Red Dead Online Review in Progress – Week 3

Is this town big enough for the 32 of us?

Since the last instalment of IGN’s Red Dead Online review in progress Rockstar has confirmed that new anti-griefing measures are in the works, and has also teased “new features, modes, and additional Red Dead Online gameplay content updates” that it will share in the new year. The prospect of measures that may dissuade pointless griefing – or at least punish it appropriately – is very welcome.

I’m genuinely confused by the sentiment that the bedlam that sometimes occurs in free roam in the Red Dead Online beta is something that players should just put up with (or, worse, that it’s in some way totally faithful to the era). Certainly the American West earned its “Wild” moniker thanks to its untamed nature during the frontier era. However, if the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral had happened four times a day, every day, we wouldn’t remember the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (and every Western you ever watched would just be a 90-minute battle royale). Players who want to be left alone aren’t being precious; if they’re anything like me they just want to be able to immerse themselves in a believable world. There’s just nothing especially authentic about towns becoming war zones multiple times a day. I’ll be pleased with anything Rockstar can concoct to foster a free roam multiplayer environment that’s always fun to hang out in.

All the musicians throughout Red Dead Online are playing Christmas songs at the moment.

All the musicians throughout Red Dead Online are playing Christmas songs at the moment.

If you want to run around killing strangers, there are dedicated PvP game modes for that; ones that actually reward you for doing so. My thoughts on Red Dead Online’s PvP have remained consistent since last week, though I have  found myself getting more into the horse racing, which I’ve previously only dabbled briefly in.

The horse races in Red Dead Online are interesting as they’re simultaneously one of the silliest modes currently available in the beta (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. Auto-aim is disabled during the 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 don’t think I’ve actually been shot off my horse yet (I’ve been kicked and punched off Road Rash-style plenty, though). 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 slight 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).

Exit Theatre Mode

I think my only real gripe with the horse racing at this point is that, while it’s some of the most fun I’ve had in the beta, it’s not a particularly lucrative pursuit. If you’re only capable of stringing together some passable performances, the reward is just a few bucks per race. Even winning a race – which isn’t exactly easy amongst all the flying fists and tumbling horses – doesn’t appear to net you much more than yanking a Lake Sturgeon out of the water near Blackwater. The horse races do only take a few minutes, but so does turning in a large fish to a butcher – and at least the fish is a sure thing.

Review in Progress Week 3 Verdict

The Red Dead Online beta remains a fun escape whenever I find myself in a free roam lobby with people who tend to be playing it in a good spirit, and I’m quite enjoying the horse racing (even though it’s not making me rich). This will be our last update on our ongoing experiences with the beta for this year but we’ll be back in 2019 to discuss it further.

Week 2

Exit Theatre Mode

It’s been a little over a week since we published our initial impressions of the Red Dead Online beta and, while there haven’t been any grand new additions in terms of fresh missions or activities yet, I have had a different experience over the last week compared to my first.

During my first few days with the beta the service remained extremely reliable (I encountered no technical issues or drop-outs) and the largely-respectful culture of the Free Roam lobbies was a genuine surprise to me. Griefing was actually bafflingly rare.

In contrast, over the last week I encountered a long string of connection faults for the first time (error 0x20010006, isolated to one bad day, but I had more than a dozen drop-outs over the course of it) and Free Roam lobbies seem to be displaying a lot more of the boorish behaviour I’d anticipated from the outset. I’ve been shot in the back while fishing, I’ve been shoved off piers while fishing, and I’ve been tackled, beaten, and hogtied (while fishing).

Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of fishing.

Maybe I should scale back.

Maybe I should scale back.

The Good, the Bad and the Bloody

The session soured by technical hitches was frustrating but, in an experience still billed as a beta, it’s too early to get excessively bent out of shape about it at this stage. The cultural shift is a little more worrying, given there’s no actual reward for harassing other players who are minding their own business and yet people are still pushing me into lakes.

While Red Dead Online currently features a passive area of sorts (raising a white flag at your camp prevents you from being attacked while you’re within its boundaries, meaning you can cook game and brew coffee without the risk of being executed by some duded-up, egg-suckin’ guttertrash while you’re hunched over your fire), it really misses something like GTA Online’s broader passive mode. Players who want to just immerse themselves in a Wild West fantasy with friends shouldn’t really have to endure having their peaceful fishing expeditions turned into guerrilla warfare. You can initiate a “parley” with a player who has killed you three times in row, which will make them unable to attack you for 10 minutes, but allowing myself to be killed three times just so I can go back to plucking perch out of a pond in peace isn’t my idea of a party.

Exit Theatre Mode

There may be a more creative solution than a broad, GTA Online-style passive mode, sure. Perhaps Red Dead Online proper will need more devastating consequences for the dastardly act of shooting unarmed, non-threatening players in the back. Maybe miscreants need to be quickly tagged and sorted into their own lobbies, like the bad sport lobbies in GTA Online. Maybe they need instant, high bounties placed on their heads that would see them hunted to all corners of the map. Perhaps honourable players shouldn’t even show on the map; maybe only dishonourable players should appear as precise blips, as if they were known, notorious outlaws that other folk would be expected to recognise on the streets and trails. It needs something, though. For players like me who prefer exploration, hunting, and co-op over PvP, being interrupted regularly by sociopaths makes me miss the more realistic nature of single-player Red Dead. Something that functions more as a society and less a 24/7 fight to the death. I’m still having pleasant encounters in the beta; I’m just having a lot more frustrating ones, too.

Mo’ Money

The Red Dead Online beta’s first major update arrived late last week and brought with it a few welcome pricing changes to weapons, as well as other items like horse revivers (which were previously prohibitively expensive). For the most part, weapon prices have dropped around 30-40% (you can check out a more detailed breakdown here).

The update also came with amendments to the “values of select pelts, skins and fish”, which has slightly impacted my usual hunting and fishing income (some fish prices were dropped significantly, although some of the larger fish values seem to have been boosted). This has been offset by showdown matches and mission replays paying out more, however. During the first week of Red Dead Online 10 minutes in PvP would net me barely enough to buy a box of oatcakes; now I tend to earn double what I previously picked up.

Exit Theatre Mode

The improved payouts for PvP has certainly made participating in competitive multiplayer feel more worthwhile, at least for your wallet. It’s still easily my least-favourite part of the package, though, and with such potent auto-aim it’s really more about who sees another player first than it is about skill. There’s also no way to select specific PvP modes at the moment; you just opt into a playlist and get dumped into a curated series of game types. There’s no way to effectively avoid modes you don’t particularly like other than quitting and rolling the dice again.

Review in Progress Week 2 Verdict

While stranger missions are always on hand and hunting opportunities are endless, with the story on pause the beta definitely feels like its still treading water at the moment. I’m sure more competitive games are on the way, but ultimately more co-op and more parity with the single-player (especially table games) would be my preference. I guess I just need to have some goddamn faith.

Week 1

Exit Theatre Mode

The Red Dead Online experience (currently labelled as a beta) is one that stretches from moments of patient player management that are barely distinguishable from Red Dead Redemption 2’s single-player component, to the complete chaos of PvP multiplayer in indiscriminate, close-quarters slaughter. It’s proven reliable and robust for me over the past two days, even with its beta caveat, and despite a few concerns I’ve had a lot of fun of fun returning to the Wild West and carving out a fresh identity for my new avatar.

In my first two days embedded in Rockstar’s sprawling shared world I’ve hunted game, harassed griefers, hijacked a train, and had no less than three haircuts. I’ve partnered with friends to take on traditional missions bookended with well-produced cutscenes, and stalked total strangers through a shrinking section of forest with just a handful of throwing knives in small-scale battles royale. I’ve warily quaffed beers with an unknown player in a Blackwater bar and been lassoed and towed behind another player’s horse for no apparent purpose.

Exit Theatre Mode

I’ve exchanged polite waves passing other players in the wilderness, and I’ve been shot in the back by a lily-livered cowpoke who ultimately quit while being pursued by my posse for his or her cowardly crime.

I’ve done a lot, in other words, though it still feels like I’ve barely started.

Come, Helen Highwater

Red Dead Online unfolds across the same world as Red Dead Redemption 2, which is all unlocked from the outset. For story purposes part of Red Dead Redemption 2’s map is inaccessible, but that’s not the case in Red Dead Online; you can visit any corner of it immediately. Like GTA Online it appears to be set just prior to the events of the main story, based on the presence of at least one character who didn’t make it to the end of Arthur Morgan’s saga, but (also like GTA Online) there’s probably not a lot to be gained by getting hung up on timeline details. Just go with it.

Red Dead Online’s introductory sequence lets us create a character from scratch, man or woman. 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, not least of which are the dental selections (which range from corn kernel yellow to missing entirely). I 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, Helen Highwater.

She's all bad.

She’s all bad.

The intro that follows is a curated series of cutscenes and tasks which set the foundations for what appears to be the story of Red Dead Online – or, at least, the initial story for now. Basically, your avatar has been sentenced to hang for a murder they didn’t commit and is broken out by a pair of characters looking to gain revenge on the folks who were actually responsible, for reasons of their own. The intro doesn’t last too long, though, and it wasn’t long at all until I was set loose in the open world. At this point I was able to continue the story missions (the beta includes half-a-dozen), complete random activities for various in-game strangers (some familiar for players of Red Dead Redemption 2 and its predecessor, some all-new characters), assault gang hideouts, and poke around in the open world.

The Silent Treatment

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. There are some key differences, though. Like GTA Online, our characters in Red Dead Online don’t speak. The script valiantly copes with this handicap and the regular, one-way conversations are still well-acted, but the silent approach that works entirely satisfactorily in GTA Online seems a little less suited to the world of Red Dead Online in the wake of Red Dead Redemption 2’s talkative Arthur Morgan. You can’t converse with NPCs like Arthur can, or return greetings. There are emotes but they’re very enthusiastic and exaggerated (the positive ones, at least) and they’re a bit more finicky to cycle to than Arthur’s verbal reactions, buried an additional two button presses below Arthur’s standard ‘greet’ and ‘antagonise’ options.

There are several other strange exclusions, like the ability to grab a bath and a meal in a saloon when my cores are low, or saddle and keep a wild horse.

There are several other strange exclusions, like the ability to grab a bath and a meal in a saloon when my cores are low, or saddle and keep a wild horse. Poker and other table games are also unavailable at this stage, and without the random events that take place around you as you navigate the world it feels a little barer. Not dead, because there’s still a ton of wildlife skulking and darting about. Just a little emptier.

However, it’s hard to gauge whether this stuff is just missing from the initial Red Dead Online experience in general, or whether it’s just absent during this beta period. After all, there are only six story missions currently available, and the story is definitely just getting started. Ideally most of these sorts of things would make the jump from the solo mode to Red Dead Online, because Red Dead Online is absolutely at its best when it’s most closely mirroring the traditional single-player experience, only with friends along for the ride.

Exit Theatre Mode

I’ve been genuinely surprised at how regularly civil my free roam sessions in Red Dead Online have been, and I’ve certainly been politely ignored by many, many more players than I have been murdered senselessly by. I’ve peacefully sauntered between stores amongst other players doing the same thing, and I’ve even stolen a train and blasted full speed out of Saint Denis sharing driving duties with a fellow stowaway that I fully expected was creeping up front to kill me. Instead, he or she was content to chill out in the driver’s cab with me as we chuffed around the map.

Decidedly less genteel are Red Dead Online’s bespoke PvP multiplayer modes. Icons to hop into 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, though the match types seem to remain the same. Most Wanted seems like the most interesting; 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 it mostly just put me in the sights of a better player.

I was a little more successful in Make It Count, Red Dead Online’s mini battle royale mode. In the matches I’ve played participants are armed with either a bow, or a handful of throwing knives, and any hit is an instant kill. In the maps that are dense with foliage it’s quite possible to get the drop on players before they even know you’re there (though there are visual and vibration cues to signal a nearby player). It’s definitely a significant change of pace from every other mode, which are all essentially fast-paced and frantic massacres with slightly different rules for each.

The period appropriate victory screens are a cool touch.

The period appropriate victory screens are a cool touch.

I don’t know how much mileage I’ll ultimately get out of Red Dead Online’s PvP modes at this point; generally speaking I vastly prefer co-op multiplayer (the kind Red Dead Online’s free roam and story/stranger missions is brimming with). The payouts for deathmatches also seem a little meagre to make them meaningful to folks playing for perhaps just an hour or so a night. To be honest, the economy feels like it needs a re-examination in general to be slightly less of a slog. I appreciate Red Dead Online has been envisaged as lasting players years and years and there might be more lucrative missions inbound, but the costs of some of the consumables here seems well out of whack.

How can a box of crackers be worth four times more than a gold wedding ring plucked from some unfortunate thug? I don’t necessarily know that I want to sink long stretches of time into this game just to dumps wads of the cash I scrape together into groceries to keep my avatar and her horse well fed. Hunting still yields plenty of useful meat, of course.

Review in Progress Week 1 Verdict

The Red Dead Online beta is a promising foundation for a long-lasting multiplayer experience, and the co-op is a huge highlight. There are some missing elements during this early stage and some tweaks to the economy would be welcome, but I’m happy to be back in the saddle. We’ll be back with regular updates but, for now, there’s a fishing rod with my name on it beckoning me.

Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office and craves horsepower in all forms. You can find him on Twitter every few days @MrLukeReilly.

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