I fell victim to senseless griefers less than five times during my nearly two-week-long stint playing through Red Dead Online's Frontier Pursuits update. If you caught my impressions back in May as Red Dead Online sauntered out of beta with all the grace of a reversing dump truck, you'll know how promising this fact is. I chalk it down to everyone being far too busy with their new jobs. Idle hands are the devil's playthings.
Over the course of a week in early September, Rockstar quickly promoted and pushed a gigantic update to Red Dead Online which, as promised earlier in the year, introduced three new roles to the game: Collector, Bounty Hunter and Trader. The chaser upon your arrival back into the Old West was a 70-level battle pass full of tier-unlockable resource packs, eccentric clothing items and even a Death Ram mask for your previously wholesome horse companion.
The buy-in for all of this content (including the premium version of the Outlaw Pass) is 80 Gold Bars (roughly £27), a significant commitment, especially for those of you new to Red Dead Online. Fear not though, as upon login I expect you will be buffeted by a series of apologetic handouts, from 24 tax-free gold bars to a $250 RDO rebate I received for spending too much on horse mane and tail customisation, which says a lot more about my reputation as a rough and tumble outlaw than I want it to, honestly.
In a stroke of further fortune, it turns out I'm the kind of millennial mark with an Amazon Prime subscription, a PlayStation 4 copy of Red Dead Redemption 2 and the mental stamina to find 54 playing cards in GTA Online last month. I, therefore, did not pay a penny for any of my role licenses thanks to capitalism, luck and a penchant for tedium. Thanks, Rockstar!
Given that I'm already a practising part of the gig economy myself, It only felt right to make my avatar take on all three roles at once to pay the bills. Yet, not before a makeover. With Frontier Pursuits, Rockstar has allowed players to alter their appearance for free for the first time since launch, with any later changes costing a fee. This sounds fair on paper, and given I quickly created my Red Dead Online character via a 540p Remote Play stream in another continent, I was keen to sand down the rough edges of my hideous outlaw.
After making him handsome, I went to bed and woke up the next morning to find his jowls had been severely inflated, a phenomenon that sent a ripple of revolt through /r/RedDeadOnline as players launched into the game only to find their carefully crafted avatars looking like uncanny valley versions of themselves. No doubt we'll get some apology dollars for this in the near future.
I also took the time to swap my skinny steed Jebediah out for a Breton, a brand new stocky sorrel bounty hunting horse that has a degree in eating bullets. My new, improved stallion was the only reason I survived the Legendary Bounty challenge, a weekly series of Hitman-esque Elusive Targets which are all prefaced by a cool cutscene and a story mission setup that rewards the player with extra XP and special loot for wiping out an army of goons and retrieving their leader. This was one of my first impressions of the Bounty Hunting role and after dragging Barbarella Alcazar face-first through the New Austin desert with my reinforced lasso, I left the sheriff's office deeply impressed with the integration of this profession.
There's a clever system where if you don't keep your eye on the target their minimap blip will fade from view, so if you get caught up in a firefight or spend too long away from where you hogtied them, they will wriggle free and vanish, which turns the mission into a timed game of hide and seek. I've also fallen prey to some dangerous moments of bravado as the timer is ticking and I spot a perfect three-star buck or an artefact in the distance and have to make the call as to whether I can make the run for a lump-sum of juicy XP.
As you rank up in this class you can unlock stylish, Revolver Ocelot gun spinning, Bolas for tying the legs of your target and a Bounty Wagon for handing in multiple marks. These incremental upgrades offer meaningful changes to the gameplay of Red Dead Online, even outside of the specific role you're working to advance. This tracks for the Collector and Trader professions too, with one good example being a skill that teaches you how to duck on either side of your horse to avoid enemy fire while riding, which is a lifesaver when you're hunting but can then be applied in almost every other activity in the game to great effect.
The only problem with bounty hunting right now is an unfortunate, all too common glitch where players are not receiving any form of XP for completing missions, which makes the endeavour a profound waste of time and actually worked to push me onto the two other professions until it is remedied.
This led me to fall hard for the Collector role, a much more introverted but appealing profession that works to make you appreciate the small details of Rockstar's peerless open world. After meeting with the mysterious Madam Nazar (who changes location every day) you are told the map is covered in collectables hidden in forgotten cabins, dig piles and country houses.
The lack of handholding is the most refreshing part. You can buy maps to get vague hints to the location of certain collection types, but beyond that, you're left completely in the dark about where these artefacts could be, which means you're rewarded for digging around in the swamplands of Lemoyne and investigating fireplaces in the old country manors near Rhodes. This works to dissuade the violent apathy of Red Dead Online pre-Frontier Pursuits and bottles some of the magic of single-player, where Arthur is often rewarded for simply taking an interest in the minutiae of the world.
Upon sneaking into a decrepit apartment in Van Horn, I found a precious family heirloom only to be ambushed from behind by the lone squatter living there. Hunting Arrowheads had me up to my knees in snow in the Grizzlies, soaking in the gorgeous weather effects, my horse's lantern being the only source of light around.
The thought that has gone into placing these items is easily my most beloved part of Frontier Pursuits. Perhaps I'm biased from studying archaeology, but thinking about how these artefacts arrived in the archaeological record was a key part of the fun. I eventually unlocked the Metal Detector by advancing through the role, which led me to the outskirts of Emerald Ranch where, after brushing my brim on some britches I found a five-dollar coin hiding underneath a washing line. The story of the object writes itself: currency missed in the pocket of a previous outlaw that fell out during a storm, worked into the soil by numerous trips to retrieve clothes by families of decades past.
The Red Dead Online community has since figured out that each day creates a new spawn cycle and have worked to create guides and marathon maps, an odyssey from west to east that helps pin down the more secluded and well-hidden artefacts. There's also the inclusion of weekly timed collections from Madam Nazar which truly could be anywhere on the map. This offers a much-needed sense of urgency to the game, where you no longer have to work hard to make your own fun. It also pushed me onto the newly founded /r/RedDeadCollector subreddit, where players will post where they found certain artefacts on any given day to give other outlaws a leg up. This altruistic sharing of information and community spirit has been heartwarming to see, especially in a game often defined by toxic behaviour. Despite some gripes with glitches, morale seems high, and that's without mentioning the zombies...
There have been some seriously strange goings-on in Red Dead Online since the Frontier Pursuits update launched. As well as players finding the corpse of Arthur Morgan scattered around the map, undead NPCs have been showing up in-game - much to the delight of fans who believe a second Undead Nightmare expansion is right around the corner, potentially arriving around Halloween. I even stumbled onto one myself, a random corpse left by the riverbank with green eyes and mottled skin. After kicking the corpse I alerted and then was attacked by a female NPC, which further added to the confusion surrounding this invasion of the living dead. Perhaps the most curious piece of evidence is this eerie loading screen music glitch posted to Twitter, which could easily be a music file misfire from the integration of Undead Nightmare 2.
It's worth noting diseased NPCs have been in Red Dead Online since launch, found in the Armadillo ghost town where it's established that Cholera has been damaging the populace, but they still don't appear as zombified as the new inhabitants that have arrived with Frontier Pursuits.)
On my way to start the final profession, I managed to trample a variety of animals and ruin plenty of carcasses, an approach I am now deeply embarrassed about given how much the Trader role has changed my approach to hunting in Red Dead Online. Again, this is an example of Rockstar removing the apathy in the game with this update. Each animal you spot out in the world is now a potential boost in materials for your trading business, which is based out of your camp and controlled by the mischievous Cripps, who, much to the chagrin of the community, loves to pack up and move your camp just as you've got two horses full of materials and an enemy posse starts to smell blood.
Being a Trader is easily the most boring of the three professions, but given it's more of a background money earner, I can forgive the lack of excitement. Trading will be familiar to those of you accustomed to juggling businesses in GTA Online. You have stock to replenish that leads to supply missions with impressive cash rewards, where you ride a wagon into town and carefully curtail other players who relish in stealing your hard-earned loot.
If you love hunting this will be your favourite role, and it's certainly the most lucrative profession, but I'd like to see it fleshed out some more so it can stand toe to toe with the rest of the role content, which offers a better pace of action. There is the addition of a camp dog, a good boy who warns you of incoming raids, but given my only interactive options with my Chocolate Labrador is to abandon or replace it, it's basically a $400 privilege to pet a pup. Certainly a choice, but one I don't regret.
With the addition of the Outlaw Pass, it seems the clothing options for players have suddenly become more exuberant overnight, delivering eyepatches, steampunk goggles and painted hats as rewards for ascending the ranks, which, surprisingly, doesn't feel like a grind thanks to the simultaneous progression systems that all feed quite naturally into the battle pass. Players can now warp their aesthetic beyond the confines of typical cowboy fashion and curate some startling ensembles. Where I previously looked like a rough and tumble outlaw on the come up, I'm now presenting as some rich archaeologist recluse with an affinity for cow print, shocking the good people of Valentine when I rock up to buy bags of horse meal.
For the first time since launch, I've found myself actively wanting to play Red Dead Online over its single-player counterpart, which is a testament to Rockstar's commitment to listening to community feedback. With Frontier Pursuits, it's implemented some sticky systems that tap the potential of this fascinating open world and let you finally soak in its unparalleled ambience. The loneliness and apathy that previously plagued the blank canvas of multiplayer are no more, with new roles keeping players busy and, crucially, steering them away from the cheap thrills of griefing that have pushed so many away. Just by adding a few basic systems, Red Dead Online has started to carve out an exciting space in the multiplayer market. The mind races as to what Rockstar may add next.