Red Dead Redemption’s multiplayer is still unlike anything else

, | Features

For many games, the multiplayer and single player feel like separate products, connected thematically, but with very little in common when it comes to core gameplay. For instance, I play a lot of real time strategy games. There are almost no real time strategy games in which the single player campaign is even remotely like the multiplayer. The difference isn’t quite as pronounced in shooters, but it’s still there. For some shooters, multiplayer is farmed out to an entirely separate developer. For many primarily multiplayer shooters, the single player seems like barely an afterthought.

The beauty of Red Dead Redemption’s multiplayer is that it feels almost exactly like the single-player, even though it’s an entirely separate experience (contrast this to something like Dead Island, where the multiplayer stuff is the same as the single-player stuff, but with more players). Whether you’re playing the single player storyline, or whether you’re in the free roam online mode where all multiplayer begins, Red Dead Redemption is about being in a wide-open and richly evocative recreation of the Old West, with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to things to do. Several of which we did last night.

After the jump, it’s a hell of thing, killing a man

The co-op missions weren’t available when Red Dead Redemption launched. Instead, they were added as free DLC a month and a half after its release. Some group activities such as strongholds, horde mode, horse races, poker, and liar’s dice were added even later as paid DLC. Without these add-ons, at the game’s launch, the free roam felt like an obscenely large and mostly empty lobby on the way to the typical assortment of deathmatches and capture the flag games.

But now, several rounds of DLC later and a year-and-a-half later, free roam is full of activity and challenges. Last night, while everyone gathered, we began with a fair amount of pointless friendly fire in the vicinity of McFarlane’s farm. Shots were fired wildly and not-so-wildly. Mounts raced up and down the main road. The occasional burro and bull showed up from the players who’d unlocked them. From here, eight of us possed up and headed to a gang stronghold to the south. It consisted of three waves of bad guys of increasing difficulty, culminating in some tough bosses slinging molotov cocktails. The player who got the most points (me) earned a special rifle with five explosive rounds. Before he got a chance to fire even one of those rounds, he got killed by another player who was goofing around. He then was aghast to discover you don’t respawn with special weapons you’ve picked up. It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.

We did two strongholds before diving into the full-blown co-operative missions, which work as instances for four players at a time. For some odd reason, if you have more than four players in a privately hosted free roam, you can’t jump into co-op missions. You and up to three posse members have to first jump onto a publicly hosted free roam. The game has its fair share of these oddities when you try to get things going. Being intuitive was never Red Dead Redemption’s strong suit.

For the most part, the multiplayer seems built to move players around without asking them to make too many choices. The only real choice before a co-op mission is which class you’ll be. These keep everyone on equal footing. We had some players who hadn’t played much, or even at all, but they weren’t stuck with their basic starting weapons. By selecting the appropriate class, they could easy get advanced stuff like dynamite, sniper rifles, and high-performance pistols. The down side of this is that you can’t bring your phat loot with you. Such as the exploding rifle you (I) had before someone killed you (me).

The actual missions are an absolute delight. Grand Theft Auto IV offered some co-op missions in Liberty City, but I don’t recall them being as varied and fleshed out. Each mission consists of several stages, which are like blocks of specific gameplay: firing down into the canyon at the opening of The Herd, a cow escort mission; securing the mine in Walton’s Gold; shooting your way into the fort at the beginning of The Kidnapped Girl; holing up inside the house when the bandits attack at the end of The Kidnapped Girl; deciding whether to bring along the Gatling wagon in The Escape; the almost episodic nature of The River as you land for various assaults.

These are mostly easy, but when teamwork falls apart, so too does the potential to finish the mission. On several occasions, someone would get incapacitated in a particularly dangerous spot. At which point the other three players are successively incapacitated when they rush in to revive him. We learned the hard way that anyone downed by a Gatling gun was probably best left to bleed out.

We had a few games where it came down to one player left alive, carefully trying to reach the checkpoint where dead players respawn. I apologize to my teammates for not finishing The River while they looked down from heaven. How was I supposed to know that lit stick of dynamite I tossed wasn’t going to clear the wagon I was hiding behind? At least our failure was explosive. I’m looking forward to unlocking the advanced missions to see what it’s like when the going gets really rough. In fact, I’m looking forward to unlocking a lot of the stuff in Red Dead Redemption I have yet to unlock. If there’s one thing Rockstar knows how to do, it’s build a world. But if there’s a second thing Rockstar knows how to do, it’s give you a hundred reasons to be in that world.

So how does Red Dead Redemption hold up as a multiplayer game? In co-op, it holds up marvelously. In fact, I’d say there’s nothing quite like it. The games that should have competed with Red Dead Redemption didn’t quite measure up. Crackdown 2, for instance, had four player co-op support that should have been beautiful, but was instead oddly pointless. Saints Row 2 came close, but it didn’t have nearly as much structure for nearly as many players.

A few random thoughts:

I love the autotargeting. In Red Dead Redemption, I’m a famously skilled gunfighter, not a dude playing a videogame. So I’m happy to just mash the left trigger to aim and then mash the right trigger to fire. Time was I thought autoaim was a crutch. When used well, as it is here, it makes the gameplay come alive. It’s as silly, cinematic, and bad-ass as fanning the hammer on a revolver to gun down a half-dozen bandit outlaws at once.

There’s nothing quite so gloriously hilarious as a full stagecoach bristling with armed cowboys. When I occasionally played online flight sims, back in the days of Air Warrior, a fully crewed heavy bomber like a B-17 was known as a Death Star. So many guns firing from one place was like a ball of hot death to any enemy fighters that flew nearby. A fully crewed stagecoach in Red Dead Redemption is the Western equivalent of a Death Star. Until it goes off road, gets hung up on a cactus, and tips over, at which point it’s just a bunch of dudes giggling over their headsets. Or until someone accidentally hits the “get out” button and goes tumbling behind while bandits swarm around us. Do we go back for him? Of course we do. And what a magnificent rescue it was, easily as spectacular a moment as anything Rockstar scripted in the single-player story.

The horde mode in Undead Nightmares is a bit disappointing. It’s rather bare bones, and it doesn’t scale well, if at all. I was able to try it with two players and we couldn’t get past the fourth wave. I do like how there’s a risk/reward calculation in every wave when a random weapon spawns in a buried coffin. Do you try to get there and dig it up? Or do you just try to stay alive? And it sure does look grand watching twenty zombies lurching elaborately at you or your teammate.

If you don’t have Red Dead Redemption yet, you’re in luck. Rockstar will release one of those “game of the year” editions that includes all the DLC on October 11th.

(Thanks to JadedJonty, merryprankster, ZoroasterD, Cormac224, divedivedive, CFDEngine15, AbruzziRidge, triggercut, LizardDude, and kentdoggydog for participating! Or, in some cases, trying to participate. My apologies to those of you who either couldn’t get in or had to deal with connectivity issues. You’ll all get a boost in the T-shirt drawing on Monday.)