Spending a few hundred hours immersed in two historical settings sounds like something out of Dan Carlin’s dreams and in many ways, it was some of the more memorable moments I’ve had gaming this past year. It’s also put into stark contrast what can happen between games with a prolonged development versus those with the standard dev cycle. I’m talking of course about Red Dead Redemption 2, the new Rockstar game 8 years in development and the newest installment of Assassin’s Creed (Odyssey) from Ubisoft. While both games have a narrative that I found engaging, there were some significant problems I had with Rockstar’s latest that I didn’t seem to feel about the latest AC game.
Let’s start off with AC: Odyssey since I played/finished that one first. I’ll be happy to admit that my skepticism around the recent reboot was mostly unfounded with the release of Origins, but the fact that they took extra time to release that game it seems certainly helped. But to hear that they went right back to the yearly release so soon with Odyssey re-ignited my doubts about a new game based on the same formula. I was also bummed that Ubisoft continues to stay stuck in “ancient” history when it comes to setting. After playing Syndicate, I was hopeful that the series was FINALLY ready to move into more modern settings. Alas, that was not to be, and in the latest game we’re taken EVEN FURTHER back in time from Origins. I was even more skeptical about the fact that this game was celebrating the “Spartans” as ultimate warriors that was originally romanticized with the release of 300. In all honesty, the main reason I decided to play the game (aside from the fact that I play every main AC title) was the inclusion of the ability to play as a female protagonist through the entire game.
When I finally got to embark on Kassandra’s journey, everything felt very familiar to Origins, although this time they added the “ship stuff” from AC: Black Flag that is generally OK but not my main reason for playing the game. It was also a bit jarring that the developers basically broke the game’s “main” quest into 3 distinct parts. And while the best of these had to deal with Kassandra finding and reuniting with her family, the periphery quest tying into the “future stuff” was just as interesting in that it FINALLY feels like we might get some progress in the war between the Assassin’s and the Templars. But as much as the disjointed quest structure didn’t help the narrative of the game, it was still buoyed by a pretty stellar performance by Melissanthi Mahut as Kassandra. The character (mostly) behaved as I expected her to behave in any situation, with a few exceptions mostly based on the mission type I was engaging with. Luckily, having purchased the XP booster meant that I didn’t have to engage with the “filler” style quests at all.
I enjoyed many of the multi-part side quests, but the standout had to be a series where I had Kassandra helping a group of rebels to liberate their island from a cruel dictator. I don’t wanna spoil too much about the story, but it takes some interesting (if somewhat predictable) twists and has probably the best romance option for Kassandra that I found.
The main thing that I took away from the game is that it felt like my time was ALWAYS being well spent while playing. I could fast travel easily, gain access to my ship from any harbor, and generally get where I was going without feeling like it was a chore. In the 100+ hours I played, I was ACTUALLY playing the game during that time. Which is why it stuck out like a sore thumb when I finally began Arthur Morgan’s story in Red Dead Redemption 2.
So let’s just get this out of the way right now: Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game very much worth playing, but you HAVE to be ready to play it on Rockstar’s terms, not yours. It’s a game that certainly FEELS like it’s been in development for a long time, with choices made that reflect open world games from 2010 as opposed to the state of these games in 2015 (which is approximately when AC: Odyssey was starting development). The story of Arthur Morgan is compelling, rich and complex, with an interesting arc that warrants the title, and since it’s a prequel you can see the development of characters already familiar to you (if you played the original of course). This is both for good and ill, but in general is handled well enough.
One of the main problems I had with the game, and mind you I’ve finished the main game and *BEGIN SPOILER ALERT* both of the epilogues where you have a time jump and are basically setting up the events of the original game as John Marston *END SPOILER ALERT*, is that it takes you FOREVER to actually get to the content itself. While I can understand Rockstar’s intention of becoming “lost” in their world, in actuality it ended up with me looking at my phone for large swaths of time as my character slowly trotted to the next mission start point on the map. There were times where I’d look up from my phone when I heard something interesting happening on the screen, be it a random stranger mission or being ambushed on the road randomly, but overall I spent a large portion of the game waiting to engage with the story content.
There are plenty of people who enjoy the hunting and survival aspects of the game, but honestly I got turned off by it fairly early on. The main example I can remember is after being introduced to hunting the legendary animals, I decided that I’d try and actually do one of them in the far reaches of the wilderness. Once I made it to the location i saw a message pop up telling me there was “too much activity” and to come back later. I then proceeded to ride away and attempt to return. Not seeing any new prompt when returning left me confused. Several more of these attempts were made and finally I broke down and tried looking up how to hunt the animals online. I then found users reporting that you should camp and sleep to pass some time and THEN return to the location and try again. After doing this for what basically amounted to a WEEK of in-game time, I threw my hands in the air and said “NEVER AGAIN!” Unfortunately, when engaging with the bespoke Stranger Missions, I was then forced to take down a legendary animal (in this case a fish) and lemme tell you, if you have ever played Mario Party 1 on the N64 you’ll know the pain of trying to reel in a legendary fish.
The next thing that constantly sought to derail my progress/enjoyment was the incomprehensible bounty system they devised for the game. Now while the game lets you be as bad/good an outlaw as you wanna be, I generally played Arthur as more of a “Robin Hood” like character wanting to only stick it to the bourgeoisie and mostly staying out of unnecessary trouble. The problem is that even if you try to play it straight as it were, the game goes out of the way to penalize you the player if things go south. No matter what the infraction, and even if you are merely defending yourself, the law in this game seems to become laser focused on bringing you down and ignoring all other parties involved. Guy pulls a gun and tries to shoot you dead and you kill him? Better leave town otherwise you’re gonna get a hail of bullets. I even tried on several occasions to surrender to the law since you can do that with minor infractions and just go to jail. I only got it to work ONE TIME in my entire playthrough.
I could go on and on about my frustrations with the game, but mostly it comes down to the fact that Rockstar demands that you play the game on their terms, with no compromises really made that respect a player’s potentially limited gaming time. It comes into even more stark contrast that the game SOMETIMES speeds up travel during missions and cuts away, but NEVER gives you the option when you’d want it. So when Rockstar deems it worthy, I don’t have to ride across the entire map, but unless THEY deem it worthy I’m forced to sit there on horseback silently plodding to a mission objective since I’ve already exhausted all the dialogue.
All of this being said, the narrative beats of the game and the overall story are spectacular and the characters themselves all made me want to propel everything forward, but it felt like it went on FAR too long (I’d cut out ALL of Chapter 5 without hesitation) which resulted in me powering through the main quests back to back to back in order to get to the conclusion. It’s absolutely worth playing IF you can accept all these caveats.
In the end, playing both of these back to back let me appreciate where the developers focused their efforts and brought their design problems starkly into contrast. Ubisoft has definitely created a massive sandbox, but they allow you to engage with a much or as little of it as YOU want, whereas Rockstar gates their story content on you being REQUIRED to engage with their world even if you don’t want to. I spent approximately the same amount of time in both games, but felt like my sessions in AC: Odyssey resulted in me doing stuff whereas in Red Dead Redemption 2 I spent most of my time watching stuff. And in the end I’d much rather be playing than watching.