Red Dead Redemption 2 is a technical marvel that frequently crumbles under its own weight. Thankfully, Red Dead Online's more streamlined approach to the Wild West addresses many of the main game's biggest issues. There's a bit of a trade-off but, when I start feeling like the campaign is getting in my way of having fun, a trip online offers the cure for what ails me.
Let me paint a picture for you; one that I'd wager just about anyone who has played Red Dead Redemption 2 for a few hours can relate to.
I had a deer and two ducks strapped to my horse and I was riding into Valentine to sell the meat for a couple of bucks. I was running low on bullets and supplies, so I figured I might as well stroll down the road and do some shopping, too.
Heading past one of the local saloons, I saw a fight break out in which one fellow beat the stuffing out of another and then left his victim lying in the muddy street. I didn't pay the scene much attention, opting instead to head into the gun store and buy some rounds for my revolver. When I headed back outside, I discovered that the man's body had become something of a roadblock. There was a horse-drawn cart on either side of him, a couple of horses and several people standing around, apparently unable to navigate the admittedly narrow street because this fellow's unconscious body was in the way.
Being an honorable cowboy in the mood to perform a good deed, I decided to pick up the fight victim and simply move him out of the way. The moment I hoisted his limp frame onto my shoulder, though, the nearby folks started screaming and calling for the sheriff. I immediately dropped the body, but not before there was a warrant on my head for having the audacity to pick up the guy in the first place. Even crazier, the situation escalated immediately, with the local lawmen opening fire on me before I had time to process what was going on.
I managed to make it back to my horse and start hightailing it out of town, but I was soon overtaken and shot dead in a nearby field.
I respawned at a cost of what little money I had in my pocket and a bounty that was far greater than I was able to pay. When I whistled for my horse, I discovered the animals I planned on selling were gone. Worse, because I respawned in the region where I had a price on my head, I noticed a red dot already moving across the map, representing the bounty hunters that were out for my blood.
I went into Valentine to conduct some super basic business and Red Dead Redemption 2 responded by kicking me in the crotch.
The problem is that I have many, many similar stories, some far more involved than the ordeal above and coming at a far greater cost to my time and in-game resources. Once, when trying to hunt in the snow-covered hills, I was attacked by three separate packs of wolves in quick succession. I died and lost all of my pelts. I'll occasionally ride into camp to save my game and call it a night and the game will instead automatically begin a mission to progress the story whether I wanted it to or not.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is composed of many, many interlocking systems and it's been my experience that those systems frequently trip over themselves and lead to unfavorable circumstances. It's frustrating when all I want to do is fish and a game screams into my face, "No! I have decided you will do this other thing instead."
I usually appreciate emergent storytelling in my games and have seen many of my colleagues talk about similar situations to the one outlined above as a selling point to Red Dead Redemption 2, but I'm finding it more and more frustrating to have a game throw so many roadblocks in the way of my having fun.
Which is exactly why I find myself logging into Red Dead Online more and more frequently rather than continuing the main game's campaign. I'm enjoying the campaign's narrative and there are plenty of awe-inspiring moments peppered throughout, but for every evening that I turn off RDR2 feeling like I had a good time and made some progress, there are twice as many nights when I turn off the game feeling the mental equivalent of multiple stubbed toes.
In Red Dead Online, those issues are alleviated by fewer systems being constantly at play and far more forgiving consequences for my actions. There are fewer NPCs in the online world and random encounters are practically non-existent. I've been attacked by wildlife twice in all of my hours of playing online and never feel like a minor infraction results in a cascade of grossly disproportionate consequences.
In Red Dead Online, I'm free to experiment within the game world and just have some good old-fashioned fun without constantly being punished for not coloring within the lines. And sure, plenty of players will pop up and shoot me for no good reason, but I respawn instantly, nearby and, most importantly, at no cost. Hell, I can hunt down the person who shot me and return the favor without earning a bounty or completely derailing whatever activity I was originally engaged in.
There's also the added bonus that playing online negates the overwhelming sense of loneliness I frequently experienced the further I got into the RDR2 campaign. I appreciate that the mood of the game is quiet, solemn and frequently solitary, but that can get downright depressing when you settle in for a few hours.
I'm the kind of guy who likes to play MMOs solo. I spent a lot of time in games like Lord of the Rings Online or Final Fantasy XIV, but I almost never joined a group to tackle the bigger missions and raids. I appreciate the fact that I could play with others if I wanted to, but I was even more appreciative of the fact that these types of games never force those interactions. Red Dead Online strikes a similar balance. I prefer to play solo, but knowing that other players are on the map is enough to make me think, "Oh, good, I'm not utterly alone in this world." I don't frequently want to play with these other people, but seeing their pink blips move across the map offers an odd sort of comfort.
At this point, I'm not sure if I'll ever finish the campaign in Red Dead Redemption 2. Every time I jump in and think, "Alright, it's time to push forward and see how this story unfolds," the game finds new and frequently frustrating ways to totally disrupt my plans. I no longer enjoy that many obstacles being thrown in my path, which is making it harder and harder to want to dive back in. That's frustrating, since I genuinely enjoy knocking about in the game world. Thankfully, Red Dead Online is letting me do exactly that, but in a way that seems to have far more respect for my limited time.