Red Dead Redemption 2: We need to talk about Breath of the Wild
Without question, Read Dead Redemption 2 is a breathtaking achievement, peerless in the technical realization of an open game-world. But is it fun? That's a more contentious point. To be sure, the vast majority of critics will tell you it is. RDR2 stands atop the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 all-time best game lists with only Grand Theft Auto V for company – which, also coming from Rockstar Games is surely no coincidence.
But there are dissenting voices, the gamers of Metacritic among them, who say this is more a simulator than slice of entertainment; that playing feels like a chore. Let's listen to those voices for a moment – and compare RDR2 with another bold take on open world gaming, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Why compare one game to another? Chalk and cheese; apes and orang-utans. It's a redundant exercise, no? I'd agree, were it not for this fact: the critics heaping praise on RDR2 tend to fall over themselves pointing out what a bold departure this is from Ubisoft's take on open world game design. Much of the justification for RDR2's praise is couched in comparison to other games, so it feels valid to offer a counter-comparison. You know – for balance.
Because though a departure it may be, RDR2's boldness arguably pales when compared to other games from the Rockstar stable, or more-so Breath of the Wild, which, I argue is – subjective opinion alert – the better game.
Let's dig into those Ubisoft comparisons for a moment. By Ubisoft, we're really talking about the Assassin's Creed series and the series which have drawn heavily from it: Watch Dogs and Far Cry. What does that mean? It means a great big open gaming environment which steadily yields its secrets as players climb a whacking-great tower to unveil other areas of the map. Climb a tower and the map of the nearby area will be suddenly be littered with mini-tasks to do and doodads to collect to offer some variety to and respite from the main storyline. Run around from task to task and doodad to doodad for that drip-drip dopamine hit of continual achievement – or the illusion of it.
The problem is we've been playing games like this for years and it's starting to wear thin. There's even a name for that feeling: open-world fatigue. RDR2 has been welcomed with open arms for putting aside those cheap tricks – and introduced innovative new sources of fatigue of its very own.
Zelda, by contrast, also threw out the Ubisoft playbook while putting together what is, almost objectively, an undisputedly fun game. Alright, so Zelda also does the tower thing – but these offer a genuine vantage point from where to scout out a handful of meaningful things to do. It doesn't dump a to-do list of feathers to collect, letters to deliver and socks to darn. RDR2 may not dump its busywork onto a map, but it's not short of it by any means: tidy your camp, brush your horse and ride around the admittedly beautiful landscapes for endless hours. At least you can usually hide that shit on a map.
RDR2 does lean on that Assassin's Creed approach to storytelling, having a named player character with a narrative impossible to deviate from. That's fine. Personally I'd rather walk my own path in a game like Skyrim, but I enjoy narrative-led games too so long as that narrative doesn't impede the fun. Though Zelda's Link has a face and a name, you're still free to play your own way, do what you want to do and tackle the big quests in any order you choose – or not at all. In RDR2, my Arthur Morgan may make some different moral choices to your Arthur Morgan – but they're going to wind up in exactly the same place. So yay – RDR2 doesn't do things like Assassin's Creed … except when it does.
RDR2 arguably lays on its narrative more thickly than an Assassin's Creed game. I'm not sure what's more frustrating: RDR2's rather viscous-feeling shooting segments, or wrestling with these controls while the predictable Rockstar trope of characters shouting at each other plays out over the top. RDR2, like all Rockstar titles, is a game that wants to be a film. Zelda by contrast is content to be a game – one of the best ever made.
And don't start me on horses. (Okay, do.) RDR2, presumably in a "bold departure" from Ubisoft, has lifted the approach to horse-whispering more or less straight from Breath of the Wild. But Nintendo has put a tremendous amount of thought into the mechanics of stabling and summoning horses, resurrecting dead ones and how all of that ties into fast travel. It came up with a series of features that work for rather than against the player. Contrast this with RDR2's tedious horse-maintenance and crippled fast travel. Player-friendly they ain't.
This isn't a RDR2 review. And really, it's not a comparison of RDR2 and Breath of the Wild. It's a plea to appraise games based on what they are rather than what they're not. I may not find a lot of fun in RDR2 but clearly I'm in the minority. So I wouldn't argue for a moment that Rockstar hasn't produced a stellar game. In my case it just happens to be one that makes me wish I was playing Zelda instead. For all RDR2's achievements, being unlike a Ubisoft game isn't really one of them. RDR2 departs from Assassin's Creed in many of the ways Zelda does. But how good a game is it in its own right? That's the question.