It's starts, appropriately enough, with a Mexican standoff. Six sun-baked outlaws, standing motionlessly in a circle, hands frozen above holsters, while six white-washed gamers perch on the edges of their seats, fingers poised on the triggers of Xbox controllers.
The camera flicks from its vulture's eye vantage point to the weathered face of my cowboy, whose narrow eyes dart between rivals, then pans behind before fixing to the standard third-person view. A final pause, then the screen explodes in gunfire as any semblance of strategy goes up in smoke and a wild spray of bullets.
Some slump to the ground almost immediately; others frantically back away, peppering shots at each other praying for the decisive strike. Meanwhile someone's tactic seems to consist entirely of running away as fast as possible without looking back, a successful wheeze until the inevitable bullet in the back of the skull, fired at a distance by the only other remaining combatant. A dramatic sweep, an orgy of violence and a slapstick finale, done and dusted in under 30 seconds. Yes, folks, we're in Rockstar country.
All multiplayer matches in Red Dead Redemption begin with a shootout, a frantically fun snapshot of self-contained action perfectly in-keeping with the Western theme of the game. During several hours of six-player multiplayer gaming at Rockstar's London HQ, I'm able to explore various permutations of this: sometimes it's a free-for-all, other times it's a three-on-three face-off; and occasionally in every-man-for-himself stand-offs the game gives you a specific target, delivering an XP bonus if taken down.
Grand Theft Auto IV represented Rockstar's most considered attempt to bring multiplayer to its open-worlds. For Red Dead, the goal is once again to complement the vast single-player experience, while creating modes which cater to the game's giant map, emergent potential and distinctive feel.
First up, the concept of lobbies has been dumped in favour of a flexible free-roaming environment within which players can explore the full map, hop in and out of matches, form groups, take on individual challenges or just mess around. With all negative and positive actions tied to XP (maxing out at level 50), there's reward to be found everywhere, encouraging a spirit of playfulness with the toys in Rockstar's sandiest of sandboxes.
16 players can enter Free Roam together, which also features a comprehensive cast of lawmakers, breakers and wildlife to interact with (read: kill). Within that, posses of up to eight players can be formed, either by creating your own posse or joining an existing one. Posse leaders then select a location and game type (either one-offs or playlists), to which other members are able to warp.
A variety of challenges are featured in Free Roam. Hunting involves seeking out deadly predators, then surviving their attacks; in Survivalist players search out rare herbs protected by savage animals; Lawbringer requires you to take down gang hideouts, teaming up with other players to tip the odds in your favour; Outlaw challenges are triggered when you have a Wanted rating, with XP on offer for kill streaks, taking down other Wanted outlaws, and so on.