Friday, May 6, 2011

REVIEW - Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare.

If you enjoyed Red Dead Redemption (and you should've), Undead Nightmare is required reading.

Red Dead Redemption's successful cover-based shooting has been pitched. You can still hide behind walls if you like, but it does you little good against enemies who don't shoot or take cover, but simply run or shamble towards you, hungry for flesh and presumably brains.

It recalls the most terrifying moments of the core game's campaign - those times when you're jumped by a cougar. Imagine if every enemy in the game is either a slow-moving or fast-dashing cougar. Now imagine you can only kill them by blowing them up or shooting them in the head - and when these cougars move it is with the jerky gait of the undead. Yeah. Good luck with those headshots.

You are expected to rely entirely on the serviceable third-person shooting to nail the requisite shots - and at first blush this may be seen as highlighting how the mechanics simply aren't made for this type of gameplay - but the product is more than the sum of its parts.

In accordance with The Laws of Surviving A Zombie Apocalypse, the shotgun is your best friend in the world.

The Dead Eye meter has been overhauled to the point where you're almost never at a loss for the necessary time to pull off those headshots. In Nightmare, you must negotiate the undead horde in much the same way you would expect to in real life - you're either stalking along with grim confidence in one hand and a shotgun in the other, or cowering on a rooftop while taking potshots at the rotting shamblers' foreheads.

It feels... a bit wrong, after becoming so comfortable with Redemption's elegant cover-based shooting, where a few rounds to the chest will fell any foe - but that's kind of the point, isn't it? Like John Marston, this undead nightmare isn't comfortable to us. We have to re-learn the art of the kill - we have to adapt, and learn to survive - constantly scrounging for a few more bullets along the way.

What we've got, here, is an expansion - a ten-dollar piece of DLC - that almost entirely re-writes how you need to consider the environment and your strategies. The nature of the enemies changes the core of the game - and Undead Nightmare is rebalanced accordingly. I can't remember ever playing a similar type of DLC that pulls such a trick.

Rockstar have always had a wicked, dark sense of humor and a desire to sprinkle some playful zaniness throughout their titles, and Nightmare is the developer set loose to realize all the crazy shit they couldn't otherwise get away with - replete with surprises I would not deign to spoil. The campaign is, naturally, a much leaner offering than the core title, but it's dusted with more than enough inspiration, comedy and cleverness to make it a pleasure.

Beyond that, Nightmare succeeds so well because of the production values and well-above-par art direction we expect from Rockstar's open-world opuses. It may be DLC, but everything from the weather to the soundtrack has been retooled to fit this Halloween-flavored romp - and it still manages to be in keeping with the grand scale of Redemption. Cresting a rise and seeing gloomy mists sweeping over a valley below or riding into a green sunrise is intensely affecting.

Undead Nightmare manages to slip into the blood-stained rags of a zombie apocalypse like a pair of comfortable jeans, and make it its own. Rockstar knows what they're doing with small vignettes of story, big action moments, breathtaking views and the hazy, end-times gloom that hangs over the world like a moldy blanket. They've made a zombie western that really works.

It is perhaps all the more affecting to see this beautiful world so transformed, so eerie and cold after the amount of time spent there last spring - and a mere ten dollars for the expansion on PSN and XBL makes it a must-play. If you enjoyed your time in Redemption's southern border states, I can assure you it remains lovely this time of year - undead and all.

-Rockstar's stellar production values and voice work
-Rockstar's trademarked zaniness set loose
-an expansion that re-writes how you play the game

-highly entertaining nibbles of story
-the random encounters are back, and fabulous
-excellent art direction and music
-fantastic ending
-the zombified Wilhelm scream

-the narrative is essentially a loose collection of one-off stories, and rarely feels very cohesive
-I wanted more scenes with Bonnie, but that's because I'm in love with Bonnie

Excellent - and an excellent value

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