This Polygon article perfectly sums up the problems with Red Dead Redemption 2

I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption 2 on and off for a few months now. Sometimes I’ll get totally sucked in and marvel at the world Rockstar has created. But all too often my enjoyment of the game is tarnished by dozens of tiny little annoyances that add up to create a sense of frustration.

This article by Film Crit Hulk on Polygon does a fantastic job of really getting into the nitty gritty of what Red Dead Redemption 2 does right and what it does wrong. It’s a long old read, but I’d highly recommend putting aside your lunch hour to delve into it if you’ve played RDR2 and come away with a nagging feeling that something’s not quite right about it.

The big take-home message is that the controls just don’t make sense a lot of the time. The menus are overly complicated and inconsistent in the commands they require you to enter, for example. I’m glad it’s not just me who has been struggling with this – last night, for instance, I spent a good long while hunting through the menu system for my binoculars, despite having played the game for around 50+ hours. It’s not intuitive in the slightest.

The other main point is that Rockstar mistakes complication for realism. All the fiddly mechanics you have to deal with don’t make it a more realistic simulator of the Old West, they just make it annoying. Sure, there are plenty of lovely touches that do increase immersion, like the joyful whinny your horse emits when you feed it, but there are also plenty of supposedly realistic actions that actually break the immersion. To whit:

Cooking food in a video game can take one button press or 20, but more button presses won’t fool your brain into thinking you’re actually cooking a dish. Game designers tend to confuse “complicated” with “realistic,” and our minds aren’t wired to think something is real just because it takes a long time to happen and requires many small actions on our part.

There are dozens and dozens of excellent insights like this in @FilmCritHULK‘s article, all of which had me nodding vigorously in agreement. It’s not that I don’t like Red Dead Redemption 2 – in fact, I rather enjoy it – but often that enjoyment is in spite of the obvious annoyances that the game keeps throwing my way. It feels like the game needed some sort of uber-producer, like Shigeru Miyamoto, to swoop in and say “this bit isn’t fun, take this out or rework it” and “why did you throw in this idea and never develop it?”

RDR2 is like a 1,500-page novel from a renowned author that has been waived through the editing process on the strengths of the artist’s past works, but as a result is bloated and riddled with strange choices. And the inherent complication of the control scheme is the most obvious of those – the Polygon writer’s description of learning the game in the opening hours as “laborious” is totally spot on.

In short, RDR2 isn’t a bad game by any means – but it deliberately makes itself wilfully obscure and needlessly complex. Basically, it needed an editor with an iron will.

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    1. Just watched that, good video! He’s got a point – and the devs definitely crossed the line from attention to detail to obsession with detail more than a few times in RDR2.

      Plus it strikes me that the quest for realism is undone by the game itself – is it realistic that you can absorb bullets and then heal your wounds by downing a health tonic? Is it realistic that you can murder hundreds of people and then pay a bounty to reset your notoriety and make all those nasty murder charges disappear? No. Yet sitting through lengthy skinning animations and cooking meat one piece at a time apparently is necessary for the game to be ‘realistic’.

  1. Sub-par controls are probably the thing that turn me away from a game the quickest and that was definitely one of my issues with RDR2. Not only are they overly complicated at times, I feel the basic stuff like shooting, movement and taking cover don’t feel as nearly good as some of the game’s contemporaries. It made it feel like a chore to play at times I guess. I didn’t end up making it through this yet. Maybe one day I will. I do like the world and characters from what I played, but the controls and mission design left a lot to be desired for me.

    1. Yep, it definitely feels clunky at times. And it’s all too easy to shoot someone you meant to talk to because the same button is used to target them!

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