Much like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Red Dead Redemption was a sympathetic portrait of the death of the gunslinger. With the advent of the railroad and technology, coupled with a more savvy and militant brand of law enforcement, the frontier was on its knees and the cowboy deemed surplus to requirements as industry began to flourish. So, as John Marston returns home to his shabby ranch, crabby wife, and estranged son, Red Dead Redemption told us his days as an outlaw were numbered and that penance was waiting around the corner. With the latest of their downloadable appendages, though, Rockstar Games calls upon the rooters, tooters, and shooters of the Old West for one last hurrah. Undead Nightmare returns to Red Dead Redemption’s penultimate chapter, places a full moon in the sky, and sends a plague of zombies to wreak unholy havoc everywhere from Blackwater to Chuparoso.
It’s clear from a very early stage that this isn’t merely a slapdash Halloween-themed frolic, and we’re not cast into these zombie-infested plains without any reasonable explanation. The developers have made boundless effort to deliver a polished supplement to the original’s epic journey, with almost all of those lucky to survive John Marston’s last cross-continent crusade returning with their original voice actors intact. The cut scenes are blessed with an equally rich dialogue, coloured with irony and apocalyptic pessimism, fleshing out Red Dead Redemption’s memorable cast in even more glorious detail. Players will also be reunited with familiar faces from previous stranger missions, offering similarly amusing side quests as well as the opportunity to see some of the more abrasive strangers get their flesh devoured.
For the most part, Undead Nightmare is built on the same cocktail of scavenging and shoot-outs as its forerunner. If you’re not combing the world map looking for a certain item, you’ll most likely be embroiled in some sort of zombie warfare. All towns and settlements are susceptible to attack, and will need to be cleared before players can save their game or accept a mission. When defending these locations from hoards of the undead, players will soon find themselves following a similar routine: riding in, supplying the survivors with some ammo, and taking down the last dozen or so zombies. Were there more variety to the action sequences, perhaps the game would not feel so repetitive. There are four different strains of infected to deal with, but each can be disposed of with the relative ease of a headshot or a close-quarters mêlée decapitation. Moreover, these critters don’t like the idea of climbing ladders, so making your way to an elevated vantage point and picking them off from there fast becomes the most convenient route.
It’s a shame that these moments feel rather numb and unfulfilling alongside Red Dead Redemption’s harried shoot-outs. Though your enemies will come in different shapes and sizes, they all stumble towards you with the same recklessness, so scoring headshots through Dead Eye is insufferably straightforward. And given that a headshot with any weapon—be it a scrawny pistol or the all-new gut-busting Blunderbuss—will dispose of any zombie, it all but defeats the object of carrying a vast arsenal. Red Dead Redemption’s most memorable skirmishes relied on cover-based shooting and required the player pick their shots and time their charges forward, while Undead Nightmare is frothing at the mouth with encounters that are far too clumsy and ubiquitously unrewarding.
In spite of this, Undead Nightmare is a chance to step into John Marston’s cowboy boots that fans of the series should embrace without question. Even when the zombie infestation has been put to bed, there are a number of loose ends to tie up and ancillary challenges to complete (including the chance to tame the four horses of the apocalypse), as well as a host of revamped online modes. Essentially, though, the absorbing storyline, enchanting vistas, and beguiling characters is the series’s main draw, and on this front Undead Nightmare doesn’t disappoint. John Marston must now surely rank as one of the medium’s most enduring heroes, blessed with an everyman charm and a malleable nature that always convincingly reflects the decisions of the player’s in-game decisions. In expanding Red Dead Redemption’s longevity even further, Rockstar have set an unprecedented benchmark for downloadable content and breathed new life into the fabled western gunslinger.