Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t know how to handle realism

Like most people in possession of a PS4 or Xbone, I’m currently playing through Red Dead Redemption 2. That game has an incredible, generation-defining open world that is unlikely to be surpassed for at least a decade. It is also a fundamentally flawed experience. One does not preclude the other, nor does this fact mean RDR2 is anything less than amazing for many people who play it.

I’m going to talk bollocks. Horse bollocks, specifically. Most of the game’s problems revolve around a hideously inconsistent approach to (and, arguably, obsession with) realism; and what better place to start than the infamous shrinking horse scrotums? Had this preposterous detail not been boasted of prior to release, would anybody outside of Rockstar have been aware of it? I mean, is there even a camera angle available that gives you a clear and close view of equine danglers? Actually, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know. I’d probably end up trying it out.

Horrific hours and oppressive company culture aside (which have been explored multiple times by more talented and better informed writers), the simple fact is that this detail is entirely unnecessary. Nobody would have known, few would have cared, and it adds literally nothing to the experience. At least watching an in-game horse do a poo is amusing for uncultured minds such as mine. Elsewhere, interpretations of realism are contradictory to almost embarrassing degrees.

As in a hundred other games, you can hunt animals for materials used for food and/or crafting. Also as in a hundred other games, you practically need to hunt a species to extinction to make just one outfit. For example, I killed a bear that could have won a fight with a double decker bus, yet somehow only reaped enough material to make a hat.

Oh, and your hair – cranial and facial – gradually grows over in-game time. Just like real hair on a real man! So you can largely style Arthur Morgan to your liking… so long as you remember to maintain it. Want fashionable stubble? Fine, but you’ll have to keep going back to camp or to a barber every so often to shave (and, if you’re into that level of detail, probably for a haircut too). Want a comedy moustache? Don’t we all – but you’ll have to wait for it to grow. You can’t just choose your hair, beard, and moustache to your liking, nor can you easily and instantly switch between styles. That’s the kind of thing you can do in a game, not a grown-up experience. Although quite how Rockstar squares this with the consumable that magically makes your hair grow much faster, I would be very interested to hear.

Perhaps the most egregious approach to realism comes in terms of the world’s reaction to your crimes, and the bounties that follow. If you’ve recently committed a crime – intentionally, or unintentionally due to the absolutely terrible UI – many activities and interactions will be unavailable to you even if, realistically, there’s no way the relevant NPC could have any idea of what transpired out of their sight. Certainly it would be impossible for them to know that it had been you specifically. Most ridiculously of all, cash absolves all sins. Killed enough citizens and lawmen to populate the entire town? Pay your own (fairly small) bounty, and bingo – you’re everybody’s best friend again, and it’s like nothing ever happened.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is, generally speaking, a very slow-paced game. Getting from one point to another involves riding your horse for minutes at a time. I personally don’t mind this, as I enjoy riding through the world, and listening to the dialogue. Still, limiting the number of places you can fast travel to and from in such a huge world feels like a bit of a middle finger to certain portions of the audience, as does gating fast travel from your camp behind hundreds of in-game dollars (and therefore several hours of play).

The nonsensical gauge core system, your horse running out of stamina quickly if it’s a little bit dirty, lengthy animations every time you skin an animal or loot a corpse, the need to clean your guns to maintain their efficacy… minor but tolerable irritations. Like everything else I’ve mentioned, offerings at the altar of realism. An altar erected for a game with a man who can recover from bullet wounds in seconds, can see scents, and has the ability to slow down time while he aims his gun.

Trying to put in equal dollops of realism and fun is a dangerous game to play, and it’s a balancing act that the developer in this instance has failed, though only just. I don’t have a problem with any of the concessions to fun that I’ve mentioned here; of course I don’t. The point is, there should be a lot more of them. Rockstar’s aim was off.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

One comment

  1. I think the problem with Rockstar is their absolute obsession with details while forgetting that Realism =/= Immersion.

    You can make something immersive without it having it be realistic and while details are nice, ask yourself this

    “Is this fun?”

    If the answer is no, then ask if it really is worth putting in your game.

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