On the violent plains of the Old West, arguments often ended with a Mexican stand-off. You remember how these work: a group of angry men stand around in a loose circle, guns twitching in their hand. Everybody twists their face into their hardest scowl, then the bullets start to fly. In most cases, pretty much everyone dies – perhaps leaving a lone survivor to rob the bleeding corpses.
In actual fact, I have no idea whether these violent confrontations really did take place. I'm no historian, and my only frame of reference for this era is the work of Sergio Leone, John Ford, and all the other big-name cowboy film-makers. In other words, I know the fantasy but not the reality. As luck would have it, that's not a problem – because Red Dead Redemption is a game that clearly loves all this iconography. Around here, Mexican stand-offs happen all the time. In fact, they take place at the start of each and every competitive multiplayer match. At the start of a round, all the players are arranged in a ring, facing each other. A brief on-screen prompt suggests a rival to take with you to the grave, but as soon as things kick off you're free to target anyone you like.
As years of cinema have trained us to expect, most stand-offs are resolved in a matter of seconds: everyone opens fire, and most of the participants are decimated in a heartbeat. If you're of a cowardly (read: sensible) persuasion, you can try running away like Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs; doing this can enable you to pick off the rest of the survivors from a distance, but I suspect it'll also lead to you getting singled out for retribution at the start of the next round. At any rate, it's a bit of a wimpy tactic. You're supposed to be a hard-boiled high plains drifter, after all.
This initial stand-off ensures that every multiplayer match starts with an outburst of frenzied violence. As soon as the pack has been whittled down to a lone survivor, the match begins in earnest; at this point the pace and tone of the action changes considerably. Rockstar has shown off four competitive match-types so far, but in all of them there's a surprising emphasis on tact and stealth. It only takes two or three bullets to kill a man, perhaps just one if you score a headshot, and as a result you have to play very carefully if you want to stay alive for any length of time.
The first straight competitive match I tried at last week's demo was a straight-up free-for-all deathmatch in the Mexican market town of Chuparosa. Each player has an on-screen map of the surrounding area, but other gunslingers will only show up if they run or fire their weapons. As a result matches tend to carry long periods of tense quiet that are suddenly shattered by loud outbursts. There's an interesting risk-reward dynamic at play here. If you're moving slowly then you represent an easy target for anyone who might have you in their sights, but if you run everyone will see and hear you coming.
Weapon choice has a significant impact too. Shotguns are devastating at close range, but their slow rate of fire means you're largely shafted if you miss. Pistols offer a more flexible alternative, since they're still effective at medium range and allow for several shots in a row – but they're not that powerful. Personally, I found I had the most success with rifles, which seems to work best from a high vantage point. Almost all of Chuperosa's whitewashed buildings could be entered to gain access to the roof, while others like the battered church could only be climbed with a bit of exploratory clambering. Rifles remain fairly accurate even at long distance, particularly if you're using one with a grubby, dirt-flecked scope, and it's not uncommon to find yourself trading bullets with a foe on the other side of town – waiting for a distant head to rise out of cover. Of course, if you get too preoccupied with one enemy, there's every chance that someone else will flank you and put a hole in your unguarded back.
Fighters can carry one weapon in each of the main firearm classes at a time (including one scoped rifle and one regular variant), and alternative guns are stashed around the map in respawning crates. Green-tinged boxes allow you to replenish your Dead Eye – the bullet time-like system, triggered by clicking in the right stick, that is normally fuelled by successful kills. Unlike its single-player variant, there's no slow motion effect for multiplayer deadeye; instead you simply "paint" targets all over your chosen foe, then unleash them in an automatic burst by pulling the right trigger. As you'd expect Dead Eye can be highly effective if you have the drop on someone, but in head-on confrontations it's time-consuming and very risky. Headshots, by contrast, can be a real life saver (for you, rather than the person on the receiving end). If your opponent is locked on to you and is simply blasting away, it's possible to put them down with a single shot, before they can finish you off.