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.
Sharpshooter challenges, meanwhile, run in matches or Free Roam, rewarding players who can, say, shoot hats off heads and guns from hands. Levelling up unlocks more challenges and playlists, while furnishing you with cooler weaponry and a variety of mounts - including bulls and, brilliantly, a donkey.
That's all the stuff I'm told about by Rockstar reps. The bulk of my hands-on time is spent within a playlist featuring four match-ups we loop through, howling, cursing and face-shooting every boot stomp of the way.
We begin with a Free For All Shootout in the cluttered crucible of Chuparosa, a Mexican village with an open central area littered with emergency cover options, bordered by two-level buildings riddled with interior hideaways and rooftop vantage points.
Other players are hidden on the map, revealing themselves only when sprinting or, to the more eagle-eyed gunslinger, when icons for collectible items disappear. A basic set of weapons, including hand gun, shot gun, rifle and knife, is accessed via the left bumper, which brings up the weapon wheel from which any selection can be made. But additional weapons are also scattered around the environment, found in cases or dropped by the fallen.
Players quickly revert to type, some camping on the nearest rooftop with sniper rifle, others mazing around the houses, unleashing bursts of handgun fire at close range. A useful tactic which quickly emerges is the roll-and-shoot: when holding the left trigger to target, pressing X rolls your character in any direction, a more effective means of dodging point-blank fire than the more sluggish leap. This produces absurdly entertaining moments of death-defying gymnastics - often the difference between life and death if you run out of ammo at an inopportune moment.
Dead Eye, which returns from Red Dead Revolver, is a limited resource that gives a killer edge in a tight spot. Activated by hitting R3, while it doesn't slow down time in multiplayer, it still allows the 'painting' of multiple targets on an enemy in range, making it considerably more likely you'll take them down first. Once exhausted, only a green pick-up can restore Dead Eye; white ones, meanwhile, boost ammo supplies.
Gang Shootout is the team-based version of this mode, and for our three-on-three encounter we're whisked to Armadillo, the Platonic ideal of a Wild West frontier town, the wide-open main street flanked by wooden buildings redolent of any number of classic Spaghetti Western sequences, freshly transposed into a hide-and-shoot adventure playground.
At the end of each round, a standard stats screen lists achievement by score, number of kills, deaths, assists, max kill combo and so on. Then it's into a new 'track' in the playlist via the capering carnage of a shootout.
Goldrush is Red Dead's capture the flag - in this case, literally, capture the bag. Back to the oppressively narrow confines of Chuparosa, respawning bags of gold are strewn around: grab one and dump it into a chest to score a point; 10 points wins. You can carry two bags at a time, but this severely reduces mobility and renders you a slow-moving target for everyone else.
As is often the case with this multiplayer style, more skilful players can snake across the map, while those of an irredeemably spawny nature will cower in a corner by a chest waiting to shoot someone in the head and claim the prize. Of all the matches I play, it's the most riotously fun as there's nothing to be gained from camping on rooftops, and even the deadest of eyes has to turn and run when there's a chest to reach.
The team-based version is an altogether different affair: two bases, a mile apart, just discernible from one to the other, with skyscraping rock formations towering above the desert, offering a ridge at midway point with a canon. This is classic capture the flag territory, with one bag in each base that must be swiped and returned with you, but which exploits the breathtaking scale of Rockstar's world.
During one round I spend a good 10 minutes on approach, first on horseback (up on the d-pad calls your steed), then creeping silently through the wilderness, circling back on the enemy base, clambering inch-by-inch up a rocky outcrop, drawing my sniper rifle to take aim. Then get shot in the face before I manage a single trigger-pull. Bastards.
Clearly, effective teamwork will help here, but there's not a great deal in evidence during this playtest. Nowhere better is this highlighted than towards the end of one round where, with no clear victor, the game reverts to death match. Which I mistake as 'free for all' rather than the team variety, and promptly shoot one of the Rockstar PR team in the back, his reward for a valiant and exhausting defence of our base. Never trust a journalist.
As a third-person multiplayer experience in the GTA mould, I feel a lot more comfortable shooting at distance than at close-quarters, which can get a little wonky and imprecise when targeting and shifting the camera around simultaneously. That said, it can work to the game's advantage on occasion, for example during the intensity of a shootout; more amusing experiences include chasing down another Rockstar PR rep with a knife, wildly slashing as they desperately remain just out of reach, and circling another with a horse and cart, desperately trying to run them down. Really, the only thing missing is Benny Hill music.
It's also still a little buggy in places, with occasional crashes, flying steeds and other random freak occurrences, though the game is now at the stage where these small creases will hopefully be smoothed out.
I doubt people will queue up in droves to buy Red Dead Redemption as a multiplayer experience in the same way they would for Call of Duty, say, but that's not the point. An enormous, evocative, provocative single-player adventure is the big draw here, as ever.
And that doesn't mean multiplayer is simply tacked on. Far from it, the scale and variety of Red Dead's environments and the sheer amount of cool stuff to do means Free Roam alone is likely to immerse groups of friends for long stretches. The core modes, while pretty standard fare, play well to Redemption's structural and thematic strengths and, over the course of half a day's play, are certainly never less than fun.
For a game tipped to be one of the single-player highlights of 2010, it can only add to the overall package. Worth taking a bullet for? We'll find out in just over a month.
Red Dead Redemption is coming to PS3 and Xbox 360 on 21 May.