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Review: Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2’s evocative, often beautiful sense of place exists insofar as it is still convenient to the player, which harms some of the desperation and hardship the game means to convey.




Red Dead Redemption 2
Photo: Rockstar Games

The original Red Dead Redemption is a fascinating, instructive point in the evolution of video game publisher Rockstar Games. As Grand Theft Auto’s lampoon of American culture began to share space with more serious narrative aspirations and a desire for realism as great as—perhaps greater than—a desire for video game mayhem, here was a relatively straight-faced western. The story of John Marston was still visibly a Rockstar Games joint in both its concern with American decay and its detours into juvenile caricature, but it reiterated the company’s desire, demonstrated prominently in Grand Theft Auto IV, to be known as storytellers as much as provocateurs.

Red Dead Redemption 2, then, is the ambitious game Rockstar has been building toward for some time now, another relatively serious tale that gets tangled in its lofty aspirations. Marston is still around, but in this prequel he’s just another member of the ill-fated gang of the charismatic Dutch van der Linde. The protagonist this time around is Arthur Morgan, another stubbly white guy in a period-appropriate hat, albeit one of the few who seems aware that his way of life is approaching its end. The wide-open countryside gets less wide and open by the day, leaving fewer places to hide from the law and fewer places to be—as some of the characters bluntly put it—“free.”

The heart of Red Dead Redemption 2 is in the camp made by Dutch’s band of misfits, which shifts locations at different story points. This isn’t a small crew, encompassing as it does folks of different genders and ethnicities and ages who drag a few wagons’ worth of belongings behind them. Though traditional story missions come from the camp and other places like towns, these areas are most notable for the feeling of life they impart. Characters have chores and conversations and conflicts that go on independent of Arthur—and that might change to include him if he’s standing nearby.

Most significantly, Arthur can call out to and converse with any and all characters, whether they’re the named members of Dutch’s gang or townsfolk or strangers on the road. The dialogue is limited to only a few lines of being nice or being an asshole—or either escalating or defusing a situation if tempers run high—and there’s a palpable awkwardness to some of the exchanges, but they go quite a long way toward selling the all-important sense of place that the game is built on. Chatting with characters might reveal something about their anxieties or their interests, and the topic of conversation changes depending on what’s recently happened to these individuals. If, for example, two characters get into a fight and one storms off, you can hang back and say a few kind words—or further antagonize them.

Rockstar has taken the right lessons from the glut of open-world games they helped popularize, seeking to create a world that actually feels like a world rather than a collection of map icons you can choose to be guided to. There’s a focus on character and environment, a soft and refreshing restraint rather than a constant howl for your attention, that allows Red Dead Redemption 2 to stand shoulder to shoulder with the recent best of the format like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Assassin’s Creed Origins. Arthur has plenty of ways to spend his time, but none of those diversions are constantly flashing on the map screen to beckon him over. He’s not accosted by rival gangs at every corner, and the animals he can hunt don’t trot out in front of him all the time, ready to be killed and cooked. Events like duels, bar fights, and robberies play out whether he’s engaged with them or not.

Though there are upgrades for gear and characters stats, they don’t surface in the
usual way that provides you with the constant feedback of other games, where you watch bars fill and numbers climb and loot accumulate. More often than not, rewards are the experience of learning about the people and places of the game’s world. If Arthur gives a ride to characters stranded on the side of the road, they’ll tell him about themselves, maybe say something useful about the ranch over the hill. Red Dead Redemption 2’s activities and environments blend together with a seamlessness that chips away at the hard boundaries between story missions and traditional open-world diversions; various bounty targets or gunslingers come with their own stories, while a simple hunting trip with a companion might end up just as involved as a normal mission. At its best, the game is nothing short of transportive.

For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable.

Rockstar’s decision to cling to their antiquated movement design is especially baffling since the game isn’t shy about compromising its sense of authenticity for player convenience. As much as the game knows when to be quiet, to not drop you into one gunfight after another, Arthur noticeably arrives in the middle of each event for maximum irony and/or usefulness. The man on the road was just bitten by a snake, the train robbers have just finished unloading the passengers, and a rival gang has just opened the prison transport for their captured buddy. You rarely stumble into the aftermath of such events or arrive well before anything happens; it’s always around the height of the drama, which works against the idea of a world that appears not explicitly designed around the player. Elsewhere, you ostensibly have to monitor things like your hunger (and that of your horse), clothing relative to temperature, and the dirtiness for your guns, but these elements aren’t much more than periodic irritations rather than real commitments with an impact on play.

In other words, Red Dead Redemption 2’s evocative, often beautiful sense of place exists insofar as it is still convenient to the player, which harms some of the desperation and hardship the game means to convey. This is best demonstrated in the bounty system, which never manages to verbalize the game’s themes about hopelessness and the recognition that you have nowhere left to run. Though your camp moves around and you’ll be wanted dead or alive in one area for a large chunk of the campaign, it’s distressingly easy to shake any bounties you accumulate by simply paying them off, as in the previous game. While this made some amount of sense for lone-wolf John Marston, it’s downright nonsensical for Arthur, who’s part of a gang on the run and supposedly looking over his shoulder every step of the way.

Though there are some intriguing systems in place to avoid becoming wanted in the first place, like covering Arthur’s face or changing his appearance, once he has a bounty, it’s a simple matter of traveling to the nearest post office to pay the $80 fine for murdering 20 lawmen and then being on your merry way. Red Dead Redemption 2 never quite squares its themes with the need to give players an open-world cowboy fantasy. And outside cutscenes and conversation, most of those themes don’t seem to exist.

Which isn’t to say that the game is particularly adept at conveying those themes in cutscenes and conversations in the first place. For as much of a pleasure as it can be to get to know some of the characters who inhabit its world, Red Dead Redemption 2 is at its worst when it tries to self-consciously make important statements. The game feels reserved and content to let the world speak for itself as you roam the beautiful vistas on horseback, but when Arthur or other characters speak about the impending death of the Old West, about the end of their era, they often sound as if the game might at any moment cut to a documentary-style talking head. This might have been tolerable if Red Dead Redemption 2 had any particular insight into the challenges faced by the people in this region of the world. It does not.

The myth of society, the inherent cruelty of people, the hypocrisy of treating predatory capitalists as a more civilized class—every warmed-over western theme is presented here without an ounce of subtlety and conveyed in the broadest possible strokes. Questioning the myth of the western is, at this point, almost as old as the base mythologizing that the genre did for so long, which leaves nothing unique to the game’s genre introspection. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most ambitious game Rockstar has put out, in how it wants to be about something as much as the scope of its open world, but its aspirations don’t go much further than transplanting the themes of better westerns into an incredibly long video game, where you don’t ruminate on those themes so much as bump into them every once in a while on a mission.

This whole Western 101 approach unsurprisingly comes with a ham-fisted grasp of politics. A woman eventually puts on a pair of pants, one character explains white privilege and why the people in the “southern” end of the map look at him funny, another says that Native Americans were—in what is at least acknowledged as being grossly reductive—“treated poorly,” and everyone contemplates different kinds of prejudice. And for hours upon hours, none of this injustice is explored in any real detail.

These detours into attempted social consciousness suffer from a similarly ridiculous into-the-camera bluntness before they’re pushed to the fringes of the larger story. It often feels as if Red Dead Redemption 2 is merely parroting what’s expected to be said when portraying such things, to show that the game at least recognizes what it’s portraying, so that it may sufficiently get away with rendering a town where the black folks live on the outskirts or having one character accuse another of fucking slaves.

Prejudice is chiefly a period-appropriate flavor, a patronizing tourism meant most of all to inform the myth of the white outlaw in a hypocritical society. People of color, particularly indigenous characters, are props to underscore the villainy or the comparative righteousness of white male characters. At one point, Arthur makes a laughable statement to some Native American characters that goes something like, “The government don’t like me any more than they like you, and like you, my time here is nearly finished.” After all, if the white outlaw can no longer be free, then who truly is?

What the game’s acknowledgement of these struggles does most of all, though, is make Arthur and his problems feel small by comparison. He’s not a terrible character. In fact, there’s a certain charm to his exasperation with everything, and it’s interesting how he’s resigned about who he is as someone who’s not made for any other line of work. But he’s weaker for being in the vicinity of a player-character blank slate, whose outfits, facial hair, and haircut may be changed. He seems written mainly as a snarky mouthpiece for the game’s well-worn themes, as if they aren’t explicitly conveyed elsewhere. Like Red Dead Redemption 2 itself, he looks the part and can even be enjoyable, but there’s distressingly little going on beneath the surface. For as adept as Rockstar is at placing you within a wonderful, lavish world and letting you move within it, they’re still figuring out how to say all that much about it.

Developer: Rockstar Games Publisher: Rockstar Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 26, 2018 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol Buy: Game



Review: Metro: Exodus’s Evocative Open World Starves for Nuance

The game ultimately seems less interested in the process of how humanity breaks down than its grisly end results.




Metro: Exodus
Photo: 4A Games

Previous Metro games found texture through their limited scope. As seen through the eyes of Russian soldier Artyom, people in the subway tunnels beneath an irradiated Moscow cobbled society back together from the ruins of the old world while dealing with mutants, sickness, and rival factions built on all-too-familiar forms of extremism. 4A Games’s epic Metro: Exodus expands the series beyond those familiar claustrophobic tunnels, placing Artyom’s gaze firmly on the horizon as he and his companions journey across Russia by train, searching for a new home free from the ravages of humanity.

Appropriately, the game’s metaphor for its expanded world is to make parts of it literally open for the player. Artyom is now free to roam wide-open spaces—to peek into desolate houses for abandoned supplies and scout points of interest from a distance. All around you, mutants search for food, and bandits survey the wasteland from within ramshackle fortifications. The game is still driven by story segments, many of which fall back on the Metro series’s familiar brand of desperate survival horror; players creep around in the dark to conserve resources before a firefight breaks out or before massive spiders skitter through the rays of a draining flashlight. Other segments, though, take advantage of the world’s openness by providing multiple routes to do things like infiltrate a train yard, one of which might bypass a cluster of zombie-like humanoids entirely or drop Artyom right into their toxic nest.

The series is, as always, evocative in its atmosphere and the interactions it affords the player, such as allowing you to wipe the condensation off your gas mask with a press of a button. And Exodus’s open areas only enhance this specific sense of place. They even carry the occasional emergent thrill, like stranding you in a rowboat while a winged demon dives from overhead, forcing you to paddle to safety on land and take refuge in what turns out to be a populated bandit camp with a towering mutant shrimp in pursuit. But Exodus struggles to incentivize exploration of its world. You grow accustomed to the rusted, landlocked boats and the anonymous houses that dot the landscape and contain, if you’re lucky, an audio diary or a new attachment for the game’s robust weapon customization system. Most of the time, though, you’ll just find the same crafting materials when you explore the wasteland.

Unlike many crafting systems, Exodus’s never has you create anything new so much as replace what you’ve used up: things like bullets, gas mask filters, and medkits consumed either in missions or, paradoxically, in the very act of scavenging materials. When playing with some measure of stealth (which the game encourages) and keeping an eye out for materials on the way to (as well as during) missions, you’ll rarely struggle with the resource scarcity that might actually require a risky journey out into the world. Exodus is most successful elsewhere, in one forested area that provides an open-ended approach to a fixed destination. Its environments and encounters are more authored than the bland open world, and its scavenging is purposeful because it’s the only way to prepare for the encounters ahead.

The game’s open world feels like little more than overly elaborate wrapper for an underwhelming story that loses much of its drama to an awkwardly silent protagonist. Though Artyom narrates loading screens, he expresses himself in-game primarily by waving his hands around, as if miming because no one can hear him under a gas mask. His wife and his other companions refer to character traits we never see, alleged goals and ambitions conspicuously jammed into lengthy dialogue sequences. He’s supposed to be a dreamer. For one, the idea of a world beyond the metro is Artyom’s, yet none of that passion or hope ever comes through.

Not that the game thinks much of those apparent hopes, of course. The series’s typically dim view of humanity is on full display for much of Exodus’s length, as Artyom and his companions encounter terrible new societies birthed in distant parts of Russia. The game depicts people as easily subjugated when society breaks down, clinging to whatever is offered to them. Despots prey on desperation and fear, offering hope through perversions of community, religion, or protection. Violent forces upend what seem to be safe havens.

Exodus’s sweeping critique of humanity is practically nuance-free. Here, dissent among followers is rare, cultists are unquestioning fanatics, and cannibals screech “MEAT!” and jot the word down in unintentionally hilarious diary pages. Even slaves uniformly cower before their masters, weeping and begging for sympathy. Despite introducing an open world, the game is very much a forward journey, barely spending enough time in one place to inject any complexity to its exploration of how society claws its way back from the brink. You’ll hear the leaders of each group speak but seldom the people who follow them. They have no more voice than Artyom, no more interiority. Just as Artyom is essentially an anonymous pair of floating hands, the people that his party encounters often represent little more than simplistic avatars of a post-apocalyptic society gone mad. Exodus ultimately seems less interested in the process of how humanity breaks down than its grisly end results.

Developer: 4A Games Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PS4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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Review: Kingdom Hearts III Is a Pedestrian Trip Down Memory Lane

The little that’s good here isn’t enough for one to shake off the faulty nature of the game’s narrative and thematic machinery.




Kingdom Hearts III
Photo: Square Enix

The Kingdom Hearts series takes a simple fan wish-fulfilling premise—an action adventure featuring popular Disney characters who become friends with your hero—and complicates it with an unnecessarily dense and largely incoherent backstory concerning multiple generations of protagonists, a time-traveling puppetmaster, and an organization of possessed bodies in ornate trench coats. Despite more than 13 years having passed between the last numbered sequel in the series and its current installment, little has changed when it comes to the Kingdom Hearts formula. Savant Sora returns with his casually abusive pals Donald Duck and Goofy to journey through the worlds of various Disney feature films, all leading to an ultimate confrontation with the evil-or-not Xehanort.

In terms of gameplay mechanics and level design, Kingdom Hearts III has evolved so little since its forebearers that it feels less like a product of its time than it does a PlayStation 2 remaster. Each level consists of blocky open areas that your mostly pushed through in linear fashion, though the characters occasionally stop to fight enemies in arena battles before proceeding onward. The combat has been reworked (here it’s mostly the same as that of Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage), but the clunky, chaotic, seemingly unending battles favor endless button-mashing over precision. Nearly every skirmish is a mess of hard-to-follow on-screen activity, with dozens of same-y foes and effects flying in your face. Perversely, though, Kingdom Hearts III seems to be aware that its gameplay is a chore, allowing most combat sequences to be avoided by simply running past them.

The game is notable for the inclusion of levels inspired by recent Pixar and other Disney 3D films, but almost none take advantage of their source material in any meaningful way. The levels inspired by Frozen and no one’s favorite Disney outing, Tangled, serve up nothing but unvaried landscapes and gameplay. Worse, when Kingdom Hearts III specially references notable sequences from these films, such as Elsa’s showstopping “Let It Go,” the game does so with clumsy, overlong cutscenes, leaving us to imagine what it might have been like to actually take part in the action—to, say, have been invited to control Sora and interact with the ice castle as Elsa creates it from the ground up. Which is unfortunate, since that invitation to engage with Disney’s film art was one that was gladly extended to the player by Kingdom Heats II, most memorably in its inventive black-and-white world of “Timeless River” (based on Walt’s classic Steamboat Willy) and the Tron-themed “Space Paranoids,” which was set inside a server where the protagonists fight programs and compete in Light Cycle battles.

It’s only late into Kingdom Hearts III’s campaign, around the time that the worlds of “Keyblade Graveyard” and “Final World” are introduced, that the game begins to take its action in interesting directions, and just ahead of tying a bow on the overarching story. Here, Kingdom Hearts III somewhat successfully merges disparate, convoluted plot points from the entire series into an almost comprehensible whole, though that’s not enough for us to shake off the depressingly faulty nature of the game’s narrative and thematic machinery.

Consider the frustrating treatment of love interest and series favorite Kairi, who’s damselled as part of a disappointing trend of rendering Kingdom Hearts’s female characters helpless. Worse, protagonist Sora is an idiot in the Monkey D. Luffy mold: childish, stupid, and largely useless if not for him being an all-powerful “chosen one,” and not for any narratively or thematically justifiable reason. (The game seems aware of his generally pathetic nature, based on how often other characters insult and degrade him.) Sora is the embodiment of a participation trophy. Not that the others in this Calvinball soap opera hold much value either, as they speak entirely in empty platitudes and meaningless catchphrases, frequently distilling any narrative action down to the clumsiest metaphors about the power of friendship.

This is ultimately the biggest failing of Kingdom Hearts III, a game pitched as the finale to a series so many have grown up with but one that hasn’t matured with its audience or video games as a medium. It pretends to have something consequential to say in its bombastic conclusion but delivers only the most childish of dogmas. To the very end, the game’s subtext-free lore remains intentionally impenetrable, if for no other reason than to give the impression of actual depth. At the same time, Kingdom Hearts is in total adoration of itself as a concept—a brand and a commodity to sell. Kingdom Hearts III literally begins with two trailers for itself, a title card, then another trailer for itself and another title card, followed by another title card as a self-referential jab at the nonsense naming conventions of the series (“KINGDOM HEARTS II.9”) and finally a fourth title card two hours later. (It’s worth noting that these trailers feature much more stylistic and interesting combat sequences than anything you’ll stumble upon in the game proper.) Kingdom Hearts III offers a rote experience that rarely rises above mediocrity, failing to deliver on the promise of its lengthy campaign or as a meaningful conclusion to the dozens of games in the series that have preceded it.

The game was reviewed using a retail Xbox One copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Square Enix Business Division 3 Publisher: Square Enix Platform: Xbox One Release Date: January 29, 2019 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Resident Evil 2 Brilliantly Crafts an Atmosphere of Tension

The game assures that the malicious ideas that guided Resident Evil 7 may become the governing principles of the series moving forward.




Resident Evil 2
Photo: Capcom

It’s evident almost from the start of the Resident Evil 2 remake that whatever creative spirit guided the masterstroke of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard continues to grip the developers at Capcom. This remake more than just puts a moody coat of paint over the original game; it’s an assurance that the maliciously novel ideas that guided Resident Evil 7 may very well become the governing principles of the series moving forward.

All that really remains here of the Resident Evil 2 that was released way back in 1998 is the general setup and story beats. A few months after the events that occurred at the Spencer Mansion in the first Resident Evil, the infamous zombie-making t-Virus has spread to the general population, laying siege to Raccoon City, right as rookie cop Leon Kennedy shows up for his first day on the job and college student Claire Redfield arrives on the scene looking for her brother, series protagonist Chris Redfield. The two of them link up, and end up taking refuge in the same place: the Raccoon City Police Department, a converted art museum hiding more than just a few fancy paintings or sculptures in its basement and attic.

Regardless of whether you play as Claire or Leon, you start the game with a pistol, a few bullets you have to make count, and one vague goal that lies in a part of the police station with no power—just a whole lot of splattered blood and grotesquely detailed dead bodies. You then meet your first zombies, and they’re still of the shambling, George Romero variety, which works in your favor since it’s relatively easy, given enough space, to stay out of their range. The upshot is that these ghoulies are frighteningly resilient. Unless you’re lucky enough to land a critical hit where the head explodes, your average undead Joe will have to take three or four point-blank shots to the dome before it even staggers back.

Unlike previous games in the series, slipping into another room just means you have about five seconds before whatever’s chasing you breaks down the door. There’s never any guarantee in Resident Evil 2 that a downed zombie won’t get right back up, which makes even stepping around corpses on the ground a potential gruesome death waiting to happen. Your characters’ recycled voice lines—stating shock and surprise about the zombies not staying down—can get monotonous over time, but, really, it’s not like Claire or Leon’s disbelief is unwarranted.

Resident Evil 2 builds hours upon hours of nerve-wracking tension on the realization that guns, grenades, and ammo aren’t only scarce, but having them isn’t going to guarantee your security. In the end, you’re better served by hiding from your enemies, running from them, and using your immediate environment to impede them. Going for the kill each and every time is more likely to end with you firing an empty gun at the worst moment imaginable. The elaborate design of the hallways gives the designers leeway to hide all sorts of bloody horrors where you least expect them. Later, the blind Lickers suddenly transform Resident Evil 2 into A Quiet Place: The Video Game, as you attempt to control how much sound your footsteps make around them, hopefully avoiding their erratic attack patterns altogether.

Eventually, the player will also have to contend with Mr. X, who represents all of the game’s ubiquitous dangers wrapped into one massive, trench coat-wearing behemoth, and is easily the most unrelenting and terrifying video game monster since Alien Isolation’s preternaturally vicious Xenomorph. Even before Mr. X shows up, virtually every step you take involves some measure of risk assessment, from waiting for visual confirmation, to availing yourself of the game’s incredibly expansive and nuanced soundscape, to learning to fully utilize the game’s impressively informative map and your own carefully curated inventory.

Particularly agonizing is how the game has you figure out how to act through clues in the soundscape. If you want to stay alive, you’ll have to determine which direction the ever-stomping Mr. X is moving in, and how many rooms away he is. Elsewhere, you learn how to discern the distinct growls of nearby Lickers within the din, and whether or not these baddies even sense your presence for one reason or another. A small mercy is how carpets can silence your own footsteps, as is learning where and how you should fire your guns.

This would all be for naught if the game didn’t also deliver on reasons to press on beyond your own survival, but Resident Evil 2 is able to take the 1998 game’s premise and imbue it with some surprising and engaging storytelling. Claire’s innate concern for an Umbrella scientist’s little girl blossoms into an effective little running thread about a broken family. Leon’s own tale of survival mutates into a horror-infused conspiracy thriller. Much of the first half of the game is spent watching a wounded cop’s health deteriorate into nothing, and the way that thread culminates at the worst possible moment is perfectly organic in its plotting.

Had Capcom given into fans back in 2002 and remade Resident Evil 2 immediately on the heels of the GameCube remake of the first title, we’d have gotten a game that was undoubtedly pretty but still held fast to all of the series’s safest and unimaginative tendencies. Instead, this remake we’ve just been handed is something altogether fearless and perpetually full of surprises—a near-immaculate piece of survival horror willing to always put pressure on the player. Resident Evil 2 forces you to use all of your cunning and caution to figure out how best to handle its cavalcade of horrors, even as it never puts you at ease that all your bravery, all your weaponry, will ever be enough to take down what’s waiting for you in the dark. And how it sustains that tension allows it to surpass even the triumph of Resident Evil 7.

The game was reviewed using a retail PS4 copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: January 25, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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