2018 was a special year for gaming.
After a lengthy development cycle, one of the most anticipated games of the generation launched on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2 was an instant hit, breaking records and becoming one of the highest grossing entertainment launches in history. In terms of overall success, it beat the likes of Avengers: Infinity War and only trailed second behind the developer’s previous game, Grand Theft Auto V.
Earlier in the year, the PlayStation 4 also experienced triumph with its biggest ever exclusive game launch. Under the helm of Insomniac Games, Marvel’s Spider-Man would set records for Sony’s platform. In fact, the web-slinger’s game became the biggest release of 2018 at the time before losing out to Red Dead Redemption 2 a little more than a month later.
There’s little doubt that Red Dead Redemption 2 and Spider-Man were the biggest releases of the year. Yet, even with Spider-Man’s success, its numbers pale in comparison to Red Dead Redemption 2. While Spider-Man managed over three million copies in its first week, Red Dead Redemption 2 scored an outrageous 17 million units sold.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. After all, apart from a stellar reputation, Rockstar’s game of cowboys and outlaws took eight years to make, and boasts probably the densest and most intricate open world in the genre’s history. In it, you’ll gallop through the quiet fields, mushy swamps, and barren deserts, all while acquainting yourself intimately with the world and its various side activities. Hunt for wild beasts, play a game of poker, speak to the inhabitants – it’s your call.
Spider-Man, on the other hand, isn’t quite as vast. Nowhere close, even. While the urban jungle of New York has been recreated to accurate detail, it becomes clear from the get-go that the city is a playground rather than a world to live in. Points of interest litter the map, consisting of checklist-type activities like collectible backpacks, crimes, photo locations, and more. You’re swinging, running on walls, and doing backflips from point A to B. And yet, despite the smaller size and more streamlined experience, it’s in this frank simplicity that Spider-Man may have an edge over Red Dead Redemption 2.
Long trips through the Old West, with a smartphone in hand
An important aspect that stood out to me through my entire time with Red Dead Redemption 2 was its substantial lack of fast travel points. Almost as if done deliberately, many of your travels across the vast land of America force you to manually ride by horseback. A far cry from racing through the cityscapes in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V, you ride your trusty steed from one destination to the next, and it’s mostly quiet for these several long minutes.
The design behind Red Dead Redemption 2 relies heavily on building a sprawling world that’s as alive as can be. With a high emphasis on varied content, the game expects that you take your time in experiencing the incredible views. All manner of quirky folk also appears along the way, providing small vignettes of what America was like in the past.
While Rockstar has delivered a masterful simulation of this eventful point in history, travelling in Red Dead Redemption 2 is just so remarkably tedious. This is especially so when the average playtime for completion naturally stretches into tens of hours.
It’s not uncommon to ride out somewhere to begin a mission, only for this mission to then send you somewhere else. A majority of the game will consist of nothing more than rapidly tapping the sprint button and tilting your analog stick every so often. And if you rush and accidentally run head-on into a tree? You’ll get thrown off your horse and have to watch as Arthur Morgan awkwardly recovers from the ordeal.
But the developers knew that traversal gets boring at some point, and so implemented a cinematic mode that would let the AI take over for you. It’s a pseudo-fast travel system that doesn’t require you to glue your eyes to the screen but still makes you wait. The horse kind of just strolls to your destination, and apart from the ambient music, there aren’t any soundtracks for you to select from and listen to, likely because radios didn’t exist back in the day. I eventually found myself watching YouTube videos on my smartphone in between these lengthy commutes, but I wouldn’t say that’s quite a realistic depiction of the late 19th century either.
And the lack of fast travel points? Well, there weren’t too many towns in 1899, so stagecoaches and train stations were rare to find. That’s pretty much what the game has for an excuse.
“Wealth and fame, he ignores, action is his reward”
So what makes Spider-Man’s traversal better, then? The key word here is: engagement. Start the game fresh and the first tutorial you’ll find is a lesson on web-slinging. From the onset, you’ll learn that there are a lot of ways for you to traverse the bustling city of New York. You’ll swing from a web the classic way, parkour over obstacles, web-zip for a strong horizontal momentum, hop across rooftops with a well-timed point launch, and more.
When designing the urban playground that Spider-Man would roam in, Insomniac Games even took some liberties with some of New York’s buildings. Many buildings in the game are much taller than their real-life counterparts, and this allows for you to swing from more exhilarating heights.
Even when a certain character in-game talks about how he broke his toe jumping off a bridge, you’ll find that fall damage doesn’t really exist in the game. It’s all about making traversal a fun and engaging experience so that you’re never bored when moving around. It’s often a difficult thing to get right in open world games, but Spider-Man is certainly a standout example when it comes to getting this right.
Not only is moving from one edge of the map to the opposite end intuitive and fun, the game has unlockable fast travel points spread all across the city as research stations. Unlike Red Dead Redemption 2, however, Spider-Man doesn’t need a good explanation for providing you with a fast travel point. Even if the fun of web-slinging doesn’t make you eager to fast travel, the option to immediately move from Harlem to Chinatown without having to awkwardly scour the streets for subway stations, is very much appreciated.
More importantly, it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to reach your destination in Spider-Man as it does in Red Dead Redemption 2.
A big open world game that’s also surprisingly linear…
I’m sure most people can tell you that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a third-person shooter. If you’ve played the genre before, chances are you’ve done this dance before. A gun battle ensues, you scurry to the side to find some cover, and then peep out once in a while to pick off your opponents.
To spice things up, Red Dead Redemption 2 uses a special Dead Eye targeting system. What this does is it lets you to slow time down to a crawl and tag multiple enemies within that period. Once you pull the trigger, you’ll let loose multiple shots on enemies, taking them down stylishly in one fell swoop.
The Dead Eye system is pretty much the star of Red Dead Redemption 2’s gunfights. It’s what makes the game’s combat unique and fun. And let’s face it, slow-mo takedowns are always incredibly fun to play around with.
And yet, the gunfights do suffer. Though Rockstar has staged some breath-taking set pieces for gunfights, the core gameplay never quite evolves. It doesn’t take long before each gunfight becomes the same old ritual of finding a cover point, eliminating enemies in the vicinity, and then moving on when the story lets you.
The AI in Red Dead Redemption 2 can be rather straightforward, either shooting at you from a distance, or lumbering towards you across an open field. For the most part, there’s no sense of danger that compels you to leave a safe spot, since enemies rarely flank you, and don’t ever try to flush you out with explosives such as molotovs or dynamite (even though you can use them yourself).
This often makes gun battles feel like glorified whack-a-mole mini-games rather than intense shootouts. Gone are the dangerous enemy layouts of Rockstar’s Max Payne 3. Instead, simply wait for someone to stick their head out from cover and you’re good to go.
And don’t even worry about running out of ammo, because you can hold an absurd amount of bullets in your satchel. In many games, you’re encouraged to leave cover so that you can pick more ammo up from the corpses lying around. This is almost impossible to happen in Red Dead Redemption 2, even if you’re terrible at aiming.
Compounding the issues are the game’s take on RPG mechanics. Consumable items such as food, drinks, and drugs are core to the experience, governing health, stamina, and the Dead Eye gauge. Using these items will replenish and strengthen your character, and can be used liberally so long as you have the items stocked.
Aside from select sequences where your use of items are limited, the game essentially allows you to play carelessly as long as you’d purchased some resources beforehand. There’s simply no cleverness required on the player’s part, which is unfortunate.
The Master Of Improvisation
It’s clear at this point that Red Dead Redemption 2 has set out to be a game accessible to even inexperienced players. While Spider-Man has also taken due caution to achieve this, it carefully does so without putting hardened gamers at a disadvantage.
When you start your game in Spider-Man, you’re given a choice between multiple difficulties to help define your experience. As the difficulty level goes up, enemies will become more durable and also hit harder.
Insomniac Games even added an extra difficulty mode in a later patch to truly satisfy those players yearning for a healthy dose of punishment. A difficulty slider is something that’s sorely missing from Red Dead Redemption 2, which is a clear advantage that Spider-Man has in terms of giving players a challenge.
But let’s also dive into the combat system. Spider-Man’s combat takes some clear inspirations from games in the past such as Devil May Cry and the Batman Arkham series. This should already give you an idea of the kind game you’re dealing with. Indeed, Spider-Man provides you with a slew of creative options to take down your enemies. You can launch opponents into the air, create combos, knock them off buildings (don’t worry, they don’t actually die), slide under them, and web them up.
When you’re not using these moves to style on opponents, Spider-Man’s moveset also bestows upon you a dizzying amount of strategic opportunities. Complementing his acrobatic ability are a wide range of gadgets that Spider-Man always has at his disposal.
While limited in use, tools such as the trip-mine, impact web, web bomb, and more are effective at trimming down the enemy ranks in the right situations. Spider-Man can also glide effortlessly across the arena to deal with a variety of enemies, chasing those with guns, or escaping from giant brutes, providing extra layers of options when dealing with the game’s many challenges.
Some other interesting aspects in Spider-Man include the ability to unlock and equip Suit Powers and Mods. These allow players to customise some of the webhead’s abilities to better suit their own playstyle. Do you use a lot of gadgets? Here’s something that will let you replenish them at will. Are you a master at evading attacks? Have fun with this ability that slows down time whenever you execute a perfect dodge.
To better summarise the two games when it comes to combat, Red Dead Redemption 2’s shootouts are rarely as dynamic as the brawls in Spider-Man are. The emphasis on a single difficulty has also created a rigid structure that can’t accommodate every kind of player.
On the other hand, Spider-Man embraces creating challenges for players and even provides a host of options that they can choose from to tackle them. If you aren’t into the immersive realism and set pieces that Red Dead Redemption 2 goes for, then Spider-Man is a clear winner in the combat department.
Two games for two different kinds of gamers
I’m not the kind of player who enjoys having an easy time in a game. As someone who spends most of my time playing fighting games and RPGs, where complex inputs and strategies are a priority, sitting through Red Dead Redemption 2 can be a frustration without actively shifting my mindset. The developers at Rockstar have no doubt created an incredible game with so many things to do, and many stories to experience. But to me, it’s all width and no depth.
Spider-Man was a surprise for me, and the amount of engagement the game provided saw me putting long sessions into the game and finishing the game in no time. It’s a game that’s a little more old-school in its approach, focusing on interesting challenges and tight gameplay rather than an interactive storytelling experience, but this isn’t a bad thing. The cinematic cutscenes were enough for me, and at least I didn’t need to spend up to five minutes of my time herding sheep or picking up poop while someone talked at length in the background.
At the end of the day, these are games suited to two different types of gamers. Red Dead Redemption 2 wouldn’t necessarily be boring for everyone, but it can be if you’re more interested in action and game mechanics like I am. I can see how Red Dead Redemption 2’s mix of storytelling, environments, and attention to detail can be appealing and important to the evolution of video games.
However, I personally just prefer how Spider-Man focuses on a few things, like its web-slinging and combat, and then refines them to showcase a large amount of depth.
Content or gameplay? It’s up to you. With these two games at the forefront as some of the biggest games of the year, 2018 certainly is a special year for gaming.