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Red Dead Online’s roles are at their best when things get messy


Red Dead Online - a player poses with the corpse of a hunted bear. Rockstar Games via Polygon
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Red Dead Online players can now choose from three Frontier Pursuits: the Trader, Collector, and Bounty Hunter. These systems don’t radically transform the game, but they provide new gameplay loops, rewards, and goals. When combined with prior updates that cut down on griefing and add random events to the world, Red Dead Online has come into its own as an authentic feeling world, and not just a Westworld style murder carnival.

While my friends are having a fun time digging up treasure and collecting pelts, I have chosen the path of the Bounty Hunter. Its the simplest profession of the three: I get a bounty, I collect the bounty dead or alive (but hopefully alive), I turn in the bounty.

Simple, right? It is indeed possible to play Red Dead Online like a Hitman game — get in, stealth kill anyone in your way, and get out with your hands clean. But me and my posse are playing things a little more messily ... and having a complete blast as we experiment. We may not be the most competent crew in the West, but we definitely are the ones who are laughing the most as my big, stupid horse Hayseed mows through a camp full of bandits.

Hitting the road

There are a few bugs and kinks in the current Frontier Pursuits system that made things feel a little uncanny. It seems as though Rockstar has gone through and smoothed out several of the visual errors that were driving me up a wall. Clipping is cut down across the board, and clothes fit better. My character’s cheekbones have naturally popped back into place, and her skin has less of a sweaty gloss as soon as even the barest amount of light hits her face. The base game feels more polished, which makes the smaller things stand out more.

For instance, the bounty board system began to give us repeats. In one particularly memorable instance, me and my pal were tasked with bringing in Tarcer “Tuggs” McGrath three times over the course of a day. By the third time, we were riled up. This had gotten personal.

“We’re coming for you, TUGGS!” we hollered as we crested a hill. “You ain’t getting away this time, Tuggs!”

Paying attention to the bounty boards and adopting that devil may care attitude has been a treat for our posse. At one point, we read the bounty for a woman who had broken into a graveyard and pissed on the graves of her in-laws. No, we wouldn’t go after her. Absolutely not.

The couple who murdered each other’s spouses and abandoned their children? We grabbed that bounty in a second, and as my buddy Jake ground the target’s face into the dirt, he shouted: “You had a BOY! And you ABANDONED HIM!”

We hadn’t played in a few months, but the fire was hot in our veins and we were back in character.

Red Dead Online - a player poses, dressed up as Hitman’s Agent 47
You can absolutely play Red Dead Online like a Western Hitman.
Rockstar Games via Polygon

Wild, wild West

We were in character and in the saddle, but we weren’t quite the expert bounty hunters we wanted to be yet. On our very first bounty as a full gang, my friends crept silently over a hill. I checked my daily challenges and realized I had the achievement to trample enemies with my horse. So, Hayseed and I charged right in there, and my friends all started to yell at me. In the chaos, our bounty slid off a hill and made a break across the plains of West Hanover.

Another time, a bounty made a break into the woods. We made sure to kill his accomplices so we wouldn’t have any resistance, then turned to see... our bounty had died somewhere in those trees.

“Huh,” I said. “I wonder what happened there.”

As I advanced into the woods, I realized what had happened extremely quickly: an enormous grizzly bear was crouched over our bounty. I screamed, Hayseed screamed, and I was bucked clean off my saddle, left to become another meal for that bear.

Perhaps that’s why I was slightly nervous when we later discovered a bounty who claimed to have a tamed bear at his side. We chuckled sensibly at that one. Who tames a bear? Later, as we crept through his camp, something big and furry ran into my friend and I hollered in terror. It was just a hog, but at the time, I didn’t know that. I thought it was that horrifying ursine, back for revenge.

Also, don’t ask me how I figured this one out, but you can’t drop a bounty off a moving train and get the bonus for keeping him alive. It’s incredibly awkward to have to haul back a corpse with no arm.

Listen, I’m figuring all of this out, OK? That’s not a crime, and I would know. I’m an expert in solving crimes.

Red Dead Online - a player admonishes Hayseed, the large Belgian Draft horse.
Don’t blame Hayseed! He’s just a BABY!
Image: Rockstar Games via Polygon

Layering updates

The best moments in Red Dead Online come when the random events and opportunities in the world overlap with each other. Sometimes when traveling, we stop to dig up some arrowheads or hunt some deer for our camps. The long stretches of having little to do have been replaced, and we’re focused on lots of small-scale goals.

Random events on the road were a game changer before, but the Frontier Pursuit update has added more of them, and it’s legitimately hilarious how they can occur during a bounty hunting mission. At one point, I was going as fast as I could after a bounty, only to see a man screaming for help. His wife was on a runaway carriage, pulled by panicked horses. I had to choose between trying to stop my target and save the wife, panicked, and ultimately achieved neither goal. The bounty fled into the distance while the bereaved man watched his wife soar over a fence and down into a canyon. No one was happy with me!

Another time, we were in the middle of hunting down a jewel thief when a friendly dog approached us and barked. We decided it was worth interrupting our hunt to check this out. Surely a dog wouldn’t lead us astray? We followed the dog well out of our way ... and then we realized we had fallen into an ambush as bandits appeared out of nowhere, arms drawn.

There’s no one moment I can point to that’s made me appreciate the new Red Dead Online update. Instead, there’s the framework to create a dozen smaller moments over an evening of playing with friends. I have stuff to do, and the game throws me enough curveballs that it remains interesting. It’s a glorious cacophony of chaos, where there are tons of small goals to achieve ... and those branch into organic stories and opportunities for chaos. Red Dead Online still isn’t a game I’d approach solo for too long, but with a posse of pals, I’m having a blast.