"Tom, are you free tomorrow night to saddle up with me?"
"I mean, how do you feel about being Sundance to my Butch?"
"Er, I've told you before, Simon: no means no."
"Red Dead Redemption co-op campaign, dummy. It's out tomorrow and it's, like, totally free. I have to write about it and I'd rather hustle with you than someone I don't know who's gonna shower me with non-ironic homophobic slurs every time I trip on a stirrup and miss a headshot."
"You want me for my ironic homophobia? Is that even a thing?"
"Why don't we ask your gay dad? Um... Look, I want you for your acerbic wit and cool hand, OK?"
This is a half-truth. Before writing about Red Dead Redemption's online modes earlier this month, I posse'd up with Tom [not Bramwell - ed.] every night for a week as we sought to make a name for ourselves in the Wild West.
Turns out that name was, mainly, "bungling". He would grow endlessly frustrated at the incompetence of his beginner-level horse. Being an only child, instead of persevering, levelling up and steadily unlocking more capable animals, he'd grow impatient. Then, every time his steed snagged a hoof on a rock, or threw him off when he drove it too hard (which was basically all of the time) he'd ceremoniously shoot it in the back of the head.
Horseless, he'd then continue toward our mission objective on foot, usually a ten-minute trek away, leaving me to charge ahead on horseback and do the bulk of the work before sidling up, dusty and out-of-breath, to claim his share of the EXP spoils.
So yeah. I want him for his companionship. The cool hand stuff is flattery. I've no idea if he can shoot straight. Apart, that is, from at point blank range into the neck of a beleaguered horse.
Tom is my neighbour. We play videogames together in that way that you play videogames with your neighbour when you're 12 years old: full of the knock-on-their-door-after-school joy and innocence that's usually lost in the acquisition of adult responsibility and too many games. Why am I telling you this? Because Tom is the best fun to play videogames with, regardless of whether we win against the other team, or earn achievement points doing so.
Red Dead Redemption's single-player mode is the videogame equivalent of The Lone Ranger, a wide expanse of restrained potential in which to lose yourself, but lose yourself alone. Its online multiplayer is the Magnificent Seven (eight, if you manage to recruit a full posse), in which you saddle up with a clutch of strangers and terrorize the local bandits.
By contrast, the Outlaws to the End co-op campaign is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In this offshoot, who gives a tumbleweed if you get blasted to high noon heaven in the grand finale: all that matters is that you make some good memories peppered by slick one-liners along the way.
Sure, there's a metric ton of experience points to be won levelling up your online character here. But if that's your primary focus, you're better off retreating to FarmVille. Co-op campaigns require more than the sum of their systems for success: they rely on a good companion with whom to co-operate. Get that wrong, and even the most robust framework will seem lacking. In short, if you want to have fun with this free add-on, you're going to need a Tom.
Or three, to be precise, as each of Outlaws to the End's six missions are playable with up to four team members. In fact, you'll have a far easier time of it if you do manage to secure a full set of companions, as the difficulty doesn't seem to scale according to your number. Indeed, there's an achievement for completing a mission with just two posse members, an admission of the difficulty of the task if ever there was one.
Checkpoints in missions are merely there to respawn a downed companion who bled out before you could heal them. If you both expire before reaching the next one, you'll need to start over from the beginning. Add to all this the fact that the AI shoots far sharper than elsewhere in the game, and the sheer numbers you're up against ensure that only fools rush in.
"Tom, get back inside the gates."
Ammunition, the fourth mission in the set. The Mexican Army has the town of Tesoro Azul under siege, and we're in it. Surrounding the town are ten, fifteen Gatling gun turret emplacements and beyond them, high up on the cliffs, angry clusters of enemy artillery squint down, measuring their trajectories as in a game of giant horseshoes.
A horn sounds and a cacophony of cannonball fire detonates. Bullets sting the air like wasp darts, pitting the stonework all around. The sky, a bruise of purple, is flecked with momentary streaks of red and yellow. A second later, the town gates groan on their hinges at the punch of air from a cannon ball's thud on the courtyard. The rubble is stacked as high as the odds against us. It's our twentieth attempt, at least. The atmosphere is tense. A Brokeback romance seems unlikely at this point.
"It's gonna be fine," he shouts. "I'll take cover behind that burning cannon."
"It's literally never fine. Get back inside the gates. Please. If you get shot, I'm not coming out there again. I..."
"Gah. They got me. You totally distracted me with all your bitching. Where's a horse to shoot when you need one. Um. Can you come get me? I'm just outside the gates. It's definitely safe."
This time, I'm playing as a soldier, the all-rounder whose Volcanic pistol is useful during the close-range first half of the battle, and whose mid-range rifle offers some hope of eliminating the Gatling gun operators should we make it to the hills. Tom is a Sniper, trading speed for headshot accuracy with his vintage scope. The Gunslinger class, touted for mid-range, seems less versatile than the Soldier, while the shotgun-wielding Miner has no hope in this scenario once outside the fortress gates. At least, we presume so. After each attempt, we blindly click through to play again: repetition is our strategy.
I make it to Tom and hammer the Y-button. The reviving pound my avatar performs on his chest looks curiously pure Modern Warfare, sans syringe. Tom rises to his feet, shaky.
"Right. Head for Eastern front. There don't seem to be any Gatling guns there yet," I command, emboldened with the power that comes from saving someone's virtual life. "Go, go, go."
"Um. Gimme a second... Never, Eat, Shredded, Wheat."
We work our way around the perimeter of the town, ducking cannon blasts while eliminating gun emplacements in methodical succession. Every now and again there's an injection of Mexican army back up. The town sits in the centre of the playable environment, with enemies circling around, faced inward, ensuring our battle swirls dynamically like a whirlpool without corners of safety. It's strong level design.
"OK. That's the last of the Gatling guns. What now? Oh. You are kidding me. There's no way either of us is going to make it back into town to collect that dynamite."
Each mission is broken into sequential subtasks, providing a general sense of definition and purpose. In some missions these segments mimic the linear flow of the single player game: storm the fortress, rescue the girl, return her home and, finally, hold off the counter-attack. But in Artillery the sequence is more interesting, as you seek to expand your territory outwards from the centre of a giant dartboard. Now, having made it to the outer circles of our playpen, we must plant dynamite on a cliff top and bring the artillery placements down in a cascade of stone and thunder.
"OK. I'll go. Cover me and draw their fire."
"You draw their fire!"
"No, I'm going. Cover me."
"Oh gosh... Run!" I watch as a cannon ball traces a graceful arc across the sky and lands at Tom's feet.
"Aaargh. I DON'T BELIEVE IT. Is that what you call giving cover?"
"Is that what you call running? If I knew you were going to stroll..."
The stories that blossom from each of the scenarios may have been carefully orchestrated by Rockstar, but devoid of much in the way of narrative set-up or cut-scenes, they always feel improvised in play. The objectives are routine and simple, familiar from our exploits in single-player: defend yourselves as you float down the river on a raft, herd the livestock through the canyon, escort a kidnapped girl back to her family and so on. But in the spontaneous moments that arise within each, the game finds new-found freedom and stories.
Of course, there's a foundation of in-game rewards for those who prefer mathematics to romance. In addition to a clutch of achievements, there's a huge range of meta-objectives doled out for, for example, assisting an ally a certain number of times or completing a mission within a set time limit. Every one of these pays out experience points, which level your character across all of the game's multiplayer modes. In this way, Outlaws to the End not only beds with the existing multiplayer content, but enhances it dramatically.
"Are you sure the readers are going to appreciate hearing about our exploits?" Tom asks, as we wrap up for the night. "Shouldn't you be writing about ludo-narrative dissonance or, like, what the X button does?"
"Perhaps. But this is a co-op campaign add-on for a game pretty much everyone's played by now. I think they'll mostly want to hear about what happened when we played it."
"Yeah, sure. Haven't you realised that all anyone cares about is the score?"
"Tom, we've been playing this for five hours and in that time have only managed to actually finish one of these missions and get a score for our efforts. The score was literally the least important thing in motivating us to play. It's kind of irrelevant by this point."
"Right. I see what you're saying. Does that make it better or worse than Halo?"