The first thing that happened to me when I put my spurs on and dived into Red Dead Online's latest update was too cliche. While fiddling with the options to try and switch into the new Defensive mode, I was lassoed out of my idle animation and dragged helplessly through the mud towards a cliff edge.
Out of muscle memory, I hit pause and opened the map to find something interesting to do while my captors had their wicked way with me. I left that screen none the wiser to find myself sleeping with the fishes, a familiar horse's head lying right next to me. Sorry, Jebediah.
Anybody who has spent a few minutes checking their phone or trying to coordinate a friend invite while playing Red Dead Online can most likely relate to that anecdote. Yet, jokes aside, it captures one of the game's most rotten teething problems. Red Dead Online is notorious for senseless griefing that yields little reward. I get it though, I really do. There is some latent incentive to engage with the stunning environment, but there's not enough to dissuade the instant satisfaction gained from getting gassed and laying explosives under an idle player's horse.
The worst part is this devolution into sadistic chaos feels like a compromise for a lack of things to do. Here we have the most enrapturing open world of the past decade, but with a lack of meaningful pursuits it's multiplayer offering devolves into a cocktail of outlaw constants: death and taxes.
As I'm writing this, another player has just waded into the water where I was left to mourn poor Jebediah. The cunning soul is abusing the geometry to push a salmon from the pool out onto the dry land with his legs. I must give him credit for the initiative involved, but his act is damning, evocative of a broken in-game economy that can't necessarily be fixed by Rockstar's current stratagem, which is to ply players with time-sensitive pots of gold to drag them back into the fold. There needs to be something to aim for that isn't cosmetic, a wider set of goals to give this multiplayer experience some social definition, the likes of which can be seen in other modern multiplayer experiences like GTA Online and Sea of Thieves.
This latest update (which marks a departure from Red Dead Online's beta phase) is a stick of content dynamite: here we have a new suite of quests, cosmetics, weaponry and random encounters, as well as an intricate system to dissuade griefing. It should be a panacea, but it feels more like a stepping stone towards a conclusive cure.
Five new story missions have been added to the game, with two locked off depending on your honour status. It's more of the same here, but that isn't a bad thing. Red Dead Online's high-quality story missions have always been one of its best features, and the writing and gameplay spin is consistently exciting and fun.
One mission has you surviving a siege on Valentine, which was engaging to the last breath. Having to position volunteers to bolster the town's defences creates a welcome tactical element, and clever flanks from your new enemies in the Del Lobos gang keep you on your toes until a gargantuan war wagon turns the high street into a cover shooter set piece. It's adrenaline-pumping, especially when you're playing in a posse, the battle framed by Woody Jackson's exquisite score.
These missions were my main focus when I was playing through the update, but they're over far too soon, and when I wrapped the finale, I was pushed back into the open world and the creeping melancholy came back. The main conclusion I can draw from my playtime is Red Dead Online is dying for a job system.
It needs a set of roles players can abide by to find some purpose in this untapped open world. By now, Rockstar has lined each veteran player's pockets with enough gold to make up for the grind - they no longer have to really worry about money. Even for newcomers, you now earn almost double the amount of gold for your actions thanks to this update, and the XP grind has been made far less tiresome.
Though, once you've racked up enough of said levels to unlock fishing, dual-wielding and other features, you'll still start to spiral into an existential crisis over your purpose. What is the incentive for my actions in the long game? Rockstar is yet to provide an answer.
With the decision made to mute the protagonist, players need a reason to stick around in a world they can't meaningfully impact without drawing a weapon. The new random encounters definitely add some of this necessary flavour to the experience. Even if it's just a ride into town and a short conversation, it definitely makes you feel more in tune with your surroundings. It's lovely to see some NPCs who feel like they're living here rather than existing to provide a service to the player.
Though, the fact you can't just pop down in a camp in the wilderness still means you're orbiting your activities around map markers rather than truly getting lost. In single-player, the joy of Red Dead Redemption 2 is mainly found in its small moments: wistful rides into the sunset or tiptoed hunts by a bubbling brook. You're guaranteed to stumble upon something exciting when you're bored, and more often than not, you end up in the last place you thought you'd be when you started, drinking whiskey in the mud after a sordid night in the saloon. Given the ability to set up shop anywhere, players could make tall tales of themselves and truly start to roleplay in this peerless toybox.
With this update, it's clear Rockstar is working on trying to capture some of that magic in multiplayer. Red Dead Online's towns now feel more alive with activity than they ever have been, with even more townsfolk puttering about the place and offering kind greetings or chiding insults. There are still bugs to contend with though, like ranchhands sitting on top of each other, cuddling in the saloon, their horses floating above tacks outside. The former is one bug I'd love to see become a feature.
Where it counts, Rockstar is making bold strides to mould Red Dead Online for the better with the new hostility system. Griefers are now more visible to other players, and retaliation to toxic play isn't punished. Headshots on other players have also been made more difficult, meaning you can't just massacre a town full of cowboys with little pushback.
Even then, players who pick defensive mode can opt out of the chaos fully, which has led to some precious moments of serene co-existence burnt out players will delight in. No longer will you have to constantly look over your shoulder if you're escorting a set of expensive pelts, instead you can actually take in the atmosphere of the hunt.
Playing the new (albeit fairly limited) poker mini-game helps with this too, giving players a means to interact with each other that doesn't involve blunt force trauma or bullets.
Defensive mode is not without its problems though - simply crashing into another player's horse can kick you straight into offensive mode and set your hostility to medium, and your choice resets every time you load in, giving griefers a chance to raise hell before you make it through the menu. Yet with the new Press Charges prompt received when murdered, you can opt to raise the offending player's hostility level and bounty. You feel like a bit of a grass, but what comes around eventually does go around, months after the game's initial release.
The main thing to glean from this update is it feels like Red Dead Online is moving in the right direction. Welcome improvements to the economy and a clear stance against poor player attitude are helping transform the landscape, but there is still a way to go to fix the looming existential issue at play. I don't envy the design problem posed by this.
Rockstar is curating a popular society after all, and careful steps towards rewarding player agency will no doubt be fraught with difficulty when framed within this particularly opportunistic and cruel time period. Yet, until this is fixed, the players who had their fill around launch will most likely still want to keep Red Dead Online at arm's length until they have something to strive towards.
In Rockstar's patch notes for the latest update, it was revealed Red Dead Online will receive three roles in the summer to flesh out the foundation established during the beta. Eventually, players will be able to choose between the Tracker, Collector and Bounty Hunter professions and progress simultaneously through each tree, curating a lifestyle specific to the player. This is the update I imagine will change everything for Red Dead Online, and truly win back those it has lost, invigorating the rhinestone cowboys grinding away in the wilderness.
Given the powerhouse it is now, it's easy to forget it took GTA Online two years to truly find its feet with the Heists update, which cemented it as an essential multiplayer experience. Rockstar's Old West counterpart is evolving at a quicker pace, which will no doubt be complemented by deeper player immersion and roleplaying capabilities once Rockstar figures out how to properly tap the vein within this multiplayer gold mine. With the scope and promise of this stunning open world, it would be criminal not to.