The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. We're living the dream now because Rockstar clearly doesn't give a toss about previous coverage and gave us one of the most anticipated PC titles of the year. Cheers!
Many a 14-year-old is intimately familiar with the thrill of picking up a belle-de-nuit thanks to Rockstar Games. In spite of or because of its dubious moral nature, the smash-hit Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series is deeply loved and the company probably hasn't released a "bad" game – whether it's Red Dead, Bully or the rather more tame Table Tennis, which seriously deserves a sequel or remaster.
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But where the console-first American publisher fails to live up to its name is PC ports. These days, GTAV's PC version is considered the definitive edition, helped by its rampant modding and roleplay community, having initially been released on the previous gen then cranked up in fidelity for more powerful hardware.
And yet the six-year-old game still resists the buttery-smooth performance that PC gamers so desire, requiring up to an hour of benchmarking and fiddling with an overly complicated graphical settings menu to find that perfect balance between frames and quality. The consensus seems to be that Rockstar ports are poorly optimised so desktop jockeys of the world looked to the announcement of Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2, trailer) on PC with a mixture of fear and hope.
As is to be expected, the launch on 5 November was a total disaster. Report after report cited problems with Rockstar's new launcher (yes, another one), crashes, bugs and unsatisfactory performance among other issues.
However, I didn't suffer any such troubles. In a month of obsessively ploughing hours into Rockstar's Wild West masterwork whenever I could, it has crashed once and bugged out on launch twice – which for PC land isn't awful. And I'm pleased as punch with performance. Dated graphics cards, however, should probably not apply as you're going to need a hefty chunk of VRAM for it not to look like Minecraft.
Because one does not simply whack everything up to "ultra" – even with high-end GPUs – and expect the thing to run flawlessly. The game will initially shuffle itself about to what it deems your computer to be capable of, which doesn't particularly suit the PC crowd, who tend to want to see the limits of their rig's potential before settling on something a little more reasonable. "Ugh, disgusting. Why is that on 'medium'?" and the like.
As with GTAV, there are no straightforward presets covering low, medium, high and ultra visual quality, but rather 40 (four-zero) separate settings to muck about with ranging from "Fur Quality" to "Parallax Occlusion Mapping Quality", whatever the fuck that is.
You see, I'm a simple man. I have this new game. It's already been with the console kids a year (since October 2018), and I'm sort of desperate to play it: my only experience so far is backseat gaming on the PlayStation 4 while the missus has attempted to juggle doing the things she enjoys while co-parenting with me and being heavily pregnant.
Do I really need to understand what "Parallax Occlusion Mapping Quality" and a bunch of other equally obtuse options do? I'd rather not take another degree. I just have a couple of basic rules: a minimum average of 60 frames per second (FPS) while looking the very best that it can. So I started from everything on ultra and, through a frankly quite tedious process, worked my way backwards to figure out what was putting an inordinate amount of stress on my RTX 2080's technically abundant resources.
Some of these are ridiculous. I quickly noticed that when standing next to bodies of water on the highest quality, FPS tanked. So I turned it down to medium and pulled the slider back on "Water Physics Quality". The result was that rivers and lakes looked no worse than anything else I've played within the last few years, and I didn't really stop to spot a huge difference in fidelity – the gain was just too significant to bother. Nor is it worth fretting over anti-aliasing. Having been stung by GTAV before, I was aware that messing with anything beyond TAA on high – there's FXAA and MSAA, too – would feel like playing in a tar pit.
But eventually I stumbled on the ideal: majority of settings on ultra or high, sometimes "off" where appropriate, and FPS in the 70s most of the time, going up to 90s, but down to mid-50s in only the "busiest" of scenes or areas. Acceptable because there is no perceivable drop. So, notwithstanding all the launch grief widely reported in gaming media that I had zero experience with, I'm thoroughly chuffed with the performance for such a stunningly beautiful title. My settings have been tacked on at the end if you need some pointers or a place to start.
But what about gameplay? Of course, the time-rich losers who already 100-per-cented RDR2 months ago on console need not read at all, but perhaps, like me, you have specifically been saving yourself for the PC version. If you're in the latter camp, you're in for a treat.
I said "masterwork" because, assuredly, that is what it is. RDR2 is a prequel to the excellent last-gen game (2010), which followed the exploits of John Marston, an outlaw in the death throes of the American Wild West who has been tasked by the FBI with hunting down members of his former gang led by Dutch van der Linde.
In RDR2, however, you play as Arthur Morgan (AKA Arthur Callahan, AKA Tacitus Kilgore when the job is particularly rotten), Marston's colleague and van der Linde's right-hand man. Though Marston appears throughout, he is just one among many members of Dutch's motley crew and often crops up because Arthur is forced to get him out of a pickle more than once.
The game starts with the gang down on their luck in 1899 – at a time when a swiftly modernising United States has little patience for wandering bands of thieves and killers – wanted dead or alive and hiding out in the map's frozen mountainous region following a botched heist, which left a huge amount of money behind in the town of Blackwater. Without going into too much detail, the plot follows Dutch's efforts to scrape together enough cash for the group to lose the long arm of the law and vanish for the last time.
As loveable thug Arthur, you have a vast fictionalised synecdoche of the southern US to plunder, with the core gameplay based around how GTA has worked since the third sequel in 2001 – a huge open world that can be explored at your leisure, filled with missions that can be played in whatever order you like as they become available.
No cars, though. Or assault rifles. Weaponry is firmly rooted in the turn of the century with all its janky quirks – revolvers, pistols, repeaters, breech-loading and bolt-action rifles, as well as the occasional shotgun – and you'll be traversing the prairies, canyons and bayous on horseback. Each variety of mount has its own stats so you can upgrade to one with increased speed and/or handling by buying a new horse at a stable, stealing someone else's, or even attempting to break a wild one. The finest horse in the game roams a far-flung corner of the world and it is particularly tricky to find and tame, but the payoff is worth it.
Because Rockstar has made a point of exploration. Fast travel can be unlocked by contributing to the gang's funds and upgrading the camp, but it is only one-way and only from the hideout. Without a stolen supercar to recklessly zip around in, getting from A to B is a far slower process. Though the majority of the map is sprawling wilderness punctuated by small towns, frontier villages and the game's sole major city – Saint Denis based on 19th-century New Orleans – it is far from empty and there are so many things to see and do between missions.
Since the pelt trade was a big deal in the US at the time, hunting is a fleshed-out and enjoyable side-hustle. There are hundreds of species in the game and the forests and brush are positively crawling with critters great and small. Legendary varieties of the larger beasts can only be killed once and their skins used to craft better gear. To get perfect pelts for crafting, however, requires the correct weapon and a one-shot kill. (Otherwise, allows us to recommend theHunter: Call of the Wild as a great hunting sim for you non-vegan gamers.)
Red Dead's animals are good eating, too – you'll need to prepare meals in order to keep your health, stamina and "Dead Eye" (the bullet-time precision aiming mode) cores topped up. Incidentally, players have complained that because of the leap in FPS compared to the console release, the game thinks it's running at double speed – so time and Arthur's metabolism are sped up as well. Though I have no reference point for this, it has apparently been addressed with a patch.
You'll also run into loads of random vagabonds on the trail, sometimes with missions or long-running activities – treasure hunts, fishing, paleontology and more – or just cool little interactions otherwise. There are also plenty of isolated shacks and points of interest off the beaten path filled with secrets that are worth investigating. I've only used the fast-travel function a couple of times so the design emphasis on life in the saddle is a really neat approach.
That's not the only departure from GTA's psychopathic power fantasy. Yes, you and your surly band are the "bad guys", but that does not mean you have to be a bad guy. Of course, you can be a horrible bastard to anyone and everyone you meet if you so wish, and the "Dead Eye" mechanic is ridiculous fun to unleash upon the unwitting. But unlike GTA, where the cops are just more meat for your grinder, constantly committing atrocities in RDR2 can cause you extreme inconvenience. You may escape the lawmen, but you'll have a bounty on your head (until you pay it off yourself), and that means people will come to claim it. This rolls into RDR2's "honour" or "karma" system. Wanton naughtiness will cause this meter to drop, while helping folk out will increase it.
I've reached the story's sixth and final chapter – though I know there is a lengthy epilogue to come – and my "karma" bumps around the high end (I don't have any qualms about looting innocent people's bodies, for example, though you lose points if you do, even if you didn't kill them). This is because I don't believe my version of Arthur is a bad dude. I see him as a chap who never had much choice. This makes RDR2, in my eyes, not just a story-driven open-world action game, but almost an RPG/cowboy sim, too. Arthur's appearance is customisable with gear you craft or purchase and his hair and beard grow as well, so you really can tailor him to the Arthur you want to be.
Add in the excellent voice acting, pitch-perfect animations, compelling characters and realistic attention to detail (horse balls shrivelling in the cold, anyone?), and you're pretty much playing the starring role in an HBO-tier Western drama series. I could go on and on about why RDR2 is a marvellous game and attempt to explain the multitude of systems at play, but really it needs to be seen to be believed.
It's just a shame that the PC version is such an unwieldy beast to coax out that boosted performance and fidelity compared to console. It's clear why some people prefer their games to "just work". Anyway, the Steam release arrives on 5 December so you can thank us early adopters on the Rockstar Games Launcher or Epic Games Store for beta testing it for you. ®
With an RTX 2080 and i7-4790K at 1080p, 144hz refresh rate, VSync (not that I'm going to get 144FPS) and Triple Buffering on, my settings are as follows:
Texture quality ultra; ansiotropic filtering X16; lighting quality ultra; global illumination quality ultra; shadow quality ultra; far shadow quality ultra; screen space ambient occlusion ultra; reflection quality high; mirror quality high; particle quality high; tessellation quality high; TAA high; FXAA off; MSAA off.
Enable advanced settings and try:
Graphics API Vulkan; near volumetric resolution high; far volumetric resolution high; volumetric lighting quality high; unlocked volumetric raymarch resolution off; particle lighting quality high; soft shadows high; grass shadows high; long shadows on; full resolution screen space ambient occlusion off; water refraction quality medium; water reflection quality medium; water physics quality about midpoint; resolution scale off; TAA sharpening on full; motion blur on; reflection MSAA off; geometry level of detail on full; grass level of detail on full; tree quality ultra; parallax occlusion mapping quality ultra; decal quality ultra; fur quality high; tree tessellation off.
Your mileage may vary and some of these might be down to taste, but this seems a good starting point as some of the settings just don't deliver bang for your buck – buck being frames. I'm calling bullshit on Nvidia's suggested "optimal" settings because the result in game is anything but. Of course, if you want to play at 30FPS, be my guest. You might not have a choice either if you own anything less powerful than a 1060 or AMD equivalent. But in that case, it would be best to stick with the console release.
I know I haven't touched on the online element, clearly hundreds more hours to mine there, but haven't checked it out yet because I don't have any friends the time. I'm imagining GTA: Online without all the things people love GTA: Online for.