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Why Red Dead Redemption 2 may not live up to the hype

Commentary: I loved the first game, but I have my doubts that the sequel can recapture the magic.

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Rockstar Games

I have no doubt that Red Dead Redemption 2 will be a good game. It'll probably be even better than that -- it'll probably be great. And to be clear: I love the original Red Dead Redemption. As in, it's in my top five games of all time... and I've played a lot of games. Admittedly, the gameplay trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 released on Thursday looks fantastic. The graphics are stunning and the gameplay looks fluid and deep.

With all of that out of the way, based on the reaction so far, I seem to be the only gamer who's not completely over the moon about Red Dead Redemption 2. The first Red Dead Redemption was better than fantastic -- it was magical. That's why I still regard it so highly almost a decade after it was released. And nothing I've seen from the trailers has convinced me it's going to be as bold as the first.

spoiler alert

The first game broke new ground

When the first Red Dead Redemption came out in 2010, developer Rockstar was already well known for making open-world titles thanks to the Grand Theft Auto Series. Though I have a lot of respect for the GTA franchise, and have fond memories of playing the third one in particular, the shooting mechanics were always somewhat lackluster and the stories were fun, but simple.

Red Dead Redemption took the same sandbox feel of GTA and imbued it with life that felt real. The non-player characters weren't just there as obstacles and targets. They seemed intelligent, as though they had lives of their own. GTA's NPCs had a tendency to walk back and forth on a street to fill the space. In Red Dead, they'd cook a meal by the fire, then walk to their homes to do chores before heading out to play with the dog.

Beyond making the world come alive, the first Red Dead Redemption made shooting feel great. The guns were responsive and easy to aim. The Dead Eye mechanic, which allowed you to slow down time, made it possible to shoot from horseback while adding the tense moments typical of your favorite western. The mechanics fed the atmosphere, and vice versa.

Red Dead Redemption

I loved everything about the first game.

Rockstar

All of that led to a great experience, but what truly made the game magical for me was an incredible story centered on a flawed-but-sympathetic protagonist -- John Marston. Marston's mission is to rescue his family by hunting down the gang members he used to ride with. Over the course of his journey, you come to know him as a violent man desperately trying to do right by those he loves. That conflict, though somewhat typical for the western genre, is executed perfectly.

So the original Red Dead Redemption was one of the first open world games with combat that was actually fun. It had a compelling story and a world that actually seemed like it might keep turning whether you were watching or not. It was also one of the first video games to really tap into the Western genre. Technically, Red Dead Redemption itself is a sequel to Red Dead Revolver, but the original Revolver had a much smaller scope. Both Revolver and the previous GTA games felt like blueprints that Red Dead Redemption turned into a fully realized and beautiful masterpiece.

Red Dead Redemption was also one of the only major video games to ever end with the death of the protagonist. Just like blockbuster movies, major video game titles rarely have the courage to do something like that. Red Dead did, and did it in a way that made the ending one of the best and most fitting closures to any game I've ever played.

The second game looks like more of the same

I've been trying to put my finger on why I'm not as excited about Red Dead Redemption 2 as my friends since the first teaser trailer hit a couple of years ago. Just the fact that a second Red Dead Redemption was on the way was enough to make fans drool, and I've done the same after trailers for other hyped sequels like Beyond Good and Evil 2.

Something about beautiful shots of western landscape didn't do it for me, though, and maybe it's because I'm starting to get burned out by the bigger, prettier, more explosive video game sequel. Other games in the Arkham series were great, but none recaptured the focus of Arkham Asylum. The yearly iterations of Assassin's Creed have killed my love of what was once an interesting series with a relatively cohesive story.

I have less time to play games than I used to, so I've completely avoided recent entries in the Fallout series and the Borderlands series; I also skipped Dishonored 2 and the second Shadows of Mordor game despite loving their respective predecessors because I don't really like retreading old ground in video games in exchange for iterative graphical upgrades, a larger map and a handful of new mechanics.

I now pick and choose games that have a chance to show me something surprising -- a fresh gaming experience. Metal Gear Solid V, for example, combined the customary stealth of the series with an expanded scope and a host of new tools inviting player creativity. 

Sure, it looks cool, but is this as good as it gets?

Rockstar Games

I'm worried Red Dead Redemption 2 won't fulfill my desire for something unique and surprising. The gameplay trailer looks amazing, and it looks like you can interact with the world in a whole bunch of new ways -- from talking with every member of your roaming gang and building relationships therein to deciding whether to escalate or defuse conflict on the fly.

But it's a prequel. Since we know what happens to the central gang in question, I'm worried that the story won't surprise me. The shooting looks more polished, but similar. And if Rockstar is simply taking in the approach of adding more characters, more mechanics and more mini-games, I'm concerned that Red Dead Redemption 2 will lose some of the coherence of the first.

It wouldn't be a bad thing necessarily if the shooting mechanics are similar to the first. Again, they were great in the first. I also like the idea of forming a bond with your horse, which is emphasized in the trailer, but I did that in the first game on my own. Formalizing that and other random world elements might make them less special.

More than that, everything I've seen from Red Dead Redemption 2 looks safe. The trailers show off features we'd ask for whereas the original Red Dead Redemption gave us something we don't even know we wanted.

As with most of the sequels I mentioned above, it looks like Red Dead Redemption 2 will feature iterative graphical upgrades, a larger map and a handful of new mechanics. That's fine. That'll be enough to make it quite a fun experience especially because it'll be building on something that was already so remarkably good.

Red Dead Redemption 2 comes out Oct. 26, and I hope it proves me wrong. I hope Rockstar is keeping the biggest, boldest surprises of the game hidden -- and I'd give them a world of credit if that's true. Even if I'm not, I'm sure I'll end up playing the game anyway due to my love of its predecessor, and I'm sure I'll have a great time. I'll just be unable to shake this nagging feeling of disappointment that it's yet another sequel, and not quite the magical experience of the riding off into the sunset for the first time in a well-rounded western world, knowing that surprises galore awaited me just over the horizon. 

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