I don’t see him hit the ground, but I definitely hear it.
By the time I turn back, the mysterious figure that’s just rode past me as we both galloped through one of New Austin’s many sandy gullies is already back on his feet. As I bemusedly watch him pick up the carcass of a small animal and reattach it to the saddle of his horse – half-expecting him to shoot me – I wonder whether it was my fault that he somehow ended up crashing his horse and being flung headlong into the dust, as has happened to every Red Dead Redemption 2 player at some point. Did my passing him on the narrow trail push him into the path of a rock that tripped up his mare?
I’ll never know if it did, because he rides off at breakneck pace without saying a word. Regardless, like all of the silent cowboys I’ve encountered during my return to Red Dead Online, I’m glad to have met him.
Having avoided playing the once massive multiplayer element of Red Dead Redemption 2 turned standalone experience for a number of years prior to the past couple of weeks, I didn’t know what to expect. Like pretty much everyone who got caught up in the hype and bought the more expensive editions of Rockstar’s western, I initially gave Red Dead Online a go when it launched via beta back in late 2018.
I bounced off of it fairly quickly for a number of reasons, most of which revolved around the fact that it wasn’t quite GTA Online, for all of the ill that would also entail. There weren’t any cars to collect and race, I was at a stage in life during which most of the people I’d have formed a posse with were on different platforms, and, to be brutally honest, I already had enough gaming time sinks on my plate.
A couple of other minor gripes and off-putting features that had dissuaded me from properly giving Red Dead Online another try in the intervening years are still there in 2023, as it turns five. There are still silly Fortnite-style emotes that you have to pay for and don’t at all mesh with RDR2’s realism-focused aesthetic. There are still four or five different currencies, all of which are earned in different ways, but can buy similar things. I’m glad to report, however, that there’s still definitely some casual fun to be had, even for those starting from scratch.
That’s exactly how I decided to kick off my delve back into RDO, with a fresh character and a trip back through the intro sequence just to see if anything had changed. It hadn’t. There were even still a couple of little vaguely familiar moments when it kinda feels like the game should prompt you to press something in order to continue, but just kind of doesn’t. Then again, that could just be a test to make sure you aren’t an idiot before it lets you loose to fend for yourself, in which case I failed miserably.
The first few missions were much the same, with the first real interesting moment coming when I arrived at one that required matchmaking. I feared I’d be waiting an age, so was pleasantly surprised when another poor PC newbie was found to pair up with me and steal some horses. Though the fact there was only one of them did make the NPC questgiver’s line of something like “and here are your friends…” a tad hilarious, they stuck around through the entire mission and were actually a big help, immediately surpassing a good 50% of my GTA Online random heistmates over the years.
Arriving on the plains of the open world for the first time once I’d established my camp, at first it seemed as though I might be in for a lonely time, with my session appearing to be empty aside from my crappily-mustachioed cowboy. Thankfully, once I rode into the population centre of Blackwater, I found a decent gaggle of fellow gunslingers shuffling around doing amusingly era-appropriate things like visiting the telegraph office. None of them immediately shot at me, though they also didn’t seem to care too much when I somehow managed to anger an NPC who had surprisingly good aim.
In an exercise designed to see what the game’s currently like for the more casual player who doesn’t fancy investing the time to progress up the ladders of Red Dead Online’s various roles and just wants a bit of rootin’ shootin’ action, I spent the majority of my return to the game perusing its various deathmatch and race series. First off was the featured series, which seemed like the best bet in terms of finding populous sessions due the double cash and rep it offered and, as it turned out, was. Throughout a number of most wanted, public enemy, and name your weapon matches – all of which delivered some fun action that didn’t see my single-digit level character at too much of a disadvantage from the veterans.
One of the most interesting observations I made as I played through these matches and others was the interesting mixture of levels that populated each lobby. I’d expected things to be a bit more stratified as they often are in GTA Online, with several obscenely high level players who’ve clearly put in an obscene amount of hours over the past few years looking like an entirely different breed to those casually dipping in. On the other hand, while I ran across a couple of sessions containing one or two level 150 or 140s, the majority seemed to sit somewhere between level 10 – the mark I reached after just a couple of days dipping into the featured series – and about level 65.
While there were some cool hats and costumes among the veterans, no-one stood out in the same way that many top GTA Online players – with their mad tattoos, garishly coloured getups and occasional alien onesies – seem to. I’d expected to find a bunch of bizarre cyber-banditos dressed like something that might belong in a John Wayne-fronted version of The Fifth Element, but just ended up battling a lot of believably-dressed outlaws. The series that didn’t boast the featured status managed to attract a decent amount of these folks, again to my surprise given the grinding advantage offered by the former. I even managed to find some folks to horse race in a fashion that felt just as janky – and inferior to flying around the colourful Hot Wheels tracks that’ve long dominated Los Santos skies and my YouTube recommended page – as I remembered.
I came out of my brief re-emergence into the world of Red Dead Online feeling a lot more enthusiastic about its status than I thought I would. It’s by no means as densely populated as its terrifying older brother, but it didn’t feel anything like I thought it might at this point in its lifespan.
The old west may be dying in Red Dead Redemption 2’s story mode, but, against all odds, it rides on in Red Dead Online.