SPOILER WARNING. I MEAN IT.
I liked Red Dead Redemption. I want to throw that out there first, since a lot of what I'm about to say will probably make it seem as if I didn't like it. This is the first game in the Rockstar open-world family that I've been motivated to finish, mainly because of both the engrossing recreation of the (admittedly fictional) Old West and the character of John Marston. In the Grand Theft Auto games I've always succumbed to the desire to simply look up the cheat codes and wreak havoc on an unsuspecting city, as neither the character I was playing nor the city itself were interesting enough for me to want to explore them beyond causing mayhem.
Red Dead Redemption was different. I found more in the game universe than targets to blow up and John Marston is a big step up from the usual Grand Theft Auto-style sociopath. However, like Grand Theft Auto, the game gets overly repetitive in a lot of ways and contains its fair share of head-scratching design elements. While I'm well aware of the technical blemishes like clunky shooting or confusing horse riding, the game's greatest flaw is its pacing. This one aspect was enough to keep Red Dead Redemption out of the echelon of great games, and it's something that a lot of games get wrong.
The game begins with John approaching the hideout of Bill Williamson, one of the gang members John is hunting. As we progress through the beginning missions, John's history with Bill is revealed to a certain extent. He talks about their old gang days, but dodges questions about why he is now trying to track Bill down. The journey twists and turns as we must get help from a lot of varied and interesting characters, most of which bounce off John extremely well. Indeed, one of the biggest things that separates Red Dead Redemption from Grand Theft Auto is the fact that I actually liked some of the people that were giving me missions. Everything builds up to the climax at Bill's hideout, which the game does a great job of setting up.
Problem is, it wasn't the climax.
Bill somehow escapes to Mexico, and this is where the game is nearly ruined. While the drop in quality of the NPCs is a big factor, what really stuck out was that the focus becomes less on the conflict between John and his former gang and more about a Mexican civil war. On top of that, we're now focusing on a second gang member, Javier, who wasn't even mentioned in the first act and we don't know anything about. John talks about him here and there, but nothing ever comes close to the kind of pre-confrontation development we saw in the opening scene with Bill.
And after the Mexico portion is finally over, we're asked to go after the gang's old leader, Dutch. Let's stop here for a second. John is being forced to hunt down his old buddies in order to save his family, and the three pillars of that task are Bill, Javier, and Dutch. Bill is hugely important in the first act, but he almost completely disappears in the second. Javier is thrown in haphazardly and there's never really a connection with him. Dutch is a great adversary because of his history with John, but he is barely mentioned until the the last third of the game. I think things would have been a lot more focused and paced if the task of hunting down all three of them and not just Bill was made more clear at or close to the beginning.
Bill, Javier, and Dutch represent three "bosses" in a sense. Not that there are specific drawn out battles with them (nor should there be), but that they represent points of accomplishment to the player. Since the existence of two of them isn't even acknowledged until fairly late in the game, the narrative feel very meandering. I think some of that is intentional, as shrouding John's past in mystery is central to his "Man With no Name" persona that is so prevalent with the Western genre. And while keeping the player in the dark on a lot of things is important, a simple acknowledgment of the "I need to get these three guys" goal would have done wonders for keeping the narrative more focused.
Picture this. At the beginning, John mentions the three men he must find and not just Bill, who subsequently dies at Fort Mercer at the end of the first act. Instead of the sloppy focus on the civil war in the Mexico portion, we can see more of Javier, the contrast between him and Bill, and what it means in relation to John's past. Javier's defeat sets up the wonderful third act and the pursuit of Dutch. Everything from that point on can stay the same. That's a much clearer progression, and we don't have to deal with the civil war crap.
That's how I'd have handled it anyway. It's no secret that I love my boss battles, so even a set of bosses in spirit is appealing to me. Pacing Red Dead Redemption around some of these spiritual bosses would've alleviated a lot of the slowness and made the game more enjoyable overall.
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