Red Dead Redemption II – First Impressions

I have never written a “First impressions” post, but I believe they’re a great way to express opinions and experiences that, while not final, they do define what a videogame will feel like. They’re specially useful in titles that span dozens of hours, of course, which is the case of Red Dead Redemption II, Rockstar’s latest title as well as the first in many many years, the company’s previous game being the well-known Grand Theft Auto 5, which came out a whooping 5 years ago. It’s been a long time, a new generation of consoles has been released, as well as revisions for both the PS4 and Xbox One, so there’s tons of horsepower the developers haven’t used before. Is the result something unlike any other game we’ve seen before? Let’s find out.

A lot has already been said about Red Dead Redemption II, so I’ll try to keep this text short and stick more to the details that I haven’t read much about elsewhere. Let’s start with the story itself.

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The end of the Wild West is coming. Arthur Morgan and his gang are outlaws, trying to survive in a world that has evolved quite a lot since their golden days. They will have to flee and organise a camp, try to help each other out in their task, and not raise suspicion of a society that will hunt them if spotted. This story is pretty simple and effective at building a narrative in a big, open world, and, as such, it works beautifully when told with calm. The first segments of the game have a very slow narrative that may seem tedious to some, but I believe that it’s a great way to present the story and let the players connect with the characters, who are slowly and realistically building on-screen. There’s lots of chores to do in the west, and they’re interesting and rich, giving credibility to the gang we’re shown. It’s obvious that Rockstar has been meticulously crafting each and every interaction to make the world work as a whole, be believable and work with a cohesion never before seen in the industry.

However, I do believe some graphical interfaces are not perfectly designed to make all those interactions as simple as they should be. I wish some systems were more organic instead of using overwhelming bars and sliders all over the place. For example, there’s five symbols to show Arthur’s health, stamina and more, and each of them has two parts: a bar that shows the level of that attribute, and a “core” that shows how quickly the outer bar will regenerate. This means there are a total of ten attributes to take care of. Those cores can get in a golden state too if you use certain items, or red if some conditions are not met (if you don’t use heavy clothes when it’s cold outside, or when your horse gets frightened after seeing a huge bear). In addition, there’s other stuff that even if you cannot directly see in an interface element, but some tutorial-like messages make sure that you’re aware of them: you must clean your horse so that his stamina is recovered more quickly, you must put on your mask to lower your chances of being spotted, etc. Whenever you’re hunting, you can see your scent floating away of your body depending on the direction of the wind, so that you can know whether the prey will notice you. The quality of the animals is also variable. These aren’t bad systems at all, but the way of letting the players know is way too overwhelming and cumbersome, so I wish a more natural and organic UI had been designed.

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I believe some of these systems are a tiny bit too unforgiving too, as it punishes small mistakes a lot. Sure, they are the logical and realistic consequences of what’s going on, but the result is quite frustrating at times. While focusing on animals to “scan” them, the player loses control of the camera, which most of the times leads to crashing your horse into a tree. The animation of the horse collapsing is really painful to watch, and it takes a really long time before you can start riding again. If this happens during a chase, you’re screwed 90% of the times. Movement is slightly too uncomfortable too, specially while moving during combat. The gunplay itself is great and feels realistic and rewarding, but moving from one cover to another is quite slow. Sometimes, whenever you perform an action, the animation takes a long time to trigger due to poor motion matching, which results in cancelling the action and having to start it again. These are smaller annoyances than what they may sound like, but they definitely made my experience much more uncomfortable during the 12-ish hours I’ve played so far.

What indeed is incredibly designed is the world itself, which is a bit too big in my opinion (if fast travel is a feature, it means a world is too big), but very rich. Every spot can be recognised due to unique landmarks that can be found everywhere, and that makes traversal interesting at all times. Cinematic camera angles can be activated too, which result in beautiful shots. Furthermore, the dynamic weather system makes every journey unique. Going to Valentine and back is a route that must be repeated over and over again, yet it’s different every single time due to the excellent lighting and weather conditions. I wish the changes from a lighting state to another would be more fluent, as they do feel kinda abrupt at times, but the sceneries are constantly jaw-dropping.

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That’s due to the spectacular engine Rockstar makes use of in this game, which is the best looking of this generation so far. Tons of graphical details have been carefully constructed, from snow that deforms and acquired red tints because of the blood, to light shining through Morgan’s earlobes. It’s unlike any other game we’ve ever seen. As stated previously, lighting is probably the most magnificent of all features, with incredible volumetric lights that look spectacular when in forests. However, he quality varies quite a lot from one console to another, with some incomprehensible decisions made with PS4 Pro in particular. Let me get slightly technical for the rest of this paragraph: while the original PlayStation 4 is rendered at a Full HD resolution, its revision tries to reach 4K. This is achieved through upscaling an image that’s half 4K resolution (4.1 million pixels, twice as many pixels present in a 1080p image). However, instead of scaling down both the vertical and horizontal axes, it just scales one of them, resulting in a 1920×2160 pixels. Once upscaled and antialiased, the image looks quite blurry and loses texture quality massively, which is a shame. If you have the chance to pick the console in which you’ll play, go for the Xbox One X, the only console that renders a native 4K image.

Music is also an important part of the experience, and as such, it has not been overlooked by the development team. An appropriate and rich score makes riding the horse spectacular on its own, and shootings feel immersive and thrilling every single time. I’m really looking forward to making this OST a part of my daily commute to make it more epic.

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Without a doubt, RDR2 (or as my girlfriend and I refer to it, R2D2) has the best story-telling a videogame has ever had. Its script features tons of dialogue for every situation imaginable, each character has been carefully crafted, and even characters you find just once in the whole game have been packed with lines that tell their story brilliantly. The whole world seems to be connected somehow due to this feature, and it results in an amazing narrative. It has been said over and over again in the game’s marketing campaign that conversations can be held with every NPC, and while it may seem an over-the-top feature introduced just to brag about it, it truly conveys the world’s liveliness.

All in all, I believe Rockstar’s newest game is an excellent addition to anyone’s library of games, but that doesn’t mean it has no issues. The fact that there’s so many systems involved in its huge world means there’s more problems to be spotted. However, those mistakes do not eclipse Red Dead Redemption II’s greatest achievements, and they’re sacrifices that are most welcome if they’re the price to pay in order to get such a well-polished, extensive and narratively extraordinary game as this.

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