When I finished Red Dead Redemption 2, I was spent. I basically lived in Rockstar's vivid slice of the Wild West for two months, playing it most evenings. And while I enjoyed every minute of it, when those lengthy credits finished rolling I was ready to go somewhere else. But a lingering feeling that I wanted to return to that world was always kicking up dust in the back of my mind, and multiplayer mode Red Dead Online was an excuse to revisit those evocative plains, deserts, and forests.
But here's the thing: I'm not really into multiplayer games. I had no interest in Red Dead Online's gunfights, horse races, deathmatches, or other competitive PVP modes: I just wanted more story, primarily as a way to immerse myself in that world again. So I was happy to discover a series of co-op missions called A Land of Opportunities, in which your mute gunslinger takes part in a series of entertaining, varied missions, all of which have the voice acting, set-pieces, and cutscenes you'd expect to see playing as Arthur Morgan in single-player.
I devoted a good few hours to playing, and replaying, these missions, teaming up with random cowboys through matchmaking. Jobs on offer include stealing horses, bounty hunting, defending Valentine from the Del Lobo gang, and even robbing a bank in Saint Denis. They're fun and challenging, and the story is engaging enough, albeit dampened a little by the fact that your character is a blank slate who never utters a word. You can barge into a stranger's cabin in the middle of the woods, at night, rifle slung over your shoulder, and they'll know, somehow, that you're there looking for work, not to rob them.
But the more I played Red Dead Online, the more I became aware of the fact that it was the spaces between these missions I was enjoying the most. Those moments of unplanned exploration; seeing a distant mountain or building and deciding to ride there. Ambient tasks such as hunting animals, picking flowers, fishing. And taking on odd jobs from the many eccentric strangers dotted around the map, which are short, repeating missions you can complete by yourself. They're all pretty basic: steal a wagon, rob someone, destroy some crates, hunt a dangerous animal. But they're a fun distraction, and you can return to whoever gave you the job later for another one.
More of a good thing
Fans of Arthur's story will also enjoy being able to hang out with familiar characters including Sean MacGuire and Sadie Adler. Red Dead Online takes place before the events of the main game, so certain characters are in very different situations. There are some new characters too, or expanded roles for people who Arthur otherwise only glimpses. Rockstar has done a great job of making Red Dead Online feel like a proper, connected part of the Red Dead universe at large, rather than just a tacked-on extra, and there are a few cute references to the saga of the Van der Linde gang to discover.
You can do all this in single-player, of course. Ignore the mission at hand and Red Dead Redemption 2 is itself a compelling Wild West sandbox, with its own set of (much better) stranger mission. But there's one thing that sets Red Dead Online apart: other people. I never actively seek out other players when I'm online, but I love it when I randomly encounter them as I'm going about my business. It makes the world feel wonderfully alive and unpredictable, whether it's a massive gunfight breaking out in a town (a frequent occurrence), or just bumping into a couple of hunters in the snow-battered Grizzlies and giving them a friendly wave as you ride by on your horse.
Rockstar North's co-studio head Rob Nelson looks back on the launch and details the future of Red Dead Online: "we are only just getting started!"
Of these encounters, it's the latter kind that really stick with me. I remember playing at launch, briefly, and quitting because I kept getting lassoed by idiots and dragged through the dirt like Marty McFly. But people are generally a lot nicer these days, and it's always a joy when you experience a tiny, human moment, such as the guy who saw me fishing in a creek, wandered over to watch, and clapped as I snagged a sockeye salmon. That's the kind of online interaction I love, and Red Dead Online is full of 'em – if you keep your iron holstered and don't shoot on sight, which is a tall order for some players.
But honestly, that's part of the thrill. When you run into someone in the wilderness, it's always a tense moment. They could be a potential ally or just a fellow traveller minding their own business. They could be waiting to ambush and rob you. Or maybe they're just a troublemaker looking for someone to lasso, because there are still a few of those guys out there. The result of this tension is that Red Dead's Wild West suddenly feels genuinely wild. A dangerous, uncertain place, like the frontier might have felt back when the game is set. This makes the game much more immersive, although I get that some players would prefer to just explore the world alone, free from danger.
The magic of Red Dead Online
The only thing working against Red Dead Online as a sandbox, at least for now, is that its version of the world isn't quite as rich or reactive as its single-player counterpart. You can't interact with NPCs (another problem with playing as a mute character) and there are fewer people wandering the streets. But Rockstar has been steadily improving this side of things with updates, just recently adding random events on the road such as ambushes and stranded strangers. In time, as the technology improves, Red Dead Online might be even more detailed and reactive than the story mode. But for now, if you want to hurl insults at people you're gonna have to stick with Arthur.
For me, the real magic of Red Dead's world is that, even when I'm not doing anything, it's incredibly captivating. I've spent countless hours just aimlessly rambling on foot and on horseback, hiking over snowy mountains, wading through murky swamps, and drifting across grassy plains.
Usually when you sink a hundred hours into an open world you start to see the cracks, the joins. The novelty fades away, familiarity kicks in, and the magic slowly wears off. But even now, after all this time, I'm still completely in awe of this wild, rugged country – how natural it feels, how every vista looks like an old landscape painting come to life, and its stark, sweeping beauty.
The fact that Red Dead Online lets me experience all this, but with the added excitement and danger of running into other players, means it's my new favourite way – and arguably the best way – to exist in that remarkable setting. And as someone who has always wanted Westworld to exist (well, a safer version of it anyway) this is the next best thing. So if you polished off Red Dead Redemption 2's story and thought you'd experienced everything its colossal Wild West had to offer, it might be worth saddling up and trying the online mode.