Blogtober 2019 – Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare

For today’s Blogtober game entry, I’ve chosen Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, quite possibly my favorite DLC, along with cover art of any game(many consider The Witcher 3’s Heart of Stone and Blood and Wine to be the greatest, I regrettably have not gotten around to playing those…yet). Undead Nightmare was released in October 2010 as a stand-alone expansion to what was already regarded as a defining moment of the console generation in Red Dead Redemption(released just earlier that year) by combining two of our most beloved American institutions – the wild West and zombie b-movies. It was a rush of excitement and nostalgia playing Undead Nightmare again as Rockstar Studios masterfully blended Red Dead’s epic western motif with schlocky zombie horror.

Undead Nightmare begins in black and white, evoking a setting similar to sci-fi/horror films of the 50’s and 60’s as our narrator sets the scene of former outlaw turned bounty hunter turned farmer John Marston returning to the homestead just as a violent thunderstorm begins. John returns to his wife Abigail and son Jack and voices his feeling of something being amiss, though unable to quite determine what. Before retiring for the evening John asks whether anyone has seen Uncle, the elderly layabout tagging along with John since his days running with the Van der Linde Gang; Abigail simply assumes he’s “waiting out the storm in some house of ill-repute” as they head off to bed. Later that night Uncle, who has been turned into a zombie breaks into the Marston home and bites Abigail, who then in turn bites Jack, before John is able to put a bullet through Uncle’s undead skull. John then quickly proceeds to hogtie both Jack and Abigail and lock them inside a bedroom before heading into nearby Blackwater with the hope of figuring out what exactly is happening. He reaches Blackwater only to find the town all but abandoned as the undead roam the streets. After coming to the aid of several survivors in town, John attempts to question those left as to why this is happening. The Blackwater resident’s explanations for the recent occurrences range anywhere from being the fault of “that snake oil salesman”, “the man with the glass eye” or Mexican immigrants; others think it simply God’s judgement. John then travels westward to seek out the con-man Nigel West Dickens and the grave robbing ghoul Seth Briars, both of whom acquaintances he was obliged to lend a helping hand during the storyline of Red Dead Redemption; thus begins John Marston’s old-west journey of horrors through the zombie apocalypse.

Undead Nightmare’s core gameplay elements are the same as Red Dead Redemption: riding and shooting your way across the territories of West Elizabeth and New Austin, but rather than chasing bandits as a bounty hunter you are fighting hordes of the undead on both sides of the border – you eventually make your way down to Nuevo Paraiso to confront Abraham Reyes regarding an ancient mask taken from an underground Aztec tomb. You ride across the forest, desert, and plains stopping at different locations and undertaking(get it?) various tasks as indicated by icons on your map, like the majority of Rockstar games. In place of clearing out bandit hideouts, you will need to clear out each settlement as they have been overrun by zombies; you must assist the remaining townsfolk by eliminating the zombie population, which in turn provides you a safe place to rest, change outfits, or save your game. The town will inevitably be overtaken after the cycle of a few days, so you will find yourself returning to different areas several times as you roam the countryside. An early mission finds you “cleansing” several cemeteries around New Austin and in Blackwater by burning the wooden coffins lying about, before putting any of the walking dead back in the ground…hopefully for good.

After nearly a decade Undead Nightmare still plays remarkably well and the shooting still feels great and in my mind, just as good if not better than the weighty feel of Red Dead Redemption 2. The biggest complaints with the controls are the cumbersome feel that seems to be another Rockstar trademark, an at times, downright clumsy mix of the jittery movement of earlier Grand Theft Auto games and the lead-in-your-boots feeling of RDR2. The lack of precision in your movement is amplified greatly when trying to clear out a town as you need to move quickly to stay one step ahead of the swarm of zombies and in order to assist the surviving townspeople a moderate amount of platforming is required as they are generally perched upon a rooftop. Another issue is the number of bugs found encountered within the game, just in the short time replaying the game the last week I found myself teleporting through buildings while clearing out a town, or levitating along the ground instead of running. A few times while cleansing a cemetery zombies would emerge from underground without any heads which would usually signify a glitch that would prevent the final “boss zombie” from surfacing and I would have to restart the sometimes lengthy process.

The overall tone and mood of Undead Nightmare are more over-the-top and absurd in contrast to the sober timbre(mostly) of the main adventure. The story and characters within the game are closer to Shaun of the Dead, than it’s George Romero inspiration Dawn of the Dead. Undead Nightmare also offers no shortage of Rockstar Studio’s trademark darkly, humorous satirical take of the old-west ethos. In addition to roaming hordes of zombies, John also encounters other mythical creatures steeped in folklore like chupacabras; you can also unlock a unicorn as a mount to sparkle dash around the countryside. In addition to the other mythical creatures featured in the game, you are able to discover each of the Four Horses of the Apocalypse – War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. Each one having its own unique appearance and attributes, along with having unlimited stamina. The “War” horse is covered in flames and will set fire to any zombies who come to close or the “Death” horse is a pale color(obviously) and will cause any nearby zombies to explode upon approach…awesome! One of the most memorable parts of the game is the side mission Birth of the Conservation Movement in the Tall Trees region where John happens upon an old man shooting into the forest and exclaiming that Sasquatches need to be hunted down, them being a danger to civilized humans who feed on babies. John is then tasked by the old man to hunt down the six Sasquatches in the Tall Trees region, with a circle on the map indicating the approximate location of each one. You…dispatch the first five upright ape-men before coming across the sixth and final Sasquatch sitting alone by a tree alongside the river. As you approach the final creature he speaks out to you and describes the horror of the last of his kind being hunted down by some sort of monster and asks politely asks John to shoot him, ending his misery in knowing he is the final one remaining. The narrative twist of “humans being the true monsters” isn’t anything unique in a sci-fi or horror setting, it did provide a memorable moment amid the ten hours or so of rampant zombie splattering.

Aside from a few technical issues to the game, I still feel Undead Nightmare is one of the best expansion offerings in the recent decade. The simplest way to describe Undead Nightmare is “Red Dead Redemption…with zombies”, though it provides a horror movie experience exceeding most games of the era. This was still in the earlier years of what would become an increasingly crowded expanse of media, not just video games, but movies and tv featuring zombies. It’s since become foregone conclusion that any AAA FPS title will include a “zombie mode”, but Rockstar did an impeccable job of inserting the eerie, yet campy sensibilities of zombie b-movies into an epic western setting. I know I’m not alone in hoping that Rockstar would release another expansion similar to this for their most recent masterpiece Red Dead Redemption 2.

That’s all for now, have you played Undead Nightmare? What do you think are the best zombie game offerings out there? I still have one more retro zombie game coming up next week for my Halloween Blogtober, with my next post featuring a horror-themed arcade title that has become a cult classic. Thanks for reading!