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Red Dead Online’s Gun Rush captures the best and worst of battle royale

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Get into the safe zone and start shooting

A player enters the arena in Red Dead Online’s Gun Rush mode Rockstar Games via Polygon

Red Dead Online is a work in progress, which means that Rockstar keeps adding new modes and arenas to the smorgasbord of options currently available. The most recent, and most promising, of these game modes is Gun Rush.

Gun Rush is a fast-paced, small-scale battle royale mode with a maximum of 32 players. You and your enemies are dropped on a stretch of Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world, and then the map slowly begins to close around you. Players are forced into an increasingly small space against better armed and prepared opponents, and the mood mounts, becoming increasingly desperate.

Gun Rush hews much closer to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds than Fortnite. There’s no intense spectacle, no over the top abilities and weapons that steal the show. The flashiest I’ve seen is a batch of explosive arrows on a bow or a well-timed shotgun blast from around the corner, and extra tools are limited to horses and pieces of ugly armor hewn from metal.

It’s these simple tools that make the game mode sing, especially because you’re dealing with a handful of players and not 100 in one shot. In many ways, Gun Rush is like a “best of” highlight reel from PUBG. It takes the best moments — the initial rush for safety and weapons, the final, frantic firefights in the final zone, crouching in a quiet house with a weapon at the ready, listening to the ever-closer footsteps — and puts them in quick, 10-minute matches. Gone are long stretches of time and travel. Instead, we get right to the action.

Gun Rush legitimately feels good, despite the heft and awkwardness of Red Dead Online’s control scheme. The fact that you can sneak around a player who’s still rotating their camera, or pepper an opponent with a headshot as they transition cover, adds to the feeling that anyone can come out ahead (even if it does mess with the realism). Sometimes these weird moments spent fighting with the system screw me, but it’s hard to get riled up with such short match times. Instead, I quickly head into the next game and vow revenge.

Red Dead Online - a player takes cover. Rockstar Games via Polygon

The problem with the controls isn’t the fact that they’re a little clunky or a little slow; it’s that they’re suited for single-player, and the auto-lock on system is maintained. Once a player sees you and gets their weapon out, they lock on. You’re going to get hit; it’s just a question of how well you can mitigate it. Hitting headshots is still more difficult, and there’s room for precision to help players shine, but the skill floor is vastly lower due to the fact that the lock-on is so deadly and accurate. Even the bow, the one weapon that requires significantly more finesse, comes equipped with explosive arrows.

Gun Rush is also a reminder of how many fantastic systems Red Dead Online has that we just don’t get to experience. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a collection of slow, deliberate systems that make up Arthur Morgan’s day: slowly opening cabinets and rifling through drawers, grooming and feeding your horse, eating stew and drinking coffee at camp. In Red Dead Online, you don’t have access to many of those systems, but there are multiple kinds of combat. Fist fights, hog-tying, knife brawls all feel fantastic, and would be a welcome test of strength ... but in Gun Rush, there are only a couple of windows of opportunity for sudden melee ambushes. Instead, it’s all about gunplay.

It’s a missed chance for Red Dead Online to reintroduce systems that feel fantastic and offer more slow, deliberate displays of skill. There are other multiplayer modes that restrict your weapons, like Make it Count, and some Gun Rush maps are high on pistols and low on rifles. It would be fantastic to play a Gun Rush that only had, say, knives and bows, but still had faster pacing and more action than Make It Count. There’s a lot of potential here to use the ever-closing map as a way to force players to get creative with limited tools.

Red Dead Online - a player lines up a shot with an explosive arrow. Rockstar Games via Polygon

Instead, Rockstar seems happy to dole out fiery arrows and shotguns, and while the results are explosive, they get repetitive as well. The first time I shot a guy up on the fort ramparts with an explosive arrow before switching to a shotgun and getting a second kill, it felt amazing. The first time I barely survived a bare knuckle brawl in a barn, only to turn around and have the eventual winner fire an explosive arrow into the window and take me out in a fiery blaze, I gasped and laughed. After that, the spectacle wore off. It was too common for games to end in such a brutal way, and there wasn’t enough variation leading up to that climax.

It’s also worth noting that Gun Rush is best enjoyed with game chat firmly turned off. Red Dead Online continues to have a problem where encountering other vocal players is often a dice roll to see how quickly you hear a racial slur or over-the-top taunt. I have not been encountering new comrades, forging bonds in the fire of a shared experience. Battle royale games, at their best, are highly social — it’s part of the appeal of Fortnite. You’re unlikely to find that in Gun Rush unless you’re playing with existing friends in party chat.

Overall, it’s intriguing to see this addition to Red Dead Online. We expect Rockstar to continue working on existing game modes and improving their fundamentals as opposed to rushing in a variety of experiences during Red Dead Online’s development. Gun Rush has had a promising start, but the gap between its highs and lows is a little too wide right now.