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Red Dead Online gets back to the Rockstar I love

For a few dollars more.

Excuse me for being a bit slow, but after spending a day with Red Dead Online, something that should have been obvious dawned on me. Maybe Rockstar's a developer whose focus is now more firmly placed on big, grand multiplayer experiences than it is the single-player experiences that made its name, and that first made me an admirer of its craft. And that perhaps should have been obvious if I'd have paid attention to the phenomenon that was Grand Theft Auto Online rather than moseying through GTA 5's campaign a couple of times before setting it to one side. Now I've sampled a little of what happens when Rockstar's open worlds go online, I'm kind of smitten.

If you've spent any time whatsoever with Grand Theft Auto Online, the multiplayer accompaniment to Red Dead Redemption 2 will be mighty familiar. You get to free-roam all of that generous map (and - mild spoiler alert - the half of the map that's finally reachable when you've completed the main storyline is made full use of here, complete with a surprise, brilliant cameo from an old fan favourite), taking on missions on your own or as part of a posse, and choosing to meddle with other people's attempts to bring home bounties or just letting people go about their business in peace.

There are playlists of fairly straightforward multiplayer match types - including, of course, a Battle Royale mode, though its implementation is slightly spotty and in my time with the game it rarely turns up in rotation. The bulk of this PvP part of Red Dead Online is, a little like the backbone of Red Dead Redemption 2's single-player story missions, a little 2010, and not really helped by the less than stellar gunplay, but there's a lot to recommend it.

The maps are weirdly excellent by virtue of Rockstar not caring too much about prevailing philosophy when it comes to multiplayer design - these cordoned off areas of the main map aren't beholden to three lane design, and instead operate like living, breathing spaces, following more pedestrian rulesets than other multiplayer games and emerging all the better for it. Play a deathmatch game of any flavour on the streets of Saint Denis and there's that eerie sense of inhabiting a real space, the pitched battles that break out on its thoroughfares feeling like they're part of some real-life uprising.

For the player who just wants to shoot other players, then, Red Dead Online offers a decent amount, with solo deathmatch, team deathmatch, that Battle Royale mode - here named Make It Count, which limits you to bows and knives - as well as neat variants such as Name Your Weapon, where you earn more points for using a trickier weapon, or Most Wanted, where the highest scoring player will be tagged for all players to hunt down. But what about everyone else?

In the more freeform, Free Roam mode you make your own fun, picking up one of the main story missions or side missions (some beholden to the same morality system as in the single-player game, with Posses voting on the outcome of certain events), or having fun at the expense of others, spoiling their attempts at missions and then rushing in to take their spoils. It might sound like basic stuff, but when you take into consideration the bountiful systems already at play in Red Dead Redemption 2, and that outrageously beautiful world, and there's the foundations for something spell-binding. I've had more fun in the past day of playing online than I had throughout the long - long - duration of the campaign.

Part of that's down to picking my own character, and forming my own story around them. So may I introduce you to Joans, the sour-faced, hard-edged outlaw born in the bayou who takes no prisoners as she roams the land (and who took a fair bit of fudging through a character creator that, while decent, serves up some truly grotesque defaults).

The mission briefings you get in Red Dead Online's story - and there is a story, it's worth pointing out, seemingly set some time before Red Dead Redemption 2's main events - are often verbose, but your character is entirely wordless. And it made me realise how much I missed GTA 3's Claude, and having that blank slate with which to paint your own character.

Throughout Red Dead Online, there's so much of that old free form frisson that I've missed from more recent Rockstar games - the sense that anything can happen, and that when it does it'll usually go completely, hilariously wrong. I took on a succession of story missions with a random Posse last night, and was subsequently thrilled by the thunder of hooves as we all rode towards the objective together. When we got there, and disposed of a few waves of enemies, all that was left to do was hogtie our mark and bring them back home - and what followed was 30 minutes of slapstick, silent accusatory looks and broken horses as we passed the ragdoll from one player to another in a succession of calamities. It was joyous.

Sometimes, it's a bit more peaceful than that. Trotting gently along the banks of the Lannahechee River, another player rushed towards me and, instead of spoiling for a fight, rode by my side for a couple of minutes while we both took in the view, before we both gave each other a nod and went on our own ways. A wordless exchange, yet one that spoke to me far more than anything said elsewhere in Red Dead Redemption 2 as we just slowed to take in the splendour of the world around us.

That's not to say there won't be griefing, although right now I've managed to escape it entirely - maybe the more sedate backdrop calms people in a way that Los Santos' cityscape never could. There's also the shadow of microtransactions, and the grind that proved as painful for many players in GTA Online as it was profitable for Take Two and Rockstar (although - whisper it - I'm enjoying playing the game with an impoverished character, where those systems that soon became meaningless in the main story are placed back into focus again). This is still the beta, though, and a beta in its early stages. I'm still not sure where Rockstar will take Red Dead Online, but what fine foundations it's laid down.

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