This entry contains heavy spoilers about Red Dead Redemption that include, but aren't limited to, the ending of the campaign. If you haven't finished the game and don't want to be spoiled, I suggest not reading.
Open-world games require a certain bar for entry that other games lack. Whenever you put in a Fallout or Rockstar game (among many others), you know that if you stick through to the end, anywhere from 10 to 100+ hours of your life will be spent in its universe.
They’re comparable to starting a new relationship. You’re going to spend a lot of time with it. You have to approach them slowly and learn their rules. You can go quickly just to get to the meat and potatoes, but it’s better to do a lot of side work and really let the relationship blossom. They’re also stubborn — if you don’t play by their rules, there’s not much discussion about it. It’s usually their way or the highway. But hey, if you mess up, just backpedal, apologize, and try to start fresh.
Although I’ve been playing games since my early grade-school years, the barrier of entry for open-world games still makes me uncomfortable. These games please people simply because you get your money’s worth out of them. Financially, sinking $60 into a game that you’re going to get 80 hours out of is a pretty good deal.
However, I’ve played many games that have been too long for their own sakes. Developers sometimes pad out gameplay to add length in hopes of encouraging less of the backlash that happens when expensive games come up short. After all, if someone wanted a five or so-hour time-sink, two movies in a theater would get him or her a comparable experience for the same amount of time and much less cash. For better or worse, a genuine worry that surfaces about any new game is its length. Given the way critics treat reviews, it seems more is merrier. I don’t always agree. I also rarely agree on the high prices of full-retail games, either.
Much has been prodded in the space of games journalism/criticism/reviewing about how games should be treated as an experience and not a product. This would concretely result in the exclusion of price in the review/criticism. The point of the criticism wouldn’t be about getting what you pay for; it would be strictly about the game experience.
Although I agree on some levels with this idea, the price alone for most games is so high that it’s impossible to overlook it.
Even if the average age of a gamer is about 30 — which means we can half-assed assume that that he or she has a career — middle school, high school and college students also saturate the market and target audience for a lot of popular games that hit the shelves.
As I write this, being a 22-year-old recent college graduate, it would take some budgeting on my part to handle regularly purchasing new games at $60 apiece. Luckily, I have a subscription to GameFly, so I get my games in the mail. As long as I’m not absolutely clamoring for a game on day one, GameFly satisfies my needs.
Thanks to GameFly, my most recent experience with an open-world game is Red Dead Redemption. I played a couple of hours of it almost a year ago, and stopped due to my busy schedule. Because nearly everyone thinks it’s one of the best games evarrrr, I owed it to the gaming community to play it. And finish it.
The “finishing it” part of that debt I owed the gaming society became particularly difficult as I trudged on. Open-world Rockstar games have these unchanging, basic mechanical issues that turn me off. These are things that could be improved, fixed or outright removed — things that should have been addressed years ago.
Anyone who has played an open-world Rockstar game knows that they follow a very strict formula. That formula hasn’t changed much since Grand Theft Auto III, which came out a decade ago.
The formula is as follows — you’re a character in a large world, and you can use just about any means to get from where you are to where you want to go. There’s a circular map in the corner of the screen with initials of people, from whom you take missions. You get to them, sit through a longer-than-necessary dialogue scene, and then do what they want. Usually, it involves killing people, racing or racing and then killing people. If Rockstar really wants to mix things up, it gives you an on-rails turret section.
In Rockstar’s past games, getting from A to B wasn’t as cumbersome because you could steal a sports car, and be on your way at 80 mph. In Red Dead Redemption, because it’s set in the Wild West, you ride on horseback.
The horses are slow and controlling them is a nightmare. With the movement mechanics, Rockstar requires the player to hold a Run button to make the character (or horse) go fast. Analogue sensitivity on control sticks, which gauge movement speed, has been around since the introduction of analogue sticks. For some reason Rockstar will not jump on the bandwagon, and let me push the stick a smidgen to walk and all the way to run, pseudo-Resident Evil-style. And if I want to dash — the fun begins — I must repeatedly tap the Run button. This adds completely unnecessary button presses just to fucking move. To move.
The trails the horses ride on are often thin and difficult to tell from the surrounding flora. Horses will slow down if you traverse off the thin paths, so it requires precise control to keep the horse on the path while you’re tapping Run to make the horse go faster. This applies tenfold when you're riding with or following other nonplayable characters. But don’t tap Run too much or the horse will get pissy and buck you off. And there’s a separate button to make the horse stop. There are too many buttons needed to do simple things in this game.
The combat suffers from these button presses as well. In firefights, it’s much more necessary to run from cover to cover than to saunter, of which Marston is a big fan. Like I mentioned before, running requires the player to tap the Run button. That removes a finger from the right analogue stick, which is used for camera placement. It turns into a game of “see where you’re walking,” or “blindly run.” Either do those, or dash two steps, move the camera, dash two steps, rinse and repeat. At least mapping the run button to the left bumper could have solved some of this problem, so I could still have my thumb for camera control.
The cover system is also a mess. Any game that has a cover system that still lets the protagonist get shot while in cover should be banned to the innermost layer of Hell. Not getting shot is the precise point of having a cover system. I don’t care if it’s unrealistic to expect cover to always shield you. Realism was out the window the second Marston could regenerate his health and slow time down. Breakable cover would be a reasonable alternative to this.
The radial weapon menu should also pause the action while you’re selecting a weapon. For some stupid reason, after you skin an animal, it defaults to the knife as your main weapon, as if anyone would just choose the knife to use in the Wild West. I died on more than one occasion because I had skinned animals and then got in a firefight shortly after. I didn’t have time to switch back to my gun because the radial menu doesn’t pause the game.
The decade-old mini-map also needs an overhaul. I added waypoints on the map, so I’d know what roads to take to get somewhere fastest. This feature brings about my biggest frustration with anything that comes out of Rockstar (and most other open-world games). I spend more time staring at the tiny map in the corner than I do anything on 95 percent of the rest of the screen. I have to know where I’m going and the only way I can do that is by watching my map. I can’t be renegade and go off the paths to get to my destinations or my stupid horse will slow down, nor do I even know where I’m going at all without looking at the map.
You know what game handled an open-world system better than any I’ve played before? Red Faction: Guerrilla. It had a mini-map, but instead of forcing me to keep my eyes glued to it, it overlaid arrows onto the actual game’s roads so I’d know where I was going without having to take my eyes off the screen. It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I’ve yet to play another game that implements a mechanic so seamlessly and beautifully. Even a fucking waypoint arrow at the top of the screen, such as in Rockstar’s own Midnight Club games, would have been better. Or a compass up top.
This game is filled with absolutely awful design decisions.
I have an abundance of problems with this game, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of the story, characters or actual missions yet.
The missions are largely the same handful of actions over and over. Most require you to shoot people. In some you shoot people in transit to a location. In others, you shoot people from a mounted turret. I suppose the turret sections are present to relieve you of the awful walking mechanics to manage while shooting.
Ironically, the missions that require no shooting, which permeate mostly the very beginning and the ending parts of the game, are the worst ones. Herding cattle? No, thanks. Breaking wild horses by playing a longer-than-necessary balancing mini-game? Not my cup of tea.
One of my least favorite occurrences happened when I thought I reached the end of the campaign. I had dispatched all of the gang members for the government, and I finally made it back to Marston’s family on the farm. Much to my dismay, there were still multiple missions left to be done. I sighed, and ran to the little letters on the mini-map.
In the first Marston Farm mission, I had to herd cattle, and shoot people halfway to the destination. Herding cattle is far from my favorite thing to do in the game. It doesn’t even sound remotely fun.
In the second Marston Farm mission, I had to herd cattle. Again. And I had to shoot people halfway through the herding. Again. I honestly thought the game was just fucking with me at this point.
During these two missions, which I believe were for a man Marston called “Uncle,” despite not actually being his uncle, I realized yet another annoyance that carried throughout the entire game.
Marston very much wants you to believe he is a ruthless badass. He tells people he ran with a gang. He mouths off to nearly every person from whom he takes a mission. He’s generally pretty hard and to-the-point. Yet his hard words get him absolutely nowhere in the game. I can’t count the number of times he’d be accompanying someone he didn’t like on a mission, and during the long horse-riding-dialogue sections, he’d talk bad about the person for whom he was currently working to his or her face. Yet it had no effect.
If Rockstar wanted true open-endedness in the game, why not let us decide not to do the missions? If all Marston is going to do is mouth off like a dick during the entire mission, yet still do it, and come back for more oddjobs later, why can’t I just say “fuck off” and not help these people? They rarely make themselves useful, if they return at all, in the long run.
So much of Red Dead Redemption consists of Marston doing stupid jobs for people he doesn’t know and for such little payment. Large amounts of missions have nothing to do in forwarding the main story, which leads me to wonder why Mr. Badass Marston would even do them. I sure as hell wouldn’t. None of the characters, save for Bonnie, are memorable enough to care about during or after I finished doing jobs for them. All they do is talk your ears off in boring cutscenes, and then force you to do tasks, such as avenge their father’s death, whom you also didn’t know, for little payment.
Speaking of payment, much of the side stuff in Red Dead Redemption is arbitrary; it makes me wonder why it even exists in the first place. Sure, you can kill and skin animals, but all your only use for meat is selling it at stores. You get cash for completing missions, but rarely need it. You can buy guns, but you’ll get most of the guns during missions for free. You can buy medicine, but your health regenerates. You’ll never need to purchase ammo because looting bodies keeps you stocked. You can pick pretty flowers, but, aside from their use in one mission, all you can do is sell them for more money you don’t need. Mini-games, such as horseshoes, are available to play, but they’re boring and mechanically unsound.
There is no point to any of this stuff.
Due to Marston’s insistence on doing arbitrary missions for people he barely knows, the story moves along at a three-toed sloth’s pace.
Marston has a habit of revealing about 2 percent of his backstory to every person he meets, so it takes hours for you to find out exactly what’s going on in his life. He often says he used to run in a gang, and that he did bad things. Later he reveals he killed people. One of my main problems with this way of storytelling is that I have to take Marston’s word for all of this. Rockstar is so keen on developing 10-minute cutscenes just to introduce one single mission, why couldn’t they throw together some flashback scenes or, perhaps, some flashback missions to show us exactly the kinds of terrible things Martson did? I killed more than 500 people in my playthrough, so if Marston’s past of killing people is truly haunting him as much as he lets on, his conscience won’t be relieved anytime soon with the amount of people he’s currently murdering. He must have killed millions in his teen years to outweigh the stuff he does during the campaign. For Red Dead to be hailed as having a great story, it violated one of the biggest rules in storytelling, which is to show and not tell.
As I entered the home stretch, I had multiple people on Twitter cheering me on, despite knowing I didn’t care for Red Dead, to finish it. I had multiple people tell me stick it out through Mexico as I got to that section.
A general rule of thumb for me is – if multiple people have to tell you to “stick it out” through a game, that doesn’t speak very highly of it.
When the ending of the game finally came around, I was prepared to be blown away. Most things I’ve read/heard about Red Dead make a huge deal out of its ending. Whenever the government agents and soldiers came for Marston in the final last-stand-type mission, I was on board. I sort of figured Marston was going to die in it, and was prepared for the credits to roll. One factor of irritation for me was how after Uncle got shot to death on the porch, Marston acted as if he were so torn up by it. Ten minutes before that, I had been playing missions with Uncle, and all Marston did was talk about how much of a lowlife Uncle was, and threatened to kill him multiple times. As with most characters in Red Dead, I found it impossible to attach myself to the predetermined, artificial bond that had been set up in the couple of missions we had together. I didn’t care about Uncle at all. For all I cared, Marston could’ve shot him, and I would’ve been happy to not do repeat cattle herding missions to pad out gameplay. But when Uncle gets shot on the porch, suddenly Marston cares about him? It was all too unrealistic and bipolar for me to believe it.
After Marston died and the camera zoomed out to show his son stepping away from the graves, I was on board, yet again. Although it took me a few minutes to figure out the new protagonist was Marston's son, due to him looking like a Mexican, I got excited.
I looked at my boyfriend and said, “Wow, finally this game gets interesting.” I hoped that the new game timeline would have spelled new technologies for the game, such as a compact machine gun or an automobile available, but no such luck. And when I traveled to Blackwater to inquire about the final mission, I was let down by no Blackwater redesign. Oh well.
After playing for almost 20 hours, I finally hit a point of genuine intrigue when the agent in Blackwater put me on the trail for Ross. I lost my excitement when I was led on a goose chase and had to travel all the way back to Mexico just to confront him.
After riding the horse all the way there, I talked to his partner, who pointed me in yet another direction, to get to Ross.
“Surely Jack won’t kill Ross,” I thought. That would be too predictable. It would be so much more interesting if Jack just let Ross be, with the knowledge that Jack could’ve ended Ross’ life, but let him go.
Nope. Instead, the game ends with a duel, which is one of my least favorite mini-games in Red Dead.
After playing through the largely mediocre, by-the-books Rockstar game, I was treated to a so-called amazing ending that went out with just the kind of bang that made it too predictable to enjoy.
So my relationship with Red Dead Redemption didn’t end up so great. I tried to give it the attention it desired, but in the end, had to break up with it. I ended with 100 percent honor and about 75 percent fame. I completed all the stranger missions that I saw (except for one that glitched, not allowing me to finish it). I did a few bounties, but grew tired of them after I discovered killing the fugitives would lead to less honor than wrangling and carrying them back to the jail. I’m a man of honor, but not enough to do that for every bounty.
My last complaint is about the stranger missions, which I generally found appealing overall. Every time you finish talking to a stranger and resume control of Marston, the stranger will verbally shoe you away immediately. He or she usually says something such as, “I think we’ve talked enough, now get out of here.” That’s a pretty bitchy step to take considering I’m the one going out of my way to help your sorry ass, and I have absolutely no reason to. Beyond that, I did find a majority of the stranger missions more compelling than the actual campaign missions. I just wish the strangers would learn some manners.
I did not hate Red Dead Redemption. It just didn’t remotely come close to living up to its hype, which rarely happens. As much as I tried to like it, everything was working against it. I’m not a huge fan of open-world games, I don’t like Westerns, and I don’t even care for Rockstar games. I respect the amount of time and work that was put into the finished product, but I could’ve had a better experience if I played nearly any other game on my shelf.
I did have one moment of pure pleasure during my playthrough, however. Toward the very end, I was riding to a destination when I stumbled upon a woman complaining that her horse carriage had broken down for the umpteenth time. I really wondered how many times the game thought I’d fall for this trick. I had my rifle ready when the bandits jumped up. I slowed time, marked each man multiple times and opened fire. I killed them and left the woman begging for her life. Usually, I always play the honor card in games of good and evil, but just this once, a wave of pure evil washed over me. I watched as the young, half-naked woman begged. She then surrendered her money to me, as all of them before her had. As she stood to run away, I unsheathed my sawed-off shotgun, slowed time and unloaded both shells into the back of her head. I had had enough of these people trying to rob and kill me on the side of the road. I looted everyone’s bodies for ammo and additional cash. I smiled at my decision as the honor meter subtracted 50 points. I didn’t care.
I had a flash of hope in thinking that, maybe for once, this would be a game I’d actually enjoy playing as a renegade. I didn’t keep it to find out, though. As soon as I finished the campaign, I stuck it in its GameFly envelope and threw it in the mailbox. I’m glad I didn’t pay $60 for it, and I wouldn’t pick it up for a second run, even as an evil player, if I found it in a bargain bin for $10.
All screenshots from Rockstargames.com