Red Dead Redemption 2 turns four years old today. For its third birthday last year, I wrote about how I thought it was the most technically impressive game I had ever seen. Though traced rays and whizzbangs don’t usually impress me much, something about how alive Red Dead’s world was always dragged me in. It’s not just the scope of the game, but how well the game manages to populate the whole map with active, organic storytelling.
It still holds that crown – nothing has launched in the last year that eclipses it, though Elden Ring pushes it close. Even if its position remains unchanged, Red Dead Redemption 2 is in a very different place for its fourth birthday party than it was for its first.
That’s because in the 365 in between Red Dead blowing out the candles, Red Dead Online has been snuffed out. While it doesn’t detract from the experience of the story mode, it’s hard to write about RDR2’s overall greatness without acknowledging how the online mode went so wrong. The mode is still playable for those who are sticking around, but Rockstar has announced that it will no longer be receiving significant content updates. Regular players would be within their rights to ask if it ever did.
RDO has always been completely separate from the base game. You play as an original character rather than Arthur Morgan, and while the single-player narrative is about the tragic demise of the era of cowboys how it feels to be a man left behind by the land beneath your feet, the online mode is 50 percent rootin’, 50 percent tootin’, and zero percent ruefully introspective. It’s all about having fun in the Wild West, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it would be difficult to sustain an ever-evolving online world if the central character is running out of time. The problem is even when it built itself around being fun, it never quite managed to figure out how that worked.
GTA Online has been Rockstar’s cash cow for a decade, and shows the developer has figured out the formula. GTA’s online world is an eccentric sugar rush of explosions, bank robberies, and fast cars where there’s a high-octane set-piece waiting for you to take a starring role. There’s a version of this which works in the Wild West, with shootouts, hood ups, and adventure around every corner. The only problem is Arthur’s world is so vibrant it manages to include all of these activities anyway, and all while grounding us into a story so much bigger than ourselves. Red Dead Online doesn’t have room to breathe.
Red Dead Redemption 2 leaves RDO too tinged with sadness even as it outdoes its every event at each turn. The longer it went on, the more it felt like RDO was using the GTA Online model because it had been so successful for Rockstar’s bank account, not because it had been so successful for players. It’s clear GTA Online gives players what they need – it could not have sustained such a massive fanbase if players were not responding to what Rockstar was putting out. But as with most businesses, the primary way to measure this success is by counting the pennies. Players pump money into Shark Cards in GTA Online, and Red Dead Online’s gold bars were a transparent attempt to copy the formula without being able to translate their worth.
As Red Dead Redemption 2 turns four, it’s sad to think that the online mode never really got going. It had all the right parts, but barely even attempted to put it together. This year, it feels less like a birthday party and more like a funeral.
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