Red Dead Online will feel immediately familiar to anyone who’s played GTA Online for a couple of hours, let alone a couple of years. People still play that game? Yes, millions still do on a daily basis.
It’s not cool to admit you play GTA Online. It’s sneered at, for its poor backend tech that struggles with yawning loading times, its gameplay seen as a haven for griefers and clowns to run around nuking each other from helicopters, flying cars and armoured trucks. But scrape away the obnoxious surface and there’s a community of different tribes playing underneath; the racers, the car customisers with their Sunday meet-ups, the photographers stalking the neon washed streets, the bikers with their strict clubhouse rules. People live in Los Santos and Blaine County.
“There is no best gun. If you win a shootout, it’s because you were quicker, or a better aim, or lucky, or you shot an unarmed man in the back”
Red Dead Online has that very same potential. Its sprawling and beautiful map is the enticing land of opportunity. From the dust-devil desert to the metropolitan cities, the barren, snow-topped mountains and sweating bayou ripe are for hunting, fishing, and pitching your tent with an eye to staking a claim. It’s an initially overwhelming world in which to settle in, and just like Red Dead Redemption 2, you’re encouraged to grow into it slowly. You have a few dollars in your pocket, a free shooting iron, some rags on your back and the charity of strangers to get you by.
Red Dead Online creates all men equal. And women. Sixty year-old scrawny cowpokes, dandy gunslingers, grizzled cowhands and dapper gentlemen gamblers. There is no best gun – they’re all a bit crusty and require constant maintenance. If you win a shootout, it’s because you were quicker, or a better aim, or lucky, or you shot an unarmed man in the back. No one is thrashing through Saint Denis with a gatling gun bolted to a chuck wagon. Not yet, anyway. These are the early days of slow progress, where a half bottle of gin, a handful of shells and a hunk of meat is a decent reward.
The economy is a bit of a mess, but I don’t mind that it’s cheap with the payouts (and this is a beta). I don’t expect a gold bar for a day’s work. $4 for delivering post over 20 minutes? I guess that’s a fair wage. Just over $5 for a rescue mission that cost me the majority of my ammo? I’ll happily trade the cartridges for the thrills. But $1.20 for cashing in a gold bracelet, when a tin of beans costs $1.50? Well, the United States was built off exploitation and profiteering as much as hard labour and open opportunity, so I guess it’s (trigger warning) historically accurate (/trigger warning), even if it stings the wallet.
Where microtransactions go is always a concern but I’ve played enough GTA Online to be fairly confident that I won’t need to buy things with real money. You’re not supposed to boot the game up and own all available weapons within a couple of hours. That’s why a Carcano Rifle costs $760 and is gated behind your rank. Take your time, there’s pleasure in the work.
Red Dead Online’s missions and free roam activities are pure GTA Online, where you can crash another player’s wagon heist, or team with three randoms, capture an outlaw each and tie them to a train track. Keeping the Honor System from Red Dead Redemption 2 is perhaps the smartest addition to the game, although it’s still too early to see if this has wide reaching effects. But the good/bad decisions you face – along with the strangers you’re working with – creates a subtle push and pull friction between players. It would be nice to see who voted to let the rustler go free and who wanted to shoot them dead, especially if you’re planning on forming a posse of ruthless outlaws.
Red Dead Online feels like a real step up technically from GTA Online, too. There are less painful load times and the menu structure is much neater. The danger of adding functionality is bloat. Multiple menus and options can slowly become archaic, but for the time being at least, the stripped back systems just reveal a few obvious missing features; a passive mode seems like an oversight, especially when you’re encouraging players to get started in a game where conflict escalates quickly. More tweaks – like not being visible to every player on the map at all times, and a blip that disappears when you sneak – are staples of GTA and surely coming in the next couple of patches. Planning to take down a gang hideout only to have it crashed by bumbling, uninvited players is frustrating. But these early annoyances are minor, not something you need to start a petition about and demand a boycott.
“Red Dead Redemption 2 does what Fallout 76 couldn’t – create a solid, relatable world where players will make their own stories, prompted by the environment and characters around them”
The bigger upgrades will come, too. GTA Online got apartments, and super yachts, and businesses to run, as well as staples like vehicles and weapons, new modes and missions. Many of theses additions came from the influence of players – player created modes like Snipers Vs Stunters, the support for the homegrown biker community, the response to the lowrider lifestyle. That too will come to Red Dead Online, but there’s no rush and really no need for it just yet. Players won’t have had a chance to save enough cash for property for months, so it makes sense to temper the Red Dead Online economy. Expect it when we’ve put enough bank jobs and animal pelts behind us to afford a rundown shack outside Annesburg.
What Rockstar is doing with Red Dead Online as setting the scene and space for a game for which it undoubtedly has years of growth planned out. It’s done what Fallout 76 couldn’t – created a solid, relatable world where players will make their own stories, prompted by the environment and characters around them. It’s a world that players are expected to grow into, which Rockstar will change in response to those interactions with players. It’s done it before so successfully with GTA Online, and it’ll do it again with Red Dead Online. Communities don’t appear overnight, but they’ll be beginning to settle in this weekend and beyond, poking around to see where they fit. There’s opportunity here, in gameplay, in modes, in new clothes and jobs, but more importantly, for players to create their own rules and conduct, their own tribes within a world.