We're cowboys at heart, not game journalists. We'd rather jump on the back of a horse, round up some bandits and then gallop back into town for a game of poker, then spend a warm night with a hooker, a tin bath by the fire and a bottle of bourbon. As it is, we get to write all day, then go to bed with a comic book and a mug of cocoa. It's not exactly a match for the cowboy lifestyle we were meant for.
As such, we've been itching to get some hands-on time with Rockstar's Western opus for months now, as it's about as close to living the Wild West dream as we're ever likely to get. So when the invite came through telling us that the first round of Red Dead Redemption multiplayer sessions were to take place at Rockstar's London offices, we naturally leapt at the chance.
In an international affair, we were pitted against games journos from all over Europe and were thrust straight into Red Dead's free-roam hub; the instruction not to shoot one another until we're given permission instantly goes out of the window. Like GTA, between multiplayer matches you're given the entire single-player map to explore, so pushing up on the d-pad to whistle for a horse is a good idea if you want to quickly get around the towns and homesteads dotted around Redemption's vast world. That being said, most of the time you're likely to find players just killing each other for shits and giggles. Kill an innocent non-playable pedestrian though, and you can expect to be hunted and executed by the law.
The opportunity to simply waste time messing around amongst the miles of desert and scrub is infinite, with random emergent events and the detailed animal ecology tossing up all manner of interesting distractions. But it's the host of game modes that provide the real meat of Red Dead's multiplayer and we got to check out four of them during our intensive hands-on play session.
Before we plunged into the competitive stuff, we start with a posse leader who sets a waypoint for the entire gang of sixteen players to follow. So saddling up and riding to a marked gang hideout where a group of bandits are holed up, we canter down the trail, taking care not to kick our horse to death. Upon arrival, a gunfight immediately breaks out, triggering even more undesirables to spill into the area from the surrounding ridge, which in turn leads to an ambush and an even busier, more frenetic gun battle.
It's great fun that eventually leads on to other criminal strongholds, such as an abandoned mansion where our foolhardy decision to sling several sticks of dynamite through the front door ends with us being sworn at by a French journo who gets caught in an errant explosion. Oops! As each mission ends, a statistics screen pops up giving you the lowdown on how well (or how poorly) you did, and as it happens, our dynamite-fuelled rampage pushes us to the top of the scoreboard. Ha! Take that France!
Back to the lobby area once more where activity descends into a sixteen-way fist fight, before it's time to sample 'Gang Shootout' - a straightforward Team Deathmatch that pits two warring factions head-to-head against one another. Lawmen, Miners, Rebeldes, Dutch's Gang and The American Army are some of the groups that feature, and each match begins with a standoff until there's only one man left standing. It's literally pistols at dawn, where the fastest gun wins and when we play the every-man-for-themselves Shootout later on, the action opens with all 16-players stood in a circle for a Mexican standoff that would make Quentin Tarantino cream in his pants.
Moving onto 'Gold Rush' - a game type that has you collecting and gathering bags of gold dotted around the map before depositing them into nearby chests to score a point - we start to get a feel for the game mechanics, pressing right bumper to gracefully slide into cover, dashing to green markers on the map to collect Deadeye pick-ups and hoarding as many weapons as we can from handy sparkling crates.
In single-player, Deadeye slows time, enabling you to paint red crosses on nearby enemies, and it works in much the same way in multiplayer, boosting accuracy without the aid of slow-motion. Weapons meanwhile, stay in your inventory (accessed via the left bumper and a twiddle of the right analogue stick) right until the end of the round, giving you a rather extensive cache of artillery to choose from, including numerous six-shooters, rifles, shotguns and projectiles like dynamite or throwing knives.
Finishing off with a bout of capture-the-flag, here called 'Hold Your Own' and featuring red and blue loot bags rather than flags, we get to blast a few riders off their horses with a huge cannon and even find time to line up a few headshots with a sniper rifle and then rush into the opposing team's base on horseback to grab the red flag and score a valuable point.
Actions like these grant XP, which persistently builds up throughout multiplayer, levelling your character up and enabling you to purchase new clothing and items to customise your badass bandito, sheriff or cowgirl. You're also able to acquire XP while free-roaming by executing special actions like killing a grizzly bear with a knife or shooting the hat off a wanted villain, for instance
Red Dead Redemption's single-player is shaping up to be unquestionably superb, but it's also heartening to see that a great deal of care and attention has gone into the multiplayer too. Rockstar has apparently learnt some valuable lessons from GTA IV's multiplayer, making the experience more focused, compartmentalised and therefore better suited to the 16-players that the game supports.
There's a clear, concerted effort that has been made in ensuring the multiplayer aspect of Red Dead Redemption is both meaningful and worth revisiting, and although there are still a few kinks to be ironed out, it's reason enough to make Redemption one of this year's most wanted games.
Red Dead Redemption is out May 18th and May 21st in North America and Europe respectively.