Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare Pack Reader Review
Undead nightmare is the first and only major single-player expansion to 2010's smash hit Red Dead Redemption. Whilst I detailed my conflicting thoughts of considering such a game from a critical perspective in my previous review, it feels very much as though UD was created in response to criticisms that RDR took itself too seriously; that it was, shock horror, devoid of humour.
As may be somewhat obvious from the title, UD foregoes Red Dead Redemption's attempt at conveying authentic period atmosphere by diverting the end of the original game's narrative into an interpretation of the ever-popular theme of a Zombie Apocalypse. An increasingly used gaming device (one which, a cynic might suggest, is used to alleviate budgetary expenditure on the AI department), it is impossible to deny that the shambling remnants of the living-impaired have enjoyed something of a resurgence in popular culture during the last decade.
Without wishing to spoil to much of the base game for those that have yet to play it, Undead Nightmare sees John Marston return home to his family only to see the Wild West overcome, seemingly overnight, by a plague of the undead. Leaving his family hogtied (and warning them to look after each other), John ventures into the now-familiar expanses of RDR's world to seek out the cause and a cure for the mysterious plague.
It's an interesting proposition on paper - subverting the original game's focus on authenticity and attempting to answer criticisms of taking itself too seriously by supplanting it with a scenario that is something of a cause celebre in the current gaming climate. It feels as though this is Rockstar waving its hands and saying "hey! We can still have fun!", and there is an argument to be made that this is a bit of an elaborate joke.
Unfortunately, if it is a joke, then Rockstar have failed to understand the basics of comedy - the punchline. Whilst subverting the atmosphere of its critically acclaimed sandbox, Rockstar have failed to adress the increasingly widespread criticisms - that of pacing, variety and humour. From a narrative perspective, even though characters are confronted by horrors that would drive any man insane, they react no different than they did in the base game. They all seem oddly accepting of what is going on, as if a horde of the living dead rising up to invade the living is no more out of the usual than discovering your monthly Virgin bill is going to cost you a fiver more than you previously thought. As a result, the ludicrous premise falls flat. This isn't helped by the fact that an obvious attempt to change the aesthetic atmosphere - via a sickly yellow tint to the graphics - made me reach for the remote to adjust my colour settings instead of evoking any sort of response.
There are several small structural changes though. Ammo is scarce, with all the shops having closed. Naturally, the zombies not making use of armed weapons, most of them carry no loot (though bizarrely, that still doesn't stop the game from prompting you to loot them). However, they do appear in swarms alongside "special" Zombies that are completely lifted from Left 4 Dead in their characteristics (the fast, charging zombie; the projectile vomiting zombie, etc). This isn't a problem when riding in the open - you can simply charge past them on your horse. In the towns, however, you can become quickly overwhelmed.
Until you discover a fatal game design flaw.
It will become quickly apparent that, whilst you may be under threat in towns from swarms of the undead, that they are completely unable to climb anything, no matter how low that object is relative to the ground. They are also vulnerable to a single shot to the head. So any player can simply climb on top of a crate, take aim, and destroy a swarm of a dozen zombies in half as many seconds with a single bullet each, and not worry about taking any damage. This negates any threat that the swarms might have had (typical to most zombie fiction, they are harmless individually but pose a threat in numbers) and significantly harms the apocalyptic tone, however hammed up, that Rockstar were going for. There is no sense of urgency here, nor any sense of it being a titular Nightmare. This is a shooting gallery, pure and simple, and it never ends.
You might hope that, given the repetition of the missions in Red Dead Redemption, that Rockstar may have attempted to include more variety. Sadly, this is not the case. Every mission still consists of either shooting things until nothing is left or collecting things. It actually has even less variety than the game it seeks to expand upon - Red Dead Redemption at least attempted to introduce variety through cattle herding, train-robbing or racing, however brief those excursions may have been. There is none of that in Undead Nightmare, and because of the fudged atmosphere it becomes tedious far quicker than RDR, for all its faults, ever did.
There are some new weapons, of course, suiting the undead theme. A blunderbuss (granted after a herb-gathering and part-collection mission that is perhaps actually longer than any single mission in the main game) acts effectively as an incredibly powerful shotgun, fuelled by the body parts of zombies that can be looted after you have killed them. Bullets become coated in phosporous which will ignote the undead, your knife is replace by a flaming torch, and later on you gain access to holy water which acts effectively as a grenade. But none of them feel significantly different to anything than you have previously had in your arsenal.
There are superficial changes to the side-missions, too. Bounty Hunter missions are replaced by "missing persons", which see you simply travelling to a spot on the map, killing some zombies and returning your target to a specified locations - perhaps different in a narrative context, but mechanically identical to the Bounty missions of old. Every town you come across needs to be dispatched of zombies to reach a "safe" status before affording you a save point and a cache of ammo. The game warns that these places will need to be protected - a hint of a precious balancing act that never actually materialises (along with an achievement for having all outposts safe at any one time), but in reality once you have cleared an outpost it is unlikely you will ever be bothered by the need to return.
There are a couple of side-missions, revisiting characters from Red Dead Redemption and positing a new fate for them. However, again, it is hard to care - obviously Rockstar thought that people would find these alternative fates funny or interesting, but the truth is that the characters were so under-developed in the first place that discovering they may be zombified or eaten in UD lacks any dramatic impact.
And again, for all its attempts to advertise how different it is from its progenitor, the game remains fundamentally the same. More often than not, it is weaker than the game it expands on, and that was a title hardly without faults despite the critical acclaim it received at the time. Running at a relatively slim 3 hours, you will have seen all it has to offer within the first 30 minutes, and so it is hard to recommend to anyone beyond the most diehard fans or those craving the few slim multiplayer extras it adds (for clarity, this is not a review of any multiplayer elements).
In conclusion, Undead Nightmare is a real disappointment and that is mainly due to its failure to significantly move away from the criticisms of Red Dead Redemption that it so clearly hopes to escape. There was real promise here, not least in a satirical juxtaposition of its literal apocalypse against the allegorical end of the world that RDR spent its time so heavily hinting at. It's just a shame that Rockstar couldn't find a better way to address its critics.