I don't usually like to play online with strangers, but Microsoft had switched on Xbox Live Gold for free for all users over the past weekend, and, since the service is ordinarily $60/year, I figured it behooved me to take advantage and get as much out of the weekend as I could. As it happened, the only 360 game that my brother and I both owned and could play online together was Red Dead Redemption, which I coincidentally had only started playing in single-player a few days earlier.
Red Dead Redemption is a two-year-old game at this point, and, even at the peak of its popularity, I don't imagine it was ever a title to sell on the merit of its multiplayer. Meanwhile, I hadn't done any competitive online gaming since I last tried out one of those military shooter games, which I left after one session with a (perhaps too hasty?) negative opinion of. Alas, although I may have hoped for a different and better experience, Red Dead Redemption's online was, right off the bat, exactly what I expected.
In the past, I've broadly compared all online shooters to "the wild wild West" (not the Will Smith movie, nor the earlier TV series), a lawless frontier that brings out its denizens' most vile and destructive tendencies. You might think that an especially apt analogy in the case of Red Dead Redemption, but actually "wild wild West" has never come close to capturing the untamable savagery of the online arena. That said, Red Dead Redemption is indeed worse in some ways than even a typical round of FPS team deathmatch. In the default "Free Roam" mode, less a gameplay type in and of itself than what this game offers in place of a lobby--the central hub where players can connect to form teams and match up with other players--you're tossed, without any directives or guidance, into a severely depopulated version of the complete open world of the single-player game. You'll see other players running around, and you can propose a match or posse up and roam the land together. But it's more likely that the first person you approach will just try to shoot you. You see, even though Free Roam contains no real scoring system or victory conditions of its own, in practice it nevertheless manages to become just a never-ending battle royale of everybody shooting everybody, even though nobody stays dead and none of it gains anybody anything. Basically, people don't even need to be incentivized to start shooting without prejudice; it's just their instinctive go-to. No AI game master governing with rules, calling time and declaring winners, the only law is the gun and a fight everybody loses. You can try to avoid this by choosing to enter a "friendly" version of Free Roam, where player-killing is turned off. But, guess what, even that doesn't make people any friendlier; instead, if they can't shoot you, they'll shoot and kill your horse instead. Seriously, it's an incessant stream of notifications that some guy killed so-and-so's mount, etc. I wonder why these horse-killers don't just stay in the non-friendly rooms, or why they don't go into actual versus games, instead of attacking people in the lobby.
I thought I'd have better luck in the cooperative mission mode, "Outlaws to the End," consisting of a handful of four-player stages, which mostly involve exterminating groups of AI bad guys while getting from point A to B. The action is usually so hairy in these stages as to be almost unmanageable without a full team of four working together. So, not only are you not supposed to attack the other players, but, for very practical reasons, you're strongly encouraged against it if you want to survive. Why was I shocked and appalled when people still didn't play along?
The very first group of players I was matched up with was tasked with laying siege to a fort, retrieving the kidnapped girl within, then escaping together via four-horse coach. This was maybe the third mission I'd taken on with this group, and, although we had yet to complete a mission together, nothing too crazy had happened; the enemies had just overwhelmed us. This time, after we cleared the fort of enemies, three of us waited by the coach while the fourth player went to escort the girl over. While we waited, one of my teammates started shooting the horses harnessed to the coach. At first, it didn't even register to me what he was doing, because a civilized human being's mind isn't rigged to understand that kind of sociopathy, which goes against all sense and sensibility. I mean, I've seen some sick stuff in games, but I can honestly say that I never expected to see this. Folks, you can't script this stuff.
Thus, three of the horses were already dead or dying by the time my brother thought to try to stop him. I don't know if this guy was crazy or what, because there was never any communication, but, whatever the case, with one horse left living by the time the last player and kidnapped girl joined us, this maniac relented and took the driver's seat. I said hell no and pulled him off, then started whipping that last horse to carry us as far from that creep and toward our objective as possible. We got pretty far, but it was really quite hopeless. With enemy riders harassing us the whole way, that one-horse coach never stood a chance. Once that last horse inevitably went down, it was automatic game over.
After that fiasco, my brother and I were resolved that, as soon as the next mission started, we were going to shoot that horse-killer dead before he could sabotage us again. It was his turn to be shocked as we both started opening fire on him from behind. By the time he realized we were serious, it was too late for him to do anything but die. I don't know what was going through the mind of the fourth player as all this was happening, but clearly it was time for him to pick a side. Unfortunately, when my brother and I were shortly thereafter felled by AI enemies, the fourth guy chose to revive the horse-killer, whereupon they both left us for dead.
Now, if only this horse-killer had been a singular lunatic, a good time might still have been had, but, no, nearly every team I played with featured at least one asshole. At one point, as we were sharing a raft and fighting against enemies standing on the shore, the guy behind me just shot me in the head for no reason. On another occasion, same stage and well into it, a different guy decided to start hurling firebombs on the raft, knowing that it was too cramped for us, his teammates and the only ones aboard, to avoid getting set on fire. Then there was the guy who, shortly into a mission, decided to blow up everyone with dynamite before logging himself off, as if that had been the only thing he had wanted out of the game all along. This kind of rampant team-killing--the lowest of the low--is usually indicative of a game gone completely to hell. As offensive as some Call of Duty players may be, at least you don't generally have to go into a match worrying that your own teammates might stab you in the back.
As easy as it is to blame cretinous jerks for ruining everybody's fun, I do have to say that the game itself doesn't exactly help matters. On more than one occasion, when it was time for our four-man team to get on the coach together, I would get up along the side of the carriage and press the button to try to get in through one of the doors, but instead I would end up accidentally pulling the coachman off and taking his seat a la Grand Theft Auto. It was completely unintentional, but, since we weren't sharing a line on voice chat, I had no way of telling the other player that. And so, over an honest mistake, the trust would be broken, and all hell would break loose as it became every man for himself. A part of me wonders if that's how it all began, if the first shot fired wasn't actually an accident, but thereafter nobody could stop shooting anymore and trying to take back what they thought was theirs. Or maybe it's just that I was playing on a Thursday with a bunch of twelve-year-olds at a time of day when any responsible adult would be at work instead of playing Xbox Live. Maybe.