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Tumbleweeds and Horse Stacking: Slow Life In Original ‘Red Dead Redemption’ Online

The aging windswept west of Rockstar Games’ original “Red Dead Redemption” is a lonesome place today, eight years past its 2010 release, and just a few days removed from its sequel’s release. If you log onto its multiplayer servers at the right time of day, you might find some cowpokes to slaughter or team up with, depending on your predilections. If you try to reach out in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, however, you’ll likely find yourself out in the dusty wastes, with nothing but the tumbleweeds to keep you company.

It might seem strange to continue playing a nearly decade-old game on previous-gen hardware in an era when bales of new games drop out of the sky every week, but there are plenty of people who do it, for a wide variety of reasons, from revisiting memories of better times to simply having a raucous night with a few friends. For “Redemption” fans, however, the nostalgia trip is a bit rougher than most, as the game’s multiplayer has become infamous for an infestation of bugs that immediately break entire servers, along with hackers and exploiters who don’t mind cheating to win.

Or you might not find anyone at all. That’s what happened to me when I lugged out my old PS3 to try my hand at its default Free Roam mode. There were other players out there somewhere, perhaps in the reaches beyond the border to Mexico, or far north in the mountains, but it can be tough to find them on such a massive map, especially on the non-competitive “Friendly” servers. After a solid week of bullets whizzing by my head and grenades exploding in my face in the recent “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4,” it was a downright meditative experience, wandering through a muddy sandbox on the back of a donkey, trying to find another human being. Once I decided to take the plunge into the realm of player-vs.-player servers, however, the trance broke. I had no trouble finding my compatriots – or, rather, they had no trouble finding me, usually punctuating the discovery with a bullet or two to the face.

To the game’s credit, I only encountered one outright hacker in the ten hours I spent revisiting the game – they blasted me with a shotgun for a minute on end without reloading, more of a curio than an annoyance. Unfortunately, “Redemption” kept hitting me with its most infamous issue, a sort of viral glitch which renders players invisible to each other, turning the game’s heated gunfights from the OK Corral into a literal ghost town. In my experience, the only way to skirt the problem is to leave the server and rejoin repeatedly until you find a non-infected lobby, which can lead to some frustration, especially when it takes minutes at a time to find a populated match.

For some, though, braving these well-documented hurdles is well-worth it. Discussion forums like the “Red Dead Redemption” subreddit are lighting up like an old-school switchboard with fans practically slavering for the game’s immediate release. I reached out for responses via a thread on the subreddit, and the response from fans was immediate. Even in the era of “Grand Theft Auto Online,” which offers the immaculately-crafted sandbox of Los Santos to you and your friends, some enthusiasts say they prefer the crawl of “Redemption” to the hustle and bustle of “GTA.” “I think it was the idea of having the big open world of ‘RDR,’ that was way slower and more relaxed than the fast and loud online mode of ‘GTA IV,’ with other people to share,” says Chris Perus, a Reddit user. “…It just had a specific feel to it. There was a sense of freedom in that game, but everyone knew what to do. It didn’t feel like people were lost. You didn’t have to watch five YouTube videos to understand how the online mode works.”

In “GTA Online,” players can purchase most items with their in-game cash, which they can earn through legitimate play, a raft of “easy money tricks,” or by simply forking over real-world equivalent through microtransactions known as Cash Cards. “Redemption” follows a different model, locking all of its goodies behind an RPG-style level-up system designed to keep you playing. If you don’t like the donkey you start with, tough luck: you’ve got to kill some fellow players or clear out a gang hideout in order to earn a better steed, rather than simply waving money at the screen. “GTA Online” also eschews the non-competitive option offered in “Redemption” entirely, replacing it with an optional “passive mode” that prevents fellow players from targeting you, but also prevents the player from defending themselves against the police. It’s an imperfect solution, to say the least.

“Advantages were earned rather than bought,” says Jesse Brown. “…Even a starting player was still competitive against a top-tier player with the best the game has to offer. There wasn’t a massive power divide between the haves and the have-nots. This, combined with the fact that there were entire passive lobbies where Player vs. Player was disallowed and you could only work together meant that the game felt friendlier or more personal than something like GTA Online, where you’re often fighting other players just to do something as simple as changing your avatar’s shirt.”

While some maintain that they quit playing the game’s multiplayer back in 2014 when the glitched servers began to appear in full force, some hardcore players dispute the game’s reputation as a haven for exploits and hackers. “I play on Xbox One, and despite having spent probably 15 hours within the last two or three months online, I have not run into any modders or hackers. I imagine it’s largely luck of the draw,” says “Vince_Terranova.” Though the Xbox servers are generally considered more populated than the PlayStation ones I played on – largely due to the backward compatibility of the Xbox One console via emulation – the experience is still hit-and-miss for players on both platforms. With low player-counts leaving some of the game’s limited match-types virtually unplayable, the die-hards are left to make their own fun.

“I jump on occasionally still with my friends to see how many horses we can stack on top of barns,” says Jonathan Drake, reached via the Reddit thread. “Current record is 147. If your throw dynamite at them, the whole server will flip upside down and crash people out. However, the process takes about 2 hrs to stack that many.”

After a heated deathmatch that saw me fall victim to every weapon in the game’s early 20th-century arsenal, from repeating rifles to the stalwart 1911 pistol, I relaxed with a game of cards with some random players. As I won a few poker hands, I started to understand why players keep returning to the more measured pace of life in the waning west, hackers or not. Though it’s not clear what Red Dead Online will look like, it’s clear that the fans aren’t going to settle for a Wild West reskin of “GTA Online.” Regardless of what it might be, however, it’s clear that some fans will continue to stack cattle and deal cards as they scurry around these servers, game-breaking bugs be damned.

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