Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
(Rockstar Games; US: 26 Oct 2010)
When Undead Nightmare was originally announced, I assumed that the game would begin with the resurrection of Red Dead Redemption protagonist, John Marston. Such a move would take some of the gravitas away from the original title, but it didn’t seem a bad way to extend the Red Dead universe through this particular character’s story.
Undead Nightmare does not in fact begin this way, instead deciding to offer a glimpse of Marston’s New Austin through a plot just slightly outside of the continuity of the original game. The player, for instance, will witness the death of Uncle for the second time near the beginning of the game in a whole new way. This “off continuity” follow up then begins somewhat close to what would be the conclusion of Red Dead Redemption‘s plotline with Marston living at home again with his wife, Abigail, and his son, Jack but before the games concluding episodes. It becomes a play on one of the dominant themes of the first game, the role of fathers as protectors in their family’s lives. As Abigail and Jack are transformed into the undead, Marston must once again absent himself for the sake of the family. In other words, to seek out a cure that will allow the family to become whole again (well, and to try to teach them to not eat brains).
If this thematic interest seems couched in more silly terms this time out, well, it is. Which is one of the points of Undead Nightmare and another way that it can be distinguished from the original title. While Rockstar has always been known for striking a less than serious tone towards its free roaming, open world format (allowing for satire of American social life), the original Red Dead Redemption was generally a lot more serious in tone than the Grand Theft Auto series or, say, Bully, which seem efforts to hyper-exaggerate American freedom and criminality or childhood and the social life of the school boy, respectively. Yes, Red Dead took knocks at the mythology of the American West and had some especially good bits satirizing academia (through the anthropology professor based in Blackwater) as well as American commerce in the form of Nigel West Dickens, but on the whole and especially in its rather tragic conclusions, it told a much more romantic tale of an American hero than Rockstar is usually willing to tell.
In a sense, Undead Nightmare is an antidote to this more sentimental Rockstar, as the game takes an immediate B-horror tone and generally attempts to sustain it as Marston finds himself embroiled in a series of gory and goofy misadventures on the way to attempting to make things right for Abigail and Jack. As far as this tone goes, it works best in the opening scenes, which feel especially like horror schlock. There are some really good lines in a scene in which Marston hog ties his now flesh craving family before setting out to get them cured. The game satirizes its own original moralism relating to family as Marston pleads for Abigail to “teach the boy” some good moral lessons, while also admonishing her to try to stop biting him.
The remaining plotline is more hit and miss in its sense of humor and overall interest. I really enjoyed the twisted and macabre scenes concerning the graverobbing Seth from the first game, but the climax is a bit ho hum and is much less involving than the original’s final chapters.
However, this is a game about zombies in the Wild West, so the chief interest is not necessarily in compelling storytelling and is more so in getting the player involved in battling the undead. Like in Red Dead Redemption, the wilderness is very much alive in Undead Nightmare with a thriving (in this case) undead ecosystem, full of undead boar and bear alongside the zombie hordes themselves. Also like the first game, there is an awful lot to do between missions as Marston is frequently ambushed by the undead in random encounters, asked to aid hapless survivors, or allowed to pursue his own interests through revised “Challenges” for the gunslinger that is now enmeshed in a supernatural landscape.
Because the game is focused on the relentless efforts of the undead to feed on human flesh, most of these activities concern killing—much less flower picking and hunting the fauna of New Austin is necessary. Instead, there is a whole lot of interest in perfecting headshots and burning zombies to ashes. Undead encounters are common in the countryside as are the need to purify towns of the undead threat. It is useful to do so, since freeing a town gives Marston a place to bed down and save and also creates a fast travel system as towns saved from undead attackers allow for point to point travel across the map.
Additional challenges like taming the Four Horses of the Apocalypse provide additional interest and some really cool new super natural steeds to provide for Marston’s transport. Horses with no stamina restrictions and that burn the undead on contact are especially useful as the undead are much more competent at unseating Marston from horse back, equalizing the playing field between the melee-centric attacks of the undead and the distanced gunplay that a Western should normally be focused on. The speed and size of groups make it hard for Marston to easily find safe spots to pick off zombies at a distance, and a melee element involving the use of a torch as a weapon, seeing Marston often on the ground, lighting up undead flesh, and then dashing off to a safe distance as the flames slowly eat away at still relentlessly attacking undead.
These changes to the kinds of attacks that opponents make in the game and the means that Marston has in dispatching foes makes for some taut and suspenseful gameplay at times that really matches the tone of zombie survival horror. Being overwhelmed is a common enough occurrence in the game and extricating Marston from sticky situations is the dominant allure of combat. Marston’s competence as a gunslinger in the first game is complicated by the new difficulties in fighting the undead. Incompetence in this case is good though, since feeling helpless and overwhelmed is more essential to the horror experience than the Western experience.
On the whole, this is a very solid bit of DLC for Red Dead Redemption well worth the price of admission for fans looking to get more out of New Austin. While Red Dead Redemption is certainly one of the “must play” games of 2010, its follow up lacks the weight of the drama and interest of the characters of the first game (many of which you’ll get the opportunity to kill in their new undead form in Undead Nightmare, which is a kind of fun way to provide “cameos” in this format). Nevertheless, there is good, unclean fun to be had in ridding the West of a zombie pestilence, and it is a pleasure to fill the boots of John Marston once again, who always seems more interesting when he is not at peace than when he is.