Open world games are all but defined by their potential for chaos. After all, it was for them that the term “sandbox mischief” was coined. But with their celebrated and illusory “freedom of choice” comes a caveat: sometimes there’s just too much to do. It’s a pattern we’ve seen play out recently (Assassin’s Creed Odyssey comes to mind) and even in games not defined as open world.
As I’ve discussed in other articles, the player response to the first several hours in any open world game can best be described as tentative. It’s a trial period of testing their surroundings while adjusting to new mechanics, control schemes and environment factors that will require a conditioned response over time. As such, it requires a bit of structured limitation to offer incremental acclimation, so the player is not overwhelmed.
As far as that goes, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a bit of a disaster. From its opening moments it seems to both depend upon and expect a certain level of foreknowledge on the part of the player. And while this is somewhat of a reasonable expectation given that the game is a sequel, it’s also contradictory and conflicting if you consider the general goal of any series is to sell more copies with each installment (and it has, after all, been eight years since the last game). If you haven’t been keeping up with Red Dead, the story and gameplay (despite any heavy familiarity with Rockstar’s other IPs like Grand Theft Auto and LA Noire) will not be as familiar to you as the designers seem to expect them to be.
I didn’t get the initial impression that this would be the case, at least in terms of gameplay. After getting past the sluggish (but admittedly more suitably paced) opener, during which the gang waits out a harsh winter in the mountains, I felt all but airdropped into chaos. Arriving at the camp comes with an overwhelming info dump that comes not incrementally or linearly but all at once, leaving you unsure of what to do next. Many basics of the game are not adequately reinforced, making the actual gameplay itself an awkward scramble when you actually decide to venture beyond the camp. While the mission delivery structure is refreshingly spontaneous, it’s also very easy to wander into a new task without realizing it, and without a clear idea of how optional that mission is.
One major negative to this approach is that it hinders enjoyment of the game, in that no matter what you do, you feel as though you’re supposed to be doing something more important. You can barely figure out one part of the game before, by design, you’re already caught up stumbling into other missions or tasks. That it’s not easy to remember or find the mission log does not help.
Some would write this off as normal growing pains, and that’s fair, but I still feel as though I was dumped into the game without a lot of preparation. And while chaos is an element that all but supports the frontier theme of Red Dead Redemption 2, it still makes paying attention to the most integral parts of the game extremely difficult. Even as I put more hours into the game and my newfound instincts take over, I’m still struggling to focus and stay on task. There’s almost too much to do, and not enough warm-up time (and given the labor issues surrounding the game’s creation, a reduction in scope and scale would have been prudent for more reasons than one).
There are aspects of Red Dead Redemption 2 that I like, but I wish I could take them at my own pace without feeling pulled in 15 conflicting directions. It’s like juggling: if you want me to handle multiple items at once, they need to be added one at a time. I’m sure I’ll get my bearings soon but until then my west is still a little too wild.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.