This game is big, really big, and beautiful with detailing that is unrivaled by any other game today. But it seems to also have a bit of an identity crisis. I’m over twenty hours in and around 30% done with the main story. It’s too early for a full review and verdict, but we’re gonna saddle up anyway for some first impressions. But hold your horses and calm down, this ride is spoiler free.

The first thing I did was look under every menu for some difficulty settings, sadly I didn’t find any and that’s disappointing. This is one of the biggest games to release in years and will no doubt have a record-breaking amount of people playing it. People with a variety of skill levels and who garner different amounts of enjoyment from different levels of challenge. It seems somewhat short-sighted for a game this big to make that choice for such a large amount of people.

The second thing I did after the first gunfight was disabled the awful lock-on system that thankfully can be toggled off. Think of it as aim assist on steroids where a single button press literally aims for you, its archaic design from a time before console controllers had two analog sticks but have been in every Rockstar game to date. Anyone who plays an even occasional video game won’t need it and I highly recommend you disable it.

Its cause for concern that it’s enabled by default because its likely that Red Dead Redemption 2s online component coming in November will have it too. In GTA it segregated lock on users and non-users into different lobby’s but its a shame to need to split the community in such a way over such a hand holding feature. But that’s a discussion for another time, next month.

The next thing I did was pick up my jaw up off the floor for the sheer amount of details in this game. It is by far the most detailed, atmospheric and immersive game that exists today and that will probably exist in the near future. The story, writing, and voice acting have been excellent so far and the world truly feels real and alive. A task open world games have claimed and failed at over and over again.

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The animations, lighting, and sound are superb. The way the towns look and feel is astoundingly realistic. The games inhabitants move and act as if you are a nobody like them, instead of the main character in a form of media. They go about their business regardless if you are there to witness what they are doing or not. Your only indication will be the faint sounds of their conversation and actions drowned out in the rest of the towns day to day life.

This amount of immersion combined with the nitty-gritty details of the world itself and the realistic systems in the game makes you feel like you are Arthur Morgan. Not just playing him or watching him and its a pretty incredible feeling. It’s the only game where I’ve ever felt the need to actually walk, not run all the time simply because it feels out of place when you do. You feel out of place as opposed to the NPCs when you do.

This works well because the game is slow paced, animations and actions have a sense of weight to them and the game has no problem forcing you to take your time. If you go running through town the NPC’s react to that negatively and bursting through doors irritates the patrons inside.

Skinning an animal has a lengthy animation and you won’t be stuffing ten deer in your pack for later, you will be tossing its corpse on your horse and hoofing it into town to sell it because you can’t fit a second one. You won’t be carrying an arsenal on your person. You store excess equipment on your trusty steed and choosing what to take with you when you need it. Your guns reload at realistic speeds and if you want to hang out in camp, you will be walking not sprinting around.

In any other game, it would be annoying and tedious. In Red Dead, it adds to the games immersion and atmosphere and just feels right, though I do fear what it means for second playthroughs. Nearly every mission has you spending a slow walk or ride with your fellow gang members for tons of dialogue and exposition and the first time you’re enthralled by the world and its characters, however, I see it being painful if you ever want to play through again.

The gunplay feels solid and the slow motion dead eye mode makes a return. The guns feel impactful and gun fighting is an entertaining if not as revolutionary as the rest of the game. The melee combat, however, is simplistic to the point of silliness. Its two buttons, one to punch (or stab if you pull a knife) and block…that’s it. The game had the potential to have crazy barroom brawls but the melee combat wears out its welcome literally after the first fist fight, thankfully it’s not something that comes up often.

The combat, however, has been easy despite the fact I disabled the lock on system, you seem to be able to take an incredible of amount damage without dying. The dead eye system that allows you to tag then automatically shoot tagged enemies has made it incredibly easy so far. You have a wide array of weapons and add-ons to use, throwables such as dynamite and poison knives with a stealth system. But it all feels very redundant as the enemies seem to go down in a shot or two regardless of what weapon you are using.

Along with the games slower pace you have a number of survival like systems that adds to the gameplay and immersion. Both you and your horse need to eat and rest to keep your health and energy meters full. Guns need to be maintained with oil, fast travel is limited to trains, coaches and one-way trips from an upgrade you obtain. You need to bathe or wash up in a river if you get to dirty or people will react to it. It’s not quite to the level of full survival games, but it works well for what it does.

As I mentioned at the start of this post I feel like the game has an identity crisis. Its attention to detail is incredible, its storytelling is fantastic and its atmosphere is immersive. Yet I’ve found myself struggling to find things to do outside of the main and side missions to make money.  The main difference between the open world and linear games tends to be player agency and choice. The open world gameplay is sacrificed in some areas to give you the ability to do what you what, how you want when you want, so you can live within the world.

As I said earlier you feel like you are Arthur Morgan and this remains true during main and side missions. But the moment you want to be an outlaw on your own that feeling dies a little. The game loves to take its time but pushes you toward the missions and almost feels like its punishing you for being playing outside of them.

Anytime I look to make some cash outside of missions I come up empty-handed. When I do find something, my hands seemed to be tied on how I do it. I figured bounty hunting would be one of those replayable money-making activities, but it appears to be set in stone side quests of which there is a limited amount of. I’ve only found two so far.

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In the help menu, I read that you can rob homesteads so I found a big fancy house, waited until night, knocked out a fella nearby and found I couldn’t even enter the house. Nearly ten hours later I got a mission that unlocked homesteads when I completed it, they are certain specific set pieces you can rob. You can’t just loot any old house as I had tried.

Stealing horses seems to net you only a dollar or two where each main mission nets you over a hundred. Its possible the horses I’ve brought back have simply been terrible, but for that amount, it’s not worth the effort.

Where the game works best is when the open world is stripped away from you and this would have worked fine as a semi-linear game. But it tosses you into this huge and detailed world begging to be explored with little do inside it aside from the occasional citizen in need or bandit ambush.

When you do find an activity, you will find that your hands are pretty tied in how to do it. The game has an honor system which I appreciate, I’ve never enjoyed being the bad guys in GTA so I like being able to be a *good* bad guy here. But aside from hunting and fishing, every other activity is that of an outlaw, robbing people and stealing things.

So as I attempted to rob a bank that had a lawman inside I tried to find alternative entrance’s and came up empty-handed, I tried to lure him away and failed, so finally I knocked him out…and lost an honor anyway since he was *innocent*. Yet you can gun down hundreds of lawmen in the main mission without losing anything.

So plan B, I tried a nearby store instead and couldn’t find a way to do it without alerting the law the instant I robbed them leading to a giant shootout. No sneaking in at night, or at least I haven’t found a way.

The honor system says it wants you to play the Arthur Morgan you want to be, but the game says if you want to do anything fun outside of the missions, you have to be a bad guy.

Its biggest identity crisis is what kind of audience it wants to cater to. On one hand, casual gamers aren’t going to want to deal with the slow animations, slow-paced hunting, gun maintenance, bathing, horse bonding, and permadeath or slowly doing chores around the camp such as carrying haybales to earn honor and the goodwill of your fellow gang members.

But the game’s combat is incredibly easy and non-threatening even with the auto lock off so that it clearly doesn’t want to intimidate the casual crowd away from it (Something that difficulty settings nip in the bud and why every game should have them as a rule of thumb)

That said I am enjoying my time in the wild west and I have a daunting amount left of it to see. Some of my current complaints may well get buried by the time I reach the end, or some new ones might kick open the saloon doors and cowboy up. We shall see. For now, I’m climbing back on my horse and riding back into town.

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