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A heartfelt farewell to Red Dead Online

Riding off towards the distance

Red Dead Online has met its end of life. It’s a terrific experience that I’ve spent hundreds of hours exploring, but it’s also a game that will never reach its full potential, perpetually under the shadow of its bigger (and far more profitable) brother, Grand Theft Auto Online. Now that Rockstar has stated that it will no longer be devoting substantial effort on the Western, it’s worth revisiting the frontier to assess the game’s progress since its first 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 owing to the help of high-society lady Jessica LeClerk, who has her own vengeance quest in mind after being recently widowed by scavengers seeking her husband’s money. Once unleashed into the frontier, the player becomes LeClerk’s instrument of justice, and it’s time to get right to work completing bounties, slaying bandits, and acquiring a stable of lovely horses to brush.

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

A heartfelt farewell to Red Dead Online

The game uses an honor system to monitor your acts, and at first glance, you may assume you’re in for some serious role-playing. However, this idea fades after LeClerk’s missions and never truly returns; the honor system exists, but tends to fill up naturally over time when you do things like brush and feed your horse. It is typically rather obvious what causes an honor decrease or recovery. When you clear a gang’s hideaway, you can spare or execute the leader, and self-defense is acceptable, but executing witnesses is not.

It never truly matters beyond a few superficial benefits. It feels like huge ambitions were abandoned at some time, and characters like Old Man Jones — who feels like the angelic counterpart to the demonic Stranger in the Red Dead saga — are simply… there. Jones spends the first half of the campaign hanging over cutscenes, pleading with you to treat your fellow man with respect and decency. It seemed to be building to something, then Jones abruptly leaves after dropping all of his foreshadowing.

So it’s up to you cowpokes to have your own fun once the campaign tasks are completed, and there’s plenty to assist you do so. You may go hunting and fishing, set up camp and prepare some tasty stew, hunt down high-priced criminal bounties, or manage your own moonshine operation. I may quickly fall into a comfortable cadence of activities when I log in. I start at my camp, make some stew and coffee, and eat my breakfast by manually pushing the trigger for each mouthful and sip. Then I mount my large horse Hayseed and go out into the wide, unspoilt wilderness in quest of missions.

A heartfelt farewell to Red Dead Online

The essence of these activities is usually the same: either riding a horse, swinging a lasso, or firing a pistol. While there isn’t much diversity in the motions on paper, Red Dead Redemption 2’s excellent grappling, combat, and physics systems liven things up. As with most open-world games, there’s generally some fascinating meaning to it all, whether it’s thrilling or sad. My pals and I have spent several hours wrassling in a muddy yard.

The setting seems genuine as well, but not as fully fleshed out as the single-player experience. When I’m driving, I could come upon someone stuck beneath a boulder, only to discover it’s a bandit trap. Or, I could discover someone who truly needs assistance going home after a wolf attack, and when I take them home, I’ll find a task accessible at their ranch, which naturally brings me to Valentine, where I select a reward off the board.

The feeling of riding a horse’s hooves against packed ground and the wide sky of the American frontier can be both calm and meditative in Red Dead Online. It can also be a complete clown feast, with my pals and I enjoying a good old-fashioned game of Stab Battles in a regal palace. It’s a fantastic social sandbox, but it’ll never be able to compete with its brother in GTA Online. It stays realistic and historically authentic, and the action rarely goes beyond a gunfight in the midst of a city or a frantic horse change.

Rockstar’s massive open world is still beautiful to explore and full of small nuances to discover. There’s a lot of delight to be had in specific moments, but there’s no overall goal that took Red Dead Online to a distinct and definite destination – and now there probably won’t be one, since Rockstar is shifting its emphasis to GTA 6 while continuing to spend time and money to GTA Online.

That’s a shame, since while Red Dead Online doesn’t have flying vehicles or Elon Musk parodies, it does have seriousness. As we hung out on the frontier, my pals and I were constantly partly in character. In GTA Online, we race around the streets at 160 mph while listening to Backstreet Boys music. In Red Dead Online, we’d look into the fire and drink coffee from tin cups before galloping out at a canter on our horses. The thrill was in the trip, and despite the game’s wasted promise, I still enjoyed these peaceful periods interspersed with rootin’-tootin’ cowboy action.

Fans that stuck it out through new character roles and the occasional event were hoping for some greater acknowledgement or justification from Rockstar. In life, the game was plagued with content draughts and periods of inactivity (save for combat passes), and it now lies in purgatory. Only time will tell if the game’s community will remain around or seek a better future elsewhere.

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