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Red Dead Redemption 2's PC port still has big problems

Red Dead Redemption 2
(Image credit: Rockstar)

I'm having a difficult time reviewing Red Dead Redemption 2. Not because I abhor playing it—it's an amazing game in plenty of respects—but because it crashes every 30 to 45 minutes. 

My first day with Red Dead 2 went pretty well, so I didn't read too much into reports of performance problems across the internet as indicative of a bad port across the board. But those problems are now dominating the greater conversation online. Some players report hard freezes when arriving at Valentine for the first time. Audio distorts and crackles on occasion, which happens to me quite often. Others are reporting random crashes like my own, frequent freezes and stuttering, missing textures, and all sorts of minor (and terrifying) bugs.

Reddit and YouTube tend to amplify the problems of a loud minority on any game's release day, but once my colleagues started chiming in with their own issues, I really started to worry. Harry Shepherd experiences hitches that freeze the action every 30 seconds with an AMD RX 480 and Intel i5-6500, both of which meet the minimum system requirements. I've seen light framerate stuttering, even with an RTX 2080 and i9-9900K (more so when using the Vulkan API than DX12), every half hour or so. 

Getting hitched

Hardware editor Jarred Walton is another victim of frequent hitches. Since he's working on some in-depth benchmarks of RDR2, he's much more savvy to where the problems lie, saying slower CPUs are getting the worst of it right now.

"With i7-8700K and RTX 2080 Ti, things are pretty good overall in my experience. With i5-8400 and the same RTX 2080 Ti, I get periodic long pauses—several seconds sometimes, but it's usually just a bit stuttery for a few seconds."

It gets stranger. 

"And that's pretty much regardless of settings. In fact, 1080p and minimum quality often seems inexplicably worse than 1080p high or ultra," says Jarred. "A core i3-8100, again with 2080 Ti, ends up with multiple long four to five second stalls every 30 seconds or so, depending on what I'm doing. It's basically unplayable by default."

Red Dead 2 is a gorgeous game with massive draw distances. We expect it to tax our hardware, but when performance improves after using an external application that limits the maximum CPU usage a game is allowed, there has to be something else going on. 

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

Andy Kelly's been experiencing the same stuttering, which he's managed to allay only through the use of Battle Encoder Shirasé, a program that limits CPU usage for specific applications. After installing BES and following the instructions in this Reddit thread, Andy says the stuttering has completely disappeared, at least in the last 45 minutes of play. Jarred saw the same success with CPU limiting in DX12 on an i3-8100. If you're running an older CPU, it's definitely worth a shot.

It doesn't take elite programming knowledge or extensive hardware know-how to surmise that something in Red Dead 2's code is juicing CPUs too hard, failing to distribute the processing workload across the cores, or doesn't have the right checks in place to properly limit processes according to whatever CPU is in use. 

I imagine it like giving a horse too many apples. A horse is going to keep eating apples if presented them, I know this. And the horse is going to feel energized by the apples and run at a smooth and efficient horse-frames per second, up until the moment its tummy reaches max apple capacity at which point the horse stops, or stutters, in order to vomit up some apples to make room for more apples. A CPU suddenly given too many chunky calculations might choke in a similar way, exhibited by intermittent hitching in-game.

BES and CPU-limiting prevents RDR2 from pushing the CPU to the breaking point, forcing the game processes to chill before knocking your computer's brain on its ass. 

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

Older, slower CPUs (horses, if you're still stuck on the analogy) will hit that processing limit faster than slicker CPUs, and likely experience more abrupt, longer hitches. It probably explains why when I've seen stuttering on my i9-9900K it was barely noticeable and very infrequent. I'm just spitting theory, of course. We'll likely know the whole story in due time. 

While we expect smoother launches, especially from established developers like Rockstar, the studio is already making improvements. An update went out this morning that addresses crashes related to anti-virus software and another just now addressing launcher errors for some players with AMD processors. 

When asked about the widespread stuttering and crashes, a Rockstar representative told PC Gamer, "We are aware of the ongoing issues and we’re actively working to address them." 

We didn't get a word on when those issues will be addressed, but at the rate minor fixes have been rolling out—two today—I can't imagine we'll be dealing with them for too long. 

I sure hope not. I've lost too many damn pelts to random crashes already and I need to save up enough cash to buy a fishing rod. It's a lovely world, a simulation of a much slower life punctuated by bursts of action, and I can imagine the PC crowd finding a nice home in it. (Please join my Deadwood RP group.) I'm dying to explore the world, trade some furs, bury some bodies, and buy some sick hats, but my momentum's slowing more with every crash.  

As it stands, I'd just wait until Red Dead 2's bigger performance problems are taken care of before trying it yourself. I don't want anyone else losing any big fish on the line. 

James is PC Gamer’s bad boy, staying up late to cover Fortnite while cooking up radical ideas for the weekly livestream. He can still kickflip and swears a lot. You’ll find him somewhere in the west growing mushrooms and playing Dark Souls.