects, weather systems, the density of the environment, everything. Draw distance and LoD is also great, I'm not sure how they did it - but LoD transitions are very good and hardly noticeable unless you're deliberately looking for it.
It all comes together leave this particular picky idiot.. with not much to complain about. I want to play it at a higher resolution, at a higher framerate, I want to dial up the effects and other qualities - when (or.. if) it comes to PC. But, unlike many other games I'm forced to play on consoles, I wasn't unhappy with the technical experience here.
For a Rockstar open world game, this is a fairly unusual experience. Red Dead Redemption 1 on PS3 and 360 was rough, GTA4 and GTA5 were even worse - poor performance and bad image quality. Not the case with Red Dead Redemption 2, I don't feel like I can reasonably complain too loudly about anything here.
Finally, looping back around to general detail and effort put into this game. The interactions between characters, be it characters in the story - or random NPCs is incredibly impressive. They react interestingly, have fairly unique interactions and routines and they feed into the world in believable ways. This isn't a systems driven game, and you will eventually begin spotting patterns which start to break down the illusions - but it took a while for me - and it didn't take away from my first experiences of these things.
It's in the eyes
One thing I want to single out, as I haven't seen it mentioned often in discussions about this game is the detail in the character's eyes, particular Arthur's. I suspect this is largely a result of good acting, but the technology and artists needed to come together to make the expression in Arthur's eyes during particular moments so convincing.
We've had games which have had as detailed, or more detailed faces and motion capture - but I've never had a character so believably sell their emotion to me through the eyes as I did from Arthur's scenes. This is one of the things I remember most when I think about this game and because eyes are so fundamental to how we perceive each other as humans, getting it right has a big impact on story telling and characterisation.
I gave you all I had..
It's hardly the game I expected, and despite my seemingly never ending praise in this post for it, I did have a fair few problems with the game that have left me with that "I'm not quite sure how much I enjoyed it" feeling. But I am appreciative and full of respect for what this game is.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an unbelievable achievement in so many ways and as I said at the top of the post, I do genuinely believe it is a game that will be seen as one that set a new standard in the industry.