Sunday, February 13, 2011

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare

I love westerns.

It’s ironic, because in the real world I’m not well suited to the genre. I’m not very outdoorsy, I’m not particularly tough or taciturn, and I’ve never been particularly good around cattle or horses. In short, I’m a city creature through and through. Yet there’s something about the old west that excites my imagination. The endless vistas, the lawless frontier towns, the conflict between civilizations, and the stern, capable people who populated these stories ignited my imagination. It should come as no surprise that I gravitated toward Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption is the (mostly) perfect western game. Its got sprawling landscapes, a hard-bitten hero, colorful sidekicks, and a perfectly engaging combat system. I knocked it out in record time so I could start digging into the Undead Nightmare expansion pack.

Taking place shortly before the game’s apocalyptic ending, Undead Nightmare tells the story of a zombie infestation in the territories. The lead character’s family becomes infected and in his quest to save them he revisits old friends, endures new challenges, and uncovers the sinister secrets of an ancient Mesoamerican death god.

I can’t quite tell if Undead Nightmare is canon or not. Red Dead Redemption, despite a few zany moments, plays things straightforward. Undead Nightmare looks, sounds, and feels like a grindhouse slasher film. Beloved characters pop up for cameos, say a few cryptically self-aware things, and then get devoured. Regardless, the story veers from dark comedy to nihilistic horror, remaining engaging and entertaining the whole time.

One of the things that I liked about the game is that it plays fair with George Romero’s rules. Most zombie games (Resident Evil, Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead) play fast and loose with the traditional rules, where the characters are suddenly invulnerable to zombie bites and several quick shots to the chest disable the walking dead. In Undead Nightmare, you have to shoot the zombies in the head and a single bite spells doom for John Marston. It makes game play much more tense and requires much more reliance on the dead-aim mechanic, which slows time down and allows players to line up their shots. Unfortunately, seeing as I barely used this ability in the main game, it took me a couple of hours to figure out just how useful it was. In the meantime, I wasted a lot of rounds on missed headshots and became zombie chow on more than one occasion. Until I figured out the practical application of the dead-aim mechanic, I really hated Undead Nightmare.

Like most zombie games, there comes a point where the gameplay becomes a little routine. Rockstar has a deep and abiding love for making the players do repetitive things, which in this case means you have go back and rescue previously liberated towns over and over again. If you want to use the fast travel system, you have to keep these towns free. Saving a town once is a challenging adventure. Saving a town two or three times feels like busy work.

Ultimately, a few return trips and a bit of busy work are minor negatives to a game that I greatly enjoyed. Red Dead Redemption created a world that I never wanted to leave, even as I sped toward the game’s conclusion. Even after Undead Nightmare resolved the story of John Marston in a grimly unique manner, I wanted more. I hope they keep going. It’s an alternate life I’d love to return to.