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Moonshining is Red Dead Online's best update yet, but the cost of content is starting to hurt

Why, it's White Lightning!

Since we last spoke, Red Dead Online has made the move to PC, and with the Moonshiners update has finally caught up to its console counterpart, wrangling it into submission with its 4K 60FPS lasso. This fancy new patch grafts in the second season of the much-loved Outlaw Pass, a new wardrobe worth of cosmetics and a brand new Frontier Pursuit to pursue in Moonshining, which introduces property ownership and a separate five-mission narrative.

A lot to dig into then! The boozehound business model is the main focus, and as you kickstart the new role you're introduced to the baroness of shine, Maggie Fike, a woman scorned and left to fry in a burning shack by federal tax agents. You're tasked with reclaiming her extremely illegal operation and seeking revenge against a trio of bad blokes. It might sound familiar if you've played through Online's main story: a long-winded redemption song spearheaded by Jessica McClerk, the woman who broke your green behind out of Sisika penitentiary in the opening so you could avenge her dead husband.

Even so, this side story comfortably overshadows that arc across five meaty missions that ply the player with a refreshing approach to Red Dead mission design. Most importantly, the objectives in Fike's campaign don't so quickly dissolve into dissatisfying combat arenas.

The most effective is a gauntlet of a mission where you lay a tainted moonshine trap and fight through the flame-ridden swamp you summoned to a ruined castle, diving into muddy cover as turret fire rains down upon your posse. It's a gritty moment of comeuppance in a narrative that compels you to care about its characters. Other fond memories include my crew commanding covert canoes through alligator territory, lobbing fire bottles at moonshine stills and fighting bears as we foraged for cursed recipes to poison rival supply chains.

One mission has you commandeer a boat and murder hundreds of federal tax officers. The brown guff is my own special brew.

Outside of resonant gameplay, Fike's story happens to be steeped in a curious and obscure facet of American History, alluding to a time when federal agents came down hard on rural moonshiners after the American Civil War. You'll steal boats and sneak into compounds to escape a sect of vicious taxmen led by the dreaded Agent Hixon. This historical context was developed in a fascinating anecdotal post over on the Red Dead Online subreddit, authored by a player whose ancestors were involved in the business of outlaw shine in Pennsylvania in the 19th century.

These missions are longer and much more difficult than before, but the most clever turn of the Moonshine campaign is how it ties its narrative to the progression of the new role. As you purge hordes of Revenue Men (who all look a bit like Friedrich Nietzsche), you unlock tangible upgrades for your business, such as new recipes, buyers and reduced ingredient costs. Before this, the story missions were so disconnected to the Role XP in Frontier Pursuits that they quickly became a one-and-done affair. In this update you want to keep playing them, advancing the difficulty and completing optional stealth objectives to increase your ambient earnings on the other side.

If this same approach isn't adapted for Bounty Hunter, Trader and Collector, it would be a crying shame. Rockstar has found a set of addictive feedback loops with the introduction of roles and would do best to squeeze the wider narrative of Red Dead Online through these side stories, creating likeable characters that define each Frontier Pursuit. In Madam Nazar's case, the legwork has already been done, but both Trader and Bounty Hunter are begging for development.

If you can ignore my masked horse companion Geoff Keighley, you'll be able to take in the gorgeous vista's Red Dead's PC port provides.

Outside the story, the core of the role grind is making and selling moonshine from your shack. It's a bit of an obtuse system at first, one where you have to let the mash cook for half an hour and then flavour it with picked herbs and canned foods to meet the needs of a set of buyers that changes every two hours. This pushes you to engage with the environment more while you're playing to acquire the most lucrative shine.

Delivering the devil's drink is perhaps the weakest mission type introduced in this update, especially when compared to the super saloon brawls offered by the bootlegger missions. it's all too similar to the Trader mainstay of delivering cargo, albeit with a frustrating damage meter affected by poor driving and federal checkpoints.

Truly, the most fun to be had is down below in the basement of your shack, where you can get mortal with your mates and annoy the patrons. Getting high off your own supply is usually a big business faux-pas, but in Red Dead Online I seem to have forgotten this mantra in favour of a good time.

Perhaps it's the abundance of real-world dread enabling the drowning of my virtual sorrows... Reasons to be merry aside, I've spent precious time waiting for my shine to prove by happy-slapping my posse members after sliding copious amounts of potentially blinding alcohol down the bar and into their gullets. Oloman's shack operates on a "serve until you slur" model, the in-game prompts descending into utter nonsense as the taps run dry. Designated drivers for the next smuggler's run can fill up on the customary almond bowl and adjudicate brawls.

There's me when I saw the Exit Poll the other night and logged in for a few cups of sauce.

With the Moonshiners update also comes another peculiar attempt at cross-game archaeology with GTA Online. By following a secret murder mystery in Los Santos you can now dig up a special revolver back in New Hanover. It's a clever way to make you flip between each ecosystem, but I've always thought this would be an exciting thread for Rockstar to follow to its end within their disparate but popular worlds - perhaps to transfer money between games you could bury gold and weapons in dig sites in Red Dead and unearth them in GTA decades later.

The bloodied Navy Revolver variant you receive in the end is this update's new weapon and a particularly punchy six-shooter when paired with another pistol. The crunchy haymaker to the Volcanic Pistol's jab, if you will. The 'Stop 'n' Swop'-esque game-jumping is preferable too unless you're happy to pay the $275 RDO price tag.

Regarding the cost of content, this is something that's starting to become a worry in Red Dead Online. With another role comes another 25 gold bar entry barrier, and that's before we dig into the Outlaw Pass, which has jumped from 35 to 40 gold bars this time around, adding another 30 ranks worth of rewards (including John Marston and Arthur Morgan's outfits) in an attempt to mitigate the difference in price.

That means it'll cost you at least £27 if you want to go all-in on the white lightning with no bars in the bank. That said, the first three Frontier Pursuits are still gated at 15 Gold Bars a piece with no upgrades for any of the professions unlocked.

Rockstar is gracious enough to let you earn your 40 gold bars back in corporate scrip for progressing through the Outlaw Pass and yes, the Moonshining role is worth the price of entry, but the slow burn approach to earning your content in Red Dead Online is starting to become beneficial to Rockstar and Rockstar alone.

Bar fights come thick and fast when you're full of flavoured moonshine, but you can't quite batter someone - sour slaps will have to do.

Not to go all Martin Lewis on you, but with this much content to purchase there certainly needs to be easier methods to unlock gold bars. At the moment, your best option is to enable Two Factor Authentication on your Social Club account and subscribe to Twitch Prime to get free gold (use a free trial to claim your rewards and overthrow your masters,*wink*).

Beyond that, you can grind hard or collect a pittance of nuggets for logging in and completing challenges every day to form a streak, which is a fairly unrealistic option for anyone who has a modicum of respect for their own free time. Earning bars should be an earned reward for following the most fun pursuits in the game, not a crash course in Marx's theory of alienation.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity here is the fact you don't charge anybody for booze in your speakeasy. Unbelievably, all the patrons and other players drink free. Given the mighty need for passive income akin to GTA Online's Nightclub, there's an open goal available for Rockstar to turn a purely cosmetic expansion (that costs a lot of in-game money) into a money-earner on the side.

There are also a few widely reported glitches that need ironing out: infinite loading screens, broken shack doors and disappearing batches of moonshine (with no rebate on the mash costs) being the main annoyance, and that's not accounting for the sudden inability to make my favourite hunting dinner: Cripps' special stew.

The gilded cheater I caught in the plains with his pile of pickled panthers. Robin Hood or up to no good?

I've also had one too many (two) encounters with cheaters since making the jump to PC, a new phenomenon I pray Rockstar are on top of. So far I've seen a cheater use some sort of trainer to repeatedly explode my character in Saint-Denis, yet the most interesting experience was when I stumbled upon a smelly-looking temptress alone in the woods spawning an infinite pile of perfect panthers for me to skin.

So far the character mask of Red Dead Online has meant my virtual diligence has not been cowed by these (hopefully banned) cowboy cyberpunks, even if, in the context of the Old West, cheating is nine tenths of the typical outlaw.

How Rockstar reacts to this update will define the future of Red Dead Online. If it keeps inflating the cost of roles and passes with no easy way to earn gold, the community will only rebel given their memory of the approach in GTA Online. Similarly, if it lets the Robin Hood cheaters run riot and load piles of expensive animal parts into the world, it risks undermining its economic false consciousness and devaluing the paid-for currency. Yet at the moment, it's starting to look like the script kiddies would be doing us working-class cowpokes a favour...

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