Mexicans, foreigners, a glass eye, Jews and the moon. What do these people, items and gigantic space rocks have in common? Nothing, really, but that doesn’t stop the zany inhabitants of the Wild American West from inexplicably blaming each of them one by one for the rising of the dead.
It’s never particularly relevant what, or who, caused the dead to vacate their graves. Indeed, it’s not until the finale of a six-hour campaign that it becomes clear and the wild conspiracy theories conjured up by the last few irrational survivors of the Deep South are far more imaginative than the anti-climatic truth.
Let’s rewind a bit. Undead Nightmare begins by reacquainting you with John Marsden and his cordial family. An introduction punctuated with sly dramatic ironies and a wonderfully theatrical voiceover sets an appropriate tone and quickly puts to rest any worries that zombies and the Wild West wouldn’t blend. They certainly do and it’s not long before Marsden is hogtying his infected wife and son and heading back out onto the planes in search of answers.
In the months between release and expansion, the world of Red Dead Redemption has distorted. The bloody menu reds have been replaced with a sickly green hue, the blue skies with a lingering orange haze. The buffalo are MIA, in their place a battalion of the undead, and the lingering Wild West soundtrack has been mauled into a twisted, uneasy melody. It’s a world where the first indication of civilisation is a burning building on the horizon and encounters with those who value conversation over a quick raw meal are infrequent.
It can be a lonely world as a result of all that though, a notion rammed home by the removal of John Marsden’s trusty quick-travel enabling campsite. The loss of quick-travel certainly makes sense from a pragmatic point of view (who wants to camp outside with eager zombies patrolling outside your tent?), but it can make the many trips across the planes a labor.
To alleviate this somewhat you’re able to quick travel between settlements but they each have to be liberated from the rampaging horde before you jump between areas.
The crux of Marsden’s second adventure doesn’t lie with such short-term solutions though – zombies are back within a couple of hours. Instead Undead Nightmare focuses on the hunt for a cure and takes you on a journey back across the lower reaches of the USA and eventually down into Mexico. The campaign finds the time to embrace – and often kill – almost all of the major characters from Redemption but the tasks the surviving cast inevitably set are, as Marsden himself puts it, little more than another set of “shopping trips”. The irony doesn’t make the reality any less objectionable and only a train ride into Mexico and an encounter with Big Foot stand out in hindsight as missions worth playing twice. That said, it should be noted that the latter of those two missions is perhaps one of the finest moments in either of Red Dead or Undead Nightmare.
But familiarity is Undead Nightmare’s predicament, as you retread familiar ground you’re only really unlocking everything you’ve seen before. Old weapons are regained by ridding the dozen or so towns of their grizzly occupiers and there are a slew of new challenges but even they resemble those found in Red Dead. Sure you’ll be setting fire to Undead Bears rather than engaging in high-stake knife fights but the principle remains the same. Don’t do it.
Arguably the heart and soul of this expansion is firmly embedded within its cut scenes which are as incisively filmed and voiced as ever. Reunions with the original cast are either touching or comical (or both) – but leaving the likes of Seth and Nigel West-Dickens behind can make the Great Planes a desolate, isolated place. The roaming pockets of putrid cannibals just don’t bear the same magnetism as the ragged cowboys and loveable characters from the slightly more historically accurate main game.
That said the undead more than make up for the their lack of charisma in numbers. Of the four variants, only the pungent green spitter zombie retains control over its hunger enough so that it doesn’t charge on sight. Inexplicably the fatties hurtle toward you with speed and there are zombies that look like they’ve been lifted right out of The Exorcism’s famed spider-walking scene. And, of course, there’s your standard issue shuffling zombie (they also sprint).
To even the odds Marsden has a couple of new toys, the best of which is the Blunderbuss. It irrevocably sends the dead back to hell by blowing them into tiny pieces and, due to its effectiveness, comes with a strict ammo limit.
And that ammo is made from body parts (mainly ribs but eyes, tongues and vital organs work just as well). This dependency on human remains means foraging among the corpses is a worthwhile endeavor but it also means you’ll spend a considerable amount of time watching Marsden rummage through the leftovers so you can go away and shoot some more zombies and then loot them. Sardonic comments like “I looted you the first time I killed you” are amusing at first but can’t save the practice from becoming dull routine by the mid point of the campaign.
And if nothing else the Blunderbuss confirms how reliant the game is on Dead Eye because when your slow-motion meter runs dry it becomes the only weapon capable of stopping the marauding horde efficiently. The unwieldy rifles and six-shooters were all well and good when your target was statue-esque or spent an entire firefight popping in and out of the same menial piece of cover. But the zombies in Undead Nightmare are quick, twitchy buggers and that makes scoring headshots a frustrating ordeal.
That all sounds rather negative but the truth is I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Undead Nightmare to anyone who enjoyed Red Dead Redemption. At its core, even with its occasionally slippery combat and less charismatic world it’s still the best sandbox game bar that other Rockstar title.
And while it rarely hits the highs of The Ballad of Gay Tony this is still a world where there’s always something worth discovering around every corner – whether that’s a Horse of the Apocalypse waiting to be tamed, the last teary-eyed Bigfoot begging for it all to end or just Seth hosting a barn-dance for the dead. Even when it’s not at its best Red Dead Redemption still boasts a lore and world that has absolutely no trouble luring you back in.
So if Undead Nightmare is the game’s valediction then it’s a sweeter note to go out on than any of the expansion packs that have come before it. Ultimately it’s the long-awaited excuse for single player fans of Rockstar’s epic to once again step into the boots of John Marsden and explore the Great American West like they didn’t teach you in school.