This Red Dead Online article contains spoilers.
The fog rolls in during a night ride in the Heartlands. I’ve just left four men for dead on some train tracks, the memory of their final pleas for mercy still fresh in my mind, when suddenly a stranger approaches from just up the dirt path. I’m nervous. I do not know this stranger or his intentions. Is it Death come for me for my sins, for the decaying soul of a man who would steal and kill for money? My long journey from Tumbleweed to Valentine has taught me to expect the worst and so I draw my revolver (a dirty thing; I’ll need to find gun oil later).
A few tense moments as the stranger (perhaps my killer) approaches, both our horses moving slowly toward a collision. Only a few seconds to make a decision. I can see him now, covered in shadow, a wide hat hiding his face, but I know where to aim. Then, almost face to face, he makes his move. I prepare to aim for his head and he…waves? Quietly, he rides on until he’s lost again in the fog.
While not the explosive encounter you probably hoped for, tense moments like this one make up the best Red Dead Online‘s beta has to offer so far. From meeting players on the road to jumping into a random shootout, I’ve had the most fun with Red Dead Redemption II‘s online mode when organically interacting with others. These encounters feel unpredictable, especially when you run into someone in a secluded part of the mode’s giant map. In fact, it’s the emptiness of Rockstar’s version of the Wild West, where no one can hear you scream for help, that makes every interaction feel dangerous.
It’s not all tension, of course. During my first two days with the beta, I also participated in four-player cooperative story missions, side quests, horses races, manic team shootouts in the middle of Western towns, and a few public events that provide a variety of activities when roaming through the map. Red Dead Online is a really enjoyable experience so far, even though it definitely has an assortment of kinks it still needs to iron out.
Not unlike Rockstar’s other big online gambit, GTA Online, Red Dead Online opens with quite a bit of handholding, as you meet the major players in the mode’s story and get acquainted with the progression system. The first few hours of gameplay don’t offer anything particularly captivating in terms of the story, which involves a prison escape courtesy of a mysterious benefactor and a plot to avenge a man’s murder. Most of the story missions I played felt more like tutorial levels meant to show you how to use treasure maps or where to sell stolen horses or how to set up a camp than meaningful narrative.
Some of the more interesting story missions involve helping lawmen pursue criminals and bring them to justice. There’s also a great assault on a fort that sees you man a cannon to shoot down a horde of enemies. While these missions involve tons of action and at least one unexpected setpiece in a canyon that doubles as a hideout for a gang of bandits, I found these sections a bit repetitive. Most of these missions can be completed by shooting your way through all the bad guys and escorting a specific NPC back to the quest giver.
I didn’t really feel that the four-player co-op was even particularly necessary for most missions, as there weren’t that many enemies to shoot in the first place (except in the aforementioned canyon and fort sections). That said, perhaps these cooperative missions are more fun with your gun-toting buddies. Unless you roll up with a posse (Red Dead Online‘s version of a four-player squad), matchmaking will set you up with three random players. One positive thing to note about matchmaking is that the wait time to jump into a mission or match is almost non-existent. I expected long waits in lobbies since this is a beta, but so far, that hasn’t been a problem.
Further Reading: Red Dead Redemption 2 Review
Some story missions also offer an interesting voting system that allows your team to decide what to do with your target. For instance, one mission sees you take out a cabin full of thugs in order to find a man’s wife. When you meet the woman, she tells you that she doesn’t want to return to her husband and that she’s fallen in love with one of the bandits. This triggers a voting sequence where your team can choose to either bring her back to the husband or let her escape. In this particular instance, the vote was a tie and one of my teammates decided to just shoot the woman’s lover and escort her back for the money. While that wouldn’t have been my choice (I voted to let her go), it seems that there was nothing I could do to stop my teammate since it was a tie vote.
On the technical side, the story missions are where I encountered the most lag, from dead enemies taking several seconds to fall over to being suddenly teleported to a different area during a shootout. The most annoying glitch I’ve had to deal with so far is when a quest marker won’t appear on the map. Fortunately, after a restart, these quests usually do show up, but it took me at least a few tries to trigger one particular quest to appear on my map. Most of these kinks aren’t game breaking though, but they do show where the mode still needs work.
So far, the main story is the element of Red Dead Online that leaves the most to be desired, but that feels like a small gripe since Red Dead Redemption II already features a massive story mode for players to enjoy. Even as I write this, more missions continue to pop up on my map, so there’s clearly more to discover yet.
Speaking of discovery, Red Dead Online takes place on the same exact map as the story mode, meaning that there’s a lot of ground to cover once you’re free to explore. Strangers sprinkled around the map offer side quests such as fetching a lost cart for Bonnie MacFarlane, a major character from the first game, or delivering mail for the post office. The latter even pits you against other players, who can rob the mailbag from you as you ride to your destination. There are plenty of Strangers to talk to from the start, which should offer up a nice chunk of stuff to do when not completing main missions or exploring the multiplayer playlists.
Free roam events also allow you meet up with other players for special multiplayer matches, including a bow and arrow challenge where you have to hit targets around a town while also taking out other players. The more bullseyes you hit and people you kill, the more points you get. After getting a couple of kills with the bow and arrow, you’ll unlock a rifle, which should make disposing of the other players a bit easier. It’s a fast-paced and frantic race for points that’s surprisingly fun and shows how Rockstar’s thinking outside the box for its online Western world.
Another free roam event is more of a traditional free-for-all deathmatch where players can only use sidearms. It’s a pretty fun way to practice your Dead Eye skills and shooting from the hip.
Further Reading: Revisiting Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare
These free roam events pop up at random and they’re a nice way to break up the monotony of riding around from point A to point B. Just accept the invite that pops up on your HUD and you’ll be teleported to the event area. My only complaint about these events is that, once a match is over, you’re not sent back to where you were before joining the event. Instead, you’re left to ride all the way back on your own, which gets a little annoying when you end up especially out of the way of where you need to be. You can find a fast travel post and pay $5 of in-game currency to head back to the proximity of where you were, but money feels a bit more scarce in Red Dead Online than in the story mode for the obvious microtransaction-related reasons I’ll get to in just a minute.
Your camp is another minor annoyance in that you can’t fast travel to it outright. There are ways to circumvent having to ride across the giant map to get to your camp, of course, such as fast traveling to a nearby town or choosing to free roam in a different region of the map in the Online start menu. You can also move your camp closer to you for $2 of in-game currency, which seems silly, especially since your follower, an old coot named Cripps, inexplicably moves your camp around the map when you’re not looking. One second he might be in Rio Bravo and the next the camp will be in the Great Plains. I get what the game is going for, automatically moving your camp closer to your location, but so far, Cripps has missed the mark every single time, making me trek back or spend money to reach something as simple as my wardrobe or my lockbox.
Here comes the kicker: Red Dead Online allows you to buy a fast travel post for your camp once you’ve hit Level 65 (!!) or you can unlock it early for 112 Gold Bars, the game’s not-so-subtle hint that microtransactions are coming down the line. Yes, Red Dead Online does allow you to unlock a fast travel post for your camp without spending any real money, but it seems that it will take an exorbitant amount of time to do so — not to mention that fast travel is such a basic feature that it should be free in the first place.
While microtransactions are (mercifully) turned off at the moment, you can already see how Rockstar plans to stick its hands in your pockets. There will absolutely be players who will pull out their wallets for the convenience of a fast travel post in their camps as soon as possible. That darn camp is just annoying enough to almost convince me to buy some Gold Bars.
Further Reading: Revisiting Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s Western Adventure
It’s not clear how much Gold Bars will cost in real money at the moment, but early estimates suggest that it could take up to eight hours to earn ONE Gold Bar through gameplay for those who don’t want to spend any of their hard-earned cash. Red Dead Online doles out gold nuggets for completing multiplayer matches at a snail’s pace — about 2 to 4 gold nuggets per match. It takes 100 gold nuggets to make a single Gold Bar. Now go calculate how long it’s going to take you to earn 112 Gold Bars for that damn fast travel post I won’t stop telling you about. You might as well hold off for Level 65.
Wisely, Rockstar has seemingly focused Red Dead Online‘s microtransactions on cosmetic items, such as clothing, nicer digs, designs for your weapons, and the aforementioned fast trav–okay, I’ll shut up about it. There don’t seem to be any pay-to-win opportunities hidden within those microtransactions just yet, but as the game’s economy hasn’t been turned on yet, it remains to be seen what final form it takes.
As far as character progression is concerned, it’s your basic setup in terms of leveling. You earn XP by completing missions, participating in multiplayer matches, and other activities. Each level you reach unlocks more items you can buy in your catalog, which you can use to buy most of the things you might need from anywhere on the map without having to visit specific stores. Items you purchase will be delivered to the lockbox back at your camp. Items you unlock by leveling up include clothing, weapons, horse breeds, saddles, and other equipment. While it might feel a little convoluted at first, considering all items are available for purchase from the start in story mode, I found that I could always get all the basic things I needed, even at the earliest levels.
On top of rank unlocks, players also unlock ability cards, which contain special perks for your Dead Eye as well as passives. One Dead Eye perk, “A Moment to Recuperate,” allows you to regain health while in Dead Eye, while “Slow and Steady” limits the amount of damage you take while in a gunfight. You also get three passive slots, which can be unlocked at levels 10, 20, and 40 respectively. All of these cards can be upgraded by earning more XP as well.
Further Reading: The Legacy of Manhunt, Rockstar’s Horror Masterpiece
The story mode’s honor system also makes a return in Red Dead Online. This time around, how honorable you are directly affects the sorts of missions and tasks you can perform. Play as a good guy and you’ll unlock missions that reflect that status, such as helping a marshal put a known felon behind bars. If you’re of a ruthless killer, you may instead help someone break out of jail. Your actions, whether to spare or kill someone, how you treat innocents, and whether you steal from others, will directly affect your experience as you progress. I’m playing as mostly a good guy, who just so happens to enjoy throwing the corpses of those he’s murdered into campfires, but may take a turn for the worse in order to try out some of the more rogue missions.
I’ve also spent a bit of time with Red Dead Online‘s multiplayer, which is broken up into three playlists: Showdown Series, Showdown Series Large, and Race Series. Showdown Series and Showdown Series Large offer up the PvP third-person shooter match types for 16 and 32 players, respectively.
Match types include Shootout and Team Shootout, your typical solo and team-based deathmatches; Make It Count, Red Dead Online‘s bow-and-arrow version of a battle royale mode; Hostile Territory, your standard capture-and-defend-the-territory contest; Most Wanted, a take on King of the Hill where players hunt down the top scorer; and the creative Name Your Weapon, a deathmatch variant in which you’re awarded points based on what weapon you use for the kill. The latter is a lot of fun, as you have to use quick thinking when deciding whether to rush into a situation with your bayonet, which will earn you more points for the kill, or get yourself out of a sticky situation with your repeater (fewer points). The Race series is a bit more straightforward but no less enjoyable, with classic races to a finish line as well as a match type where you have to hit markers sprinkled around a course as quickly as possible.
Overall, the multiplayer provides more of an arcade experience for those just looking to shoot things with friends or race other players on their favorite steed. The team deathmatch modes offer up a bit of a twist in terms of the number of teams competing for the win. Some matches are played between two teams, but others will see players sorted into multiple teams, creating a perfect storm of bullets in town squares, as you and your teammates are assaulted on all sides. Each team is represented by a color and a team name. I assume this is how “persistent posses,” Red Dead Online’s version of a clan system, will come into play. Rolling up to a shootout with your custom-named posse will undoubtedly add some pride and ownership to the experience.
Further Reading: What’s Next for Rockstar After Red Dead Redemption II?
I have to mention that I don’t love Red Dead‘s shooting mechanics (or GTA V‘s for that matter). Pulling the trigger always feels a bit stiff and having to visit a weapon wheel to switch weapons feels very outdated in this era of fast-paced shooters. You basically have to rely completely on Dead Eye if you want to pull off a quick, clean kill. Some people are already pretty sick at Dead Eye kills in the multiplayer, but to me, it feels like I’m being forced to press two or three extra buttons just to score a headshot. My advice is that you spend a lot of time shooting NPCs in the story mode before facing off against other humans who know how to not run in a straight line.
The real standout for me is the horseracing, which mixes a standard race to the finish line with guns. As you race through the course, you’re able to kick and punch other players off their horses and also unlock guns by riding through barrels that contain perks to help you along (think the item boxes in Mario Kart). You’ll need to hit these barrels in order to keep your horse’s stamina up too, as it won’t last through the whole race. There’s something really twisted about shooting down your fellow competitors in the final stretch of the race, their limp bodies flying off the track. I recommend the rush of adrenaline.
I’ve not spent any time with Make It Count, but I suspect Red Dead Online‘s battle royale mode deserves its own article anyway. I’m going to give it a try this weekend and report back.
Work in Progress
Red Dead Online feels like a new frontier for Rockstar’s Western epic and I hope the studio continues to improve on the experience. There’s no proper release date for the mode as of yet, so expect a lot of trial and error in the coming weeks.
One thing to keep an eye out for is the game’s economy, which isn’t quite as balanced as I’d like it to be. Eight hours to earn a single Gold Bar feels like less of an accomplishment or well-earned reward and more of a way to make impatient players spend money to cut down on the time it’ll take to earn the currency through gameplay. I’m hopeful that Rockstar will at least continue to restrict microtransactions to cosmetics where they belong.
The business of Red Dead Online aside, I’m having a lot of fun with the mode so far and I look forward to seeing how the experience changes as more players jump into the servers and more posses form. Rockstar will finish rolling out beta access to all players on Nov. 30.
John Saavedra is Games Editor at Den of Geek. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @johnsjr9.