You Got Zombies in My Western!
HIGH Seeing your favorite characters react to the zombie apocalypse is pretty interesting.
LOW Clearing out another graveyard or saving yet another town...
WTF The zombie hoe-down. 'Nuff said.
One of the newest trends sweeping across various entertainment mediums is to take a title that has nothing to do with horror and add zombies to it. I guess the reasoning is that zombies make everything better—and once upon a time, I'd have agreed. Over the course of the past decade, though, the zombie has become like the vampire in the '90s—completely overexposed. That hasn't stopped writers from adding them to updated classics like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or game developers slapping them into Call of Duty. Hell, even filmmakers have given us things like romantic zombie comedies.
A downloadable expansion for Rockstar's open world western Red Dead Redemption, Undead Nightmare exists as a "what if?" story executed near the end of the main game. It's a sidestory and not canon in the greater Red Dead mythology, but it does make for a mildly entertaining diversion.
As the game opens, John Marsten has completed his government-sponsored quest for vengeance and is back home with his wife and son. Things seem pretty normal until zombies turn up everywhere. When his wife and kid are infected, it's up to Marsten to traverse the wild west looking for a cure. Finding the cure will take roughly ten hours and lead John on a trek to familiar locations while reuniting him with characters from the original game—some of them changed for the worse. Since Red Dead Redemption has turned up on many "best of 2010" lists, this would seem like a good thing. Unfortunately, the execution doesn't quite work.
The gameplay itself is an odd amalgamation of ideas. Since the land has been overrun by zombies, Marsten can't buy ammo or supplies anywhere. That makes sense when the entire map is under siege. However, as the player saves towns and seemingly re-establishes trade routes, shouldn't that mean that supplies can move again? In theory, yes—but having an abundance of ammo is something Rockstar seems opposed to. Early on, the game is frustrating because ammo is scarce enough that it makes more sense to kill the zombies with Marsten's torch. The only problem is (as anyone who played Red Dead knows) the game's melee combat system isn't a particularly good one.
Later on, ammo becomes slightly more abundant as players remove it from chests and pick it off the corpses of the dead. Once the first few missions are completed, players can essentially fire at will. I never once ran completely out of bullets or even came close.
Shooting the undead is far more fun than burning them alive (or would that be dead?), but since Rockstar has given us running, 28 Days Later-styled undead instead of the slower Romero zombies, even shooting them can be extremely challenging. Red Dead's aiming reticule just isn't fast enough for Marsten to pick off a group of rushing zombies reliably. Fortunately, the bullet time mechanic is back to alleviate some of the issues—the gauge even fills faster in this adventure, almost as if Rockstar was acknowledging that players would need it regularly if they intend to survive.
In terms of size, Rockstar deserves kudos for giving gamers such a lengthy downloadable experience. Undead Nightmare offers a lot of things to do and a lot of places to visit, but after the first hour or so, a feeling of repetition sets in. The game boils down to a series of quests sending Marsten to fetch this or burn that while avoiding/killing undead hordes roaming the countryside. The game works in a "capture the town" component that finds the outlaw saving local citizens from invading zombies, but even that becomes stale after the third time players do it. Red Dead Redemption had a lot of recurring mission types as well, but there was more variety. There are no duels in Undead Nightmare, world events aren't particularly original, and even the addition of rescue missions can't alleviate the game's ever present sense of "been there, done that."
However, not all of Undead Nightmare is a failure. The game works best when it's reuniting Marsten with familiar characters. It's nice to see our favorite necrophile, snake oil salesman, and other characters return. It's even more interesting to see how they react in this new world. The biggest missed opportunity once again involves elderly gunslinger Landon Ricketts—who returns for far too brief a stretch. I'd love to see a Red Dead prequel centered on how this character became such a legend. Alas, it's not to be found here.
Graphically, Undead Nightmare looks the same as the core game. It's still breathtaking to ride a horse (alive or undead...) across the countryside, while Marsten's hair still looks like a greasy, poorly animated mess. I guess you can't have everything. Zombie gore is quite impressive too—the game never skimps on blood and guts. The problem is that there aren't really many new locations in Undead Nightmare—which makes sense since it's an expansion, but is frustrating because the gameplay never does anything to trump the original.
Players shouldn't be completing missions thinking "oh man, I remember how awesome it was in Red Dead when I ambushed those guys at this bridge" while they're killing zombies at the same location. Sadly enough, that happens all too often. The only really unique and memorable mission in the game has Marsten hunting down the mythical Sasquatch. That quest line ends in an interesting and somewhat sad way—and it was the only time I really felt any kind of emotional response. This is a huge change from Red Dead—a game that constantly evoked feeling from me, particularly in its last act.
Those who can't get enough of Red Dead's wild west action or zombies might want to give Undead Nightmare a spin. There's a lot of game here for 800 Microsoft points, and while it's rarely as compelling as the main title, there's still some fun to be had in watching John Marsten shoot zombies in the head. Give Rockstar props for offering gamers a lot of bang for their buck, but let's hope future DLC content in this franchise stays grounded in reality.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 10 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 times) and 0 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language. Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare earns its mature rating in the first few minutes. Blood flies, violence is everywhere, and the zombies are gruesome enough to be frightening to younger children. Parents of teenagers probably shouldn't be overly concerned about the game's content, but if you have younger gamers you should steer them clear of this title.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: While dialogue can be subtitled in Undead Nightmare, part of the experience involves hearing people call out from the surrounding countryside in order to find them. Those with hearing impairments won't be able to find those events, making it difficult to get the full experience from this game.