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.