It’s been more than a month since Red Dead Redemption II rode its way into my heart, guiding me along Arthur Morgan’s diminishing quest to find freedom from the law under the leadership of the charismatic Dutch van der Linde. When the epilogue ended, I liked going back once in a while to do chores on the homestead and clean up Stranger missions, all in preparation to do it all again in Red Dead Online. The beta, which saw a staggered release last week, would be the latest iteration of Rockstar’s open world multiplayer ambitions. As visions of owning a farm and occasionally hiring myself out as a bounty hunter danced in my head, I wondered what form the game would take. Would it be the Cowpoke Simulator 20XX that I wanted it to be? Or was is going to be Grand Theft Auto: Online with horses? The short and easy answer is a resounding “yes” to the latter. Red Dead Redemption II online game bears many similarities to the form, function, and structure of Grand Theft Auto V but with the setting, mechanics, and unique diversions of the Old West. Since it’s been a week since the launch of the publicized beta of Red Dead Online, I thought it’d be a good time for a good, old fashioned check-in.
One of the immediate differences between Red Dead Online and Grand Theft Auto: Online is the inclusion of a solid story. Framed for the crime of murder, you begin with creating a character in preparation for their mugshot in a local sheriff’s office. One element of character creation that stands out the most are the surprisingly repulsive models. There’s a disconnect between how the character models looked online against the more handsome and beautiful men and women from the story. I try not to be a superficial person but man, I had a really hard time looking at the available faces. I’m not sure what Rockstar was going for because without tweaks to face structure, blemishes, and make up, these models appear as if they just walked off the set of Griffin and Justin McElroy’s Monster Factory. At any rate, the story kicks into gear after you’ve locked in an avatar.
GTA: O didn’t have much of a plot beyond “make it big by any means necessary.” In Red Dead Online, your adventures across New Austin, Lemoyne, New Hanover and beyond are guided by an overarching narrative that begins with a prison break. Freed while being delivered to an outdoor work detail, your character falls under the employ of Jessica LeClerk, a woman of means who wants to avenge her husband’s murder. Working directly with Mr Horley, LeClerk’s right hand man, you’ll hunt down three people who had a hand in the shooting. It’s nice to have a story to give the experience some context, however, I found that there’s very little urgency. You won’t be forced to prioritize story missions over other diversions and events. The characters giving you the jobs come off as a little wishy washy. Their conversations usually fall along the lines of: “Hey, if you have the time, can you track down and murder these people? Or don’t kill them, if you want. I really don’t care how you solve this problem. But please, don’t rush!” Tasks are also doled out by Strangers (one of whom is Bonnie MacFarlane, my favorite character from Red Dead Redemption), NPCs that need your help with different tasks. Of course, if you just want to jump into the multiplayer battles, referred here as Showdowns, and shoot the hats off people’s heads, you can do so by opening up the Red Dead Online menu and pick your poison.
While Free Roam gives you the chance to explore, hunt, and clear out gang hideouts by yourself, story missions can be done with a group of friends or random players via matchmaking. I have to admit, I wasn’t quite feeling the Red Dead Online experience during the opening moments, largely because of its familiarity with something I already sunk time into. But when the quest giver sent me and the rest of my posse on our way, I got chills watching everyone in my company get on their horses and race towards the objective. This was way cooler than any group activity in GTA:O, where people hopped into their nitro-boosted supercars and loaded their automatic machine guns, hyper-modern sniper rifles, and anti-armor weapons. Engagements play out much like the base game, with objectives to complete, following map markers and shooting dudes along the way. The group has a finite number of lives and if they die before completing the objectives, the mission ends and everyone is sent back to Free Roam. Some of the missions have branching narratives, where the players must make a choice that can affect the outcome of the mission and honor rankings.
However you choose to engage with the world, you’ll want to keep an eye on other players. GTA: O had a feature that let you flag your character as PvP to fight others or remain protected at some expense. Not so much in Red Dead Online where everything is fine until someone decides to fire a shot. There are plenty of opportunities for players to attack each other, especially during missions. What better way to grief other players than waiting for them at the end of a Stranger mission and kill them right before they make it to the end? Players have access to the entire Red Dead Redemption II map and can see one another as pink dots. As such, even though the world is big, the presence of so many people makes the game feel small and dangerous. The only protection from other players (besides a gun) is your camp, which functions as a safe zone where you can’t be killed by players, as long as your flag is white. Change it to a red flag, and it’s an open invitation for anyone to come up and cause some trouble. After getting shot in the face for waving at another person, I pined for an Role Playing server. I know I’d have a lot more fun with Red Dead Online doing some of the more mundane stuff - farming, hanging out in saloons to play cards, running deliveries and what not - with other like-minded players.
From a gameplay perspective, a lot of concessions were made to befit an online environment. Dead Eye, for example, doesn’t slow time like it does in the campaign. Instead, it functions as a vehicle for Ability Cards that provide different perks whenever Dead Eye is triggered, such as refill health, increase damage to you and nearby posse members, and marked targets. These cards (along with every other object that can be acquired) is governed by a player rank that increases as you earn experience from activities. Other differences from the campaign is the lack of an Aim Assist and if you intend to play with other humans, you’ll want to put in some practice. My first showdown was a pitiful attempt at staying alive for more than a few seconds instead of playing to the objective. Even on the first day of the online beta, I was repeatedly killed by players already better equipped to pop my head open like a grape. It wasn’t fun, though it got me practicing my headshot game during Stranger quests and helped me feel more confident against other people.
Money makes the world go round and it represents one of my biggest apprehensions with Red Dead Online in its current form. The first visit to a general store, stables, or even a cursory browse through a shopping catalog made me instantly relate to Dutch van der Linde. I had great plans for my character's appearance and lifestyle but all I needed was money. Funds come to you as rewards for completing quests, showdowns, locating hidden treasure, and looting it off corpses. Everything - buying a beer at the saloon, supplies for your horse, ammunition, new weapons, hats, clothes, and outfits - drains your wallet a lot faster than you’d expect. Even your camp, a cozy refuge from the dangers of the world, requires a daily upkeep fee. It takes time to get rich (some kills earned me a whopping forty cents) and like Grand Theft Auto: Online, getting the best stuff means having to grind for cash and gold bars, Red Dead Online’s premium currency. Right from the start, gold feels like a raw deal. Most high-end cosmetic items cost anywhere from one to five or more gold bars and instead of earning them as rewards, you’ll get gold nuggets instead that represent a small fraction of a bar’s value. I’ve been playing for a few hours and am nowhere near close to the one hundred nuggets I need to make a gold bar. If grinding for cash was already an issue, doing so for gold is much worse. Unless you’re playing the game constantly, like GTA: O, all the cool and fun stuff will always be consistently out of reach. unless you’re willing for fork over some real money through the online store (which is currently locked for the beta).
From a technical standpoint, the beta for Red Dead Online is pretty solid. I’ve encountered a few bugs, such as not getting spawned back into Free Roam after failing a Stranger mission and losing animal skins after finishing a story, but nothing too serious and destabilizing just yet. I have some concerns that the player characters don’t speak and it gets really annoying to see them react like simpletons after NPC deliver great speeches and banter. That doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the economy, which I hope gets a significant overhaul before the full release. I recognize that Rockstar would be dumb not to take advantage of high costs and premium currency, it’s what made Grand Theft Auto: Online such a financial success for them. For a video game that does a fantastic job of immersing the player in a world where people made their fortunes, forcing players to grind for scraps of money and gold to buy a new hat feels a little gauche.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.