There’s a lot going on in Red Dead Online — racing, shootouts, gang hideouts, bounties, and smuggling. But at the end of the day, I just want to brawl with my buddies.
Physical combat in Red Dead Online feels fantastic, especially compared to its sibling Grand Theft Auto Online. There’s less flash and nonsense; there are no laser guns or flying cars or assault weapons. Instead, the combat is weighty. There are stages of struggle and grappling. Players can knock each other over, wrestle in the dirt, and hogtie their enemies. Sometimes, I try to strap someone onto the back of my big stupid horse, Hayseed, and then take them for a ride. Other times, my friends catch me unawares and tackle me into the river, where we tussle in the rapids.
It gets a little Looney Tunes at times, especially when my friends make a concerted attempt to steal and kill my big, beautiful horse.
The Moonshiner update added some more brawling missions. In some missions, you gotta head to a saloon and take out the opposition, or fight some people while they’re drunk. These adventures are fantastic, and I wish there were more opportunities for melee.
Here’s the thing: Shooting a gun is nearly always the more effective choice. It’s also much less satisfying. It’s fine; the shooting is fine. But it’s always pull, aim, shoot. A rifle shoots further and a shotgun shoots harder and two pistols shoot faster, sure. There are some differences, and some people have a lot of fun mastering the bow or the sniper rifle.
But shooting lacks the chaos of melee combat. If I get the chance to start meleeing, I take it every time. It doesn’t matter whether it’s bandits, bounties, people who insult me on the road, a guy with a cooler hat than me, an explorer who’s holding a nice map I want to have, or federal agents ordering me to stop and surrender — I’m gonna wrestle ’em.
Sometimes, my friends and I will fill up an entire Last Stand lobby, and purposefully put guns away. Sometimes we knife-fight, other times we just use our fists. Those matches are always memorable — I still think back to the time one of my buddies knocked me off a ledge inside a mine, sending me to my doom in a cart of coal. Another time, we started a fight club on the roof of a bank. I put my one pal in a chokehold, only for his brother to grab me by the shoulder and spin me around. The two ping-ponged me back and forth with a flurry of hits until my husband speared one of them with a hatchet and strangled the other.
Gunfights inevitably end in one way: One person outshoots the other. That’s part of the cowboy fantasy, obviously, but Red Dead Online spends so much time luxuriating in the details. If I want to loot a house, I have to push the door open, find a cabinet, open each individual drawer, pick up the loot inside, and pocket it.
For some, this is laborious. For me, it’s great. I find an immense amount of satisfaction in opening a cabinet and manually pulling out a can of baked beans. In other games, I’ll happily run up to a trash can and loot an entire chicken, a diamond bracelet, and an audio tape of the mayor within seconds.
But the melee of Red Dead Online matches the slow pace of the rest of the game. It’s realistic and heavy, and pays off with a satisfying impact. The pace of everything, from travel to eating, is resolutely sedate. I’m going to sit there and play this game at the speed the developers intended, and love every minute I’m manually eating individual bites of stew to get a buff.
I hope there are reasons to come back to melee in the future. I don’t need much of an incentive — literally any reason to get into a fistfight is enough for me. But as the feds move in on the West, and enemies scale up to challenge veteran players, I hope we find answers that aren’t just more firepower. Sometimes all I want to do is hit something really, really hard.