During the earliest moments of Red Dead Online, the multiplayer spinoff of Red Dead Redemption 2, you could almost mistake it for a traditional single-player experience. It has all of the series’ hallmarks: tense shootouts; long, quiet rides on horseback; lengthy, well-acted cutscenes; and an open-ended nature that gives a real sense of freedom out in the frontier. You can sit down by a fire and drink some coffee, or you can go hunting for deer in the woods. It’s up to you.
But that feeling doesn’t last forever. There’s a good chance that while you’re enjoying one those nice contemplative moments, or even doing something simple like checking your map, another player is sneaking up behind you for the kill. Red Dead Online feels just like Red Dead Redemption 2 right up until you have to deal with other players.
Red Dead Online takes place in the same world as RDR2, but it tells a new story. Instead of playing as the outlaw Arthur Morgan, you create your own character. The game starts out in a prison: you’ve been brought in for an unknown crime, and it’s here that you build out your character. It’s a fairly robust tool, letting you really tweak how your avatar will look, right down to the freckles and scars on their face. You can even choose an age (though I’m not sure yet how or if that influences anything), the sound of your horse whistle, and pick from a selection of period-appropriate teeth options. Let’s just say they are not particularly attractive.
The opening is much like any other blockbuster game, filled with long cutscenes, lots of dialogue, and limited interactions. Things eventually open up when a group rescues you while you’re being moved to a different prison, and enlists your help to take out some bad men.
The game plays exactly the same as Red Dead Redemption 2, with identical controls and the same meandering pace. The first thing you’ll probably notice that’s different is that your character doesn’t talk at all. They’re completely silent during cutscenes, simply nodding when asked a question, and you can’t speak to most non-player characters the way you did in the main game. Instead of the option to talk, you can simply emote, waving or nodding as people pass by.
It’s even structured similarly to the main game. When you open up your map there are glowing yellow points that represent story missions, as well as various “strangers” that you can pick up quests from. The difference, though, is that the main missions require you to partner up with other players in a group of four.
The first few missions don’t require much in the way of coordination. One has you stealing some horses, another capturing a notorious con man. For the most part, it’s like being in a standard Red Dead shootout, only with three other players working with you. If you’re gunned down, one of your teammates can revive you. The most complex it got during the first few hours was a mission where one person in my group had to carry a hogtied outlaw, while everyone else defended them on the way to the drop-off point. I didn’t even talk to my teammates and we got through just fine.
The non-story missions are somewhat different. One of the first things I did in the game was head to Saint Denis, the New Orleans-inspired city that’s one of Red Dead Redemption 2’s highlights. Here I was able to pick up a mission that seemed simple enough: deliver some mail to a nearby house within a set amount of time. The challenge, though, is that other players can mess with you. As soon as I got close to the mailbox, I realized another player was waiting there with the express purpose of killing me and stealing the mail. They ran off with it and I didn’t manage to catch them before time ran out.
In around three hours with the game, I ran into a lot of this: players who seem to be enjoying the game mostly by screwing with everyone else. Anytime I found myself out in the wild without my horse — which is common, as the game often re-spawns you in random locations after completing a mission — I had to be wary of gangs of players killing for sport. Someone even killed my horse. (Luckily, the game features “horse insurance,” which will bring your steed back to life after a waiting period.) Red Dead Online does feature an honor system, just like the base game, that punishes you for bad behavior. But, at least early on, it doesn’t seem to be deterring griefers. You are safe at your own camp, so long as a white flag is raised, but early on there isn’t a whole lot to do there.
Aside from the frustration of being murdered on the regular, there’s also some other strangeness that comes from the game’s online nature. Whenever you have to make a moral decision in the game, for instance, everyone in the group has to vote, which can take some of the drama out of life-or-death situations. The world also feels less dynamic. When I played Red Dead Redemption 2, it felt like I was always running into something to do — a character in need of help, or a rare animal to hunt. But I haven’t experienced any of that yet in Red Dead Online. Instead, it’s been replaced by wild packs of players intent on ruining my fun.
The online mode still has much of what I love about Red Dead. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and the world has a texture and depth that makes it a joy to just ride around and explore. But there’s also a newfound tension that isn’t particularly pleasant. I want to go out and fish and hunt and wander the streets of Saint Denis, and I predict that I’ll spend a lot of time and money customizing my guns and getting the perfect outfit. But I don’t want to have to worry about a stranger sneaking behind me with a shotgun while I do it. Those two sides of the experience feel like they’re in conflict right now.
Of course, this is just a beta, so much about Red Dead Online will change over the coming weeks and months. And I’m still fairly early in, and haven’t experimented much with building out my camp, forming a posse, or going through some of the competitive challenges. It’s far too early to pass a final judgement on the mode. But for me right now, the balance of Red Dead Online feels off. It’s an experience that looks and feels like Red Dead Redemption 2, but you can’t enjoy it in quite the same way.
The Red Dead Online beta is available now to those who purchased the “ultimate edition” of the game, and will open up to all players on Friday. It’s a free add-on for both PS4 and Xbox One.