‘Red Dead Online’ is only an appetizer right now, but there’s a feast to come

'Red Dead Online' is an appetizer in its current state, but a mighty tasty one

Our raw gameplay video from Red Dead Online.

Red Dead Online, the multiplayer component of Red Dead Redemption 2, takes cues from both the original game’s online mode and Grand Theft Auto Online, but it winds up forming an identity of its own. So far, at least. After spending several hours with the Red Dead Online beta, I can see how the experience could expand and evolve to hold the attention of cowboys and cowgirls for the long haul.

As it stands, Red Dead Online is more of an appetizer than a main course. But it’s a mighty delightful appetizer. With a surprisingly engaging story that strikes a balance between chaos and calm, and a mix of single player, cooperative, and competitive activities, Red Dead Online has a broad, sturdy foundation. In the main adventure, the map serviced the story created by Rockstar, starring Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang. In Red Dead Online, that same world largely belongs to you.

Meet your unseemly creation

You enter Red Dead Online as an incoming prisoner of Sisika Penitentiary. To prepare for your mugshot, you create your character. Much like GTA Online, it’s hard to create an individual that isn’t, well, extremely less than attractive. It’s quite strange, actually, since the customization tools are fairly in-depth for facial features. Perhaps Rockstar wants your character to be ugly since they’ll partake in many unsavory activities. Either way, after a few hours I mostly forgot that my bargain bin version of John Marston looked like he was going on 60 at the age of 27.

Red Dead Online

After you put the finishing touches on your Frankenstein, the narrative begins. While being transferred from the prison in a caravan by two armed guards, a group of men free you and your fellow inmates. They let the other inmates run free, but ask you to tag along. Soon you meet Jessica LeClerk, a woman who asks you to kill the men who murdered her husband. She freed you after all, and even though you were wrongly convicted of unknown crimes, your character obviously feels like they owe LeClerk their life.

The cutscenes and writing are predictably polished just like the main game, and they seamlessly weave in and out of the gameplay. The one major downside of the narrative beats, however, is that your character is an empty vessel who never utters a word.

Instead, most cutscenes show your creation either nodding or just staring blankly at the speaker. It takes you out of the story a bit, but it’s understandable why your created character wouldn’t have dialogue in an evolving online mode. Your sole form of communication with NPCs come through emotes, such as nodding your head or holding up finger guns like a hip dad.

Carry on my wayward, cowboy

Red Dead Online supports up to 32 players on a server, though in my brief time playing it, I ran into exactly three human players. One of them shot me in the head on sight. After that (not so) shocker, I shot the next player I saw off their horse immediately and then trampled them.

Competitive multiplayer actually feels like the most fleshed out aspect of Red Dead Online.

Feeling bad for my actions, I decided that I would try a more peaceful approach the next time I encountered someone. I figured I’d get shot dead before I could nod my head in greeting, but, remarkably, my fellow outlaw returned the gesture, and we both went our separate ways.

Of course, I’m not naive enough to believe these serene interactions will be commonplace in Red Dead Online. The structure of some of the objectives themselves basically begs for interruption from nefarious players.

Throughout the map are stranger icons where you can pick up missions to play solo or with friends. The missions include bounties, kidnapping people from stagecoaches, taking down hideouts, and even humdrum tasks like delivering mail. But since you aren’t alone in this world, others on the server can steal your bounty or your mail, kill you and then take credit for your hard work. One of these disruptions hasn’t happened to me yet, but as players get familiar with the tasks, I imagine it will happen a lot, thus forcing you to band together with friends.

Although Red Dead Online has the Honor system that reflects how you behave in its world, it will probably take some time before we start to see true consequences for your actions.

The main story missions are completed cooperatively with three other players. Once you accept a mission, you’ll see all four characters in the ensuing cutscene, which is a nice touch. I played a few of these so far, both of which went smoothly. The only mission that required actual teamwork tasked three of us with protecting the other player. Otherwise, so far, everyone pretty much has to just hold their own, with little to no communication required.  After you complete a mission, you’re dropped back into free roam, where you can choose your next activity.

Shoot ’em all

Along with the open world format, you can enter competitive multiplayer from destinations on the map or in the menu. Dubbed “Showdown Series,” there are five multiplayer variants that take place in pre-determined spots on the map.

A solid gun costs a couple hundred or more. Is that a problem? It could be in the future, but I can’t say for sure right now.

The competitive multiplayer actually feels like the most fleshed out aspect of Red Dead Online. Each of the modes is fun and offers something different. There’s standard deathmatch, a mode that rewards more points if you kill the leader, and one that allocates points based on the weapon you use for the kill.

In the latter, I experienced my most riveting moment in Red Dead Online so far. Down two points with less than five seconds left, I switched to a shotgun that awarded three points a kill. I happened to run into a doorway just as an enemy was running out. One blast to the chest in the closing seconds earned my team a victory.

Red Dead Online also has its own spin on battle royale called “Make it Count.” Here, you are either armed with a bow and several arrows or six throwing knives. That’s it. The playable area gradually shrinks, and you have to balance going for kills and saving your tools for the homestretch. I ran out of knives when I made it to the final two and predictably lost because of it.

Red Dead Online

The downside of multiplayer is that you cannot pick the variant. You can, however, choose if you want to play with up to 16 players or up to 32. I found each of the multiplayer formats to be fun, though, so I wasn’t bothered by the lack of choice.

What about the grind?

Since Red Dead Online has a limited number of designed activities at the moment, it’s hard to pay too much attention to the rank and rewards systems. Here’s the rub: You earn very little money for completing missions. Two hours in, I had about forty bucks. A solid gun costs a couple hundred or more. Is that a problem? It could be in the future, but I can’t say for sure right now. As it stands, I felt no real need to worry about my rank, upgrades, buying new weapons, or upgrading my camp.

Red Dead Online Feature

It is clear, though, that the gold bar system will be a major grind in its current format. Gold bars, which will eventually be available as microtransactions, take a very long time to earn naturally. I don’t think this is really a problem, considering gold bars are only set to unlock cosmetic items.

All that said, the rank and customization system seems to have a lot going for it if it scales appropriately as the game grows. As you play and increase your rank, you can purchase ability cards that tweak key gameplay elements like Dead Eye.

I do think Red Dead Online could stand to be a tad more liberal with its mission rewards, but it’s far too early to tell if the slow accumulation of funds will be a problem in the long run.

Movies & TV

How Avengers: Infinity War’s Oscar-nominated VFX team made Thanos a movie star

The purple-skinned Thanos proved to be a breakout character in Avengers: Infinity War, thanks to the work of actor Josh Brolin and visual effects studios Digital Domain and Weta. Here's how they brought him to life and earned the film an…
Gaming

Path of Exile’s Synthesis expansion arrives in March, brings new way to progress

Grinding Gear Games announced Synthesis, the newest expansion to online action-RPG Path of Exile. The expansion adds a new map meta-game, new items, and balance changes that improve the lives of wizards.
Gaming

A beginner’s guide to Far Cry New Dawn’s postapocalyptic Hope County

Far Cry New Dawn is yet another entry in Ubisoft's popular open world shooter franchise. But while it may feel quite similar in motion, the progression system is changed in a lot of ways. Our beginner's guide is here to help.
Movies & TV

Marvel’s streaming Loki series gets a plot summary and a showrunner

A Rick & Morty writer will oversee Marvel's Loki series for Disney Plus. Tom Hiddleston is expected to reprise his role for the show, while the series' premise offers a few hints as to how Loki might return from the dead.
Product Review

Anthem shows a glimmer of brilliance that's quickly dampened by its grind

Anthem is an online shooter from BioWare that’s already proven to have a stunning open-world with action-packed combat that distinguishes itself with its story, characters, and lore. But will it continue to invest in those things as we…
Computing

Here's what you need to play games and watch movies in 4K on your PC

4K display tech is now cheaper than ever, but there's more to running stuff at such a high display resolution than just handing over the dough for a 4K-equipped display. Here's what you need to run 4K.
Gaming

Activision not doing itself any favors with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 loot boxes

New loot boxes added to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 have caused a somewhat uneven playing field for those who choose to spend extra money. Certain limited-time items can now only be found in loot boxes.
Computing

Between Intel and AMD, these are the best gaming CPUs at every price

What are the best processors for gaming you can buy? You don't need to spend a fortune to get an amazing gaming CPU and now that AMD is competitive again, there are more choices than ever.
Computing

Logitech’s G MX518 gaming mouse pairs classic looks with all-new tech

Logitech is relaunching one of its most popular classic gaming mice, the MX518. Now called the G MX518, it sports upgraded internals that give it a 16,000 DPI optical sensor and new and improved memory.
Gaming

One game console is better than the rest, and we're not afraid to say it

We've seen a relatively large influx of new consoles in the last year, including the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One X, so we've updated our recommendations for the best dedicated game hardware.
Gaming

Everything we know about Devil May Cry 5, including characters and combat

Devil May Cry 5 is just around the corner, and is the first game in the original series since Devil May Cry 4 in 2008. Here is everything we know about the game, including its playable characters.
Gaming

Apex Legends adds its first new gun, the Havoc energy rifle

Respawn added the first piece of new content to Apex Legends, the Havoc energy rifle. It's available now for PS4, Xbox One, and PC players. The fully automatic rifle can be modded to shoot single-shot energy beams.
Gaming

Samsung Galaxy S10 optimizations make it great for Fortnite

Samsung's new line of Galaxy S10 devices have been optimized for gaming. All three offer improved support for the Unity engine and the S10 Plus also offers vapor chamber cooling, similar to the Xbox One X.
Gaming

Having problems with your Xbox One console? We have the solutions

The Xbox One has evolved over the years, but so have its problems. Thankfully, we have solutions for some of the console's most enduring problems, whether you're experiencing issues with connectivity or your discs.