From Oregon Trail emigrants to the infamous Forty-Niners, Expansion era America saw hundreds of thousands head westward in search of fortune. Their pilgrimage across miles of open country wasn't undertaken just for the adventure of it, after all, but for the promise of more – more money and more opportunity. Rockstar, by now an expert in Wild West history, surely knows this, yet Red Dead Online still struggles to live up to that pioneer expectation of great reward for those who seek it.
Anyone who originally jumped into Red Dead Online back at launch will be well aware of the online sandbox's stingy, heavily monetised game economy, and while Rockstar has done a lot to alleviate some of that tension over the last two years, its efforts still aren't enough to motivate continued play in those outside of the diehard community.
That's a shame because there's much to love about Red Dead Online, but its economy continues to get in the way of discovering its best qualities. Given how far the game has come, however, and its recent re-release as a standalone experience from Red Dead Redemption 2, 2021 could be the year that Red Dead Online finally breaks free of its own self-imposed shackles. .
Red Dead Online's Roles, vocation-based forms of progression that present long-term pursuits for vested players, exemplify the best and worst about what Rockstar's multiplayer world has to offer. Having been slowly rolled out over the last 18 months, these modes enrich, and cater to, Red Dead's unique qualities as a leisurely, grounded frontiersman sim, where the pace of play slows down to a horse's steady trot.
You might lose hours of time carefully tracking, sedating, and taking samples of America's fauna as a naturalist, for instance, or embark on a perilous cross country cargo haul as a trader, in what is essentially a Wild West twist on the Spintires series. Beyond their immediate appeal of more granularly immersing players in the gentler rhythms of Red Dead's world, Roles are a reassurance that Rockstar understands what makes the series so appealing compared to its other landmark franchise, committing to making Red Dead Online its own thing, and not just a GTA Online facsimile in a cowboy hat.
These roles can also be pursued and progressed with friends for the most part, which is also where Red Dead Online finds its brightest sparks. The life of a wandering cowpoke can be slow and lonely at the best of times, so to enjoy the ride with company not only lightens the load (quite literally if you're hunting multiple bounties or animals), but buffers those lulls in real-time activity with social camaraderie. Riding along with a posse also reduces the risk of being griefed by other players, though thankfully Rockstar has implemented a number of social tools over the last two years to ensure PvP doesn't become overbearing for those who'd rather play nice.
Yet, like that of the rest of Red Dead Online's activities, the rewards for progressing through these Roles are dished out at a hopelessly meagre rate. To start off with, even attaining the ability to pursue a Role requires up to 15 Gold to purchase your license. Gold is just one of three currencies in Red Dead Online, but also the rarest and most valuable – a way to shortcut rank restrictions on items and acquire the highest quality gear. It's also, unsurprisingly, the currency that can be bought using real-world money; you can currently purchase 350 Gold Bars for £90 on the PlayStation Store.
In any case, the first step in Role progression already sets you off substantially poorer than you were before starting it, but then the path to breaking even on that investment, let alone making a profit, is long, arduous, and full of grind. What's more, reaching a new Role Rank level is typically recognised not with a reward, but with the opportunity to use Tokens (another currency) to unlock the right to purchase said reward with Dollars (yet another currency), and even then, the price tag is never particularly reasonable. The result is losing hours of time, dollars, and Gold into a Role, only to come out the other side with nothing but a new horse saddle to show for it.
I understand that Rockstar wants Red Dead Online's role-playing to be enjoyable in and of itself, pursued for the sake of it rather than just for the rewards, but its erroneously monetised structure has the inverse effect, appearing hostile enough to alienate players for good. The studio has started off the new year by regularly slashing prices on various items, licenses, and more across Red Dead Online's various in-game stores, but this feels like a short-term bandaid on an economy that requires life-saving surgery.
1898 in 2021
So, where do we go from here? Rockstar hasn't offered much insight into its long-term roadmap for Red Dead Online over the next year, but if it builds on the momentum of change it generated in 2020, there could be real hope for the game to reach its true potential over the next ten months.
With GTA 5 (and GTA Online) scheduled to receive a next-gen remastering of sorts later this year, for example, it wouldn't be outrageous to wonder whether Red Dead might receive a similar treatment shortly afterwards. There's also the strong likelihood of new Roles expanding out the current selection already available, which are always welcome, as being able to progress through multiple professions at once does help alleviate the frustrations of grinding each individually. Until more is done to redress the underlying imbalances of that grind, however, Red Dead Online will continue to suffer from its own greed.
In a strange sort of way, Red Dead Online captures the inherent contradictions of the Wild West perfectly. Our romanticised notions of the cowboy myth are clear as day in its breathtaking, serene depiction of pre-industrialised open country, and yet so is the harsh, cynical reality of the true American frontier, where misery, poverty, and strife awaits around every corner, ready to pounce. That might make for a handy metaphor, but it's no sustainable recipe for a live service that desperately needs to cater to a broader audience if it wishes to reach the same level of success as its true-crime counterpart.
For more, check out the best Call of Duty games to play right now, or watch our full review of Watch Dogs Legion in the video below.