I had concerns going into Red Dead Online. Don’t me wrong, I adored the main campaign, but the idea of transitioning what Rockstar had created into an online world was something I was wary of. The reason for this really just came down to the combat, which is arguably the weakest element of the RDR2 experience. Shoot-outs in the main game were certainly fun, with solid controls and the sheer unstoppable power of Arthur Morgan making it feel empowering, but I had my doubts as to how well the less-than-stellar cover shooting would transfer to an online environment. Having spent many hours on the Red Dead Online Beta, and into the wee small hours of the morning, have my fears been allayed? Not really, no.
First off, what Rockstar have crafted with their online world is utterly astonishing. Upon completing a very short prologue, the entire map of RDR2 is at your disposal. Whilst the landscape mostly remains the same, the content within it is like a remix of the main game. You’ll meet a lot of the same characters and faces but their roles, locations and reactions to you have changed. There are even some very popular characters from the original game – no spoilers from me – who pop up and make an apperance here to give you missions to complete.
You’re able to explore to your hearts content in free-roam, and it really is just like the single player has been dropped into an online world with the key difference that as you re-explore the town of Valentine and roam the marsh land of Leymone you’ll encounter other players.
How do you interact with these new inhabitants of this virtual world? Mostly with them shooting you in the head. I found myself riding around, minding my own business, only to hear a crack of a rifle and for Penelope Pain to go tumbling from her mount in a shower of her own brain. Fortunately re-spawning is quick, minimising the pain despite the violent brain removal!
In fact, the entire online world is incredibly stable. I encounted minimal problems – other than my rifle weirdly not connecting to my back and Penelope, on occasion, riding several inches above her horse’s saddle. For example, at any time you can team up with other players to form a posse. This can be done as you free-roam, or the game will matchmake a posse for you to complete storyline missions. This took only a minute or two and then my gang were off, trying to work together – poorly I might add – in missions that would not be out of place in the main campaign. There are cutscenes to watch, moral decisions to make, horses to steal, bandits to shoot and teammates to hilariously run over accidentally on purpose.
These storyline missions can be accessed by arriving at the correct point of the map, but all of the other game modes are available immediately from a separate menu. There’s a variety of deathmatch modes – including a Fortnite-style elimination game – as well as horse races to compete in. Again, the speed at which the game drops you into a match is mind-boggling and there’s a genuine thrill to environments from the main game being turned into play boxes of death and violence. Unfortunately, it is also here that the issues with combat raise their ugly mishappen head.
Lock on is really generous, and I mean really generous. Find an enemy, look vaguely in their direction, lock on and blam! they’re dead. Now I’m sure this can be tinkered with to be more satisfying, but why should I? Normally I suck at online games, but in Red Dead Online I suddenly seemed to have gained super powers, regularly topping matches when it came to kills. The issue with this is you can do little to prevent death; if someone locks onto you that’s pretty much it, you’ll be dead before you know it.
Combat also lacks the satisfaction found in the main game, mainly due to the fact that player character’s don’t react with the same level of animation that an NPC would. Weapons just don’t have the same heft, shots from a revolver simply being absorbed by the bullet sponge that is an opponent’s head before they crumple to the ground.
The most effective way to do battle is still to hide somewhere, pop up from time to time and blast away at an unsuspecting foe. It’s fine, but it doesn’t really hold up to the combat found in other online games. However, with most weapons being locked behind levelling up, I am prepared for this to change as players gain access to a greater variety of weaponry.
You can earn experience points by pretty much doing anything and everything. Craft some food, pet your horse or go for a run and more points are yours. The only potential issue? Naughty players spamming passive actions to level up at super speed. How Rockstar will counter this concern will be worth keeping an eye on, because this experience can then be applied to the acquisition of new weapons or dead-eye abilities.
Yes, everyone has dead-eye, but its power isn’t nearly as potent as in the single player. Instead, it seems to serve as a way of delivering perks, such as increase your health or improving the damage dealing potential of your posse. It’s an effective use of the power in an online world and there’s real potential to explore how the various abilities can be stacked up by you and your team.
I was particularly impressed by the story missions, which builds upon Rockstar’s previous online outings. There is an entire campaign to play through here, following the misadventures of your wrongly imprisoned convict who goes on a mission of vengeance. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s entirely new characters to meet, all with superb voice acting, and all of whom are just as well designed as anyone you’ll meet in the main game. Necessarily the level of interaction between you and your characters has changed, so you cannot talk, but Rockstar do a fine job of pointing fun at this video game convention.
One final word on character creation. It is – as you would expect – insanely detailed, but if you have dreams of creating a handsome outlaw or western beauty prepare to be disappointed. Despite my best efforts, Penelope Pain ended up – how can I put this politely? – a bit ugly. Still, when your choices for teeth vary from ‘stained yellow’ to ‘gummy’, what can you expect?
There’s a lot to love about Red Dead Online – it’s remarkably stable, vast in scale, and completing storyline missions in co-op is a delight – yet, the unremarkable combat is really a sticking point. Essentially it is identical to what was found in the original Red Dead Online, and how Rockstar adapt to this over the coming weeks and months will prove vital in how long this virtual wild west remains populated.