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as one of the characters muses, "it's a funny kind of salvation" when the dead begin to rise from their graves in Red Dead Redemption Undead Nightmare. the stand-alone disc version of the DLC add-on to Rockstar's second most popular franchise emerged late last year, but only now am i ready to crack its head and let you feast on its gooey brains.
as for their sexier monster-cousins, vampires, the last few years have seen something of a renaissance for zombies, after years in the cultural wilderness: we've had (among many more) the remakes of the Romero films and then Diary of the Dead from the master himself, zom-com with Shaun of the Dead, several variations on the theme from 28 Days/Weeks Later, Planet Terror, [ REC] etc. and the awesome TV zombie drama Dead Set.
video games have long provided a good home for lumbering undead hordes, but recent iterations of Resident Evil and House of the Dead, as well as Left 4 Dead, Plants vs. Zombies and Dead Rising, have all proven especially popular, as has the phenomenon of including/releasing a zombie killing minigame in/add-on for otherwise 'straight up' first-person shooters. Counter Strike, Postal 2 and Call of Duty have all given us the undead to lighten the mood, and there's a long awaited zombie-themed Half-Life 2 mod in the pipeline.
given all of this, was turning a zombie-themed add-on into a fully-fledged release that therefore must stand on its own two spurs such a great idea? yes, yes it was. while questions regarding its length and scope certainly have some purchase, for me RDRUN (or 'Red Run' as the kids aren't yet calling it) is vastly more than just a warmed-up side-dish.
given that the segment of the Venn diagram representing people who bought Red Dead Redemption, then sold it before the Undead Nightmare DLC came out and are now thinking of buying the stand-alone Red Dead Redemption Undead Nightmare is probably fairly small, it's probably wise to assume that the target audience is basically unfamiliar with Red Dead Redemption.
if you're anything like me, you'll welcome the enigmatic quality that results when a game doesn't really want to (re)introduce existing fans to characters they know well, and so doesn't bombard newcomers with unnecessary detail and over-explanatory backstorying.
zombies weren't part of the social imagination in the early 1900s.
those new to John Marston quickly learn all they need to know - he is a cowboy-style man living in the South West of early twentieth century America with a wife and son, who, after a 'bitey' visit from 'Uncle', start trying to eat each other.
convinced they must have come down with a sickness (because, as the game is almost too proud of having deduced, zombies weren't part of the social imagination in the early 1900s - even though flesh-eating, undead characters have been around since the dawn of literature, popping up in ancient Babylonian and Egyptian mythology), John heads out for a cure. while he's out, however, he gets a bit waylaid.
despite their avoidance of too much background fill-in, the opening cut scenes are a little long-winded. the slight tedium is nicely offset, however, by the fact that they reverse the recent trend by actually looking pretty good, with pleasing rendering and faces and mouths that move fairly convincingly.
John's bounty-hunter instincts soon take over and his affection for his hogtied (for their own safety) family and related search for a cure, turns into a quest to purge all the towns and graveyards in the vicinity of their walking 'troubled' - not to mention rescue missions and herb-seeking journeys.
while maintaining the increasingly naive belief that it's a simple sickness, and refusing, like a proper Dawkins, to accept the quite obviously supernatural character of events, John's materialism seemingly doesn't stretch to the realization that, with them being tied up for days on end with only what looks like some cheese on toast and a steak, the issue of his wife and son might be 'time sensitive'.
i fairly quickly managed to tame two of the four horses of the apocalypse.
although, as in Red Dead Redemption, John can 'magic' between towns that he's saved, before that's possible, the early parts of the game involve a decent amount of horse riding, hither and thither. early on, following the prompts, i fairly quickly managed to tame two of the four horses of the apocalypse - zombie steeds with limitless stamina and magic powers. while the first, War, was a trusty helper, soon after i'd 'upgraded', i crashed Pestilence off a cliff and she/he died, leaving me high and dry. as a result i played for too long with an standard undead nag who frequently veered, like a 90s Mondeo, to the left.
in truth, the Pestilence incident was the result of my becoming distracted by the scenery. given that carefully scouring the hinterlands for herbs, watching out for vicious undead animals and generally being on guard against rushing foe are all important, the high quality of the visuals is perhaps a weakness, one that resulted in a few unnecessary deaths for my John.
production values are generally very high with not just the in-game graphics and cut-scenes, but the animation, sound, menus and load-screens and the control scheme all looking and sounding and feeling very sharp. the sound is so good in fact that when my wife asked me to play with headphones on so she could watch TV, i ended up getting a little spooked (ed: cute!).
despite this, I generally felt that Red Dead Redemption Undead Nightmare charted a very pleasing course between humour and horror - tipping neither into high farce on the one hand, nor harsh frights on the other. it's certainly edgy, and at times dryly comic, but it doesn't play too much for cheap laughs or easy jumps.
it comes with an 18 certificate, and that's justified for the violence alone - the splashes of unnecessary cussing being thrown in for not really good measure. while it is gleefully splatter-and-squelch-y, i didn't find it sinister or disturbing in the way that i often do with most ultra-violent shooters. for good or for ill, it just doesn't bother me as much to shoot a zombie square in the face as it does an un-undead 'enemy' human. the implied politics are a little less complex, i guess.
parodic bigotry, for me, sailed a little close to the wind for comfort at times.
talking of which, there's a thread running through the genesis-rumours that John encounters on his travels which smack of parodic bigotry - Jews, the English, Mexicans, Catholics, and all foreign sorts get blamed - which, for me, sailed a little close to the wind for comfort at times. as to where it all leads, well that's for you to find out.
despite being a little on the short side (especially if, like me, you ignore most of the side-missions) and blatantly lying on the back of the box about offering an offline co-op mode, all told Red Dead Redemption Undead Nightmare is a cracker of a game. in terms of feel, it perhaps ends up caught somewhere between a full game and DLC, but the production qualities, with which it oozes, easily fill the gaps.
whether you're a wooly liberal wanting to engage in guilt-free killing, or simply fancy pitting your quick-draw and dead-eye chops against the undead hordes, Red Dead Redemption Undead Nightmare has plenty with which to entertain all but the most squeamish of budding cowboys/girls.
[if you'd like to see more of the weird and wonderful world of reallyquitetired then the door is always open at his semi-detached house/blog]
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: