We're deep in the forest that blankets most of the snow-covered region of Tall Trees, sat astride horses. AKWorley990, a tragic victim of Xbox Live's unique gamertag policy, stands in the middle of the clearing, knife in hand, warily eyeing up the bear in front of him.
Let's freeze-frame this standoff for a moment. Red Dead Redemption's single-player game always left me cold, but here in its multiplayer free-roam option, I found myself falling in love. Serving primarily as a waiting room for the "real" multiplayer modes, it's something of an attraction in its own right. The free-roam mode essentially takes the single player game, cuts away all of the missions and crafting systems, then turns you loose as one of up to 16 players. It feels like how pop culture taught me living on the frontier would be: You ride around with your friends clearing out gang hideouts, completing challenges, fighting wild animals, and occasionally get shot and killed by the notorious outlaw xXSTUFFINMUFFINXx and his posse.
Red Dead Redemption's free-roam is not only the best part of the game, in my opinion, but also the best emergent mode that Rockstar has ever realized. It wasn't just trimming away the dead weight of single player that made free-roam worthwhile. Rockstar changed and rebalanced a fair few things for Red Dead's playing with friends options.
One of the biggest changes was to the beasts populating the game's open world—wildlife, in general, is much more dangerous than it is in the solo campaign, with several of the bigger animals being able to take you out with one attack. This sent us on quite a few high-stakes bear-hunting trips. My band of would-be frontiersmen and I stalked our prey with the knowledge that while just one strike from a knife would take the beast down, a single blow from its paws would do the same to any player.
We liked the risk and reward of dueling the bears, and it became an initiation rite to take players wanting to join our merry group north to Tall Trees to try to knife a bear of their own. It was a perfect example of how Red Dead Redemption's emergent sandbox let you make your own fun, and required a bit of skill too: Reading the bear's attack animation and countering at the right time without getting mauled yourself took a fair bit of practice.
If you did nail the bear, you were welcomed into the Bear Hunters, our ridiculous gang of university-age wasters that would spend all day dicking around in the virtual badlands. Most nights we had a full posse of eight, and would dish out justice as we saw it in a capricious manner. When "your team" is comprised of half the players on a server, you can pretty much do what you want.
People love Red Dead Redemption because Rockstar is fantastic at capturing an aesthetic, and the game's single-player mode captures the end of the Wild West era beautifully. But they should love its multiplayer free-roam, too, because it, perhaps accidentally, captures the feel of the Wild West while it was in full swing. There's something about a horde of heavily armed cowboys given agency to tear around the world and act out their petty whims that just seems to fit the lawless attitude of the time, in addition to it simply being a lot of fun. Want to hunt a cougar? You can do that. Want to hide high up on a ridge over a road and shoot everyone in sight with a sniper rifle? You do you, buddy.
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Technically, Red Dead Redemption's chaotic multiplayer world isn't really lawless, but in practice the lawmen are outnumbered, outmatched, and outgunned. The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun. To facilitate this, Rockstar made it so that if you get up to too much naughtiness online, you'll have a bounty placed on your head, and your location broadcast to every other player on the server. You're now a walking dollar sign to anyone who has stones big enough to take you out.
The fact that other players are quite often dicks gives the game a unique sense of paranoia. As you see someone riding toward you, creeping ever closer from the horizon, there's a chance he or she wants to help you in your quest to blow up every donkey in Mexico. But they might also be dead set on shooting you in the face with a rifle. This means everyone's a little bit twitchy, and misunderstandings often develop into full-blown shoot-outs.
If you're having a rough time in the free-roam world, you can drop into the multiple multiplayer modes that give you actual objectives. But really, why would you need objectives? While most of the players were having big shootouts in team deathmatch, I was trying to convince rookie players to fall into the San Luis River, or trying to race from the city of Blackwater to Escalera before sundown.
It's just a few steps away from complete chaos, with 16 people coming together in one space to try and exact their whims on the world around them. The world is big enough that you don't have to come together in a big mob, but often players will do just that, purely to see the sparks fly.
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Red Dead Redemption's addition to the ranks of Xbox 360 games now backward compatible with the Xbox One—combined with the fact that it's probably never coming to PC—makes now, today, the perfect time to jump in and feel its world out for yourself. No other game has delivered an emergent multiplayer experience quite like it, on console. Not yet, at least.
Back to the standoff. AKWorley990 takes a step toward the bear, which rears back on its hind legs in preparation for a charging attack. Bear fighting veterans know a simple side step as the animal runs forward means an easy kill. AKWorley990 is not a veteran, however, and gets trampled to death, his avatar rag-dolling to the ground as we, long-standing members of the Bear Hunters, cackle wildly.
It's his fourth attempt today. Sometimes you get the bear; sometimes the bear gets you.
Follow Jake Tucker on Twitter.