Is this town big enough for the 32 of us?
The pendulum of the Red Dead Online experience, which quietly removed its beta label in May, is one that swings wildly. One moment I might be engaged in patient management barely distinguishable from Red Dead Redemption 2’s slow-paced single-player gameplay, perhaps perched on one knee by a fire barbequing a batch of pork rubbed with freshly plucked oregano (or mint, or thyme). The next, though, could just as well be the complete chaos of PvP multiplayer in indiscriminate, close-quarters slaughter in which I might be sprawled dead for the umpteenth time in the labyrinthine alleys around Saint Denis’ Lanik Electrical factory with a tomahawk in my face courtesy of someone called 420bong_rip. As an online environment full of real people, some of whom will invariably be pond scum, Red Dead Online may not be as elegant an experience as the carefully curated single-player world, but the true appeal tends to expose itself when facing its unforgiving landscape beside friends.
This is a broad beast stuffed with story-driven co-op missions, a seemingly endless array of odd jobs and side quests, plus a growing set of PvP deathmatches and horse races, all housed within Red Dead Redemption 2’s enormous, living wild western world. During my time in Red Dead Online so far I’ve partnered with pals to gun down waves of egg-sucking NPCs on behalf of an angry widow with an itchy trigger finger, and I’ve sat with other random players for hours playing round after round of Texas hold ’em. I’ve quaffed beers amongst a friendly fight club in a Blackwater bar where nary a single smokewagon was skinned, and I’ve been shot in the back while unarmed by lily-livered cowpokes too cowardly to seek out a fair fight elsewhere. I’ve ridden on my lonesome and as part of a posse, survived a handful of in-game ambushes, hunted anything with a heartbeat, and fished and fished and fished.
Come, Helen Highwater
Red Dead Online unfolds across the same exquisite world as Red Dead Redemption 2, which is all unlocked from the outset (even the parts that are temporarily inaccessible for story reasons in single-player). Set just prior to the main story of Arthur and the Van der Linde Gang, Red Dead Online has its own tale to tell and casts us as patsies caught up in a grand, revenge-driven plot that has yet to fully unfold in the dozen-plus story missions that Rockstar has made available thus far. An introductory sequence lets us create a character – man or woman – from scratch. It’s not entirely unlike GTA Online’s character creator, though only a single character can be created and maintained at this stage. There are plenty of options here to create a character with a face that would stop a clock, thanks largely to the dental selections (which range from corn-kernel yellow to missing entirely). On PS4 I’ve opted for a broad-shouldered, redheaded woman with a scarred face and a bad attitude, presumably from a lifetime of growing up with a pun for a name. (Sorry about that, Helen Highwater.) On Xbox One, “Ravishing” Rick O’Shea is my boy. He’s Irish, probably. No one’s ever heard his accent.
The intro that follows is a gently paced series of cutscenes and tasks which set the tone for a lot of what follows. Helen or Rick or whoever you’ve cobbled together has been sentenced to hang for a murder they didn’t commit – the killing of the widow Jessica LeClerk’s husband – but is broken out and put to work by LeClerk and her associate to aid in the pursuit and punishment of the folks actually responsible. The intro doesn’t last too long, though, and before you know it you’ll be loose in the open world, free to tackle Red Dead Online in any way you see fit. Want to plough through the story missions? Get cracking. Want to earn cash and XP by moseying around the countryside taking on jobs from the ‘Strangers’ dotted around the map as quest-giver NPCs? Go right ahead. Want to spend all your time at the poker table? Deal yourself in. Prefer skulking about in the woods shooting bears and badgers? There’s nothing stopping you (well, nothing except the bears themselves and, to a lesser extent, the badgers). Not quite everything has made the jump from the single-player sandbox, but there’s certainly more than enough to keep me occupied every time I log in.
Red Dead Online plays just like its solo-oriented stablemate, from the same style of deliberate, weighted movement to the same type of frantic gunfights rife with tumbling bodies, sailing hats, and squelching headshots. Health, stamina, and Dead Eye cores need to be maintained by eating the right food when necessary, horses need to be cared for, and guns need to be kept clean. Those of you who grew tired of this sort of stuff in the single-player are unlikely to be swayed here but I still really like the survival aspect and the atmosphere of authenticity it helps create.
Red Dead Online’s story missions unfold much like those within Red Dead Redemption 2; they’re generally a series of rides, chases, and/or gunfights stitched together and bookended with well-produced cutscenes. They can’t be played alone – they must be played in two- to four-player co-op – but you can either bring friends or let the matchmaking group you up with random players. Even though I’d generally rather play alone than with strangers, matchmaking is quick and painless and I’ve never needed to wait long to be linked up with enough players to start a story mission. Also, some of the missions require players to split up to achieve objectives and wouldn’t support a solo player, so the requirement is at least justified by the mission design and not entirely arbitrary.
There are several memorable missions, including surviving an epic siege in the town of Valentine, storming Fort Mercer in iron armour inspired by the Kelly Gang, and robbing a Saint Denis bank and escaping through the streets in an 1898 version of GTA IV’s famous Heat-inspired Three Leaf Clover heist. One mission I played – Kerosene, Tar, and Greed – was a bit of a bust as a first-time player because my more experienced match-made partners disappeared from the outset, riding ahead of the instructions and accomplishing most of the required tasks before I even knew where to go to complete them. Other than that, however, I’ve had a lot of fun with the story missions.
Interestingly, four missions are exclusive to players with high honour, and four are only playable by those with low honour. It’s certainly a good way to prevent people who fancy themselves as more noble types from needing to get embroiled in cop-killing sprees, but it does mean that everybody will miss some neat missions on one side or the other unless they opt to tank their honour with an hour or so of senseless slaughter (or pay precious gold bars to have their honour flipped).
On top of the main story thread, however, there are 20 “Stranger” characters dotted around the map, ready to assign side missions from an apparently bottomless supply of escorts, deliveries, assassinations, kidnappings, repossessions, robberies, and more. As Stranger missions can range from hunting down outlaws and hijacking stagecoaches to collecting wagons and, er, delivering wagons, some are certainly less exciting than others. However, hovering over a previously met character on the map screen will remind you what missions they offer, if there are any in particular you want to avoid. Unlike Story missions, Stranger missions can be played alone – although it’s worth considering bringing a friend along to discourage rival players from messing with you as you try to complete them.
That’s actually been a relatively rare occurrence for me recently, and I’ve found general griefing down noticeably since the May 14 update. I’ve been able to complete almost all the Stranger missions I’ve attempted over the previous two weeks unmolested. I can’t figure out exactly why toxic play seems less rife but the new defensive mode seems to be a help by making attacking random players generally more trouble than it’s worth (toggling into defensive mode makes it impossible for other players to lock-on to you in auto-aim, and also makes you able to withstand slightly more punishment). There’s also a new ability to press charges, which raises your killer’s bounty and hostility level. On the surface it seems like some sort of mechanic designed to dissuade bad sports from summarily killing others unprovoked, although randomly killing others already used to automatically boost the perpetrator’s bounty. I’m not sure the “Press Charges” bounty amount is adequate. I’ve experimented on a couple of occasions after being murdered by opting not to use the parley option (which renders me immune to a griefer’s actions for 10 minutes) and have found that some aggressive players are content to continue to kill me, even while I’m in defensive mode, and even after I’ve pressed charges half a dozen times. Clearly the penalty isn’t significant enough, and perhaps it needs to multiply for multiple kills on the same player within a small window. At the very least there certainly should be no XP awarded for killing players in defensive mode, as there currently is.
The Good, the Bad and the Bloody
I had a terrible 48 hours of connection issues in the two days before update 1.10, regularly losing pelts and progress thanks to a spate of crashes, but in a very pleasing turnaround I’ve had almost no issues in the past week. There are still some annoying hitches (I’ve still lost pelts from the back of my horse after using a fast-travel post, on more than one occasion I’ve triggered a Stranger mission only the have the objective disappear without notification after going to the map screen, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve attracted a Wanted level in Saint Denis for ‘stealing’ my own horse) but it’s generally pretty sturdy.
One major mechanical difference between single-player and multiplayer, of course, is the way Dead Eye is handled. You’re naturally unable to go into slow-motion while online but Dead Eye is still an absolutely crucial technique to master in order to be remotely competitive when you hop into the bloody PvP modes.
Icons to enter a playlist of multiplayer deathmatch-style games are dotted around the map but opting in via the pause menu is far easier. Small (up to 16 players) and large games (up to 32 players) are separated into two different playlists that cycle randomly through game types, though the latest multiplayer match types added via updates appear to be accessible directly from the pause screen while they’re fresh. The newly added Overrun is the pick for me, though my preference is the layout that’s a narrow strip of checkpoints that two teams must try to push each other back through, like if World War I was restricted to the width of a two-lane freeway and had a time limit of two minutes. Most Wanted is okay, too; it’s essentially a deathmatch where the more players you kill, the higher your own value becomes, and other people will subsequently get more points for killing you. In theory it’s possible to come from behind by killing the Most Wanted and netting a windfall of points; in practice, success mostly just put me in the sights of a better player (or at least one with better guns, better ammo, and/or ability perks that allow them to eat way more damage).
I’ve had more success in the small-scale battle royale modes, like Make It Count (which restricts all players to the same, single weapon and the last one alive is the overall winner), or the new Last Stand (which lets us bring our own loadout but the maps are much smaller and it’s the first to win two rounds who emerges as overall victor). While the other modes are essentially fast-paced and frantic massacres with slightly different rulesets and objectives for each, Red Dead Online’s battles royale suit my pace of play more by allowing me to sneak, hide, and set up ambushes.
I’ve also tasted success in another recently added mode (Head for the Hills, where teams of players must either reach a safehouse by fighting or sneaking their way through enemy-patrolled territory, or stop a rival team from reaching said safehouse) but I reckon this mode is too harsh on defenders. It seems surprisingly easy to sneak through the fairly large maps without being seen by your opposition, and once hidden behind the safehouse you’re untouchable because defenders aren’t able to leave their area to get their sights on you.
The horse races in Red Dead Online are interesting as they’re simultaneously one of the silliest modes (think Road Rash 1899, and add smashing through barrels to boost your horse’s stamina and pick up weapons) and yet also the most skilled-based. The extremely potent auto-aim is disabled during horse racing so, while you can collect and use firearms, hitting anyone is actually quite difficult (as it really ought to be, clinging to the back of a 500-kilogram animal doing 40 miles per hour firing guns that were probably invented before the lightbulb). I barely bother with the weapon pick-ups, actually; trying to focus on hitting someone ahead usually just slows me down.
There are three different types of horse races: circuit races, point-to-point races, and ‘Open Races’, the latter of which are basically frantic treasure hunts as all players dart around an open map collecting the scattered checkpoints in any order before racing to a single finish line. I have a preference for the regular circuit and point-to-point races at this point, as everyone’s more or less on a level playing field (as opposed to having to collect a bunch of widely dispersed checkpoints and hoping you chose the most efficient route to each of them).
Red Dead Online features microtransactions based on gold, a second currency that can be slowly accumulated by playing or rapidly purchased for real cash. It’s slightly insidious that some cosmetic items are restricted to gold-only purchases, but it depends on how much you value your wardrobe. Me? I’ve changed clothes about once in the past six months and couldn’t care less about emotes.
As far as its effect on actual gameplay, gold can’t be used to level up, but it can be used to bypass level locks on cosmetic stuff. Gold can also be used to buy weapons, but you can’t buy them early; you still need to have reached the eligible rank. Gold can’t be used to upgrade ability perk cards, either (they require a combination of XP and cash). At any rate, Rockstar has been giving out so much gold for free lately it’s just been sitting idle in my inventory (you can get 10 free gold bars just by adding two-factor security to your Rockstar Social Club account at the moment).
By fluttering between hunting, Stranger missions, and story missions I have more in-game money than things I’m desperately keen to buy right now. For better or for worse, levelling up is quite slow, so by the time I unlock the occasional new item I want I’ve found I’d already accrued enough money for it. Gold seems like a timesaver for those with eyes bigger than their wallets.
There are also Free Roam events, which gather anyone currently in Free Roam who accepts the invite and dumps them into various contests. I’m not a fan of Fool’s Gold, which sees a mob fighting over the chance to wear golden armour, and Railroad Baron is frustrating too (think King of the Hill on a train, but you have to catch the train on your horse each time you die, and you respawn in clumps alongside other rivals). It’s chaos and should probably be for two smaller teams rather than a free-for-all. I don’t mind Master Archer (build up points by hitting bullseyes hung around the map with a bow and arrow) but other people do ruin it by running around blasting folks with rifles. Perhaps combat should be disabled. I do love the fishing competitions, though, if only because I’m finally decent at it.
All in all, however, Red Dead Online’s PvP modes are easily my least favourite part of the whole package. They’re certainly not the reason I play it and I’d be lying if I said I’d miss them if they suddenly vanished. For me, it’s all about co-op and PvE gameplay, which Red Dead Online’s free-roam mode and story/stranger missions are brimming with. The big hurdle for me when it comes to taking on other humans is that it just feels like I’m wasting my time and energy going up against higher-level players who have access to better ammo and upgraded perks within the ability card system (which seems packed with power-ups geared towards compromising the balance of any given shootout). I just don’t find it fun fighting high-level players packing more potent special ammo and bulletproof hats, who are also splurging on tonics to fortify their health, stamina, and Dead Eye bars. I just don’t have the energy to match that commitment to maxing out perks, constantly accumulating better bullets, and overdosing on special tonics just to be in the same league. It’s exhausting. I’d rather beat them at the poker table, or just disappear and go fishing. But that’s the beauty of Red Dead Online: I can opt out of entire portions of it and still have stacks to do because it’s so damn big.