#196: Redemption song
Pining for the old days, in more ways than one.
I did not buy a new PC for Red Dead Redemption II. I have, however, been playing an awful lot of it since the new Hit Points gaming behemoth, with its embarrassing yet strangely loveable array of onboard RGB lighting, arrived a couple of weeks ago.
Rockstar’s magnum opus runs like a dream on this thing, of course — you would expect it to, given its age and the dent the machine has put in my credit card. But it is not leading me to any exciting new conclusions about the game or anything like that. It’s just a very nice-looking, and stupidly high-functioning, version of a game that has always had a special place in my heart, and that I have been thinking about replaying for a while now. I have, over the years, grown slightly tired of the opening — I played it for an Edge cover story shortly before release, again for review, then on the shinier Series X version and the fancier-still PC release — but have finally knuckled down and pushed through it. I’m about 20 hours in, onto the second campsite, and having an absolute whale of a time. What a game.
I have written a lot about RDR2 over the years, but allow me to wax a little lyrical about it before we get into the meat of today’s edition. If nothing else, the next couple of paragraphs will justify how much time I’ve spent in New Austin over the last fortnight.
This is that rare open-world game — maybe even the only one, in fact — where I feel like the emphasis is on the world, rather than its openness. It feels like a real place in which I, through Arthur Morgan’s tired eyes and lovely beard, actually live. When I am out on the road and a rider comes into view, I slow down, sizing up the potential threat, saying a gruff hello to those I allow to pass. I walk — saunter, really, sometimes even strut — through towns because sprinting looks daft and feels out of character. I pat, feed and brush my horse after a stressful escape from the law, because he has earned it. I bought some new clothes the other day because the gang had escaped down south and I was worried Arthur might be a bit hot, and also because the clothes in this game are incredible. I sleep every night, not because the enemies get stronger or tougher monsters come out of their caves or whatever, but because I am a person in this world, and people need to sleep.
When, at the end of a mission, I am occasionally offered a free fast-travel back to camp, I demur because I fancy the ride. I race the sun home, scanning the darkening horizon for something to kill for dinner. Apparently there’s some in-game system built around sustenance; something to do with ‘cores’, I believe. I have never engaged with it, because I have never had to, so busy am I slotting bunnies and deer and so on with bullet-time arrows, lugging the spoils back to camp to share with my crew. In this world I eat and I sleep; I feed my kin; I nod curtly to strangers and grunt a lot; I buy slightly more clothes than a man of my lifestyle probably needs. Talk about art imitating life.
A few of you are reading this and thinking ‘yeah, but what about the controls?’ Fair enough, but also: no. Shush. The controls are fine.
What’s really grabbed me about RDR2 this time around is how fresh it still feels. It’s nearly five years old, and while I get a big kick out of seeing old games tarted up by the brute-force power of a new PC, they can normally be expected to show their age. I restarted GTAV for the umpteenth time a couple of months back and while it holds up really well for a game that is almost a decade old, it is nonetheless, quite obviously, almost a decade old. It’s had some work done, sure, and it’s still got that old glint in its eye, but it walks with a bit of a stoop. It creaks a bit when it sits down, grunts when it stands back up. Red Dead, though? It still feels like it came out yesterday.
Actually, that’s not true. It can’t possibly have come out yesterday, because it works.
Two hot new games have landed in the last few days, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor and Redfall. Both games are, to put it politely, in need of a few patches. This is not new-PC-guy elitism, to be clear; the consensus around both games is already pretty well established, and in Survivor’s case has already been acknowledged by its developers (I imagine Arkane’s ‘we hear you’ mea culpa is already in the post). I have played a little of both, and I promise I am not straying into hyperbole when I say I have consulted on games that were six months out from release and were in better shape than either of these are at launch. And since neither EA nor Bethesda are paying me a day rate, both games can go on my other pile of shame — the one for games that have launched half-cocked and will presumably, in a few months or years or whatever, be patched into the sort of state they should have been in on day one.
Why does this keep happening? In Survivor’s case I imagine EA calculated it needed to be on shelves for the marketing buzz of Star Wars Day, and in time for the publisher to proclaim launch a success when it reports its annual results next week. I suppose I can see the sense in it, if I squint a bit. For Redfall… hmm. I had previously believed that Game Pass should, at a basic conceptual level, mean the end of this sort of thing, giving developers a safety net and a time buffer, removing the typical pressures of the traditional way of selling games. Apparently not.
The gaming cognoscenti has understood for a while that buying a game at launch is a gamble. But the odds have never seemed quite so stacked against us. I get that making games is hard, and I appreciate the pandemic made it harder still. I understand that financial realities mean that sometimes a game has to go out the door a little earlier than would be ideal. But as a consumer, I don’t really care. These companies are still marketing these things as triple-A products and pricing them in kind, and are not holding up their end of the bargain.
So sure, as a consumer, I am frustrated. As a keen observer of the game industry, I am increasingly worried. There is an immediate reputational consequence for Respawn and Arkane, who until last week were among the most respected studios in the industry. There are wider implications the longer this phenomenon continues, the more we are told and shown that paying full price for a game on launch day is a mug’s game. Think things are rough right now? Imagine what happens when all but the biggest games launch with a wet fart because their audience has been taken for fools one too many times.
There are plenty of cautionary tales for what can happen when a game is released in this sort of state. I do not understand how EA and Microsoft can look at the likes of No Man’s Sky, Final Fantasy XIV, Cyberpunk 2077 and all the rest and conclude that, hey, you can put out any old shite and it will all be alright in the end. Actually, maybe I can understand that; maybe, if you’re a real shithouse, you see certain advantages to this approach.
You can’t crunch your teams during development anymore: Kotaku or Bloomberg will find out and have your guts for garters. But things are different once the game is in the wild, your community is furious, the press is spitting feathers and your crestfallen employees will work willingly round the clock to put things right. You’ll take a couple of weeks of heat for it, but players and press are fickle. There’ll be another scandal along to take its place in short order, because everyone’s pulling this shit now. And hey, who doesn’t love a good redemption story? What a rotten, cynical, deeply troubling state of affairs.
We all deserve better than this, I think — players and consumers, yes, but particularly developers. I can’t imagine what it must be like to work on something for five years then have it forced out onto shelves a patch or six before its time. I worry how much worse it’s got to get before it dawns on the people with the power to change things that this simply isn’t sustainable — and whether, when that day finally comes, there will even be a way back.
Ugh, stuff it. I’m off to brush my horse.
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As you’d expect, there was lots of discussion around Hit Points’ thoughts on the UK blocking Acquisition Blizzard across Discord, the comments section, the Hit Points inbox and even Substack’s new Notes thing, which I’m still not sure about. Herewith some highlights.
“The CMA should be given credit for not folding under pressure, which seems to have been almost policy since 2008,” says Robert F in the comments. “More regulatory bodies should act with the foresight to foster a climate where smaller competition has a fair chance. And the thought of Lulu Cheng Meservey binning her memes folder made me laugh.” Thank you! Meservey’s a piece of work, clearly, but I must admit she is also a good source of gags.
“How long until accusing heads turn towards Phil Spencer?” asks Michael Grant in the Discord (for clarity, this was posted in the light of the CMA ruling, and before Redfall released). “I've always liked the cut of his jib and how he speaks about Xbox, and he deserves a lot of credit for helping to right the ship hardware-wise compared to the execrable Mattrick days. But the software pipeline still seems like a total disaster compared to how it was on the 360. I'm not sure whether the approach is too hands-on or too hands-off in general, or whether the chopping and changing of this is always wrong for nearly every project, but something isn't working at all.” Hit Points has been banging this drum for a while, and I’ve seen enough Succession to know that a big failure like this is often solved by way of blood sacrifice. And I note Spencer hasn’t tweeted in five days, which is most unlike him. Hmm.
“Thank you so much for the newsletter yesterday,” says Heaterhands in the excellent Hit Points Discord (on Friday, obviously). “It made me shed my scepticism of the CMA’s rationale tout de suite. Given how much time I put into keeping up with this space/sector/medium, that insight was probably worth what I spend on an HP sub in a year, all on its own.” A lesson for us all in there, I think. Unless you subscribe already, of course, or you’re me.
Hurrah, MAILBAG’s back! To keep this train a-rollin’ you can leave a comment, hop in the Discord, or simply reply to this here email.
The big thing, I think, is that Tears Of The Kingdom has leaked almost two weeks before release. I’m a bit uncomfortable with all the reporting on this because, while I’m sure it’s intended as an alarm call for the spoiler-averse, it’s also an advertisement to anyone with an eyepatch and a torrent client. Hit Points is as excited for TOTK as the rest of you and certainly has a PC capable of jumping in early, but I will not be sailing the high seas on this occasion. I spent a decade playing hot new games before everyone else, and while it’s obviously very exciting it’s also quite lonely at times. I look forward to sharing TOTK with you lot on May 12.
2K has finally announced a release date for the PS4 and Xbox One versions of Marvel’s Midnight Suns. Due on May 11, the day before Zelda, one could argue it’s being sent out to die at a time when the game scene’s eyes will be elsewhere. Consider your expectations duly managed. The publisher has gone a step further by outright cancelling the promised Switch version of Jake Solomon’s Firaxis swansong.
Monolith Soft has become the latest Japanese game company to raise the base salary of all its employees. Following the lead of the likes of Sega, Namco Bandai and Nintendo, Monolith says by way of example that a graduate starting salary is going up by 22%. Okay, the new starter’s annual wage is still only £17,500, but Hit Points will take whatever sign of progress it can find, if you don’t mind.
Sony reckons it will break its annual hardware-sales record as PS5 continues to fly off the shelves. In the three months to March 31 the company sold 6.3m consoles; as a result it is projecting 25m unit sales for the coming financial year, which would break a 25-year-old record set by PS1.
I enjoyed this Eurogamer writeup of all the generative AI discourse at GDC, written by Hit Points chum Chris Tapsell. Go!
That’ll do, I think! Hit Points is off for a haircut and beard trim today, which is always one of the nicer days of the month. Paid subs, I’ll see you again before the week is out; if the rest of you would like to join us you may do so for just £4 a month by clicking the button below. Cheerio!