The PS3 classic RDR1 is one of my all time favourite games so my excitement was high going in to this first real PS4Pro experience with full 4K resolutions and HDR lighting. Off the bat the resolution, HDR and overall environment detail never disappoint. As with the first game, more so, the late 19th Century Wild West backdrop is the real star of the show.
But what of the gameplay itself? First impressions is of a game that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s as if the developers went out their way to perfect every element of gameplay and then tried dialling up a notch past that. The result was rarely (visuals excepted) excellence. Instead it often feels like it misses the mark, errs into parody, or other whys fails in the overall gelling of gameplay elements.
Does this game want to be an RPG? If it does the RPG elements just get in the way of the overall gameplay. Sleep, wash, dress, shave, watch your weight, feed the horse, upgrade the home camp. The level of detail pushed until it detracts.
Does this game want to be a cinematic experience? All too often the black bars descend and you’re watching a movie not playing a game. The original got he mix of story telling through gameplay spot on. The sequel actively removes player agency to further story telling.
At one point the game goes off on an Uncharted tangent with Arthur Morgan doing his best Nathan Drake impression. This short segment seems symptomatic of splitting the story into chaptered sections that really doesn’t work for this style of game. The first game did well with main story missions progressing the narrative while keeping the core open world consistent and explorable. While the map is big you do feel artificially confined to the current area, even if you’re not.
As with the level of detail in the graphics and animations, the size and scale of the world available to explore is larger than anything yet seen from Rockstar. Just the opening area explored during Chapters 1 and 2 feels like the whole area GTA V offered and equal in scale to the entire US side of the Rio Grande in the first game. Rockstar have out done themselves and entirely surpassed RDR1 in providing a seemingly realistic Wild West playground to explore. Certainly as you move into Chapter 3 the vast scale of the world on offer really makes its presence, felt even if you’re focused on one corner of it.
One of the true highlights of the first game, and GTA V for that matter, was the random encounters and more specifically the “Strangers and Freaks”. These remain in this new game but apart from a few truly unexpected comedy moments they just don’t provide the substance of the previous games. The Stranger meetings have been less memorable and feel more like thinly described fetch quests. Then again the line between story missions and side quests is ever more blurred so you’re never really sure what needs to be done to progress the narrative (hint: story missions are marked in yellow on the world map).
Story wise the game owes a lot to GTA V. The Rockstar GTA pedigree is strongly felt in this one, possibly more so than the last RDR game. While you are not switching between gang members, playing the story out at Arthur Morgan, there’s still the focus on grand heists and bank robbing. Certainly makes sense given the old west outlaw backdrop. And indeed these major heist set piece missions were the real standouts of GTA V, and so they are here too.
I found the controls to be largely infuriating. I always found myself fumbling with them. The auto-aim rarely snapping to where you expect. Getting into cover, selecting weapons, every task seemed more fiddly, more cumbersome. And that’s without the pixel perfect character positioning needed to loot, pickup, eat, or examine items.
As a prequel the story is well crafted and told in a manor we’ve come to expect from Rockstar since the early days of GTA Vice City and San Andreas. It fits perfectly setting up John Marston’s story perfectly for the previous game. But the game overall just always manages to just miss the mark.