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- Red Dead Redemption 2
The very first scene in Red Dead Redemption 2 is an extended slog through the snow. And boy, it is a slog. Not just in the snow where you can see the horses and cowboys struggling to trudge through the blizzard, but through the cold and the mud that makes up all of the five-hour Red Dead Redemption 2 tutorial. And while this extended tutorial sets up the tone of the game, it is a failure within the game itself.
The pace of the opening feels at odds with the promise of the Wild West. You’re meant to be a cowboy, free to roam the great expanse, making money and mischief wherever you find yourself. Instead, you are shackled, tied to Dutch and his gang and the barren roads you travel down.
Not So Wild West
The game is by no means the first open-world game to tie its players up in the first act. From the claustrophobic halls of Vault 101 to the dreary cart ride to Helgen, Bethesda is famous for its frustrating beginnings, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is something else. The scale of the game is breathtaking, but it takes so long to open itself up.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s overlong tutorial painstakingly explains every detail of its many, many different mechanics. Each aspect of the game is slowly drawn out in the early missions, often coupled with extensive riding to and from your lessons. It is important for the player to understand how to interact with the game and its complex systems, but it goes to such lengths to explain itself that robs the player of the chance to discover anything for themselves.
Other open-world games offer different approaches to tutorials and are much more freeing because of it. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a lot of the same mechanics as Red Dead Redemption 2. You have to hunt, fight and survive, but the Breath of the Wild teaches you this organically. While you might be hampered at the top of the Great Plateau to begin with, you’re free to explore and experiment as you please. And even if you choose to follow the objectives exclusively, the journey is barely an hour long before you leave the plateau and the entire map is open to you.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey similarly gives the player a small playground to immediately explore. It might be a good couple hours before you get to the title card, but until then you never feel as trapped despite the varying level caps later in the game that rigidly dictate where you can and can’t fight. A lot of what Zelda and Odyssey has to offer isn’t even explained in the early stages but left for you to discover for yourself as you progress through the vast open worlds they have crafted.
But when it’s not just the meticulous lessons and exams that slow Red Dead Redemption 2‘s opening to a crawl, it’s the pace of it as well. Western films are iconic for their extremely slow pace, but emulating that in a video game makes it all feel like a chore. Riding might take take several minutes each way, but even between that and the tutorial lessons, the game’s objectives and mechanics are often tedious and unnecessary. It spreads itself too thin establishing its tone and mechanics when it should be trying to hook the player with a snappier pace. Rockstar seems a bit too confident that its pedigree will make players stick around despite the slow start, which shouldn’t be the case.
Fighting up the length of a train and back again is fun, and consistent with what someone expects from a cowboy game. However, walking back to the front of the train afterwards to start the engine again is a lot less engaging. Making sure to clean your clothes and horse is literally a chore. Much like the unnecessary flower picking cutscene in the original, these simulation-esque moments spoil the flow, which already feels stationary enough.
Games like Horizon Zero Dawn go out of their way to not do this. Early objectives are close together and traversing the map is much more engaging as well, given all the slick robotic dinosaurs. The objectives are trimmed down to the fun bits, and only ever interrupted to progress the story. Bloodborne goes even further by just drop kicking the player into Yharnam and then walking away laughing. Despite its complexity, none of the player agency is spent doing anything but exploring or killing. Red Dead Redemption 2 would benefit from less hand-holding like this or fewer tedious mechanics that require a lot of explaining.
There are a thousand ways to introduce an open-world game to the player, but Red Dead Redemption 2 struggles with each one. While by no means a bad game, the player’s first experience is needlessly bloated with tiresome explanations and pointless busywork. Like the blizzard at the beginning of the game, the weight of the countless mechanics drags the player to a halt. It forces them to trudge through the tutorials and the objectives slowly, like wading through heavy snow. Red Dead Redemption 2 might be a game of the year contender, but what makes it great is buried under hours of complexity and needlessly stubborn game design.