Ultimately, none of these tricks will be enough to save your sorry hide if you're fighting several people at once. In team deathmatch, or Gang Shootout as it's called here, you'll soon learn to appreciate the old maxim of "safety in numbers." A like-minded buddy can cover your back, help you to gun down a troublesome sniper, and just generally keep you alive for longer. As with the rest of Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer, it's quite easy to find yourself roleplaying in situations like these: you and your chum aren't just players 1 and 2, you're Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Pike Bishop and Dutch Engstrom, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Okay, perhaps not that last pair – but you get the idea.
A similar degree of "instant storytelling" can be found in Goldrush and Hold Your Own, two game types that revolve around stolen bags of gleaming metallic goodness. The first mode is another free-for-all-setup where players fight over a limited number of sacks dotted around the map. Once you've grabbed one or two bags (taking two slows you down), you show up on everyone's radar as a giant flashing "KILL ME!" sign. Alright, it doesn't actually say that, but it may as well do; to score a point you need to lug your wares to one of several cash-in points, resulting in the perfect opportunity for an ambush. There's something particularly evil about waiting until someone is mere steps away from their goal, blowing their head off with a shotgun, and then stealing the gold for yourself. Mark my words, friendships will be lost over this kind of thing.
Hold Your Own is essentially good old Capture the Flag, with two teams battling to grab a single bag from each other's base. Unlike the other match types, these contests are played out on sprawling open maps - or at least, the one in the demo last week was. "Diez Coronas" is a large canyon-like area with two sprinkling of buildings at either end, and a large rock formation in the middle. The increased scale of this map allows plenty of scope for zipping about on horseback, and there's also a cannon that can be used to rain explosive death right into the "goal" area. From what I've played it's also a lot more slowburn, requiring sharp teamwork to make a successful raid. In the event of a draw, the game becomes a sudden-death battle for survival. If you're the last person alive on your side, this is pretty scary – particularly if you're playing against a Rockstar representative who knows the map like the back of their hand.
As I've said, it's quite hard not to find yourself playing make-believe during these matches, especially when the EUPHORA physics engine makes something awesome happen – like a player going limp as they take a headshot while sliding into cover. However, if you're really in the mood to play cowboy alongside a few chums, your best bet may be Free Roam – a mode that exists both as a playable lobby, and as a fully-fledged experience in its own right. Each of the "proper" competitive maps is actually a fenced off part of RDR's open world, but in Free Roam you'll have the whole thing to explore. Up to 16 of you can be walking (or riding the plains) at once, and up to eight of you can band together to form a posse. One player is automatically assigned to be the leader of the posse, and he or she can mark out rallying points on the map, resulting in the same kind of radar guidance that you'd get in a single-player mission. There will also be some way to warp around the map, which is handy as it would take ages to get there otherwise.
The first time you enter Free Roam, the immediate temptation is to find your mate and to decapitate him, his horse, or ideally both. Once you've finished messing around you'll find that there's a huge amount to do: challenges to take up, gang hideouts to raid, and plenty of random NPCs and wildlife to molest. Every action you take earns you XP, which in turn affects your default weapon loadout and horse. During my demo I was stuck riding a donkey that made a dreadful racket and bucked me off every time I tried to make him gallop for too long, and yet somehow I grew quite attached to the long-eared bugger. When he was unexpectedly decimated by a sudden TNT explosion, I was quite mortified… until he respawned a few moments later.
I get a sense with Red Dead Redemption that no matter how long I spend writing about it, there are always a hundred things that I've barely touched upon. This is a massive, massive game, and I suspect that messing around in Free Roam will be just one of the many highlights of what the full game has to offer. In some ways, the Western setting feels more suited to this kind of multiplayer hi-jinx, because rather than a dense city, there's loads of room to gallop about, to snipe at each other and to generally act like a homicidal fool in a Stetson. It's true to an extent that Red Dead Redemption will be a tougher sell as far as the public are concerned, simply due to the fact that gangsters will always be more popular than cowboys, but there's no doubt that this is going to match if not exceed the scale of GTA 4. We've had a generous swathe of heavyweight titles in 2010, but Red Dead Redemption has the potential to be one of the definitive gaming experiences of the year. May 21 can't come soon enough.
Red Dead Redemption will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 on May 21st.