It’s three in the afternoon, and I’m pushing the lifeless body of a sedated alligator towards a swamp-ridden shore. My character’s stamina is about to run out, and then I’ll drown, and by the time I respawn, my scaly friend will be awake, ready to maul me for showing some compassion for his finite existence.
No, dear reader, I’m not having a fever dream. Instead, I’m playing Red Dead Online’s latest update, ‘The Naturalist’. After several months of silence, Rockstar Games has finally answered the community’s call for more content with a Frontier Pursuit. This time around they’ve decided to integrate the multiplayer’s hunting mechanics into a new Role – much like the Trader, Bounty Hunter, Collector and Moonshiner jobs players have been digging into over the past year.
Roles are optional classes that Red Dead Online players can level up in order to specialise in the game’s entrepreneurial virtual society. The game’s latest role lets you become a Naturalist. Instead of killing game for sport, you can choose to be an eco-warrior, a protector of the natural world that seeks to learn from and nurture the Old West wildlife. This brings me back to the lifeless husk of an American Alligator that I’m pushing through the Lemoyne swamp.
I’ve filled it full of Varmint Rifle Sedative Rounds, perhaps the most meaningful mechanical introduction of the Naturalist update. These rounds let players put animals to sleep, so they can acquire samples from them before they wake up. You can also revive them if your conscience isn’t clear, using another new and costly item, but I’m not sure why you would, for efficiency’s sake.
Level up the Naturalist role enough and you’ll also be able to mercy kill wounded animals… but the only wounded animals I come across are the ones I shoot by mistake. So if you mess up and trample a Coyote, at least they can go in peace, I guess?
The issue here is that when you shoot animals with anything, they tend not to like it, I’ve found. So even if I was firing blanks, the alligator I was hunting for “research” has scarpered into the middle of the swampy deep, before succumbing to tranquilization.
For all of Red Dead Online’s realism, you can’t draw a sample from an animal if they’re swimming, so you have to push them inland to finish the ordeal. By the time we get there, I’m wondering whether it would have been better to just hit the poor thing in the face with both barrels of the Elephant Rifle, the cannon-like weapon for eco-terrorists that is the ultimate chaser to the Naturalist update’s nature-friendly spirit.
It would definitely be less drawn-out, and probably more pleasant for this unfortunate alligator. This ongoing debate that I’m sharing with you is the crux of the Naturalist update’s narrative ambitions. Before you’re allowed to start sedating the animal kingdom in the name of science, you’ll be introduced to Harriet Davenport and Gus MacMillan.
Davenport is a devoted friend to all animals and the herald of the Naturalist role, who recruits you to trade in your samples for experience, new tonics, role-related abilities and moral brownie points. She is Red Dead Online’s Professor Oak, and she’s giving you a Pokédex and trusting you not to indulge in your most carnal instincts.
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Gus MacMillan is an enterprising individual with a coiffed moustache who couldn’t care less about this empathetic endeavour. He wants you to skip the sampling and kill all of the animals so he can reward you with cold hard cash. You don’t get to feel like an asset to society, but you will get a funny hat made out of a hollowed-out badger carcass. Sometimes, that’s all you need!
MacMillan’s offer starts to look very enticing after you’ve spent hours shooting an absurd amount of sedative rounds into uninterested, often-angry animals, completing the same animation over and over before chasing after the sleepy subject and bringing home the scientific bacon.
I can see what Rockstar is doing here – it’s certainly more effort to be a good person. Hell, if you kill too many animals, Harriet will stop working with you. But when the gameplay behind “being nice” isn’t all that fun or rewarding in practice, being a Naturalist feels like quite the contradiction, especially in a ruthless open-world game where the best posse’s thrive through sabotage and cold-blooded murder.
Preparing your kit and adventuring into the wilderness to pick up perfect pelts constitutes some of the most meditative gameplay in Red Dead Redemption 2, but the Naturalist update turns it into a repetitive bore that removes a lot of the thrill.
The Naturalist update is certainly more content, but it feels like Rockstar is falling into a groove that enables sedition in its community. The 2019 Frontier Pursuits update that first brought Roles to the game felt like an exciting overhaul of Red Dead Online’s boring base, but I’m now hoping that there’s some overarching plan that goes beyond these formulaic Role updates.
They certainly introduce useful options for specialisation and afford players more agency – but what’s the point of specialisation if everyone can be good at everything? On a more pleasant note, much like the mini-campaign that accompanied Moonshine, this update’s Legendary Animal expeditions are excellent and they really stick out – these soft-scripted adventures offer exciting gameplay vignettes that push all the right buttons.
Fundamentally, the Naturalist update doesn’t address the frightening vacancy at Red Dead Online’s existential core: a crater that eventually needs to be filled with something meaningful to keep players coming back. The main response I’ve seen from players so far is “is this it?” – committed players will most likely wrap up this role’s content in the coming weeks, and the waiting game will begin anew, with an even more fervent fan base specialised in every role, waiting for something more.
The reason people keep playing GTA Online’s Heists is because there is a level of responsibility behind the gameplay. If you mess up, you lose your hard-earned cash that you put up as a stake.When you’re assigned a role like a driver or a hacker, you feel like you’re impacting the world, and contributing to the multiplayer narrative in a meaningful fashion. You have to communicate to thrive, and if you mess up, on your head be it! That creates adrenaline and as a consequence, great gameplay.
All of the roles in Red Dead Online still feel very introverted. That would be fine if they led to something greater, but this process of adding more and more jobs to do is not very useful for a community that is begging to come together and put their newfound skills to use in a more focused fashion.
These cowpokes have chosen their specialisations, and now they need a way to combine their skills in order to feel like they were worth grinding for. But unfortunately, Red Dead Online is still a jack of all trades, and a master of none.