Red Dead

Red Dead Online will be missed.

Riding off into the distance

Red Dead Online has reached its end of life. It’s a fantastic experience that I’ve spent hundreds of hours exploring, but it’s also a game that will never reach its full potential, forever in the shadow of its bigger (and far more profitable) sibling, Grand Theft Auto Online. Now that Rockstar has stated that it will no longer be focusing significant attention on the Western, it’s worth revisiting the frontier to assess the game’s progress since its initial release in 2018.

Red Dead Online begins with your character being betrayed, falsely accused of crimes they did not commit, and sentenced to death as an outlaw. You escape thanks to the efforts of high-society lady Jessica LeClerk, who has her own vengeance mission in mind after being recently widowed by scavengers seeking her husband’s fortune. Once unleashed on the frontier, the player becomes LeClerk’s instrument of justice, and it’s time to get right to work fulfilling bounties, killing robbers, and acquiring a stable of beautiful horses to brush.

If you complete the LeClerk missions, you will be put through a short campaign in which you will have to make moral decisions on occasion. Do you return a straying daughter to her father or let her run off with her lover? Do you tie some ne’er-do-wells to the tracks and let the train deal with them, or are you more forgiving?

The game uses an honour system to track your actions, and at first glance, you might think you’re in for some deep role-playing. However, this notion fades after LeClerk’s missions and never truly returns; the honour system remains, but tends to fill up naturally over time when you do things like brush and feed your horse. It is usually fairly obvious what causes an honour drop or recovery. When you clear a gang’s hideout, you can spare or execute the leader, and self-defense is acceptable, but executing witnesses is not.

It never really matters beyond a few cosmetic benefits. It feels like great plans were abandoned at some point, and characters like Old Man Jones — who feels like the angelic counterpart to the devilish Stranger in the Red Dead franchise — are simply… there. Jones spends the first half of the campaign hovering around cutscenes, pleading with you to treat your fellow man with honour and dignity. It appears to be building to something, but Jones abruptly disappears after dropping all of his foreshadowing.

So it’s up to you cowpokes to have your own fun once the campaign missions are completed, and there’s plenty to help you do so. You can go hunting and fishing, set up camp and cook some tasty stew, hunt down high-priced criminal bounties, or run your own moonshine shack. I can easily fall into a comfortable cadence of activities when I log on. I start at my camp, make some stew and coffee, and eat my breakfast by manually hitting the trigger for each bite and sip. Then I mount my big horse Hayseed and ride out into the vast, unspoiled wilderness in search of missions.

The core of these activities is always the same: either riding a horse, swinging a lasso, or shooting a gun. While there isn’t much variety in the actions on paper, Red Dead Redemption 2’s excellent grappling, fighting, and physics systems spice things up. As with most open-world games, there’s usually some compelling context to it all, whether it’s exciting or sad. My friends and I have spent many hours wrassling in a muddy yard.

The world feels organic as well, albeit not as fully fleshed out as the single-player experience. When I’m driving, I might come across someone trapped under a rock, only to discover it’s a bandit trap. Or, I might find someone who actually needs assistance getting home after a wolf attack, and when I take them home, I’ll find a mission available at their ranch, which naturally leads me to Valentine, where I pick a bounty off the board.

The experience of riding a horse’s hooves against packed dirt and the open skies of the American frontier can be both serene and zen in Red Dead Online. It can also be a complete clown fiesta, with my friends and I enjoying a good old-fashioned game of Stab Battles in a regal mansion. It’s a fantastic social sandbox, but it’ll never be able to compete with its sibling in GTA Online. It stays grounded and historically accurate, and the action rarely goes beyond a shootout in the middle of a city or a frantic horse change.

Rockstar’s massive open world is still beautiful to explore and full of small details to discover. There’s a lot of joy to be found in individual moments, but there’s no overarching vision that guided Red Dead Online to a tangible and concrete destination — and now there probably won’t be one, as Rockstar is shifting its focus to GTA 6 while continuing to devote time and resources to GTA Online.

That’s a shame, because while Red Dead Online doesn’t have flying cars or Elon Musk parodies, it does have gravitas. As we hung out on the frontier, my friends and I were always half in character. In GTA Online, we race through the streets at 160 mph while listening to Backstreet Boys music. In Red Dead Online, we’d stare into the fire and drink coffee from tin cups before galloping off at a canter on our horses. The joy was in the journey, and despite the game’s missed potential, I still enjoyed these peaceful moments punctuated by rootin’-tootin’ cowboy action.

Fans who stuck it out through new character roles and the occasional event were hoping for some grander recognition or vindication from Rockstar. In life, the game was plagued by content draughts and periods of inactivity (except for battle passes), and it now sits in purgatory. Only time will tell whether the game’s community will stick around or seek a better future elsewhere.