It’s been 4 months since the launch of Rockstar Games’ latest title, Red Dead Redemption 2. As is the norm for the studio, Red Dead Redemption 2 was met with critical acclaim, receiving endless 10/10 scores (including a 10/10 review from us here at n3rdabl3). This reception was matched by immense commercial success, with many reports having the Wild West simulator atop their annual best-seller list.
Undeniably, the game was, and continues to be, utterly brilliant. A masterclass in world design, character writing and quality presentation, resulting in arguably the most immersive experience in all of gaming.
However, now that the honeymoon period for both the single player and online modes has ended, the game is not as immune to criticism as first thought. Most notably, players identified a strange disconnect between the open world exploration and mission-based sections of the game, as well as archaic shooting mechanics, which break the sense of realism the game had worked so hard to create through some frankly ridiculous aim assist.
That these complaints only started to arise after 100 plus hour experiences with the game is a testament to just what Rockstar have created. Simply put, there isn’t much room for improvement in a title already three times larger than most big-name releases.
Regardless, it’s always fun to speculate on what can be the next steps within Rockstar‘s following open-world venture, whatever it may be. The heaviest rumors are surrounding a long-awaited sequel to 2006’s Bully, but of course, we can expect the development of some form to have begun on the next installment of the insanely popular Grand Theft Auto series, be it next-gen or otherwise. Just what, if anything, does the developer need to do to grow its empire?
First of all, the quality of the writing has to be maintained. The jump in standards between GTA 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2 is so staggering, it almost makes you wonder how we deemed the former acceptable. At the time, GTA 5 was praised for its social commentary and satirical take on the genre it inhabited, but in a post-Red Dead Redemption 2 world, this seems like the easy option.
The cowboy romp ran in pretty much the direct opposite direction, crafting a genuinely interesting narrative which operated around a core cast of characters the player genuinely cared about. This is no mean feat since the van der Linde Gang featured a solid 20 members, almost all of which were memorable enough for their names to stick in your head all these months later. Anchoring the group are Rockstar‘s 3 most well-realized protagonists ever; Dutch van der Linde, John Marston and of course, Arthur Morgan.
No matter what direction the studio takes, this level of personal investment in the story must remain. Of course, different narratives are required for different environments; not every tale can be as melodramatic as morally ambiguous outlaws during the fall of the Wild West. But nevertheless, the bar has been raised, I don’t think anyone will accept going back to shallow stereotypes now we have seen Rockstar produce these fully formed, realized characters.
I’m not expecting Rockstar to completely reinvent the wheel regarding their approach to integrating missions within their game world, it works for them and is a major factor in their success. NakeyJakey made a fantastic YouTube video on the topic, which you can check out here, drawing the comparison between a big box of free build LEGO’s being the open world, and pre-determined LEGO sets representing the missions Rockstar present to you in order to progress the story. The first leads to more player experimentation and unique personal experiences, whereas the other can produce a more focused and polished challenge. There is nothing wrong with either format (see titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Portal 2 for outstanding respective examples), but attempting to blend the two leads to a certain awkwardness that is hard to ignore once identified. But as I say, this is a tried and tested formula that only those really scrutinizing the media pick up on, so this is arguably the most excusable issue the company face.
The biggest change though has to be to the shooting mechanics. As I said before, these games basically play themselves the second you enter combat. There is no incentive to use anything other than a firearm to dispatch opponents, being the most effective weapons in the game, posing little personal risk and being available in abundance. When in a shootout, emerging from cover through holding one trigger immediately locks the player on to the nearest enemy (with only minor adjustments needed to acquire an instant-kill headshot), then a simple press of the other trigger finishes the job. Rinse and repeat until no more bad guys are on screen.
To be frank, this just isn’t good enough within today’s market. My mind wanders to other third-person shooters such as Spec Ops: The Line or Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, which reward variation when approaching combat. I have so many memories from basic shootouts, making use of my full arsenal and executing inventive solutions based on the diverse situations these games placed me in. Memories of Rockstar titles, on the other hand, are more based around the set pieces the games place you in, which are spectacular, yet shallow. More often than not, these sections are only approachable in one way (much like the aforementioned LEGO sets), resulting in a mission failure screen should the player test the boundaries even a little.
Solutions to this problem are a little harder to recommend. Instead of simply imitating these other titles, which is hardly the Rockstar way, changes need to be made on a more fundamental level. To keep the balance between realism and challenge, a quick fix such as varied enemy types or restricting weapon effectiveness or increasing ammunition scarcity would seem unnatural. Instead, I’d suggest implementing more rewards for making use of unconventional attack methods. Especially within a series like GTA, where the story is often about the player forming a reputation within a seedy world, why not praise the player for forming out an actual identity for their character?
How about a story or combat mechanics which react to your play style through more than a simple “good” or “bad” honor system? NPC’s could cower in fear if you develop a reputation for brutal, up close and personal kills, or could deploy enhanced tactics if you are known for your flanking manoeuvres. I know how ambitious this sounds, but it also makes sense to me as the next progression for immersive open world titles: creating a universe that responds to the individual player, making you an actual inhabitant of the world as opposed to an omnipotent figure floating through it as if on train tracks.
Look at me, acting as if I have better ideas than those employed at a AAA developer. Regardless, those are my two cents. No matter what Rockstar decide to put out next, I’m sure it will set the world alight and surprise us all in ways we had never even considered, just as Red Dead Redemption 2 did. We should all count ourselves lucky that we get to experience these games, but there’s no harm in pushing to get the best out of these companies.