Red Dead Online’s beta kicked off today, for players who own Red Dead Redemption 2’s Ultimate Edition. It’s an incredibly familiar experience, taking the first game’s online component and adding a healthy dose of story, survival, and shenanigans. It’s a bit barebones at the moment, but the foundation is strong.
My first day in Red Dead Online had tiny battles royale, haircuts, clothes shopping, horse theft, and more. The multiplayer mode takes many of the things I enjoyed about the original Red Dead Redemption’s online and expands them outwards. The result is an experience that’s fast and silly, but holds detailed management and narrative elements as well.
You play as an outlaw wrongly accused of a handful of crimes. After working through the character creator, you are rescued by men working for a new character called Jessica LeClerk. She offers a proposition: in return for freeing you, you will help hunt down the men who killed her husband. What follows is a loose story experience peppered with co-op missions and sillier diversions. It’s not as wild as Grand Theft Auto Online but also not as slow and serious as the main story.
The entire map of Red Dead Redemption 2 is available to explore: the green plains of New Hanover, the swamps of Lemoyne, even the New Austin segment originally found in the first Red Dead Redemption. The game started me in New Austin and was excited to retread the ground I’d worn so heavily during the first game, but some players have said they started elsewhere in the game world.
In any case, the opening still hits the same beats. You’ll meet LeClerk, set up your own camp somewhere in the game world, get your first horse, and then be left to your own devices. Red Dead Online’s somewhat limited at the moment in terms of what you can do in free roam. There are up to 32 players in each server, all running around like Western idiots. You can ride around and team up with (or harass) other players, hunt animals, raid gang hideouts, get your haircut, and take side missions from numerous characters.
That last part has been the most exciting aspect for me thus far. In my first side mission, I encountered Sean MacGuire, the quick-talking Irishman from Dutch van der Linde’s gang, and learned how to pilfer from stagecoaches. In another, I happened upon the first game’s Bonnie MacFarlane and helped recover stolen property. You might not be able to sit down for a hand of poker or round of Five Finger Fillet, but Red Dead Online seems dense with characters to meet and missions to embark on.
Red Dead Online makes a few changes to how players interact in the open world. First and foremost is the ability to set up your own camp. Much like in the main game, this is your home base where you or anyone in your possecan change your outfit or rest up. Camps are flagged as safe zones but players can opt out of that safety if they’re looking for a more dangerous lifestyle. Posses can be joined with a quick romp through a side menu, but there’s a “permanent” option as well. If you have $200 in in-game cash, you can set up a sort of official gang, making it easier to join up with friends.
The main game’s karma meter rears its head here in a system where lawful posses can interrupt the open-world missions of dishonorable players, and vice versa. These little social touches provide a bit more of a framework for collaborative play than the chaotic ad hoc grouping in Red Dead Redemption. Sure, you might get shot by another player on the way into town, but you’re just as likely to find someone who will ride up and ask you to take on a gang hideout or simply come back to their camp.
There’s still plenty of chaos to be had, though. Beyond whatever grudges might flare up in free roam, the game has playlists for competitive gunfight modes and racing. I’ve spent most of my time in the Showdown playlist, which includes traditional team deathmatches and a few other modes.
Most Wanted is a free-for-all mode where the more you kill other players, the most your own personal point value increases. The goal is to get the highest score, but the twist is that it’s best to kill enemies that are worth a lot of points. The deadlier you are, the more people will be gunning for you.
If you’re looking for something quieter, Make It Count is Red Dead Online’s miniaturized battle royale. Every player is armed with a bow and arrow, each hit is instantly lethal, and the play area slowly shrinks over time. My first match took play on a swampy Lemoyne farm, where players slinked through marshlands and ran through crop fields. It was a tense experience that should appeal to players looking for a methodical mode to balance out the brash gunfights of something like team deathmatch.
Whereas Red Dead Redemption 2 has a pretense of realism and verisimilitude, Red Dead Online is explicitly gamier. It’s odd seeing Valentine go from supposedly realistic town to a deathmatch level, but Red Dead Online exists in a hazy space. You can buy all possible weapons right away regardless of the mode’s ambiguous place in the game’s timeline—I’ve encountered characters who should have been long dead by the time folks were slinging fancy gear. You can walk into stores to buy guns, but your clothes shopping is done by pulling out a catalogue wherever you want (a bit like GTA Online’s cellphone) and having them delivered to your camp. If Red Dead Redemption 2 wanted to be a world, Red Dead Online is content to be a playground.
After a few hours, you’re bound to run through most of the available game modes and activities currently available in Red Dead Online. There’s shooting, story, racing, and some occasional rustling, but players expecting something as diverse as GTA Online should manage their expectations. This is a framework that Rockstar can and will build upon, not an immediately fleshed-out experience. It’s a chance to wander the map, play dress-up, dominate a few silly game modes, and chat with friends as you occasionally shoot the horse out from underneath some unlucky bastard. After a long day’s work, that’s really all you need.