By Stewart Sutherland
When it comes to zombies, I just can’t stomach them. The look, the sound, the sheer terror they invoke: dealing with them is something I’ll avoid whenever possible. So why am I reviewing a piece of downloadable content where the world of Red Dead Redemption goes to hell? It’s just too good not to. Here is a massive piece of content where the old west is now plagued with shambling undead. Chief protagonist John Marston is back, taking up his guns once more. And it’s so enjoyable I can’t stop playing. Warning: there will be minor spoilers in this review.
Undead Nightmare is an alternate, apocalypse-styled ending to the original game, set during the few months where John Marston has found peace in his life, having brought his old outlaw gang to justice and been allowed to return home to his wife and son. While the story of Undead Nightmare fits nicely within this time frame, it doesn’t fit perfectly and it should be noted here and now that it’s not a part of Red Dead Redemption’s canon story.
As John Marston arrives home one night during a thick storm, his son Jack worries about old Uncle. Abigail mentions that he’s probably holed up in a cat house and tells her son not to worry. Later that night, John and Abigail are both awakened to Uncle standing in their room – eyes red and growling like a rabid beast. As the old man groans and claws at them, John pushes him off and bolts outside with his wife in tow.
Eventually, Marston has no choice but to put the old man out of his misery – but not before he bites and infects Abigail, who quickly does the same to her son when he tries to help her off the ground. Thinking quickly, John hogties both Abigail and Jack and leaves them in the barricaded house as he rides in to Blackwater for a doctor (for what he hopes is only a fever).
“Jack, be kind to your mother. Abigail, teach the boy right from wrong. And both of you, stop biting chunks out of people! Be back as soon as I can.”
John Marston advises his undead family
It’s the next scene that makes Undead Nightmare such good, nostalgic fun to play. For anyone who’s finished the original game, seeing John Marston don his bounty hunter clothes and mount up again is just plain satisfying. From here you can’t help but appreciate just how massive this is for a DLC pack. Undead Nightmare gives the entire world a horror-themed coat of paint. The map is a sickly green colour, with water showing blood red. Strangers are now survivors, and throughout the world zombies (both human and animal) have replaced the regular dangers of New Austin.
New mythical creatures roam the plains, waiting to be broken. Even with characters like Bonnie Macfarlane calling the plague the apocalypse, it’s still a shock to come across one of the four horses in the wild. War, Famine, Pestilence and Death are monstrous animals each in a class of their own. War is flame red, setting any zombies it strikes on fire, while Death is a pale steed that instantly kills any enemy it touches. Rare and wild, seeing them cantering about the barren fields with graves opening is intimidating all on its own. But if Marston is able to lasso and break one, he’ll have more than a horse that never tires…
Towns and settlements are now flaming battlements where survivors try to keep the undead hoard at bay. Old characters like Bonnie Macfarlane and Landon Ricketts make appearances, both showing their unique ways of dealing with the world going to hell. And it’s here that the full value is shown. The sheer amount of missions and story they’ve packed into Undead Nightmare makes its download cost seem trivial.
With Uncle’s untimely passing, you can see why Red Dead’s zombie outbreak doesn’t fit quite so neatly with the main story. Some characters live where they shouldn’t, while many others find themselves becoming zombie food when they’re alive and well at the end of the main game. They’re minor characters at most – strangers that John had helped through his quest for redemption, and make for more interesting experiences than just random NPC’s would.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re playing cards. Relax. Sit down.”
“I mean with the undead walking the face of the earth, you crazy dumb bastard.”
“That ain’t nothing.”
John reunites with Seth
Most of these characters are what gives Undead Nightmare some of its more chilling moments – random zombies found in the world are minor threats, whereas the newly turned story characters actually look like they know and remember John. Many even pause and growl with blood red eyes, sizing Marston up for a moment instead of just lurching forward. It’s the brief look of recognition before they try and devour you that’s terrifying.
As you might expect, having the dead rise up to devour the living has an affect in the wild west, and I’m not just talking about the outlandish new types of campfire strangers you’ll meet. The first major change is safety. John will have to help a town’s survivors clear out the undead hoard before he’ll be able to sleep safely there, and it’s always a temporary rest at most. The next big change is the rewards you’ll earn for cleansing settlements. Cash is completely fazed out of Undead Nightmare – a more valuable and limited resource is ammunition.
A new melee weapon Marston picks up is the torch – a flaming, heavy club for cleansing the graveyards of New Austin. With the regular knife now defunct, three heavy blows with the torch will burn any undead away. With no ammo it’s immensely useful, but only if you keep an eye out to make sure you’re not quickly swarmed with enemies.
Saving random victims in the wild will earn Marston a few bullets or shells – the new pocket change. Ammo is extremely rare at first, and you’ll want to save as much of it as you possibly can for clearing out the graveyards. Bullet’s are twice as valuable when you learn just how tough zombies are. No matter how much you abuse them, the only fast, true way to put one down is a shot to the head. Unless you’re dropping dynamite (or wielding the devastating antique Blunderbuss rifle) everything else will just slow it down. When you’re surrounded, and you will be, climb up to high ground and take careful aim as much as possible. The cover system is now redundant.
A song cut exclusively for the DLC, “Bad Voodoo” by The Kreeps, plays automatically when John mounts his horse and starts galloping towards the final mission. It’s a very atmospheric song with just the right amount of spooky flavour and apt lyrics to make Marston’s final ride to confront the plague seem like the hero’s last stand in a B movie. By the time you reach this sequence, the sheer mass of guttural, undead snarling roars should have convinced you that Rockstar took their time to make their final Red Dead Redemption DLC a winner.
It’s nice that Red Dead Redemption’s final DLC pack focuses on the single player storyline, where every pack before it simply added multiplayer options to an already pretty big list. As it happens, Undead Nightmare does throw a few more pennies in the fountain – players can hold their ground and fight off waves of zombies in co-op mode, or simply stalk free roam as a newly added undead character. (Rigamortis-like movements optional!)
As far as the end of the story goes, I don’t want to spoil anything for people yet to play this awesome piece of Red Dead Redemption. Suffice to say, the story demands that John Marston lifts the zombie curse and saves his family. Player’s who absolutely love zombies and want to ride around an infected New Austin will want to keep doing so even after finishing this mission. No matter how soon you rush off to put things right, you’ll still be able to ride off into the undead masses, rescuing survivors and putting a lot of creatures to rest. One way or the other.
8 OUT OF 10
All images ©2010 Rockstar Games. All rights reserved.