Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare Pack review
As Good as DLC Gets
Gamers are a fickle breed when it comes to sequels or follow-ups, especially when the original title was successful. In those relatively rare cases where a series has arisen and survived, its longevity is testament to either the developers’ creativity or else sheer consumer loyalty. Naturally developers want to stay true to the core mechanics or characteristics that brought them acclaim, but at the same time improvement is expected. Thus most sequels end up just having improved graphics or sound and a slight tweak here and there which initially seem great, but ultimately fail to hide that it’s little more than a complete rehash of the first.
Kudos, then, to Rockstar for having the audacity to follow-up the 2010 game of the year with Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare. The greatest compliment I can pay to it is to say that it’s a worthy addition to the original, which is one of the all-time greats. While the main appeal of its predecessor was its stunningly realistic take on the decaying Wild West, Undead Nightmare throws the user into a bizarrely surreal sidestory. Set in the middle of Red Dead Redemption, roguish cowboy John Marston awakes one night to find New Austin plagued by hordes of the undead. His wife and son quickly succumbing, it’s up to John to explore a world overrun with the supernatural, searching for explanations and a cure for the family he loves. Spaghetti Western meets zombie apocalypse? You heard me right.
As an extension of Red Dead Redemption, it makes little sense to discuss at length what the two have in common. Those who’ve played the original will already know pretty much what to expect in terms of gameplay. Third-person perspective, a slew of guns and other weapons variously suited to killing and carnage, quests and NPCs populating an open world that feels alive: it’s like Grand Theft Auto on horseback. With a massive landscape spanning a fictitious southern state of America and northern Mexico, exploration is almost as enjoyable as the quests themselves. Holster your six-shooter, climb into a saddle, and just lose yourself in the most effective realisation of the Wild West in video gaming history.
The whole environment has been designed to produce that surreal, nightmarish feel
As you’d hope from a zombie apocalypse, however, there are also several major points-of-difference. Ammunition’s much more scarce in Undead Nightmare due to the absence of shopkeepers and pedestrians to rob blind. Instead of dropping money, dead zombies will occasionally drop bullets, thereby fuelling a perpetual killing spree. It therefore leans towards survival horror, but never quite makes it. All horror buffs know that the only way to kill a zombie is by shooting them in the head. Actually, this isn’t quite true in Undead Nightmare; you can use a flaming brand to set them on fire too, but as you’d expect it’s not nearly as effective, especially in the middle of an enormous mob. Unsurprisingly zombies don’t carry guns either, so it’s tactics rather than core gameplay that shifts. It’s about playing keep-away, sprinting through the towns looking for a crate of ammunition or a roof to climb on to, and using your ‘dead-eye’ (bullet-time slow motion) to get as many headshots as possible. Still, unless you’re playing on the higher difficulty and a terrible shot to boot, you won’t find ammunition to be as big a problem as it could have been. Combine that with unlimited sprint and a maxed-out dead-eye meter from the word ‘go’, with a little vigilance combat rarely becomes challenging.
That’s fine – so it’s an action game rather than survival horror. Come to grips with that and there’s very little to complain about. Remember that nostalgia you felt when you went back to Kanto in Pokémon Gold and got to see what had happened to all your favourite towns and people? So long as you’ve played Red Dead Redemption, there’s a similar sense when you see how the world you spent so long interacting with has dealt with the zombie apocalypse. You get the highs of seeing your most hated characters torn apart, and the lows of watching your favourite locations burn to the ground. Aside from one or two irks and quirks (like drowning if you enter deep water on horseback) it’s almost completely intuitive (particularly the controls) and thoroughly satisfying.
So many assholes, never enough bullets. Sometimes flight beats fight
Two major elements will make or break the game for you. Virtually every town from the original comes under attack from mobs of zombies periodically and it will be up to you to save them. It’s much like the ‘ganglands’ in San Andreas; the first time you enter a town you’ll want to aid the survivors in fighting off the latest wave. This is achieved by searching out survivors who are usually camped on the roof of whatever building they can find. You provide ammunition to them either from your own pocket or from chests scattered throughout that town. Once each survivor is supplied, you help them to clean up whatever’s left. After saving a town temporarily, you can sleep there, allowing you to save or fast travel to any other safe location. Zombies only come in a handful of varieties but all the basics are covered – the slow lumberers, the poisonous goo spitters, the surprisingly fast dashers that make you shit your pants in panic. It’s genuinely fun to maraud through a town, plugging away at them from the rooftops or dashing your way through their ranks. Of course this assumes that you’re willing to help out in the first place, and frankly when a message comes up on-screen telling you that a town half a state away has just come under attack it’s often difficult to care too much, especially when you’re in the middle of a quest or heading in precisely the opposite direction. Still, it’s entertaining where you can be bothered.
‘Cemetery clearing’ is a more interesting addition. Early on you’ll receive a quest from an old friend suggesting that the solution to the zombie plague might lie in burning the cemeteries scattered throughout the countryside. Your task is to burn all the coffins, which prompts the entire graveyard’s ‘residents’ to come bursting through the ground to welcome you, and then you proceed to systematically waste the lot of them. It becomes something of a shooting gallery where you cautiously walk through the seemingly deserted cemetery, rifle drawn, pivoting on your heel while enemies come at you from every direction. You even get a ‘boss’ – although this is usually just a zombie with a backstory which affords nothing but more motivation to kill it. They aren’t any more or less difficult to kill than any other zombie, which is maybe a little disappointing, but it’s easy enough to forgive.
Other changes are much more subtle. Undead Nightmare’s real strength is its atmosphere which it achieves both of its own accord and through acting as a superb foil for the original. The environment is an obvious one: the first time you ride to Blackwater you’ll see an eerie green moon prominent in the night sky. Then there’s the realisation that zombies aren’t the only supernatural creatures which have begun to inhabit the West (the four horses of the apocalypse are a personal favourite). The soundtrack comprises of similar music to the original, but either more threadbare in its composition or with darker undertones. And of course walking into a town will no longer be met with the hustle and bustle of daily Western life, but the firing of gunshots and the snarls of the apocalypse’s victims. The sound effects aren’t brilliant if that sort of thing matters to you, but it doesn’t detract from the game much as it might for an out-an-out survival horror. Ultimately, actual changes mix with your imagination to provide a feeling of complete and utter desolation. ‘Nightmare’ is the perfect word for it; it’s like what Majora’s Mask would have been to Ocarina of Time if they’d both been set in Hyrule. Because you know how the world’s supposed to be, you can’t shake the feeling that it’s just one massive, terrible dream from which you can’t wake. So few zombie games are open world to the same extent. Usually it’s just a house, or a city, overrun with undead. In Undead Nightmare you can go wherever you want whenever you want in a map spanning two states, and there are zombies everywhere you go. It makes it feel that much more like a total apocalypse than just a single, isolated event. You don’t need to be told what’s happening outside your town in the rest of the world – you can go and witness it for yourself. There’s nothing quite like riding through the desert with pockets of zombies here and there trying to desaddle you and recruit you into their unholy ranks. Stop in the middle of the forest or mountain wilderness and you’ll genuinely feel like the last (living) person on Earth. It’d be breathtaking if it weren’t so goddamned horrible.
Thousands of them and only one of you. Lonely yet?
If I were to be pedantic, the ‘sidequests’ (challenges) don’t hold nearly the same appeal compared with the original for two reasons: (a) they’re not that much different from those in the original in terms of what they require and (b) considering the imminent danger at virtually every turn you don’t have nearly the same urge to go exploring for ingredients or animals to hunt. The atmosphere actually works against the game in this respect – you’re supposed to feel dread and imminent danger while you’re striving to save your family, the world, etc. – so why the hell would you take a detour to go hunting? Still, to each their own. It’s there for those who enjoy that sort of thing, fleshing out the replay value for completionists. Besides, it’s optional. Enjoyment doesn’t depend on it by any means.
In years to come, the original Red Dead Redemption will appear in textbooks on how to tell a story in a video game. Undead Nightmare continues its legacy. As you’d expect in a tale of survival against all odds, there are some genuinely moving moments. Sometimes descriptions are worse than seeing it for yourself. Over a decade of zombie slaying might desensitise you to a bit of blood and guts, but hearing a tearful woman describe her parents biting each other’s face off is always an exercise in humility. Profound treatment of deep themes such as racism, atonement and (duh) life and death is offset by camp humour and outrageous situations. And what’s more, the story works on multiple levels. The height of artistic genius is ambiguity, and it’s up to the gamer to decide whether Undead Nightmare is a genuine addition to Red Dead Redemption’s canon or a metaphorical exploration of John’s psyche. You’ll end up with a preference for one or the other, but it works splendidly on both accounts.
In fact, there’s only one real criticism you can make of Undead Nightmare, but unfortunately it’s a big one – as much as it tries to be, it just isn’t a game in its own right. You wouldn’t dare call it a sequel, since the engine, the setting, the map, the characters, the controls, the gameplay – pretty much everything – has been 100% recycled from the original. I haven’t gone into so many of the game’s strengths and weaknesses because they’re pretty much identical to what I’d write for Red Dead Redemption. Yes, the storyline’s different, yes, they’ve played around with the music and landscape a little, and no, I don’t remember the first having zombies in it either, but the fact is that if you haven’t played the original, you’re going to get much, much less out of this one.
There are more than just zombies waiting in them thar hills.
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t some of the best DLC that’s ever been released, because it is. But that’s all it is. And yet Rockstar had the cheek to market it and sell it as a standalone product. I do know of people who’ve bought Undead Nightmare having never played the original, and I just have to wonder how much enjoyment they get out of it. It’s certainly playable, but a large portion of characters are thrown back into the fold without a second introduction. Most character-related references or jokes would be completely lost on you since you have no idea who these people are. What do you care who lives and dies? What attachment do you have to John’s family, what motivation to try and save them? You don’t get any nostalgia, no feeling for how the zombie apocalypse has changed the world, because you don’t know what it was like beforehand. It’d be like walking into a cinema in the middle of a movie and playing catch-up to those who were there for the orientation. The dream-like atmosphere and metaphorical allusions are hard enough to follow at times as it is, nevermind if you’re still trying to piece together the basics of who and what everything is. Ultimately you’d be forgiven for just skipping the cutscenes and getting back into the action – which is an absolute travesty since, like its predecessor, Undead Nightmare is an absolute paragon for storytelling in gaming. What’s more, it blatantly assumes you’ll play the two in order – if you don’t, not only will you miss the experience as it’s intended, but the most brilliant qualities will be forever lost to you. It’s like being told what Rosebud means before watching Citizen Kane. It’s still fun, it’s still interesting and novel, it still borders on genius, but its heart is just... missing.
Conclusion: I love creativity and the balls to try something new, especially when it comes from large and successful developers. Undead Nightmare is one of the gutsier projects of recent years, with a bizarre blending of genres which rewards the gamer for their blind faith. Rockstar could have kept it as DLC and revelled in their genius, but no, their greediness compelled them to milk it for every dollar it was worth. I’m sure they’re laughing all the way to the bank as a result, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to take it into account. Some of the best DLC money can buy; a solid but flawed game in its own right. Definitely grab it if you’ve played the first, but I’m hesitant to recommend it otherwise.
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