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Red Dead Online is imperfect, messy and strangely captivating

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There’s promise to be found in cowboy co-op

Red Dead Online - woman on horseback along dusty trail Rockstar Games via Polygon

Red Dead Online, the multiplayer mode for Red Dead Redemption 2, allows you to make your own story with your own character. I’ve barely scratched the surface of Arthur Morgan and his gang’s tale, but I played Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto Online from launch to the recent heist update. I was surprised by what I found in the ongoing beta of Red Dead Online: a mode that obviously lacks the depth, sophistication and polish of its single-player campaign.

There’s a lot to turn players away from its opening moments, especially if they compare it to the cinematic opening of Arthur Morgan and his gang making their way through the snow. It’s only after digging — with a friend or two, if you can wrangle them — that the promise of Red Dead Online becomes clear.

As soon as you launch into Red Dead Online, you’ll be asked to create your character. While there’s lot of jokes floating around online about how much time someone can sink into a character creator as they sort through dozens of options and dream about who their avatar could be, Red Dead Online’s character creator is more like desperately trying to wrestle a whole ham through a sieve. You’re presented with a series of presets, with certain options like skin tones, mouth width, and brow height locked to them. Once you choose one that best suits your vision, you’ll be asked to hammer it into shape. For me, this meant I spent a lot of time squinting as I pushed meters from one side to another, trying to find some kind of visual difference as I forced features like cheek depth and blush density to their extreme.

There was, of course, a difference between all of these choices — they just only became apparent once I loaded into the game itself. My first cowboy was a mawkish, dead-eyed slab of a woman. When she stepped up next to Jessica LeClerk, I despaired. It’s not like I want to play as a supermodel; I’m fine with playing a character who actually has visual character. The problem is that my avatar often ended up looking like a knockoff dollar-store version of the characters that fill the world of Red Dead Redemption 2. After sinking more than an hour into character creation — an experience that felt like crafting a sculpture with salad tongs — I managed to make a lady I liked. Her face is sunken at weird angles, but it only shows up during certain cutscenes. You know what? It’s fine. It’s fine.

Red Dead Online - two players accept a mission.
My bounty hunter is willing to take any job.
Rockstar Games

It’s that level of imperfection, and compromise on the player’s part to accept it, that defines much of the time you’ll spend in the early stages of Red Dead Online. Characters and clothing aggressively clip. When an NPC handed me a glass of wine, my character accepted it by putting her arm through her own torso. A handsome neckerchief looked great in the wardrobe, but immediately thrust a black plank of cloth up into my avatar’s skull and through the back of her hat.

The trade-off for these unfortunate scenarios is meant to be the joy of playing with other people, but that doesn’t quite pay off. At one point, while trying to ride through Tumbleweed, a significantly higher-ranked, more-skilled player stood by the side of the road and sniped me with a bow. As soon as I re spawned and got my bearings, he was there again. There are anti-griefing protections, like horse insurance, and I don’t begrudge a good bout of PvP, but it’s not exactly immersive to spend a good 15 minutes just bleeding out, getting up and repeating the process. I’ve also turned off all non-friends voice chat after hearing an argument between two other players in Saint Denis that was liberally peppered with the n-word.

So, what’s the point of Red Dead Online? Once I set up a posse with my good friend and we ran through the first few missions, I fell in love. At one point, my bulky character hoisted a con man over her shoulder, and I pulled him up the sheer path winding through a canyon. My friend, a lean sniper, covered me from the gang members trying to avenge their fallen ally. It was slow and arduous, and every shot had a chance to be lethal. It was a fantastic, desperate co-op experience that hit the right mix of straightforward but challenging.

Red Dead Online - moral choice cutscene
Moral choices change your missions in Red Dead Online.
Rockstar Games via Polygon

Red Dead Online offers far more cinematic moments and missions than GTA Online. You still have a silent protagonist, but there’s less of the wild mania that defines the GTA setting. If I were to load into my GTA Online game today, I could get into my neon-colored flying car, pick up a mission, do barrel rolls while shooting missiles, and then head to my underground bunker to call in orbital strikes.

Due to the time frame and the setting, Red Dead simply can’t get that absurd, and so it has to try to paint with finer strokes and have actual characters. It’s hard to imagine a scene as intimate and heart-wrenching as approaching the lost wife and hearing her plea, and potentially gunning down her new lover to bring the wife back to an abusive husband, in GTA Online. Instead, the husband would probably be a cryptocurrency billionaire, and we would have had to chase down his yacht with helicopters as a helpful NPC made jokes about the blockchain.

Playing with friends also allows for a limited bit of role-playing in that you can make choices and the party gets to vote, similar to the system in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Hoodlums and white hats will have their choices placed head to head, and it’s interesting to see that system in action.

It’s hard to recommend Red Dead Online right now, especially since a far superior version of the game is available in the story mode. That being said, I don’t regret my choice to ignore Red Dead Redemption 2’s campaign initially to dive into the online mode. There’s a solid foundation for this live service that trumps the initial version of GTA Online, and the good times gripped me. Hopefully, as development continues, the bad times become less common, and the strengths have more space to shine.