Version tested: Xbox 360
It's a testament to Rockstar's confident design work that they've been able to drop zombies, that most played-out and over-exposed cultural meme, into their epic western landscape without the end result feeling like a silly distraction or gimmicky Halloween mash-up.
This is, to all intents and purposes, a sequel, albeit one that takes place in a twisted alternate timeline where John Marston returned home to his family just as the dead rose from their graves. Where other developers approach downloadable content with a weary, obligated mindset that asks "Is that enough yet?", Rockstar throws itself into the process with an enthusiasm that asks "What else can we add?"
This, then, is an entirely new single-player campaign garnished with a couple of multiplayer extras, some new Achievements or Trophies for your OCD needs, and a bunch of fun new weapons and features. And while everyone else seems to be creeping up to the 1200 Microsoft Points barrier and tiptoeing beyond, this all comes with a remarkably reasonable 800 Point price tag (£7.99 / €9.99 on PSN).
Right from the start, it's clear this was never intended to be a quick zombie-themed reskin. As with GTAIV, five months on from the release of the original game the Red Dead Redemption experience has been refreshed, relaunched and reinvigorated by a robust, polished spin-off storyline, complete with lengthy cut-scenes and full voice acting from all the major characters and most of the supporting cast, too. Even the little dialogue asides that trigger as you ride past have been updated to better reflect the Gothic malaise now afflicting the frontier.
The thrust of the story is that John Marston must discover what has caused the undead plague and find a cure for his infected wife and son. As always, this seemingly urgent mission is easily postponed as you help out random strangers, undertake ambient challenges and reconnect with old friends through a scattering of optional side-quests.
Save points are in the same places as before, but now must be kept free of zombie infestation if you're to use them. Once you've helped the survivors of places like Thieves Landing and Blackwater fight back an incursion, it'll remain as a safe haven for a few in-game days at least. With over 20 such save points to manage, there's a danger that too much time is spent rattling between old locations for no good reason, but it never becomes distracting and it brings a welcome hint of Dead Rising's panicked time management into play.
Rockstar's mission design is starting to look a little threadbare these days – there's a lot of fetch-questing and shuttling between waypoints to trigger cut-scenes – but the addition of the undead changes the game world so completely that it's easy to forgive the familiarity of some of the overarching scenarios.
The undead also, sadly, make the less elegant features of the game's combat engine rather more noticeable. Red Dead Redemption was, as far as action goes, very much a cover-based shooter. Cover is useless when hordes of slobbering zombies are lunging towards you, so you'll spend more time back-pedalling, using Dead Eye pretty much constantly to ensure a steady stream of instant-death headshots. This makes it easy to get tangled up in scenery, lodged in doorways or just stymied by a pile of corpses that wrap around your feet like so much fleshy spaghetti.
Thankfully, the ghouls are not the sharpest tools in the shed and can be outsmarted by finding a convenient rooftop vantage point from which to pick them off. This, of course, can also leave you stranded as more and more of the bastards come moaning out of the wilderness to see what the fuss is about.
The game's internal economy has been stripped down to its bare essentials. "Worth more than gold" mutters John as he uncovers another chest of ammo, but it's not as sparse as you might think. Provided you're prudent with your shots, and keep fulfilling challenges and optional objectives, you quickly amass not only ample ammunition but also a seriously powerful arsenal as well. This is just as well, since you don't get to inherit any of the goodies you earned in the main game.
It's a shame Undead Nightmare never really demands that you make full use of this array of weaponry, though. Since one headshot from any gun will put the undead down permanently, it doesn't really matter what weapon you use. Crowd control is the only situation where you'll be thankful for the new blunderbuss, which fires harvested zombie parts into an explosive blast, but for the most part your firearms are interchangeable.
The same is true of the undead wildlife. I was pretty much cacking myself at the prospect of facing zombie bears and cougars, but like their undead human kin, they keel over with one bullet in the head from any gun. My reaction to this discovery fell somewhere between abject relief and slight disappointment.
It's also hard not to feel a little disappointed at how often the game looks to Left 4 Dead for inspiration, with a trio of special zombie types that mirror the established patterns and threats of Boomers, Hunters and Jockeys. There's even a backup item which serves to attract your shambling foes into one spot, Boomer Bile style. For a pioneering developer with such a distinctive voice, it's a little weird to see Rockstar so openly taking obvious inspiration from their peers.
Mostly, however, Red Dead Redemption's elegiac tone knits incredibly well with the arch Gothic horror. This was always an apocalyptic game in many ways, concerned with the metaphorical end of the world for grizzled old gunslingers like Marston as gentrification crept into the west. Flipping that scenario upside down in favour of the literal end of civilisation proves a surprisingly satisfying continuation of the original game's melancholy themes.
Undead Nightmare also strikes an appealing balance between sardonic silliness and honest pathos, held together by Marston's taciturn demeanour and a script that really understands the soul of its characters. Few game characters could have a conversation with a Sasquatch and manage to turn an inherently ridiculous scene into something rather sad and poignant. If nothing else, Undead Nightmare certainly proves that Marston is one of gaming's great characters, a fully-formed creation who is nonetheless flexible enough to reflect the player's own intentions, able to express genuine performance through a shift in posture or the twitch of an eyebrow. It's a genuine pleasure to spend another five or six hours in his company.
As for the other additions, the Undead Overrun game mode is a straightforward survival scenario, pitting four players against wave after wave of zombie enemies. A coffin offers new weapons and power-ups with each wave, but the game's slightly clumsy control is more problematic here than in the single-player mode. There's also Land Grab, a King of the Hill offering which – in a nice twist – can be played by people who haven't downloaded Undead Nightmare, provided the game is hosted by someone who has made the purchase.
This is, frankly, how DLC should be done. Persistent and minor issues with the game engine aside, Undead Nightmare offers a generous amount of polished AAA-grade new material and finally gives fans of the single-player game a compelling reason to dust off their spurs and head back to the ranch.
8 / 10