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Giant Bomb Review

152 Comments

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review

5
  • PS4
  • PC
  • XONE
  • STAD

Red Dead Redemption 2 offers up an astoundingly engrossing world that's remarkably easy to get lost in.

Editor's note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows.

No Caption Provided

Red Dead Redemption 2 is, in many ways, a pretty staggering video game. First and foremost, it is staggering in its scope. An open-world game in the grand tradition of Rockstar's lengthy catalogue in the genre, RDR2 offers up an Old West world that is massive in scale, teeming with life and activity, and astoundingly, exhaustingly detailed. It tells an uneven, but highly enjoyable tale set 12 years before the events of the first game, and largely affords its large cast of characters far more opportunities to endear themselves to the player than any other Rockstar production I've ever played. In the 60-plus hours I spent poking through every corner of RDR2's world, I constantly found myself getting lost in both the myriad activities it provides, and the simple pleasures of walking through its diverse and gorgeously rendered environments.

And as I worked my way through this staggering game, I couldn't help but repeatedly think about the staggering amount of work that went into creating the game. I probably would have had that thought irrespective of recent events, just by virtue of how unusually polished the whole experience feels. But the recent reporting on conditions at Rockstar's various studios in the lead-up RDR2 undoubtedly intensified those thoughts. No matter how transfixed I became by the "magic" of what this game does, I found it difficult to shake the sensation that everything I was experiencing came at unreasonable expense.

The story follows the adventures of Arthur Morgan, right-hand man to charismatic gang leader Dutch van der Linde. Players of the original Red Dead will recall that this gang is the one previous protagonist John Marston originated from. At this stage of history, Arthur, Dutch and crew are on the run following a failed job in the town of Blackwater. Throughout the story, the gang exists in a transient state. Moving from state to state, the crew finds itself mixed up in a wide variety of misadventures as they try to regather themselves and pull together the funds they need to finally disappear. As Arthur, you are essentially the gang's fixer. In addition to participating in the various robberies and related crimes that take place throughout the game, you'll also find yourself in charge of the gang's camp, a bustling communal space where you collect quests, manage resources, and just exist alongside the various personalities that encapsulate the gang.

This is the best aspect of the game, not necessarily from any gameplay perspective, but rather in terms of overall immersion in the world. One of RDR2's greatest strengths is the lengths it goes to in order to make its world feel like it is breathing on its own. Other Rockstar open world games have largely focused on centering the player in every way. Everything is typically built like a playground, chock full of activities that exist at the forefront, while the various NPCs just sort of mill around. Here, the various cities, camps, and wild areas all feel like they are moving along at a lifelike pace. When you're in your gang camp, you'll see people doing chores, reading, playing games, and engaging in conversations that have nothing in particular to do with whatever quest you're about to embark upon. These personalities, these people, are the core of what makes RDR 2 go. There is a humanity to these characters that Rockstar games don't typically seem all that invested in portraying.

No Caption Provided

The story itself does not always do right by its cast of characters, but its primary tale of Arthur's journey through the gang's final days is an extremely compelling one. The performance of Rob Clark as Arthur is a big part of that, but the writing is strong too. His motives are understandable, and his internal conflicts are thoughtfully portrayed throughout the campaign. Many of the other personalities around him are loud and cartoonish in ways you'd expect, but few of them feel like pure caricature. Where the writing does falter, it's largely around the margins of that core story. Its attempts at delving deeper into conflict between indigenous people and the US military feel too steeped in cliche to say anything of note, some of the various stranger missions peppered throughout the world are blandly obnoxious in the way the worst GTA missions can be, and there is more than a little seemingly unexamined irony in the story repeatedly making villains out of tyrannical capitalists and demagogues who work their people half to death entirely to their own benefit.

The most gobsmacking thing about RDR2 is how all its various systems and characters are weaved into its world. Right from the jump, the game drops numerous tutorials about hunting, crafting, shooting, horse bonding, and a million other things both big and small. Some of these systems are more important than others, but there are opportunities to engage with them on a near constant basis. All these pieces, all these systems, are remarkably blended into the game world. The sheer number of mechanisms all working behind the scenes are exhausting enough to think about, but the way Rockstar has obscured all those gears grinding in the background is its most impressive trick. In most open world games it's not long before you can start seeing the seams. If not outright bugs and glitches--which RDR2 has, albeit in much smaller volume than you might expect--you'll eventually come upon quests and activities that feel like they've been copied from somewhere else in the game. Think about Far Cry's various towers, Assassin's Creed Odyssey's bandit camps and timed missions. Very little of RDR2 has that sensation. From the biggest missions right down to the smallest interactions, all of this stuff feels like it was constructed individually. I was inspired to do missions that I might have ignored in a more repetitive game because each one had its own distinct thing going on. I almost never thought of ticking off checkboxes as I went.

You sense this everywhere you go in RDR2. I spent long stretches in the towns and cities following NPCs around to see where they went, what they interacted with. When out in the countryside, I constantly found myself standing still as I watched wildlife scurry around, and the wind blow through the grass and trees. This is a slow game, one where huge stretches involve little more than riding or walking from place to place, drinking in the atmosphere that surrounds you. This is a sensation I expect some players will bristle at. Arthur moves at a methodical pace, and while there are some sections where the controls feel flat out unintuitive or unresponsive, more often it's just a matter of letting Arthur's animations play out. And there are so many of them. So many. If you want to pick up a gun, skin an animal, even open a damn drawer, you'll have to watch him go through a realistically, if slowly paced animation for it. Hell, every major character in this game has their own distinctive way of moving through the world. It is a ludicrous amount of animation. Ludicrous.

No Caption Provided

Details like this are easy to fixate on, especially when considering the amount of work poured into it. No one detail is by itself remarkable, but all these little details, these exhaustively rendered things, overwhelm the senses from the beginning and never really let up. The thing of it is, though, Red Dead Redemption 2 would still have been a pretty remarkable game without all these little details. They impress, no doubt, but knowing what we know about how Rockstar put people to work to make all those little things go, it's understandable to question whether it was necessarily worth all of that effort. In Kotaku's most recent reporting on the company's work culture, there's an anecdote at the beginning describing the way the game reframes the camera into a letterboxed shot every time it shifts from gameplay to a cutscene. This was apparently decided upon very late in the development cycle, and required members of the cinematics team to put in numerous overtime hours to rework. Does this particular feature look cool? Totally. Would I ever have noticed it wasn't there had they opted not to put their employees through a great deal of extra work to make this happen? Absolutely not.

This is what it ultimately comes down to with Red Dead Redemption 2. It is an incredible achievement in open world gaming, an intricate machine that disguises its machinery better than just about anything else that's come before. In addition to its lengthy and engrossing campaign, it delivers moments of emergent storytelling more compelling than anything I can ever remember playing. Graphically and aurally, it is top-to-bottom stunning. And all that came at an expense of labor that, while in no way unusual for an industry steeped in a culture of endless crunch and burnout, nonetheless cannot be dismissed. How do you reconcile those two things? Do you boycott the game? Do you buy it to support the people who worked the hardest on it? I do not have that answer for you. I'm not sure anyone does at this stage. What I can say is that Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the best games I've ever played, and alongside the accolades the quality of its production richly deserves, it should always be noted what the circumstances were for those tasked with producing it. That is the asterisk this brilliant game should bear for as long as people feel like talking about it. The people who developed Red Dead Redemption 2--both credited and uncredited--should rightfully feel proud of all they have accomplished. Likewise, they should be afforded the opportunity to continue making games under circumstances more cognizant of, and beneficial to, their livelihoods going forward.

Alex Navarro on Google+

152 Comments

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deactivated-5c26fd6917af0

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This game seems rad.

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Kamui97

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good review

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lordtrapula

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yeehaw!

*Great Review Alex

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hassun

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Edited By hassun

Thank you for your hard work, Alex.

Small correction:

The game title is shortened to RDR 2 once in the text, but RDR2 in all other instances.

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Esposito426

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Great review!

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borklund

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Edited By borklund

Boy howdy it is going to be tough to listen to RDR 2 not get the GOTY nod because Jeff doesn't like slow paced realistic games.

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lemmox

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@borklund: I imagine it'll sound a lot like Abby arguing against PUBG last year, hopefully with a similar result.

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eckie

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Amazing review Alex!

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drgirlfriendexp

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I genuinely appreciate the conscientious last paragraph. Thank you, Alex.

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jeremyf

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High praise from Mr. Navarro!

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splodge

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@borklund said:

Boy howdy it is going to be tough to listen to RDR 2 not get the GOTY nod because Jeff doesn't like slow paced realistic games.

I wonder if he will semi-recuse himself from the discussion completely. In the stream the other day he said he had already bounced of it ten to fifteen times in a week. I don't think he is going to play more than five or six hours of it.

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Efesell

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Efesell  Online

@splodge said:
@borklund said:

Boy howdy it is going to be tough to listen to RDR 2 not get the GOTY nod because Jeff doesn't like slow paced realistic games.

I wonder if he will semi-recuse himself from the discussion completely. In the stream the other day he said he had already bounced of it ten to fifteen times in a week. I don't think he is going to play more than five or six hours of it.

Why would he do that?

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TehPickle

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I struggle to think of another game that I respect so much, yet have absolutely no desire to play. Game looks amazing - not interested.

Clearly RDR2 is a real labour of love, and I'm sure it will be hugely successful and provide massive bonuses to its staff. I just hope R* learnt some important lessons along the way. If the undoubted runaway success of this causes them to double down on their management style, it will be a rather sad outcome.

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SnakeEater321

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@borklund: I can't help but agree. RDR2 is this years The Witcher 3 and it got absolutely shafted at the GOTY talks because Jeff didn't like it. Here's hoping the rest of the duders have the backbone to tell Jeff to get bent on this one.

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Colonel_Pockets

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Awesome.

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Efesell

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Efesell  Online

@borklund: I can't help but agree. RDR2 is this years The Witcher 3 and it got absolutely shafted at the GOTY talks because Jeff didn't like it. Here's hoping the rest of the duders have the backbone to tell Jeff to get bent on this one.

By the time GOTY came around numerous people were either uncaring or had soured on Witcher 3.

Even Vinny, the person most likely to be that games champion, had not even played through it all by then.

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lemmox

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@snakeeater321: ehhhh, TW3 got short-changed because everybody somehow missed it. There really wasn't anybody at the table to defend it and I know Vinny finally played it the next year and spoke glowingly about it.

As I mentioned in a previous comment, this may more be along the lines of PUBG, where everybody except Abby was super into it, and she argued for a long time that it shouldn't be #1 despite having little to no support on that.

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chocolatebear

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Edited By chocolatebear

If Alex is putting down five stars then that is something I must take into consideration as worth my time.

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Y2Ken

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Thanks for the review, Alex - and for talk g very prominently about the working conditions around the game, too. I think you found a pretty good balance.

Looking forward to listening to the full discussion!

@snakeeater321: The Witcher 3 was a different kettle of fish; none of them had finished it by GotY and the only people who seemed to feel that strongly about it were Jason and Vinny (the latter of whom had barely touched it at that point).

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skinnyluigi

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ill wait for the switch version. i bet it'll come on 10 carts.

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Edited By Elwoodan

I really wish I saw what everyone else does in Rockstar games, but 6 hours in I'm already wishing the fast travel was more robust so I don't have to make the same 5-10 minute ride to camp for the umpteenth time; but then i'm just getting in a mushy, bad gunfight or ssssslllllooooowwwwlllyyyy walking though a house that much faster.

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infinity_thor

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Another pretty rockstar game that gets mega hyped yet I've been more disappointed than wowed since GTA 4. Nothing I've seen or read about this game has won me over but instead the more I see the less interested I am. So many mechanics you'll be like "this is neat" early on but weeks, months, and years down the line you'll be cursing them and getting pissed.

With the way they've taken this series, can't wait to see the new 'immersive mechanic' in the next GTA where you'll be required to gas up your car periodically.

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Edited By bybeach

Thank you for the review. Good pro approach. It allows you more on record nuance to explain how 5/5 does not mean complete 100%. As the old unwieldy but numerically more granular G.S. method did. And you express the informed view of the designated reviewer quite well.

I wasn't going to get this game, and may still not get it right away. But your written review convinces me I may not be appreciating enough what RDR 2 does.

I hope that the workers on this game and just not the high ups, get rewarded for their effort, monetary by far the best.

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mr_guffman

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Nice one, Alex.

This game is pretty special.

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admanb

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Clearly RDR2 is a real labour of love, and I'm sure it will be hugely successful and provide massive bonuses to its staff. I just hope R* learnt some important lessons along the way. If the undoubted runaway success of this causes them to double down on their management style, it will be a rather sad outcome.

A labor of love or a labor of hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime?

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Edited By splodge

@efesell said:
@splodge said:
@borklund said:

Boy howdy it is going to be tough to listen to RDR 2 not get the GOTY nod because Jeff doesn't like slow paced realistic games.

I wonder if he will semi-recuse himself from the discussion completely. In the stream the other day he said he had already bounced of it ten to fifteen times in a week. I don't think he is going to play more than five or six hours of it.

Why would he do that?

because in the stream the other day he said he had already bounced off it ten to fifteen times in a week, and in my opinion, he probably wont play a lot of it. He might argue for a diff game to be GOTY, but it;s going to be hard for him to argue against a game that he has played a tiny percentage of.

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guip1408

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Alex rules!

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mORTEN81

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Thanks Alex! Great job.

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Efesell

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Efesell  Online

@splodge said:
@efesell said:
@splodge said:
@borklund said:

Boy howdy it is going to be tough to listen to RDR 2 not get the GOTY nod because Jeff doesn't like slow paced realistic games.

I wonder if he will semi-recuse himself from the discussion completely. In the stream the other day he said he had already bounced of it ten to fifteen times in a week. I don't think he is going to play more than five or six hours of it.

Why would he do that?

because in the stream the other day he said he had already bounced off it ten to fifteen times in a week, and in my opinion, he probably wont play a lot of it. He might argue for a diff game to be GOTY, but it;s going to be hard for him to argue against a game that he has played a tiny percentage of.

Maybe, or he can argue that a game he couldn't play much of probably isn't a game of the year.

I mean he probably won't find the traction for it but no reason to sit out.

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Topcyclist

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Its not fair...god of war deserves a win...why couldnt this come out january1. Dang only hope is jeff filibuster but he cant beat 4 guys saying its good. SMH. happy the game is good but i just wanted a year where a rockstar game comes out and doesnt just make everything else irrelevant since they have money and can take years to make a perfect game. Good show thou. Good show. Once again. I hope an amazing game thats not open world makes goty one year. Like a super good fighting game. or a really good action platformer like mario galaxy in the past. Oh well.

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Edited By LoktarOgar

What about Gwent? Where's that review? The actual biggest and best game of the week.

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I really love that the summary Alex wrote is longer than some reviews. Please always keep writing. Reading is FUNdamental.

Thanks alex

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Well done !

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EricSmith

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@elwoodan: I hate the movement and the combat in this game. It all feels so slow. It's like they never figured out how to write a good, slow story so they thought forcing all movement to be slow would alleviate their script issues.

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Honestly never had any desire to play the first Red Dead Redemption nothing from what I've seen from this game makes it seem like it would be something I might enjoy.

Don't think cowboy games are for me.

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I struggle to think of another game that I respect so much, yet have absolutely no desire to play. Game looks amazing - not interested.

Clearly RDR2 is a real labour of love, and I'm sure it will be hugely successful and provide massive bonuses to its staff. I just hope R* learnt some important lessons along the way. If the undoubted runaway success of this causes them to double down on their management style, it will be a rather sad outcome.

Yeah...They aren't going to learn any lessons. You can't teach a belligerent child a lesson by giving them a light slap on the wrist with one hand, then give praise and money with the other. Critical articles are nice but record breaking retail numbers and glowing reviews will tell Rockstar all they need to know going forward. It will tell them that they are right. Poor working working conditions is what gets approved when the collective votes with their wallets. That's is only thing that anyone can be certain of.

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I love that people constantly mention how John, Dutch and Bill were in the first game. Literally no one mentions that Javier Escuella is also right beside us in RDR2, despite the fact that tracking him down was the entire reason for our trip to Mexico. That's how forgettable Mexico was for a lot of people in the first game. Kind of a shame really.

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Wonderful words

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Nice review, especially in balancing the recent news on Rockstar with the game. Though so far it's kind of crazy how wide the gulf is between the critical reaction and audience reaction. The game has gotten almost universally perfect reviews. But on forums, reddit, and all the rest the game has gotten a much more mixed reception due to the gameplay, languid pacing, and other issues that kind of get glossed over or accepted in the reviews.

Given how I've previously fallen off nearly every Rockstar game because of the uneven storytelling and gameplay, and given that even the perfect reviews point out issues that I think would really push me away, I'm going to pass. I'm playing Assassin's Creed now and can see its shortcomings, and it's much more gamey as an open world, but I think that fits in a lot more with what I want out of this style of game.

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deactivated-60481185a779c

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Thank you for this thoughtful criticism, Alex.

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Edited By schindigg

Good review but i wish people would stop complaining about the work conditions issue. There are tons of trades (construction, medical, law, etc.) that have people working these kinds of hours and no one says anything about it, but all of a sudden people go bananas over people making video games for long hours. I don't get it. It's been a well known practice in games making for years and it's only a huge issue now because someone talked about it? I don't know, just seems like people don't mind other people work these hours as long as they're not making video games, if they are then thats a line too far.

Am I missing something here?

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Phoenix87

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Edited By Phoenix87

4 hours in and I am finding it boring. Maybe that will change. Hopefully it will

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jtm33

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@schindigg:

Trade unions talk about that stuff all the time (that's kinda the whole point of their existence) so I don't know what you mean by that. I wouldn't expect a games website to talk about construction work conditions.

It is also not a competition to see who can work under harder conditions. A discussion of workplace conditions in games can stand alone. Or at the very least there can be issues specific to game development that can be discussed.

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The_Lord_Fagan

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Edited By The_Lord_Fagan

@schindigg said:

Good review but i wish people would stop complaining about the work conditions issue. There are tons of trades (construction, medical, law, etc.) that have people working these kinds of hours and no one says anything about it, but all of a sudden people go bananas over people making video games for long hours. I don't get it. It's been a well known practice in games making for years and it's only a huge issue now because someone talked about it? I don't know, just seems like people don't mind other people work these hours as long as they're not making video games, if they are then thats a line too far.

Am I missing something here?

Yeah, you're missing how it was an issue with the first Red Dead Redemption and was pretty controversial when the spouses of the developers sent out an open letter detailing the human costs of these practices almost a decade ago and the company seemed to learn nothing from that debacle.

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SethMode

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Edited By SethMode

@schindigg said:

Good review but i wish people would stop complaining about the work conditions issue. There are tons of trades (construction, medical, law, etc.) that have people working these kinds of hours and no one says anything about it, but all of a sudden people go bananas over people making video games for long hours. I don't get it. It's been a well known practice in games making for years and it's only a huge issue now because someone talked about it? I don't know, just seems like people don't mind other people work these hours as long as they're not making video games, if they are then thats a line too far.

Am I missing something here?

With that post? Yes, you're missing a lot on a variety of different levels.

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Fonzinator

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Edited By Fonzinator

@schindigg said:

Good review but i wish people would stop complaining about the work conditions issue. There are tons of trades (construction, medical, law, etc.) that have people working these kinds of hours and no one says anything about it, but all of a sudden people go bananas over people making video games for long hours. I don't get it. It's been a well known practice in games making for years and it's only a huge issue now because someone talked about it? I don't know, just seems like people don't mind other people work these hours as long as they're not making video games, if they are then thats a line too far.

Am I missing something here?

I am pretty sure that journo's would be equally against poor conditions/overworking in pretty much any field. It is just that they are game-focused first, and the Rockstar stuff came up again. (expectedly as their first game in 5 years just came out)

Yes, the world has an uncountable number of terrible things happening in it. Doesn't mean people shouldn't raise awareness for "lesser evils" that are closer to them. Besides, there are accounts that bringing attention to this kind of stuff works for the better. See some of those recent comments from R* employees admitting that the culture is now better than it was. We should all be glad for something like that.

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mattchops

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Wow, 5 stars. I think that's correct and I can't wait to play it. I think people will be talking about this game for a long time. My guess is it sets the bar for open world games and has a lot of other companies attempt a copy

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Willy105

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Edited By Willy105

@schindigg: You are missing a lot I'm afraid. For one, people in the game industry don't have the protections (or rewards) that people in construction and medicine do. Yes, it was a well known practice for years, but the idea about shining a spotlight on those problems is to make the industry better, not to just ignore them simply because "that's how it always has been before". It would seem you might even feel that way about many different topics, which would mean that in that case, yes, absolutely, you are missing a lot of issues that could be fixed if more people simply cared.