Following up on a title such as Red Dead Redemption was never going to be an easy feat, but Rockstar Games took up the challenge in stride. Refining the shortcomings of the original and building upon the successes, Rockstar spent eight years (and eight studios) developing Red Dead Redemption 2, and the time and effort is evident from the start. The game seamlessly blends gameplay and narrative atop a gorgeous visual style and one of gaming’s best soundtracks to create an exemplary experience that will go down as one of the greatest games of the generation.
Red Dead Redemption 2 follows outlaw Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang as they flee across the American wilderness and civilisation to survive. The game is set in 1899, during the period where the Wild West era is coming to an end, and the player will feel the struggle of the characters to keep up with a world that is ostracising them. Several members of the gang are returning characters from the original game—including protagonist John Marston, his wife Abigail, and son Jack, as well as Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella, and Dutch Van der Linde—as well as a plethora of new and interesting gang members. Each character is granted considerable time to develop their own personalities both in the story and while roaming the camp and, despite the game’s ensemble cast, the player feels a connection with each member of the gang.
The game’s dialogue feels heavy and realistic. Even some of the more awkward and clunky conversations feel real given the time period. The transition from gameplay to cutscene is incredibly subtle, and the performances from the cast are first class. The game also offers a cinematic camera when exploring the game world, both on foot and horseback, which, alongside the ability to customise the heads-up display, may make Red Dead Redemption 2 the most cinematic game ever made.
The game can be played from either a third or first person perspective. While the third-player view feels more natural, likely due to its similarity to the previous title, the first-person mode is an effective addition to the game and a fun experience nonetheless. As the player explores the game world, they will come across random NPCs and may choose how to respond. Should the player respond positively, the NPC will likely respect Arthur if they meet again later in the game; conversely, a negative response may trigger an aggressive reaction from NPCs, often resulting in fist- or gun-fights and affecting the player’s reputation as they continue to explore the world.
The combat itself is equally as immersive as the game’s narrative. The player will feel every punch they give—and, perhaps even more, every hit they receive—giving the combat more of an impact outside of simple button pressing. While Arthur is a strong fighter, he is certainly not invincible, and players will soon realise that diving headfirst into fights may not always be the smartest tactic for combat; approaching more stealthily or taking advantage of the cover system is often a more effective approach. Ultimately, the player may decide themselves that fighting is their forte—or, on the other hand, they may wish to remain vigilant and avoid as many fights as possible as they traverse the landscape.
The game world is simply Rockstar’s finest—a high remark for the developer of such open world games as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, San Andreas, Bully, and the original Red Dead Redemption. The map is bursting with settlements and towns begging to be explored, but players may find themselves simply immersed in the wilderness, which is anything but empty. The game’s several forests, riverbanks, and deserts are all teeming with wildlife, which the player may choose to hunt or avoid (which, in the case of bears and wolves, may be the smartest option). Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world feels more alive than any that have preceded it and will certainly be explored for longer than the 60 hours that the developer promises.
Also receiving an upgrade is the game’s visuals. Rockstar has significantly enhanced its proprietary game engine RAGE, and the game makes no secret to hide the upgrade. Visually, every aspect of the game is gorgeous. The art style is incredibly fitting to the period, from the look of the buildings to the clothing that the characters wear. Small details may be overlooked, but without them the world would not feel as alive—mud sticking to Arthur’s clothes, mist rising from the water, and glare sneaking through the trees, among countless others, are minute additions that transcend the game to a level of detail unseen prior. Even the game’s animations—performed by an ensemble cast of professional actors and performance capture artists—feel fluid and near-flawless, adding to the game’s level of immersion.
Finally, enhancing the game to truly feel like a piece of Western media is the music. Composed by Woody Jackson—the musician behind Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V—the game’s original soundtrack will be sure to remind players of the Wild West hits of Ennio Morricone from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Building upon the successes of the original game’s soundtrack, Red Dead Redemption 2’s score adds a unique twist to the Western sound with modern accompaniments and adds new emotional heights to the game to truly immerse the player in the narrative.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterclass of game design. With timely music, gorgeous visuals, and impactful combat complementing seamless gameplay, Red Dead Redemption 2 stands above its competition as a triumph in media. The game’s narrative, as extensive and interweaving as it may be, surpasses the original and truly immerses the player in a game world that they will not want to leave. Red Dead Redemption 2 will go down not only as one of the best games of the generation, but as one of the greatest games ever made.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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