The Good, The Bad and the Boring. (Contains Spoilers)

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Well here we are, 2019 and I wish a Happy End of January to you all. It’s a dull and lack lustre month here in the UK but I must say, I’m having a blast. Quite literally actually. I’ve spent most of its dark damp nights gunning down outlaws and nicking their horses in the old West. Yes, sure enough, after all these years I’m still playing bloody video games.

It sounds a bit childish really. An adult with too much time on his hands committing fictitious equine theft. There’s still a taboo about fully grown adults playing video games isn’t there? We’re often accused of being anti-social but that’s just a pious stereotype. As a counter argument I usually retort by comparing the amount of time I apparently waste playing games to the amount of time that my more mature and wiser preachers waste watching episodes of soap operas such as DeadEnders or Constipation Street every night. Personally, I’ve never understood how listening to a gaggle of Cockneys arguing inside a laundrette gets passed off as entertainment but, each to their own devices I guess.

The first ever Wild West themed game I ever played in my life was at a friends house when I was a kid in the late 80s. It was called Kane and it was on the Commodore 64. It took about 10 minutes for the cassette game to load and about 2 minutes to complete in its entirety at a cost of £1.99 from a pokey little shop called Comtazia in Dudley.  Now, in 2019, I’m paying £50 for a game that takes about 6 hours to download and approximately 60 hours to complete in its entirety! Our video games of today are indeed technological artistic behemoths.

Throughout my life I always assumed the habit would die off but I’m always lured back into playing a game, simply because they get better and better. I’m not the only one either. There are gamers of all ages across various demographics that enjoy games of various genres. I’ve recently read that the UK is the 5th largest gaming industry in the world, where £5.11 billion was spent on gaming in 2017!

In truth I’m more of a movie lover than a gamer but games have slowly amalgamated into motion pictures in a sense with the added extra of permitting the audience (players) to take control. They allow you to be inside the movie, become the movie and lately, some even allow you to change the ending of the movie, depending on the choices you make throughout the game. Furthermore, most game developers have enticed movie lovers over the decades anyway by buying the rights to release a game based on a new film, to rake in the coin. With the exception of Goldeneye on the N64 and a few others, most of them are churned out in mass with no intention of adding any innovation to the gaming world and hinder any progression for the industry…..although it needs to be remembered that this is a business. Without profits, there can be no games.

Once every so often however, a game will be released that pushes the bar and breaks boundaries that we’ve never seen before, that offers something new that will stay with you over years and create new memories. A game that becomes part of history…..and by putting you in control allows you to become part of the history. After all a game can’t be a game without its players.

So, after all these years………. 8 years in the making to be precise, Rockstar Games presents us with Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s a game about a gang of outlaws who’re led by a charismatic crook called Dutch Van der Linde. They’re on the run after a failed robbery in a town called Blackwater and forced to survive out in the wilderness of a new idea introduced to mankind called America. Over the course of 60 hours, the player witnesses the gangs decline and dissolution as a family along with the moral (or lack of) dilemmas they acquire and experience as a result of their choices.

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This is the first time in my life I’ve ever put pen to paper over a video game. The main reason is a very simple one. When I completed RDR2 and the credits started rolling up the screen, I did something that I’ve never done before. I put the controller down and started applauding for a few seconds whilst giving a few head nods. I sat there clapping my hands uncontrollably like a new age fan boy, listening to the amazing instrumental music (composed by Woody Jackson) and felt a natural desire to tell the world about it. Not just to report about what Rockstar did right……but sadly what they got wrong. The other reason is because I think some gaming critics are suffering from the effects of a self-serving internal groupthink where they’re calling out this game for being perfect when in fact it isn’t. I’ve seen a few 10/10s being awarded both formally and informally and I’ve asked myself the same question; would I give it 10/10? Awkwardly, the answer is yes and no.

This game is well and truly a masterpiece but for all the wrong reasons. You see, when I bought this game and handed over £50 of my hard-earned wedge in a busy Game store in Birmingham, I was under the impression I was purchasing a gaming masterpiece, but instead, in my opinion, I’ve acquired a cinematic masterpiece. You see, us gamers can forgive a few bad graphics because it’s all about the actual game and playability itself isn’t it?

Does it matter? Am I being critical for the sake of being critical? If I enjoyed it, that’s the main thing surely? Playing this game, at times, was the equivalent of walking into a new perfectly designed state of the art football stadium but only being offered the most uncomfortable seats in the world to watch the match. That may sound harsh but the fairest way of explaining this is with a balanced outlook. I’m a Centrist after all.

I’m going to assume that the reader has already played the game because lets’ face it, people who aren’t gamers won’t really care and won’t know who John Marston is or won’t really care about the level of detail given to Arthur Morgans beard. I’ve read about some gamers not liking spoilers but we need to remember that this game is a prequel. Ergo any new characters in this game that didn’t appear in the previous one will be due to meeting their demise as an outlaw (gunslingers tend to get shot you know) or by retiring from their life as an outlaw and settling down somewhere else. There’re no other logical conclusions, whether you’ve played the game or not. Besides, you’ve had since November to saddle up and get your guns oiled (revolvers, not your biceps).

Am I trying to be funny you may well ask? Absolutely not, you see, you can change your saddles in the game……. and you can oil your guns so that the bullets retain a speedy discharge. These are just two examples of the level of true to life detail presented in this game. Furthermore, people you meet in the towns and small hamlets will remember any good or bad deeds you commit throughout the game. The more you nurture your horse with respect, the faster it will gallop for you as it becomes accustomed to your friendly and lovable companionship. You can steal hats from deceased outlaws and wear them. You can see the hoof marks and stagecoach wheel tracks appear in the mud and hear it splosh up your boots as you stroll towards a saloon. Any animal skin that you attempt to sell in towns will always fetch less of a price if the pelt is soiled with bullet holes. I could go on forever at pointing out the minute details but indeed, the level of detail that has gone into this game is stratospheric. The game has a deliberate slow narrative for the most part. It’s a slow burner for sure. Its engrossing although somewhat predictable and at times far- fetched to the extent where you feel the writers had exhausted their selves. This, along with the clunky and unrealistic combat system often contradicts the high level of realism created out in the wild. The player is always tempted to stray off the track of the main story and this is done in a very coy fashion. Whether it’s a damsel in distress or a kidnapped victim screaming for help, there’s always something out there in the wild to distract you. You will stumble upon animals you’ve never seen before and feel the urge to shoot them and sell their pelts. Maybe new plants to harvest or an abandoned stagecoach to pillage. There are also bounties advertised in the Sheriffs’ office which offer rewards along with any offerings the Stranger missions offer.

I wasn’t overly thrilled with the Stranger / side missions. I thought that they were a step down from the previous game and I felt that some of them were just thrown in there simply to make up gaming hours and content. These side missions were boring and some simply added to the already overwhelming feel to the game. There was enough to do already, let alone being asked to hunt dinosaur bones on top of the excessive number of cigarette cards to collect. I found the wildlife photographer missions boring and the bottle balancing twins pointless. Apart from the French artist, most were so uneventful that they’re now hidden in the fogginess of my memory. I’m tempted to say the same too for some of the chores or activities enforced in some of the missions. The fishing trip with young Jack Marston is a prime example of this. I didn’t want to spend 20 minutes fishing but had no choice in order to progress the story. Had the bounty hunters not showed up, it may as well had been a lost episode of the sodding Waltons or Little House on the Prairie rather than a gun-slinging video game. There’re a few missions that do stand out. One involves a homeless guy in Rhodes longing for his lost possessions. It transpires later, when Arthur finds chains and shackles in the drunken old bastards evicted house, that he was a former slave trader. Arthur reacts with disgust when returning his pistol to him and leaves him in tears.

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One of the main impressive aspects of the game is the open world of the fictitious American countryside known as New Hanover. There have been many memorable 1st time moments in gaming history over the years. Whether it was performing a loop the loop in Sonic the Hedgehog, leading your Lemmings out of the trap door, upper cutting an opponent into The Pit in Mortal Kombat, the relief of hearing the safe room music in Resident Evil, or chain sawing a locust in half in Gears of War, there are numerous moments that will stick with gamers for their entire lives and I’m pleased to say that RDR2 contains one of those moments. There’s a jaw dropping moment after the snowy and long introduction to the game where Dutch Van der Linde leads his convoy of brigands down the mountain and the player feels fire in their eyes when they receive their first glimpse of Rockstars beautifully constructed wilderness. The mountain tops, the thawing snow, the natural swaying of the leaves on the trees and oh my……..that horizon. The wilderness is alive with flora and fauna, accompanied with a well-seasoned weather system, with hundreds of species of animals and vegetation. It’s a living breathing synthetic ecosystem which entices the player to explore. It’s a very overwhelming experience at first but it doesn’t take long for any player to feel that this offering is indeed a huge moment in gaming history. The soundtrack to this game accompanied the scenes perfectly throughout, being predominately harmonic rather than melodically bold cinematic music. It sounded indigenously smooth yet rugged, gritty and real.

I experienced some laugh out loud moments too. Whether it’s the rescuing of a drunken reverend from impending doom on a railway bridge, or a punch up with the pompous upper class gentry in a nudist art gallery…..or a right royal piss up with Lenny in a saloon, the script never strays too far from bringing a dry humoured chuckle to the player. It constantly uses the player in a game of tug-o-war between taking the game seriously or not. The story is a constant mixology of humour and satire with stone cold characterisations of the New America.  I mentioned Lenny just now. He’s a black member of the gang who is an important character in the story since Rockstar utilise him as a conduit to portray the racism that existed (and sadly still does) in America a century ago. Lenny feels the prejudice from society daily, whereas Dutch and his gang of criminals, offer no such prejudice (apart from Micah) There is also a Mexican and an Indian in the gang too, since Dutch treats everyone as equal. This pushes the player into liking Dutch from the onset, whereas we feel the exact opposite for Micah, who is hostile and repulsive. Dutch sells himself as a twisted philanthropist, where he perceives his gang to be a symbolic sticking up of two figures to the new system. The game is set in the dawn of a new America, the birth of conurbations, society, cities and Laws. The authorities have little time for outlaws and are hunting them down. They see Dutch as a criminal but as usual Rockstar portray the leaders of the New World as equally corrupt and crooked and full of greed. We’re also reminded of not only of how black people were treated but also the Native Americans who were driven from their land.

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Dutch is the leader of the posse but this isn’t a story about him nor John Marston, who is portrayed early on as a half-witted idiot. This is a story about Arthur Morgan, the level headed loyal right-hand man of Dutch, who is by far one of the best and most lovable characters that Rockstar has ever created. He is loved by all the gang, a person that each one of them turns to for help during the game including a previous lover. His facial expressions, mannerisms and movement are reflected with precision and are in constant synchronization with the mood and narrative of the game throughout. At one point he even assists one of the first suffragette demonstrators with their first protests. Arthur is a pragmatist and offers trails of thought which would resonate with any gamer. There are times when he appears apathetic and he is left in the dark surrounding the events of the botched Blackwater heist, which is a very clever method that Rockstar chose in order to allow the players to instantly resonate with Arthur from the outset. We slowly follow his enlightenment and realisation that the gangs’ days are numbered. He knows through the course of contracting Tuberculosis that his time is almost up too. There’s a symbolic and emotional passing of the baton (the wedding ring) in terms of redemption. Upon realising that he will never have a chance of redemption in life, he symbolically becomes reincarnated into John Marston in a sense and just like John in the previous game, he leaves this game as a hero in an outlaws body.

But lets not dwell on his death, lets concentrate on the epic moments in the story in which he was part of. I felt that the introduction was a tad slow in the snowy mountain although the monotonous white surroundings were all but a ruse to enable us to respect the picturesque world awaiting us beneath. I loved the bank heist in the muddy livestock town of Valentine. I chose the option to slowly crack the safe codes rather than blow them up and this only further added to the tension of the scene. The gangs slow walk in unison through the gates of Braithwaite Manor is also an iconic moment a gamer won’t forget in a hurry. That firefight is surely one of the highlights of the game, along with the Bank raid in St Denis. We see sorrow in the eyes of Dutch for the first time when he sees his old friend Hosea gunned down in cold blood and it could be said that this is the point where Dutch begins to crack. We see the gradual metamorphosis of him, turning from a father figure into a psychotic narcissist. Lenny also bites the dust but no one is given a chance to react to the fullest (apart from Arthur). This is kind of sad since Lenny was a great character. I also loved that “One Final Charge” moment where the gang and the Indian tribe storm across the landscape together to battle with the Pinkertons. All these moments were cinematically epic. All these moments provide the player with a feeling of total immersion and an escape from the real world. Its only in between these crucial moments of the story, when we bring our horse to a slow cantor between one town to the next, where we have chance to ponder on Rockstars’ desire to impress us with their endless pursuit of creating such cinematic gaming and state of the art attention to detail. I felt as if I wanted to reach out and shake the hands of the team that made this happen.

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Admittedly, the whole game is too long but that can be forgiven by some players. Too long is better than too short. The introduction dragged, the Eagle Flies story dragged. I felt that the story was spoilt with the Guama chapter as it was too unbelievable and the Lex Luther style jail break with the hot air balloon was just plain silly. I also felt that the epilogue with John Marston could have been cut and added later as extra DLC. For me the end credits should have rolled when Arthur passed away, with the sun beaming against his face. The epilogue was way too long, whoever heard of an epilogue that lasts for almost one third of the game? One can also ask a further question, did we really want to pay money for a game that enforces us to partake in farmyard chores? This is supposed to be a game about outlaws not a farming simulator!

But what is bad about this game? I don’t enjoy writing bad things about a group of people who have put their heart and soul into creating something that could stand the test of time. They took all those years to produce a work of art. The last thing they want to hear is some doughnut like me giving criticism…..but as one cowboy probably said to the other; what’s my beef?

Well there is only one elephant in the room here and it’s the in-game combat and gunplay. It spoils everything that Rockstar have achieved else where in the game. Its outdated, repetitive, slow and cumbersome. The AI is almost non-existent to the extent that the player may as well be shooting card board cut outs. I deliberately strayed away from activating the “Dead Eye” mode since this is a Western, not The Matrix. The idea of slowing down time to grant Arthur an advantage over enemies simply added more ease to an already easy and unchallenging game. Its virtually the same combat system utilised in the first game released in 2010. There’s a lack of innovation here which leads one to believe that the combat element of the game was simply copied and pasted across into this game and glossed over with a new breath-taking coat of paint. One aspect of the in-game combat which infuriated me was that sometimes it felt as if Arthur may as well have been firing blanks. You can unload 3 bullets into the chest of an enemy and they still get to their feet! This seemed to be a contradictory kick in the balls to the great levels of realism that Rockstar worked so tirelessly towards. Another annoying aspect which caused my larynx to vibrate venomously was this idea of not being able to create my own destiny during active missions. The missions had a claustrophobic feel to them and contradicted the open worldliness that was usually available to the player. Whenever the player strayed off course for too long or decided to return to their horse to change their rifle selection, the player would sometimes get punished with a Failed mission message, for “not keeping up with gang” (or something along those lines) The in-game weapon selection wheel didn’t work for me either. The “let go of L1 button” must have caught out even the best of players for sure. I often felt that I was too quick for it and the wrong weapon would be selected or not at all. These sub-standard aspects of the gun fights in my opinion spoilt the game and had it not been for this, the game may have well been a 10/10. Most importantly there was no sense of a challenge. For those of you who’ve completed the Witcher 3 on Death March mode, I’m sure you would agree.

Can this game work in the upcoming online mode? I’m not quite sure. (I have a feeling that the new character Sadie may play a large role in any future DLC, since she simply wonders out of the story and furthermore, she appears on front of the game disc rather than John or Arthur). I walked into an Electronic Exchange shop the other day in Wolverhampton and I wasn’t surprised to see just under 50 pre-owned copies of RDR2 on the shelf already. That’s quite early for a game that’s a blockbuster. The game is great fun but at times it seems to go on forever at a snails pace. Its not the type of game you can just pick up and play for a casual 30 minutes. This game requires hours of dedication and input, a perfect date for those of you who are perpetual baby sitters with countless hours to kill. The outdated combat would infuriate me on the on-line mode and after 60 hours of play the last thing some people will want to do is start all over again. Rockstar could make improvements I guess but if there’s one thing we all learn after 60 hours is this:

It sure is a long way to Tahiti…….

Thanks for reading dudes…… I’m off now to play Resident Evil 2 whilst trying not to soil my pants.

An English Centrist – January 2019

 

 

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