It's like someone at Rockstar read my inner 12-year-old's mind and said, "Yeah, we can do that." The convergence of the Western genre with zombie horror is a surprisingly underutilized theme, but with Undead Nightmare, Rockstar has singlehandedly undone years of neglect. Regardless of whether you're picking up the DLC or are going for the standalone Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare Collection, you're in for a great time.
To be clear, this review is of Undead Nightmare Collection, a standalone disc-based version of the Undead Nightmare DLC as well as a collection of every free and paid downloadable pack released to date. In addition to its namesake, the set also includes the Legends and Killers Pack, Liars and Cheats Pack, Outlaws to the End Co-Op Mission Pack, and all multiplayer Free Roam modes. Each pack adds new weapons, modes, challenges, games, characters, and missions. In short: there's a lot of great stuff here.
Of course, all the cool modes and weapons in the world wouldn't make a difference if the game wasn't enjoyable. Fortunately for fans of six-shooter comeuppance, multiplayer is a blast. It's important to note that disc owners will get to play against those who own the original and those who own the original and opted for the download route, so there should be no worry about player segregation or a low player base. Despite having been out since May, the online community is robust and games are always going on. For first timers, logging in and finding yourself in the middle of the game world is a little disorienting. In fact, unless you choose to play multiplayer on Friendly, you are likely to be killed within a few minutes. You see, logging into Redemption isn't like most games, where you're sent to a lobby to wait for a new game; instead, you enter Free Range Mode, which is essentially how you would find yourself in the single-player world. After getting your bearings, figuring out that you need to climb the ranks for better gear, new player skins, and better mounts – you start with a donkey – interacting with other players becomes downright exhilarating.
What's important to understand is that Free Range Mode is very aptly named. From the time you log in, you are free to do what you want: join a posse, hunt a posse, take a fort, engage in a free for all, hunt animals, or torment townsfolk and fight off the bounty hunters. Save for the player-versus-player combat, Friendly is the same as Normal and Hardcore (expert aiming is on). Friendly is great for a relaxed game, but the other two are where the real action is. At any time a firefight could break out in the outskirts of town, with horses and bullets zipping by as players run for cover, toss dynamite, and pick off stragglers. All of the included packs have really packed multiplayer to the gills, with everything from horse racing to Liar's Dice to storming bandit hideouts to Poker. Undead Nightmare adds, in addition to zombie skins and new weapons (blunderbuss, holy water, torch, undead bait and boom bait), Undead Overrun, a Horde mode where waves of successfully tougher zombies crash into a handful of players, and Land Grab, a Free Range game where you claim an area and fight off new claimants. My favorite activities were actually those from one of the free DLCs, where a group of players get to take part in multi-stage missions that involve everything from robbing gold from a stagecoach to saving a kidnapped damsel in distress. The narrations are great, and working with a team – firing out of a stagecoach while another player drives has taken way too long to come to fruition – makes these 20-minute outings some of the most entertaining moments you'll have online. Now if only Rockstar would make more of them (hint).
If traversing a potentially dangerous world – there are bandits and other non-player hazards around as well – seems too taxing, the game also allows for an easy way to switch between modes through a quick access menu. Even if you decide to use the shortcuts, there's still always something to do, whether it's a planned shootout or meeting one of the many weapon- and environment-specific challenges, which unlock player skins and titles. There's little else on the market like it, and it's as fun as it is unique. What's even more exciting is that the controls are largely spot-on, much more so than in other open world games, allowing for a far greater degree world and inter-player interaction.
Then there is the Undead Nightmare storyline. I completed the single-player portion in around 13 hours, though one of which was me wondering around unsure of how to proceed. Still, I was only 65% or so complete when I finished, so there's quite a bit to do for those who just want to wander the wilderness in search of undead heads to snipe. The story is broken down into two parts, each consisting of a series of given missions with side tasks in between. The first thing you'll have to do is take back Blackwater, and then every other town in turn, from the undead, and then constantly assist the survivors in fighting back subsequent attacks as each location provides way points to fast travel to and beds in which to save. As towns are secured, story missions push Marston further out as he tries to find the cause and cure of the disease that's caused his family to crave flesh. In a nod to the time, no one knows what a zombie is, so they aren't quite sure how to treat reanimated family members and friends; in fact, the word "zombie" might not ever be said. A small, but thoughtful, touch.
There is also a set of rescue missions in which stranded survivors can be escorted back to safety. Saving the survivors, as well as random people stuck out in the wilds that you'll run into, becomes increasingly important because ammo, not cash, is your reward. Ammo is actually vital as there are no stores in the game, so the only way to get any is to help out or scavenge off of corpses. Since Undead Nightmare contains all of the weapons to date (the original set and those released with the DLC), as well as a few of its own, the amount of weapons helps to offset the scarcity of ammo due to just how many choices you have at your disposal; It wasn't until the end when I started to worry about running dry.
It's almost surprising at just how well the entire setup is. Character interactions benefit from time with the original but don't rely on it, since the conversations are few and references passing, giving a nod to longtime fans while allowing newcomers to jump in without feeling they've been left out. The zombies look great, coming in a handful of varieties – rushers, bruisers, spitters, etc. – that help to mix things up, and you can even inadvertently summon an undead mount, which are as fast as they are unwieldy. Most impressive is the soundtrack, which is a quirky mixture of the spaghetti Western's twangy instrumentals and the eerie effects of a 1950s sci-fi b-movie. Some of the vocals can get a bit repetitive, but the music itself is top-notch and makes the sight of shambling silhouettes in front of a distant sunset all the more haunting.
The only real knock against Undead Nightmare is that Redemption wasn't really designed as a close-quarters game, and that's exactly how the zombies like to fight: up close, mandibles to your face. The result is that close encounters are much more frequent, making their shortcoming far more noticeable. The ragdoll physics also present a problem in melee combat as some of the more physical attacks, especially from bruisers, will send Marston flying into the air, only to meet the Earth in a hard, body-contorting landing. As his bones seemingly give way and reform, the rest of the frenzied horde busy themselves wailing away. The controls, while generally great for long-range encounters and a modest pace, can also become troublesome as you try to quickly navigate ladders and other structures while running for your life. A set of missions also receive curious treatment in that they don't have the same visual markers as the rest of the required tasks, making them seem less important. These are fairly minor quibbles though, especially when considering just how much was done right.
Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare Collection is a great buy, as are the separate DLC packs. For $29.99, you get a lot of game here – plus a nice foldout map. Even as a completely separate experience, Undead Nightmare is still highly recommended; you don't have to enjoy Westerns to enjoy a good zombie invasion. While some glitches have carried over from Redemption, and the design not always accommodating to Undead's faster pace, what it manages to deliver on is so fantastic that it's hard not to be impressed: an immersive, open world on the brink of a zombie outbreak. Awesome.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)