Red Dead Online Beta Impressions: Wild West But Not a Wasteland
You can officially put down any other online-only games right now and clear your schedule for the next week because Red Dead Online just launched in beta for everyone.
While the base game has its share of flaws, it's hard to imagine Red Dead Redemption 2 isn't going to make a whole lot of year-end lists and probably be nominated GOTY 2018 across the gamingverse.
Adding a real Wild West of an online mode just catapulted this already-awesome game into a whole new level of addiction.
Here are our thoughts after playing for a few days.
Creating Your Own Outlaw Legacy
Didn't care for Arthur's old western drawl and wanted to play a different kind of outlaw? No problem, because now you get to create your own character.
I went with a 60-year-old housewife who has absolutely had it with everyone's shit and is going to start robbing trains and murdering people who tick her off. She gets a hilarious reaction from other players, which has only made the whole experience even better.
My only regret? When I saw that the starter horse is named Scrawny Nag, I wished I had named my character that rather than Norma Jean.
Despite being focused on random events and multiplayer battles, Red Dead Online starts with a string of single-player story missions somewhat separate from the base experience. The whole thing kicks off when your character is rescued from a prison wagon (and yes, I did wonder when the dragon would show up or a king would ask me to save Tamriel).
But instead of slaying dragons, you're helping out a mysterious benefactor who wants you to track down some crooks who killed her husband. Simply having single-player story missions is a big plus for a multiplayer mode, and there's plenty of humor in the online storyline, like frequent quips about how the main character never speaks or a few extra jokes if you decided to play a female outlaw.
Taking The Red Dead Experience Online
Of course, as this is an online mode, the main story is more in the background; you'll spend most of your time exploring the world and engaging in western shenanigans with and against other players.
The entire map from the base game is here, and as with the single-player mode, there is a simply astounding amount to do while you cross the country on your trusty steed.
A new progression system is added in as players unlock different equipment (like fishing rods), weapons (like explosive arrows), and even types of horses when ranking up. That gives you a reason to keep logging in beyond just playing deathmatches or robbing other players.
There's also a limited card-based ability system that will bring to mind Fallout 76, but here you won't randomly lose your progress for no reason or get stuck on your mount permanently, so there's that...
If you're an achievement junkie, there are also awards to unlock for spending money in the catalog, visiting locations around the world, getting so many kills, and so on.
Your newly-freed outlaw can roam the wilderness doing all the things you'd do in the base game, like hunting, robbing, building up your camp, and so on. Best of all, its actually easier to explore certain areas since you can select where you want to start in Free Roam mode, which is essentially free fast travel with a slightly longer loading screen.
While crossing the bayou, heading to the snow-shrouded mountains, or visiting familiar locations like Emerald Ranch, the map is littered with stranger quests and events so there's always something to do.
Of course, and as would be expected, other players can screw with your missions, which is significantly more fun and less obnoxious than I thought it would be.
In one stranger mission, a posse decided to try to prevent me from delivering a wagon load of supplies within a limited time frame. That led to a tense, fun confrontation where I ended up taking them all down and still arriving at the barn before the timer was up, despite driving a slower wagon loaded down with crates.
If you aren't keen on free-roaming the landscape, you can instead engage in the Showdown Series in either small groups of 16 players or large groups of 32 players for entirely new ways to experience Red Dead.
Free-for-all battles with special weapons at certain locations, team-based deathmatches, and even horse racing are all on tap to vary your online play.
Out of these, I was a fan of Name Your Weapon, as you accrue different points depending on the weapon used to achieve a kill. Trying to get the tomahawk kill is an exercise in patience, but when it happens and you hear a player scream in rage, well, it's worth it.
Of course, you should have known there's a battle royale mode, although Make It Count offers something a little different. Since you cap at 16 or 32 players and only use bows and knives, this is a whole different beast from Fortnite, Realm Royale, Black Ops 4, and so on. The open wilderness map and weapon changes make for a tense, brutal battle royale match.
At this point, Make It Count rotates throughout the multiplayer Mode Series playlist and can't be manually selected, so you can't just endlessly play battle royale and neglect the other elements.
That may have been on purpose so battle royale can't overtake the other modes (like it sadly did with Fortnite - RIP Save The World mode), or it could be changed as beta progresses.
Other players pop up automatically on the world map while you Free Roam and take part in random map-based missions, but to take part in either the 4-player story missions or the large scale Series you have to go through some matchmaking.
That's always going to be a bottleneck in a game like this, but so far, I'm glad to report matchmaking has been quick and smooth for me at all times. I've seen a handful of complaints over at Reddit about slow matchmaking issues on the very first day of the beta launch, but so far I've gotten into any kind of match in a matter of seconds.
Some Stumbles While You Gallop
There's an absurd amount of fun to be had in any of Red Dead Online's modes, but of course, as with the base game, there are some missteps worth mentioning.
The domino or poker style mini-games with other players are noticeably absent, which would be fun to add in so you can do something other than shoot each other (although it may run afoul of actual gambling laws once the in-game store goes live).
As with any online game where mics are on by default, you've also got to occasionally deal with awful players. In my playtime, the most noticeable was when two guys got into a heated debate about whether or not America is about to go into a new recession.
Easily the biggest problem that needs to be addressed right now is the insane grind for gold bars, as well as the economy in general. You get so little gold from most missions or events that you could play 40 hours a week and just barely acquire enough to buy a fancy upgraded horse.
Aside from gold nuggets to convert to gold bars, you need regular old cash, and that's hard to come by in decent quantities as well. This definitely isn't like the base game where missions are available to quickly rake up large sums of money. Robbery and murder aren't nearly as lucrative as they used to be.
Players have had to come up with some borderline-cheating ways to net worthwhile amounts of money by farming re-spawning creatures stuck in pens, over fishing specific locations, or even repeatedly deleting characters and starting over to keep your starting cash.
If there's one specific issue that Rockstar needs to look at, its changing how the gold and money economy works, and bumping up the rewards from random encounters and regular quests (although that may be alleviated somewhat once the in-game store becomes available).
The Bottom Line
For a beta that was just launched, Red Dead Online is remarkably stable and lacking in bugs, unlike a certain other AAA online game that just launched its full version...
Since they came out so close together, the comparisons obviously have to be made: if you were underwhelmed by Fallout 76's lack of NPCs, lack of major storyline, constant bugs, just pick up Red Dead Online instead.
Considering the online mode is free for anyone who already bought the base game, that $60 price tag is more than worth it at this point in time.