Though they pretty much invented the genre, it’s becoming apparent that the open worlds Rockstar so painstakingly designed are simply not meant for multiple players. In netting the company billions of dollars in microtransactions, GRAND THEFT AUTO ONLINE became the very subject of what was GRAND THEFT AUTO V’s cultural critique. For being based on a game about exacting brutal justice on megalomaniacal tycoons, the resulting windfall from Rockstar’s rampant monetization felt shockingly tone-deaf.
Now, even in “beta,” it looks like RED DEAD ONLINE is going down an even darker path. There’s no doubt GTA ONLINE has spiraled into a pay-to-win nightmare, but there’s always been a discernible roadmap for the future, with Rockstar promising more toys and heists. This didn’t change the game’s nature, but it at least offered something for players whose ideal game experience didn’t include spending ludicrous sums of money insuring their virtual jet against online griefers. RED DEAD ONLINE’s beta, on the other hand, is one giant red flag wrapped around a less-than-fulfilling game experience. Much of what made the single player engaging—elements like progression, dialogue, and exploration—are spoiled when implemented in a system they weren’t designed for.
With all the depth of the single player stripped away, RDO’s story boils down to a series of whack-a-mole quests punctuated with the occasional short gunfight. There’s considerably less Stranger interactions than in the base game, and the missions that do exist are few and far between. Oftentimes these start with a cutscene, but with mute player characters, rarely do they provide anything of substance. Looking for big set pieces or memorable moments? Not a chance. Instead, much of these missions have you performing chores like riding for the pony express, or delivering letters to NPCs across the gargantuan map, because that’s supposed to be fun. The hook is that rival players can steal whatever your delivering, but given that the rewards are close to nil, there is hardly any incentive to intervene, much less to start one of these missions.
More failed architects turned killers
A faster way to earn rewards is going into PVP event matchmaking, where several critical issues arise. The core gameplay of RDR2 is so set in its ways of portraying a realistic experience that aspects essential to fun, skill-based competitive shooters are thrown out the window. As was with Arthur Morgan, your character has a weightiness both on and off a horse which frustratingly impedes precision—fine for a solo hunting simulator, not so much for Team Deathmatch. Even sober, your character will stumble and slide when encountering any wayward rock, presenting an easy kill to anyone within your vicinity.
In a tradition dating back to the first RED DEAD REDEMPTION, a tap of the left trigger will instantly snap your reticule onto another player’s head. While this helps immensely in dispatching the legions of NPC lawmen you face in the story mode, it becomes a different story when facing off against human opponents. This auto-lock spells utter doom for anyone caught in the crosshairs, and most of your deaths, of which there will be many and in quick succession, will be thanks to this feature.
Speaking of deaths, most of yours will come from unseen targets. The layout of every single one of the PVP arenas come straight from RDR2’s open world. Absolutely none of them—even towns and hideouts full of cover—are ideal for any of these various modes, as the finicky respawn system and lack of proper lanes cause all shootouts to devolve into senseless chaos. Whether on teams or in a free-for-all, you will almost certainly spawn smack dab in the sights of an opponent who can simply tap both triggers to dispatch you faster than you’d ever realize.
RIP Yeller Feller, the One-Man Gang
Actual face-to-face duels more often than not rely on what your character’s packing. While the default cattleman revolver and repeater can get you through the story, they won’t stop an enemy player from mowing you down with an automatic shotgun. Save for certain gametypes where everyone is given an identical loadout, your PVP gear is usually transported from your free roam arsenal purchased through money or gold. And that brings us to the elephant in the room: RDO’s economy.
No matter how much gold Rockstar gifts RDO players during these beta updates, it’s still a blatant cash grab. Now that the store is open, it’s become more clear how hard these prices are gouging consumers. Cash adjustment updates are only bandaids for a predatory economy that’s specifically made to force microtransactions onto players. With gold, a secondary currency that can either be gathered in trace amounts through gameplay or amassed via microtransactions, one can circumvent not just cash and level requirements, but also days of grinding.
Gold perpetuates RDO’s prevalent grief cycle, as low-level players are continuously hunted by those with better weapons and steeds both in free roam and events. This is nothing new to those who’ve been strafed by jetbike riders in GTA Online, but that doesn’t really make it any more palatable. This is the kind of design one would expect from a free-to-play MMO, not a $60 shooter.
I played through this mission at least twenty times and I still couldn’t afford a bison
More problematic is how gold ties into the morality gauge hastily transplanted from the main game. It’s near impossible to not cause some sort of crime, especially when interacting with other players, so naturally your honor plummets. But for the price of three gold, Old Man Jones can make even the most vile desperado honorable again by, like, praying for them or something?
Of course, this wouldn’t be a big deal if it didn’t open up a whole new thread of missions. Denoted as the “Gunslinger” branch of missions, it’s disguised as a reward for those who avoid murdering other players indiscriminately. But for those willing to ply Jones with their gold, it is possible to play both this arc as well as the less savory “Outlaw” strand for maximized rewards. Yet again, features that make sense for a single-player experience only serve to spoil the online mode, and in this case, become uniquely malicious.
“Shhh, we’re hunting wallets”
It still seems that Rockstar has little-to-no idea what exactly makes their games fun. The most enjoyable moments in RED DEAD ONLINE come from shenanigans of literal horseplay done outside of missions, activities I could easily accomplish in the far more polished single-player experience. While lassoing up and dragging your friends from horseback or launching yourself from your steed is amusing, these are but mere distractions from a fundamentally broken foundation.
RED DEAD ONLINE only seeks to take advantage of its open world when it stands to generate profit for Rockstar, which is pretty indicative of what’s going on in the industry. By now we should all understand that bigger isn’t always better, be it the size of your sandbox or the perfunctory multiplayer mode you drop on top of it, and when the only aspects of a game that feel fleshed out are the means of charging players money, maybe it isn’t worth playing. This sentiment is not a unique one, and if Rockstar doesn’t change their tune quick, their virtual ghost towns may become literal ones.