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A fond farewell to Red Dead Online

Riding off into the sunset

Red Dead Online - four players, equipped in cowboy gear, head through the streets of Saint Denis atop their horses. Image: Rockstar Games

Red Dead Online has reached the end of its lifespan. It is both a fantastic experience that I’ve explored for hundreds of hours, and a game that will never meet its full potential, forever in the shadow of its bigger (and vastly more profitable) sibling, Grand Theft Auto Online. Now that Rockstar has said it will no longer be focusing significant attention on the Western, it’s worth revisiting the frontier to judge the game on what it achieved since its 2018 launch.

Red Dead Online begins with your character betrayed, framed for crimes they did not commit and due to be hanged as an outlaw. You escape, thanks to the efforts of high-class lady Jessica LeClerk, who has her own revenge mission in mind since she was newly widowed by scavengers trying to get her husband’s fortune. The player becomes LeClerk’s instrument of justice, and once unleashed on the frontier, it’s time to get right to work fulfilling bounties, killing robbers, and obtaining a stable of beautiful horses to brush.

If you follow the LeClerk missions, you are put through a short campaign wherein you have to make the occasional moral choice. Do you bring a wayward daughter back to her father, or let her run off with her lover? Do you tie some ne’er-do-wells to the tracks and let the train enact justice, or are you more merciful?

Red Dead Online - a female bounty hunter with a side shave hoists a lasso’d criminal over her shoulder to take him to jail Image: Rockstar Games

The game tracks your actions with an honor system, and at first, you might think you’re in for some real deep role-playing. This notion falls off, though, after LeClerk’s missions and never really returns; the honor system remains, but tends to automatically fill up over time when you do things like brush and feed your horse. It’s usually pretty clear what leads to an honor drop or recovery. When you clear a gang’s hideout, you can spare the leader or execute him, and self-defense is fine, but executing witnesses is a no-no.

Beyond a few cosmetic rewards, it just never really matters. It feels like there were great plans that got dropped at some point, and characters like Old Man Jones — who feels like the angelic answer to the devilish Stranger in the Red Dead franchise — is just… there. Jones spends the early campaign hovering around cutscenes and imploring you to treat your fellow man with honor and dignity. It feels like it’s leading up to something, but Jones kind of disappears after dropping all of his foreshadowing.

So it’s up to you cowpokes to make your own fun once you’re done with the campaign missions, and there is plenty to help you do so. You can hunt and fish, set up camp and cook some delicious stew, hunt down high-priced criminal bounties, or run your own moonshine shack. When I log on, I can easily fall into a comfortable cadence of activities. I start at my camp, cook up some stew and coffee, and manually eat my breakfast by hitting the trigger for every bite and sip. Then I jump on my big horse Hayseed and wander out in search of missions among the vast, unspoiled wilderness.

Red Dead Online - a player admonishes Hayseed, the large Belgian Draft horse. Image: Rockstar Games via Polygon

The core of these activities is always basically the same: You’re either riding your horse, swinging a lasso, or shooting a gun. While there’s not a ton of variety to the actions on paper, Red Dead Redemption 2’s great grappling, fighting, and physics systems add spice. As with most open-world games, there is also usually some compelling context to it all, whether it be exciting or melancholic. My friends and I have spent hours upon hours just wrasslin’ in a muddy yard.

The world also feels organic, albeit not as fleshed out as the single-player experience. When I’m on the road, I might find someone trapped under a rock, only to find it’s a dastardly trap set by bandits. Or, I might find someone who actually needs help getting back home after a wolf attack, and when I take them home I’ll find a mission available at their ranch, which naturally leads me to Valentine, where I pick a bounty up off the board.

Red Dead Online can be both serene and zen — just the experience of enjoying a horse’s hooves against packed dirt and the open skies of the American frontier. It can also be an absolute clown fiesta, where my friends and I enjoy a good old-fashioned match of Stab Battles in a debonair mansion. It’s a great social sandbox, but one that can never really match up to its sibling in GTA Online. It remains grounded and period accurate, and the action rarely escalates past a shootout in the middle of a city or a frenzied horse change.

Red Dead Online - two robbers in long coats and wide-brimmed hats prepare to attack. One of them has a lit stick of dynamite, while the other prepares his rifle. Image: Rockstar Games

Rockstar’s enormous open world is still gorgeous to explore and full of little details to uncover. There’s a lot of joy to be found in individual moments, but there’s no overarching vision that guided Red Dead Online to a tangible and concrete destination — and now there probably will never be one, as Rockstar is moving on to focus on GTA 6 and continues to devote time and resources to the mammoth that is GTA Online.

There’s something tragic about that, because while Red Dead Online can’t host flying cars and Elon Musk parodies, it does offer gravitas. My friends and I were always half in character as we hung out on the frontier. In GTA Online, we blast through the streets at 160 miles per hour while listening to the Backstreet Boys. In Red Dead Online, we’d contemplatively stare into the fire and drink coffee out of a tin cup before taking off at a canter on our horses. The joy was in the journey, and for all the missed potential of the game, I still loved these serene moments punctuated by rootin’-tootin’ cowboy action.

It’s a disappointing end for the fans who stuck it out through new character roles and the occasional event waiting for some grander recognition or vindication from Rockstar. The game was plagued with content draughts and periods of inactivity — except for battle passes — in life, and now it sits in purgatory. Only time will tell whether the community the game has attracted sticks around or strikes out for a brighter future elsewhere.

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