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Red Dead Online reminds me of the glory days of DayZ

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

Back when DayZ was still an Arma mod, and in the early days of the standalone game, it was a mess. Despite being the focus of the thing, the zombies rarely worked as advertised. You could stroll past them, just a few feet away, and they wouldn't notice you. If they did they would get stuck in scenery, disappear into the ground, or lunge straight through you. But here's the thing: this was DayZ at its best. It shifted the focus to the relationships between players and was much more interesting as a result, because people are more interesting than zombies. Well, most of the time.

Seeing another player in DayZ was always a tense, nerve-racking moment. The distant silhouette of another player made my heart leap more than any of the shambling undead ever did, because you know what a zombie wants: it wants to eat you. But a human being? They could be up to anything. A lot of players would just shoot you on sight, mostly out of fear that you'd do the same to them. Especially if you were wearing camo, the official uniform of the jerk.

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

But there were friendly players out there in that bleak post-Soviet wilderness too. It might just be a passer-by helpfully warning you about bandits up the road, or someone you actually end up hanging out with, looting towns and military bases together. Well, at least until they shot you in the back and stole your beans. Or, in the standalone version, handcuffed you and fed you a rotten banana so you got food poisoning and died. These things happened to me more than once.

It was a fascinating social experiment and a terrifying glimpse at how people would behave if the world ever became a post-apocalyptic wasteland. And while Red Dead Online is a wildly different game, its Free Roam mode captures the anarchic spirit of DayZ's glory days. The feeling of being in a lawless place where encountering a stranger on a dark road at night feels dangerous. A big, beautiful world populated by real people who are interacting with each other and creating stories. And, of course, no zombies to worry about.

Free Roam dumps you somewhere in Red Dead Redemption 2's enormous, stunning-looking slice of the American West and leaves you to your own devices. You can hunt for elk in the snowy Grizzlies, enjoy a spot of fishing in the Dakota river, or hunt for bounties hiding out in the swampy Nwa bayou. There's a lot to do, alone or with friends, and all of it earns you experience points, gold, and cash to upgrade your character and horse, giving Red Dead Online the feel of a lightweight MMO. But what makes it thrilling is that, while you're doing this stuff, you'll regularly be bumping into other players.

Like DayZ, some folk will shoot on sight, or lasso you and drag you around behind their horse. But that's part of the Wild West experience, right? If there weren't people like this around, it wouldn't be very wild. Violence is always ready to explode in Red Dead Online, sometimes in the form of a mass shootout in a town, or perhaps a rowdy off-the-cuff bar fight that someone always has to spoil by pulling out a gun. I love walking into a saloon full of other players, throwing a punch, and watching the chaos erupt. I just wish there was an option to slide someone across the bar or swing on a chandelier.

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

In singleplayer, Red Dead's world feels wonderfully alive, with random events, the ability to interact with any NPC, and all manner of impressive reactivity. But in Red Dead Online the world doesn't just feel alive: it is alive. Everywhere you go you see players, and even if it's just someone riding their horse from one place to another, it's a spark of life that makes your surroundings feel so much more vibrant. And it's up to you if you want to escalate that interaction, either through violence or just saying hello, if you have a mic.

In one session I met a small hunting party up north in the Grizzlies and we sheltered from a blizzard by a campfire, brewing up coffee, cooking meat, and talking about our experiences with the game. It was a wonderful, human moment, and I love that it was completely unplanned. I just happened to stumble across these fellow wanderers while doing some hunting myself. Admittedly, most of my interactions in the game so far have been the violent sort, but that only makes these glimmers of humanity more special.

It's the same feeling I got in DayZ when I met a friendly player, which became increasingly rare as the game grew in popularity. When Red Dead Online was first released on console, it was rife with griefers, but over time Rockstar has tweaked a few things to make Free Roam a lot more enjoyable. If you stay out of trouble you can enable a defensive mode that makes you harder to kill, although initiating any kind of violence yourself will reset it. And you'll only appear on the radar when you're near another player, rather than being constantly visible on the map—unless you've been starting a lot of fights.

I've barely touched any of the competitive stuff in Red Dead Online. There are horses races, deathmatches, and even a pared-down battle royale mode of sorts. But honestly, all I want to do is roam aimlessly around that gorgeous, detailed world, bumping into people, getting into mischief, and soaking up the atmosphere. I played DayZ recently and, while it's in much better shape these days, the fact that the zombies now function properly (mostly, anyway) just gets in the way of those player interactions. So I'll be spending all my time in the Wild West from now on. Maybe I'll see you on the trail one day.

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story. He lives in Yorkshire and spends far too much time on Twitter.