We all know how Wild Western duels are meant to go, right? Two sweaty blokes in ten-gallon hats, glowering at each other from either end of a deserted high street, the camera alternating between ever more searching close-ups of their unblinking eyes. Then the town bell rings, one man draws first – BANG, dead. That’s the way Call of Juarez liked it. Or: bell rings, BANG, stagger, drop to one knee, “Take my hand, Ned, it’s gettin’ dark”, tearful manly embrace, dead. Or: bell rings, BANG, dead, victor walks over to gloat, BUT “Not so fast, pardner, I had a sheet of iron tucked under my poncho” and BANG, tables turned.
Rockstar, being Rockstar, does things differently. Each of Red Dead Redemption’s competitive multiplayer matches kicks off with a bout of quick-draw, up to 16 scarred and pickled specimens of frontier manhood (and occasionally womanhood) clustered round a patch of soon-to-be bloody soil, but the drama is a little less “snapshot”, and a little more “bell rings, BANG BANG BANG, sideways somersault, BANG, struggle to reload, accidental standing-jump, BANG BANG, engage in frantic pistol-whipping contest, BANG, finished off by sneaky bastard hiding behind cactus”.
The last man standing then gets a few seconds’ head-start on the map itself, scurrying off into its fastness while everybody else curses the respawn timer. This can be quite an advantage when playing Gold Rush, in which players scoop up bags of nuggets (two maximum per man) and try to deposit them in a shared treasure chest, but please – don’t let such sober considerations go to your head. The main effect of those initial face-offs is to remind us that, like GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption online deals primarily in absolute bloody chaos, and if you’re all that fussed about stuff like squad cohesion or “watching your six” then, frankly, you’re the wrong hand for this bronco.
Before all this there’s the “Free Roam” lobby area to mull over – if “lobby” is really the right word for mile upon mile of cracked earth, brush, sand dune and forest, generously provisioned with AI highwaymen, ravening predators and infinitely respawnable horses. Players are free here to entertain themselves any-damn-which-way prior to (or perhaps instead of) joining a match, e.g. by abusing the developer’s proprietary physics system.
Stars of our hands-on in this regard were Sheriff Vidal O’Gamer and the dastardly bandito El Pig. Lurking in the long grass, the Pig put a rifle bullet through the Sheriff’s mount as he approached at a gallop, but the lawman kept his cool, rose up in the saddle to perch surfer-style atop his tumbling, jelly-limbed nag, and blew the other dude away. (No actual horses were hurt during the making of the scene, though we believe somebody may have spilled his Coke.)