Red Dead Redemption 2 has a problem, but one that comes from an unexpected source. In many ways, the Rockstar open world adventure more than hits the mark, with a phenomenal story that brings to life a cast of nuanced characters and a world absolutely chock full of atmosphere from the get go. However, there's something else underneath it all that hinders Red Dead Redemption 2 from truly becoming the gaming great that it wants to be.
Quite simply, Red Dead Redemption 2 suffers from a similar issue to some other Rockstar games. An emphasis on immersion, and prioritizing realism, means that Red Dead Redemption 2's controls suffer. Behind all of those layers of gameplay lies a rigidity, a need to stick to a specific set of criteria to be truly effective rather than the opportunity to engage in the world in a free-flowing manner.
In a way, the controls of Red Dead Redemption 2 are almost last generation. It feels sluggish, with what should be quick, sharp movements instead held back by long animation cycles and clunky control combinations. Some may complain about the slow pace of Red Dead Redemption 2 as a whole, but that was a bold artistic direction from Rockstar that pays off. This isn't true about its reliance on gameplay models that feel closer to the original Red Dead Redemption or GTA V than its current set of peers.
Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to combat, whether on foot or on horseback. What should be a thrilling encounter is held back by Arthur's animations and inability to keep up the pace of what the player wants. This isn't a natural sense of input lag as seen in Dark Souls, either - even getting Arthur up to speed to move from cover to cover is a chore, and that's without even mentioning the decision to make the player have to take their guns off their horse for any given firefight on foot. It's a control decision that players will have to accommodate their play style for, rather than one that they will naturally grow into as Red Dead Redemption 2 unfolds.
This wouldn't seem so bad if it wasn't for the great advancements in control and player agency that the gaming world has seen over the course of the year. 2018's true standout title, God of War, provides combat and overall control that are absolutely stunning, while Shadow of the Tomb Raider successfully manages to align action set pieces with an emphasis on movement and stealth.
Some may argue that the sheer size of Red Dead Redemption 2 is a reason why the controls and functionality may feel impeded. After all, awkward combat and movement are often par for the course when it comes to open world games, as seen with Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls series, and it's seen as something to ignore in favor of those better elements. However, again this year has shown that this isn't the case across the board. Assassin's Creed Odyssey has combat and movement mechanics that are second to none, delivered alongside a beautiful setting with more than enough variety when it comes to gameplay options.
It's perhaps most frustrating because the rest of the game world is so fantastic. Red Dead Redemption 2 delivers a setting that feels alive, from its inhabitants through to the nature and look of its varied parts of the world map. It's a game that begs to be fully explored and every facet of its design uncovered, even to the extent that players can tolerate those long stretches where they do nothing but hold down a single button as they gallop from location to location due to the sheer immersion of it all.
Why, then, does the player feel like a stranger, an invader taking control of a character who is fighting back? Arthur bucks just as much as one of Red Dead Redemption 2's agitated horses, never quite allowing the player to have full ownership of his movements. Sometimes, Red Dead Redemption 2 feels less like Westworld and more like a carnival automaton, an awkward simulation that in spite of its facade never quite seems real.
Across the board, it's very much apparent that Red Dead Redemption 2 was in development for eight years. Most of the time, this works in its favor, with an attention to detail that is second to none in the gaming world to date. However, its control scheme does make it feel a step behind its peers, not so much a relic but a title that hasn't quite reached the heights of fluidity that others can already provide.