It's one of those simple rules of video games: Anything in the sandbox action genre is exponentially more enjoyable when you can share the fun with someone else. After all, open-world games are essentially a big blank canvas for players to decorate with whatever style of gameplay they want. Whether it's, say, working through the Saints Row 2 story missions in co-op or just using the free-roaming multiplayer lobby in Grant Theft Auto IV to jump between speedboats and pretend to be pirates, the level of expression you get out of these games is boosted significantly with friends in tow. That's why we were so eager to check out what Red Dead Redemption has in store on the multiplayer side of things. It has looked for a while now as if the story and characters are shaping up to meet Rockstar's exacting cinematic standards, so the big question left was how the multiplayer would turn out.
The answer, in a word, is: fun. The team down at Rockstar San Diego seems to realize that while there are those players who need order, there are also those who are clinically allergic to it, and Redemption's multiplayer looks ready to appeal to both sets. For the free-form crowd, up to 16 players can all gather into the same world and travel through the game's entire geography. All three parts of the world--Nuevo Paraiso, Port Elizabeth, and New Austin--can be explored without players being magically tethered together. Pretty much everything outside of the main storyline missions is available in this free-roaming multiplayer scenario, so if you all want to get together and go on a hunting expedition to sell valuable animal skins or form an impromptu vigilante squad to snuff out roving bandits, you're more than welcome to do so. Or if you just want to ignore each other completely and run off to opposite corners of the map, that's an option as well.
To help keep things a bit organized, there's a posse system that lets players within that group of 16 split up into their own smaller gangs. Each posse is assigned a posse leader, and he acts as the guy keeping his crew in line. He can assign waypoints on the map that will then appear on the maps of his entire posse, and when the team gets too separated, members can instantly teleport to where the posse leader is currently located. There's no rule that says you have to be friendly or violent with other posses in these 16-player setups, either. You can turn the world into an Old-West turf war or be as buddy-buddy as you want.
For those who want to experience some combat during these free-roaming sequences, there are a number of "action areas" spread throughout the world. These are essentially small towns overrun with bandits that you and your crew can eradicate in order to gain experience points. Your team rolls up on horseback to the outskirts of a town with guns blazing, pushing its way toward a bandit stronghold where the most stubborn stragglers are holed up. Combat allows for the slow, methodical player to use cover and fire precision rifle shots or the reckless player to speed through Main Street on his horse, hurling dynamite or Molotov cocktails at anything vaguely resembling a threat. We enjoyed the variety of guns and weapons at our disposal during these action areas. And thanks to the game's use of the Euphoria animation engine, it seems like we didn't see the same stumbling death animation twice.
That should give you a general idea of what to expect out of the free-form, do-what-you-want multiplayer options. But like Grand Theft Auto IV, you'll also be able to play through a number of competitive multiplayer modes. To minimize menu navigation, Redemption will let players queue up a playlist of multiplayer modes so that when one match is over, a different mode of your choosing is immediately due up next. We played through three different modes: Shootout, Goldrush, and Hold Your Own.
Shootout, which can be played either free-for-all or with teams, gathers players together in one of the game's many scattered towns and acts as a contained multiplayer map. This mode is as straightforward as it gets: Shoot opposing players while trying not to die. The action can get surprisingly tense during those moments when the cacophonous gunfire settles down and you know an opposing player is trying to fix his or her sights on you. We're not afraid to admit that, at one of these points, we were thoroughly spooked by a figure in our peripheral vision that turned out to be a goat. Each kill nets you experience points, which can be put toward new weapons, characters, and horses.
After that came Goldrush. This mode first takes a scattering of gold bags and crates that randomly pop up all over the map then asks you to return the bags to the crates while avoiding a hail storm of gunfire. Randomly generated locations of those gold bags means that you're constantly on the move, dashing around either for unclaimed gold or players to shoot and steal their gold from them while they're in transit. Similar to Goldrush is Hold Your Own. Here, it is two teams with their own sides of the map, which either can be two small towns separated by sprawling frontier or a pair of corners within the same walled outpost depending on the scale of a given map. Players race from one side to the other on foot or horseback trying to capture the other team's gold, engaging in shootouts along the way. On the bigger maps, defensive positions are available in the form of Gatling gun turrets and cannons. We really enjoyed manning the cannon situated at the top of a small hill between two towns on the bigger map we played and randomly lobbing cannonballs onto the enemy team's base.
Overall, we walked away impressed by Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer offerings. On one end, there are those fixed game modes for players who enjoy engaging in traditional multiplayer matches and working toward earning a tangible reward like experience points. But there's also the potential for free-roaming creativity with little in the way of restrictions. Whether you're in the mood for a standard deathmatch or prefer coming up with new games like "The First Annual Nuevo Paraiso Man Versus Mountain Lion Contest" it looks like flexibility and options are the two big themes in Redemption multiplayer. Expect to see the game arrive in stores on May 18.