There's being down and out in the Wild West, and there's being down and out in the Wild West. John Marston, the protagonist around whom Red Dead Redemption's story revolves, may start the game wounded and homeless, but he is still a man with a purpose, a few friends, a handsome face and, most importantly, a narrative trajectory to climb up and out of poverty.
Conversely, the first time you set hoof in the multiplayer States, your character is an undesirable picked randomly from a clutch of lowly vagabonds, militiamen or Mexicans, your transport a plodding donkey, and your only weapon a rusty six-shooter. There's little doubt that now you are at dusty rock bottom.
But with destitution comes a rare type of freedom. While progressing through the single-player campaign is a case of patiently following the breadcrumb trail of capital letters laid down for you by Dan Houser and the other scriptwriters, here you really are left to your own devices, presented with a clutch of places and tasks to engage in, but with no promise of success beyond that of your own skill and ability. In that sense, Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer is where the game's real open world exists. When playing as John Marston you are only ever free to tell Rockstar's story; here, for the first time, you are free to write your own.
Neither approach - the set narrative or the free-form playpen - is wrong, of course. But as one of our concerns with the single-player game was that, in this world of endless horizons, freedom was curiously curtailed, to see the other half of the whole does makes Rockstar's vision seem more balanced and rounded.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to test Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer in the version of the game supplied for our review - hence this revisit. System link was available, but Rockstar's frugal dissemination of carefully protected copies of the game meant there was only one in our possession. Besides, the reality is that there are some things you just can't know until they fully exist. "As hopefully you can appreciate… there are unfortunately a few things that only really rear their heads once the game is on public servers and lots of players are online," wrote Rockstar last week concerning the bugs that have crawled out of their code since the game went live. Well, indeed.
Select multiplayer from the main menu screen and you'll be deposited in Free Roam mode, a rock-for-rock replication of the single-player world, albeit one that can be inhabited by up to 16 players. Ostensibly, this acts as a giant lobby leading off to Deathmatches and Capture the Flag games. But there's far more to do here than merely access the other game modes.
It's in Free Roam mode that you can posse up with other players, sending invitations to anyone else on the server to join you and ride together. Once you have some backup, you're in a good position to engage in some of the structured play offered by Free Roam, taking on one of the eight bandit encampments scattered around the map. Here you'll face overwhelming numbers of outlaws as you try to flush them out, blow up their supplies or complete other tasks.
Aside from the loosely-structured play offered by Free Roam mode, you're also free to engage other players in battles around the world in even more loose terms, and it's here that the purely player-driven stories begin to emerge. For example, I engaged in a protracted 20-minute shoot-out with another player with a high wanted level who had climbed onto the roof of a bank, and from that position was terrorising the area. Climbing the side of the building and timing runs between cover in order to inch closer to his position was a taut, exhilarating experience, as memorable as any of the set-pieces laid before John Marston.
In another moment, a friend and I tracked a solitary player high into the snowy mountains, dismounted and found the spaghetti western turned Enemy at the Gates, as we sniped and flanked him from behind trees. At one point my companion, lining up a 20-metre headshot, was attacked from behind by a mountain lion, displeased at our disturbance of his hibernation.
These memorable moments, cultivated in the sandpit of Red Dead Redemption's endlessly compelling world, provide the unique, player-specific talking points largely missing from the set narrative of the single-player game. Only the restrictive 16-player cap grates, as you'll need to make a concerted effort to encounter other players when so few are scattered across such a huge expanse of land. Raise this and Red Dead Redemption's Free Roam mode would feel every inch the MMO.
Clearing bandit camps and tracking and killing other 'wanted' players earns your character experience points, which feed into a Modern Warfare-style ladder of levels and unlocks. As you increase your online level, so you unlock new modes of transport, weapons and avatars. As with Infinity Ward's hugely influential multiplayer structure, there are 50 ranks to climb, along with Prestige-style bonuses if you choose to start again from Level 1 once you reach the top.
While you'll gain handfuls of experience points in Free Roam mode, most levelling will be done in the combative modes proper: Deathmatch, Goldrush (in which you grab bags and return them to your base) and Hold Your Own, a variation on Capture the Flag. These are available for single players or teams and can be accessed at any time simply by hitting the back button and selecting one from a drop down menu.
Every competitive match starts with a Mexican stand-off, with the last man standing free to run off and take up a strategic position while the rest of the players respawn. Our fear was that the poor cover mechanic and snap-to-aim system would result in unsatisfying combat, but in reality each competitive mode is tight and rewarding, with thoughtfully-constructed maps (pulled from the main world) with excellent cover and choke points and design that encourages player flow around each.
The only complaint at the moment is that there aren't dedicated rooms for players using Expert Aim mode (which requires the player to track enemies with the analogue stick, rather than simply have the reticule stick to them) so everyone is better off using Casual Aim scheme for an advantage.
But with Rockstar's promise of Expert Aim-only rooms, new modes, maps and an extensive co-op campaign on the horizon, Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer is a triumph, bettering that of GTAIV in almost every regard (aside from breadth). Well-balanced between structured play and free-form playpen, the multiplayer offers a perfect counterpoint to the single-player story.