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Red Dead Online comes alive with friends

A full posse turned Red Dead Online into the game I wanted

Rockstar Games via Polygon

Instead of hanging out in the outskirts of Valentine and scrounging up some cash for the gang, I’ve been spending the bulk of my time in Red Dead Online’s environments. At first, I thought that I would spend just a couple of days to earn some gold bars and scope out the initial content before returning in weeks or months. Instead, I’ve been eagerly powering up my PS4 nearly every day over the holidays to play Red Dead Online, the add-on multiplayer mode that is full of surprises.

My initial impressions of the game were a little less glowing. It took me a bit of time to settle into the cadence of a fantastic Red Dead Online session. Before long, I was rolling around with the default horse and standard weapons, queuing up for Deathmatches aplenty, and checking to see how long it would take to get the next weapon or a fancy new coat. That felt like I was on the right track to experiencing all the game had to offer; it’s an incredibly easy circuit to fall into.

The luster of Red Dead Online’s initial loop quickly wears off though, leaving nothing but a treadmill with a cowboy fantasy draped over it. Sure, the individual, mini-battle royale matches are satisfying, and the short campaign currently available in the game mode, moral choices and all, reinforces that feeling of contentedness for me. I would just wait for more missions to be released, and until then, I would get a better rifle! That seemed like a solid plan, and the hum of match finishes, new kill records and achievements reinforced that with a comfortable skinner box.

Red Dead Online - A player avatar stands in the desert.
My early approach to Red Dead Online was to go it alone.
Rockstar Games via Polygon

And so, that became my standard for playing the game solo. I’d stand in St. Denis, getting sniped, spawning, getting shotgunned, and then heading into a match to play against a group of impossibly reflexed and skilled teens. After a shower of n-bombs and weird, overly personal taunts from other players, I turned off all of the open chat channels. Despite the game mode being Red Dead Online, it was impossibly lonely: a series of queues, rewards and chaos in between.

It was only once I broke out of that cycle and started playing with four or five of my friends at a time that I realized how much of a blast the game is. Stranger missions, assassinations, and open-world battles to control Blackwater proved to be far more satisfying than performing those same activities alone. Add in a few hideout clearings and missions to change things up, and there’s a great variety of activities that challenge our group nicely. My buddy’s fantastic with a bow and a sniper rifle; I’ve picked up a very expensive shotgun and have foregone leveling my Dead Eye in favor of being a tank. It’s not on the same tactical level as building, say, a World of Warcraft Mythic raiding group, but it’s a fun, visceral, immediately satisfying level of strategy and execution.

Better yet, the game manages to be social and create stories, even without chatting to strangers. At one point, the entire posse split up to deliver mail for a mission. A rival posse approached our last straggler. The rival shotgunned our friend’s steed, an act of ruthless cruelty that would cost him dearly in money in exchange for a combat advantage. We were able to overcome the rival and deliver the mail, denying him the bonus, but there were slights we could not forgive nor forget.

Red Dead Online - a player rides into the sunset with a hog-tied opponent on the back of their horse.
When in doubt, just hogtie someone and run.
Rockstar Games via Polygon

The two of our posses clashed across the plains for a half an hour, trading kills back and forth. When the leader of the rival posse took out my heavy draft horse, Hayseed, I howled with rage and called in a backup scrawny nag to carry me to vengeance instead. In my pursuit of Hayseed’s murderer, I ran that horse to death, and literally toppled off the nag’s corpse to unload my shotgun into the rival leader and avenge Hayseed.

It was the perfect example of the fantasy of Red Dead Online: two bands of outlaws, clashing over human and imperfect motivations for wealth and revenge, using brutal methods that no polite society could allow. Does the main narrative address the sustainability and spiritual cost of living in that kind of gang? No, probably not. I bet it’s cool.

It’s worth noting that, while all of this is fun and dynamic, there’s very little that makes the world of Red Dead Online feel alive and organic. NPCs circle through their usual few lines, and mostly exist to provide a deterrent to barreling down roads full blast or lassoing AFK people in cities to put on your horse and ride from St. Denis to Tumbleweed in a dysfunctional buddy comedy road trip. This is a Westworld-style simulation for hijinks and tomfoolery more than a living, breathing world. That’s okay, but it’s markedly different from Red Dead Redemption 2’s campaign mode, and should be treated accordingly.

I acknowledge that, these days, as I approach 30 and play with older friends, I’m lucky to be able to rustle up a posse most nights to take to the cowboy life. It’s not a privilege that everyone can enjoy regularly, what with the hustle and bustle of kids, classes, obligations and chores ... but if you can rope your friends into it, you’ll find yourself rewarded with an experience that goes beyond the grind and hustle that has come to dominate the early discourse around Red Dead Online.

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