I’m kind of a purist, so the idea of starting with the really solid presentation of the Old West setting of Red Dead Redemption and throwing in zombies made me queasy. I didn’t see any way this could work out well in the end. I was convinced it would be terrible. Well, I’m apparently an idiot, because the zombie/Old West mash up Undead Nightmare actually works – and is a lot of fun.
Undead Nightmare takes place somewhat outside of the narrative arc of Red Dead Redemption. You are John Marston, and you wake up one stormy night to find that your family is being attacked by zombies – and being turned into them. Once more you strap on your guns, get on your horse, and ride off into the sunrise to set things right. It’s up to you to save your family – again – by finding a cure for the zombie plague and ridding the land of the undead scourge once and for all.
A great deal of why this zombification of Red Dead Redemption works so well is owing to the strength of the story itself and the first-rate acting and cinematics. From the first frame it’s clear the folks at Rockstar are as much fans of Horror films as they must have been of Westerns. Every aspect of Red Dead Redemption is tweaked just enough to shift the feel of the game into the Horror genre. From the lighting to the sound to the atmospherics, it just feels “right.” The fact the game is set in the Old West feels like a bonus rather than an anachronism.
Gameplay-wise, it’s also a win, with just enough tweaks in just the right amounts to sell this DLC as a first-rate survival horror experience. One of the ways Undead Nightmare turns its host game on its ear is by limiting your access to weapons and ammunition and by forcing you to become more proficient in their use. Gun shops are no longer open for business, so the only way you’ll get your hands on new weapons or extra ammo is buy finding them, or being rewarded for saving the various towns being overrun by zombies. But to save the towns, you need to expend ammo, or give it to them outright. This is a subtle shift in the gameplay dynamic, but it makes all the difference. In one stroke, Rockstar turned an open-world shooter into a survival horror game.
The zombies themselves help, of course. Anyone who knows anything about the undead know you have to shoot them in the head, and it’s no different in Undead Nightmare. You can shoot the zombies in the leg all day long, but they don’t go down for good until you put one in the brain. Even if you’re familiar with Red Dead Redemption, or even bored with it, this seemingly insignificant difficulty shift propels the game into a completely new arena. Combined with the scarcity of ammo, the need for precision shooting makes this feel like a radically different game and, in many ways, a better one.
At just under 10 hours, Undead Nightmare isn’t going to be much more than a weekend jaunt, but as is usual with Rockstar games, those 10 hours feel substantial. Every major character from the original game makes an appearance in Undead Nightmare, some faring better than others in this brave, new world. As usual, the writing and acting is top-notch, and while none of the art and artistry on display can keep the ending from feeling a little hokey, at some point you have to give in and admit that with a zombie-apocalypse/survival-horror/shooter/open-world/Western, things were bound to go off the rails at some point.
The good news is that even with the occasional hokiness, this is one of the most satisfying DLC expansions I’ve come across. In addition to the main story missions, most towns offer side missions which, combined with the inevitable ambient challenges (“Find the four horses of the Apocalypse,” for example) and unlockables (three new outfits, new weapons, etc.), will give fans of Red Dead Redemption (or ZASHSOWs in general) a good, if offbeat, second helping of the adventures of Mr. Marston. Plus, if you finish the game you can keep playing – as the newly risen-from-the-dead Zombie John Marston. Hells yeah.
Bottom Line: This DLC really has no business being as good as it is. With at least 18 different ways this could have driven itself off the cliff, it’s simply astonishing that it didn’t. Fans wanting more RDR will get a lot of joy out of it.
Recommendation: Well worth the money.
This overview is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Game: Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Release Date: October 26, 2010
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon – Xbox 360, Amazon – PS3