Back From the Brink

by Arthur B

The Undead Nightmare expansion salvages the plot of Red Dead Redemption and is more fun than the original game too.
A while back I ranted about my disappointment with the plot of Red Dead Redemption - in particular, the way it went out of its way to make you care about the protagonist, John Marston, and then expected you to be satisfied with playing is irritating son Jack for the epilogue. Well, John’s back in Undead Nightmare, an expansion which provides a complete additional single-player story for the game and which not only makes the flaws of the core game’s plot better, but also improves a number of gameplay features from the original.

The plot of Undead Nightmare picks up close to the end of the original game, during that period when John has retired to his farm with his wife and his irritating kid and kooky old farmhand. Suddenly: zombie plague happens, both John’s wife and kid get bitten, John hogties them and leaves them with some big plates of stake to indulge their undead hunger on whilst he rides off to look for a cure. This search leads him to catch up with many of the people he encountered during the main storyline in the original game, which is usually taken by the writers as an opportunity to get some closure on those relationships by depicting the people in question dying horribly - a technique that’s actually quite effective, since if you’ve played the main plot you already know all these people quite well and therefore already have some sort of investment in whether they live or die.

Now, usually resorting to "lol zombies" would prompt me to roll my eyes a little and suspect designers of having run out of ideas, but in this case it actually leads to some interesting changes in the way the game plays out. The most significant improvement is that the game no longer pretends to care whether you’re a good guy or a bad guy. Firstly, law enforcement has broken down almost entirely, so nobody really keeps track of bounties any more. This is good, because you don’t get into the situation where through some stupid accident you end up with a big bounty on your head and end up having to get yourself killed so you can start the next main plot mission without being harassed by lawmen on the way there.

Secondly, reputation tracking has gone completely out of the window, and thank goodness for that. One of the most ridiculous aspects of the original game was the way it had this bidirectional reputation scale, depending on whether you behaved villainously or valiantly, and on top of that constantly flirted with the idea that it might be viable to go rogue and hang out with bandits and stick two fingers up to the man, whereas in practice this was hardly supported at all: being able to go into bandit camps and chill was far, far less useful than being able to mosey into town without the deputy taking a shot at you, the main plot had no "go renegade" branch (or, indeed, any branching at all), and almost all the side quests assumed you were a do-gooder on top of that. In fact, the zombie apocalypse plot actually suits the ramrod-linear plot and the do-goody side quests infinitely better than the original "torn between saving his family and settling down vs. living the crazy wild outlaw life once again" angle in the original plot: when the dead rise, staying alive and trying to sort out what’s going on is obviously going to be your top priority regardless of what sort of cowboy you are.

So, what do you actually do in the Old West when there’s a zombie apocalypse, and you're not busy with plot missions or side stories? Well, aside from saving people in random encounters and occasionally meeting mythic beasts (like the four horsies of the apocalpyise), one of the most entertaining new mission types introduced to this version of the game is saving towns from being overrun by hordes of the undead. This requires you to ride in and kill all the zombies you can until the assault is over; you can hasten the end of the attack by giving a small amount of ammunition to the other survivors (which will usually be slightly less than you’d use to advance the town defence meter by the same amount by shooting zombies). If you clear the town, you’re rewarded with supplies, as well as unlocking the save point in the town - granted, the game autosaves when you complete a mission or side quest, but it’s still nice to be able to save at moments of your choosing rather than just relying on the autosaves, so this is a pretty decent reward. Riding into a town and saving it from besieging forces never stops being fun, so it’s a good thing that towns will occasionally get attacked again after you’ve saved them (and if you ignore the attacks for too long towns can get overrun). In fact, it’s so fun I kind of wish there were equivalent missions in the main plot - the closest I can think of is some parts of the Mexican plot, but I’m sure there was scope for bandit groups out for loot to mount devastating invasions of towns.

The main plot is nothing special, except that if you’ve played the first game it’s packed to the gills with schadenfreude. Oh, maybe it can be cured by prayer, no wait it can’t, oh wait, maybe the snake oil salesman can brew a cure, no, of course he fucking can’t, oh look, it’s a curse from an Aztec goddess whose temple has been defiled by explorers like it was hinted all along, how predictable. This would be dull if you didn’t get to see characters you hate from the original game being ripped to bits by zombies, to be honest. That said, the plot does manage to make the death of John at the end of the original game much more palatable - once the plague is defeated, the timeline jumps forward to after the end of the first game and the death of John, when during a renewed zombie plague Zombie John Marston emerges from the grave to defend the West once again. This does mean his dialogue gets replaced with groans and grunts, but I’d rather play a decaying, mouldering corpse than the useless and skin-crawlingly irritating Jack so I think this is a fair compromise.

Ultimately, "zombie apocalypse in the Old West" is a very silly premise for a game, but Undead Nightmare is just more evidence that Rockstar are at their best when they remember not to take their sandboxes so seriously. I’m tempted to say it’s better than the original game; certainly, the conclusion is merely bland as opposed to enraging, which is a big step up.

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