Hey folks, so I thought it was time, now that I got the Minecraft blog out of my backlog that I look for something else to play through.
Even though I still have to complete games like Front Mission Evolved and Dead Rising 2 and a flurry of other new titles are coming out all the time with christmas around the corner. The Kinect has launched, Black Ops is out, though not on my wish list as such, and previously new titles are turning into old ones. And here I am going back a few steps to another old one with a new DLC that has been out for a month or so now. Also, anyone with eyes will have noticed that this is the fourth game blog in a row with the ‘Zombies’ tag, because who doesn’t like zombies? The darling of the video game scene since the likes of the Commodore 64.
But this is zombies in the wild west we are talking about… and Red Dead Redemption no less. RDR was, as I originally stated in my previous review earlier this year, pretty authentic feeling and experienced very little outlandish elements beyond having one super hero cowboy wrecking other people’s shit in the dusty landscape of New Austin. And now, seemingly out of pure novelty given its release around Halloween, Rockstar have thrown some undead into the mix with Undead Nightmare.
My initial reaction was… Ohh god…. that’s going to ruin it. but as much as I love the game I figured I would give it a try anyway and see if my favourite story driven sandbox has been enhanced or if Rockstar have just squatted over the rim and laid a steaming coil of crap in the corner.
Watching the trailer you cannot deny that it at least looks well made, and does not have the hallmark of a novelty expansion stuck to the side of an otherwise serious game with prit-stick, despite the setting mismatch. And much of the media who have reviewed the game and done previews before the launch were foaming at the mouth to get their hands on it and saying nothing but good things. Either they got their perspective different from my own or they know something I don’t.
First of all, after downloading the DLC (along with the Liars and Cheats and Legends and Killers DLCs in a multipack) I noticed when going to single player that you have an option to play the undead expansion separate to the normal game. Guess it makes sense given the way the game ends in normal mode. It did not leave any leeway for add-ons that do not follow on with the story where it left off unless they force you to go play the whole story again and weave themselves into the main plot as a new sub plot.
After checking out a little of the small additions with the other packs to the main game, and given most of them are multiplayer content heavy anyway, I reloaded the game and selected the undead nightmare. The scene is set in the main story with John Marston after he returns home and is living it up on the homestead before the finale of the game. A storm is kicking up something wicked, literally, and a monologue voiced out of some 1960’s B-movie sets the tone ending with an almost comical wicked laugh. Muwhahahahahahaha…… *Cough* And even the menu text reminds of Zombies Ate my Neighbours, all gooey greenish yellow and splotchy.
So yeah, impressions were not so great at this time, and as music worthy of the Munsters kicked up I started shaking my head. People who know me will know how I favour continuity of theme with my games and so far this game was doing a good job of biting the forehead of continuity and feasting on the mushy grey stuff inside before I even lifted the controller to my fingertips. When you finally do get to control the scene you are popping your first zombie in the face with the classic double barrel shotgun and then hog-tying the wife and son to stop them from munching on your vitals.
Then your story begins and it seems structured in the familiar sense of any other Rockstar free-roamer with mission activation waypoints and freedom to wander between jobs as much as you like. The last scene of the intro leads with a suggestion to head for Blackwater and find a doctor, but as I always do with games like this I ignored the initial jobs to see the extend of what I can explore freely first. Despite the almost cartoonish introduction and spooky writing, and even the map screen shows the water as being red like blood, the atmosphere hit me as being very well done. There are low hanging clouds, patches of fog on the ground and not a living thing to be seen, including animals at first. The music ditches the Adams Family feel and goes back to western with a good dose of slightly spooky tension completing the scene and the control systems all feel and work the same as we are all used to so nothing has been ‘improved’ there that I can tell.
Then I realised it was like restarting the game anyway, given the skills and array of weapons on hand and the poor quality of stamina in the horse you start with. You have fewer clothing options, but at least a couple of new one and some familiar ones too. Two of them you have to work towards getting like the other special garments in the original game. And there are some undead specific journal challenges to work your way through in ranks. Also the ‘stranger’ encounters have been replaced with ‘survivors’ and I had to catch myself to make sure I was not playing Dead Rising 2 by mistake. Well, ok not really. Survivors go with the theme of zombies like icing on cake or bangers with mash. Putting an already established western theme with it though is like serving the bangers and mash with custard instead of gravy.
OK, no more bashing of the ‘theme mismatch’ since I recognise it is subjective and you all want to hear the meat of the game so I will highlight the good and the bad and the undead ugly scratching at my heels from beneath the ground of the old grave yard.
As I said, the controls are the same so nothing has been fiddled with. See my original review for my thoughts on this as they were mixed. Detail wise, I have already said the atmosphere is good and the models and cutscenes are as sharp as usual. The in game map, which we all know had markers showing different animals that you might find in certain places, now shows clusters of humans too, which I can guess already will be places you see zombies.
As for everything else, well I don’t know at this stage. My idea to head off into the wild and see what lurks before throwing myself into the mission was pointless. You are cut off from the rest of New Austin and Mexico as bridges are down again and nothing actually lurks anywhere. So guess the first missions railroad the story for a short while by way of introduction. All the safe houses you had in the original game are naturally not available too and you are sleeping at the ranch in the hay loft above the small stable building having walled up the wife and son in the main house…. not good planning on his part if you ask me. I would trade the double bed for a sleeping bag out by the outhouse any day but John Marston is a tough frontier cowboy so maybe he likes it this way.
A minor disappointment came my way once I realised I was trapped in West Elizabeth and it might be petty of me but I am sure I mentioned this in my original review too. There is not really a sense of the landscape changing to fit the progress of the story and despite the bridge being ‘out’ it was more a case of someone having rewound time to a point where the bridge was being built and then set fire to a couple of things. There were small cranes ready to rebuild the bridge and piles of wood and work benches scattered in places and the only telling details to give you the impression that they were broken down in the undead rising the previous night were the flames. I mentioned in my first review that the town of Blackwater had some houses under construction to give the effect of progression when you play as John Marston. Then fast forward to a few years in the future to play as the son, Jack, and the same houses have not had a single plank or brick laid since.
Also, I did note that the rivers were not, in fact, running red with blood as the map shows us so not sure what that is all about…
So on to Blackwater I rode and began the story finally in the hopes of it releasing me into more exciting prospects outside the mission structure and revealing to me it’s rotting dangly bits in all their undead glory. And then my initial disappointment at the ‘cut and paste and apply glitter’ approach to progressive scenery was soothed a little when the town of Blackwater was done a little better than the bridge. Broken furniture littered the street and buildings were boarded up and it seems the art team have done at least some work on making it look like civilisation was cut short overnight. However, one of my other bugbears emerged as the walls are scrawled with the usual ‘The end is nigh’ messages and I think to myself, why do people always find time when running and screaming as the end really is nigh to write their inner most thoughts on the walls?
But this aside I was thrust into a short cutscene ending in the expected manner and then the whole town came alive with the undead… so to speak. I am not sure if this is because with all my tomfoolery the sun ad begun to set when I arrived in town and the dead only rise at night, which would make sense, or if this initial encounter in Blackwater triggered this. But I soon found myself mobbed and called over my horse to high-tail it out of town and back to the ranch. Coward? Maybe, but bullets are few and zombies are many as Rockstar have added in the typical and classic survival theme of conservation of supplies. Again, raising my past review I did register my displeasure at the lack of utilisation of true survival in the wilderness where the only real reason to harvest meat and skin was to sell them on and herbs with medicinal uses were not really used at all so I get the feeling I am going to lament this lack of content in the game even more now there is a real emphasis on survival and the carrying of supplies or foraging for berries and such.
On the way back to the ranch I indulged in a little sniping of bats that has started to appear and collected a nice undead bat wing. Also, I was chased by wolves and after no less than 5 bullets from the revolver one of them still did not go down. I suspect a headshot might have changed that but I was kind of harried and concerned more with not dying until I got a good feel for things. As I ventured on I was gifted with a flaming torch weapon which was pretty cool and told to go burn some corpses by a hysterical redhead who was clearly in denial about her dislike of the men in her life.
On returning to the town a new mechanic rose from the depths like something out of a Thriller music video as some survivors took to a balcony and started sniping the dead. A progress bar appeared at the top of the screen like a beat-em-up health bar and I began to fill it when I took down corpses. When it was full it emptied itself and one of the markers above it lit green. So I guess I needed to fill the other marker and some targets appeared on my mini-map. I took them down, and one of them was curiously a chest in the bank building. Once I filled the second marker a final wave of enemies appeared on the radar. Once I killed them the town was declared safe ‘for now’ and a message told me that the town can come under attack again and if it falls into undead hands I will not be able to shop or sleep there until I clear it once more. This brings back a fond memory of the gang land wars in GTA San Andreas where you trigger a turf war and fight for control, and they can fight back against your own turf too at random. In all, while not a new concept in gaming by any stretch, it was a welcome addition and a distraction to compensate for the lack of other mini-games and occupations from the original. And the funky fog clears when you clean out a town, though the fires do not get put out so my earlier disappointment with dynamic scenery states lacking returned a little putting me in a state of neutrality at best on the subject.
A curious incident also arose while I was searching for the treasure map hinted at in the journal. A blue circle appeared on the fringe of my mini-map covering an area and a message said a ‘mythical creature’ had appeared there. I looked around and only saw a few horses and none of them stood out as being particularly unusual, apart from also being undead. So not sure what that was about but would guess it is some other kind of hunting challenge or maybe the four horsemen journal entry. When it happened again I looked around some more and found one of the four horses of the apocalypse, War, who is always on fire and looks pretty awesome. Running into a pack of zombies causes them to ignite into flame and he also has infinite stamina. There was also Pestilence that is near impossible to kill. The other two horses I have not found yet as I guess they are into the Mexico area and have not reached that yet.
There are also the usual random encounters as you ride along, where people have camps set up, one of them with his undead wife leashed to a stake in the ground while another seems to have taken to eating the undead and invites you to sit and share the fire. I approached one guy with my usual apprehension from the first game expecting an ambush and pulled out my gun ready to rumble. The guy soon took exception to my lingering while armed and tried to attack me. Another identical camp I found I just sat at the fire and watched as John tucked into some flesh before vomiting on the floor. There are people running from the undead or making a last ditch stand in the woods while calling for help number among them, one of them you hear before you see as he has an automatic field gun. And as before, there are some people making sport of this and bet you they can kill more undead than you in a time limit. Eventually I became aware that the only survivor encounters were generally people defending themselves from the zombies and started to wonder, where are all the looters? After all when the world turns upside down the general theme would always include the usual arse holes who please themselves and it looked like it was a pretty one dimensional apocalypse. Sooner or later I was proven wrong as I came across a guy trying to accost some ‘favours’ from a lone woman around the ranch and it felt good to kick him all around the field just for a change of pace.
Another feature they have adapted would be the bounty hunting, though it takes the form more of search and rescue. You take on a missing person rescue mission in return for ammo and head out looking for the lost soul, saving them from zombies and bringing them to a settlement.
I also noticed that when aiming at a leg or arm the crosshair goes blue instead, indicating an incapacitating shot of some kind. And on the subject of shooting it can be pretty hard to deliver a kill shot to a zombie since they have to be head-shots and they wobble around a fair bit. In dead-eye mode you can do this ok, and the advanced features of dead-eye are already available from the start but the recharge is slow to begin with and the lack of a ‘legend of the west’ duster coat giving you the bonus is keenly felt. Sooner or later your dead-eye meter is empty so you have to make good and frugal use of it because manual aiming for the head is pretty hard. The tactic in this situation is to stagger them with shots to the torso and quickly adjust to their head while they are standing still.
As for bullets themselves, well as I said they are more scarce in this DLC as all the shops are shut, naturally, and you are limited to what you can scratch around and find when you kill a zombie or find a chest when defending a new town. You get ammo as a reward for doing some of the encounters as well so it is not all bad but you can soon find yourself out of lead if you just indulge in mindless sport. This seems to focus your mind a little more too and keeps you on track, not to mention you have most likely played the original game to death and done all there is to do if you have owned it for any length of time before the DLC came out so the need to explore soon wears off as Undead Nightmare delivers a more focused campaign feeling. Also, another new mechanic that makes a little use of the old herbal gathering part steps in out of nowhere when you are awarded an upgrade for your bullets to fire phosphorous rounds that set zombies aflame. Pick one of each of two kinds of herb and they are consumed with each activation of the upgrade which lasts for a short while. And as with the buffs in Dead Rising 2 there is a conspicuous lack of indication on how long the effect lasts for and when it is nearly over, aside for the lack of fireworks when you shoot a shuffling corpse. And it did not seem to last long at all, like maybe three or four shots at most.
The zombies also come in several flavours. There are the usual zombies with nothing special, there are the ‘bolters’ who suddenly spring towards you very fast, and there are the bruisers who are pretty fat and take a good licking before they go down. They can charge at you and try to knock you down as well so be careful. You will also encounter some zombies that spit poison at you and one person wants you to capture one of them, because naturally there are crazies all over the west who have been out in the sun too long anyway. There are even some zombies who might qualify as a ‘boss fight’ since they are named and several seem to be from the original story. They might be people you killed yourself, or people you just tried to help to no avail. They usually show up either in survivor encounter jobs or when you are called on to burn coffins at a graveyard to lessen the spread of zombies. Not that it actually seems to have any effect there and it is a shame it’s not mixed into the whole territory defence aspect of the game.
As in the original game, you can say hello to people as they pass by and the usual pleasantries are exchanged depending on your honour status. While the honour status seems to be missing this time around, with more important things to worry about beyond reputation, the hellos have also changed to something more fitting the situation with John saying things like he is happy to see another survivor and such. So some more work has been done there beyond simply scripting inside a current engine and new voice acting is not restricted to the storyline.
As I said earlier, the controls are pretty much the same as the original game and nothing innovative is added as such, and so the same control issues are present as well. However they are not as present in usual game play since you rarely need to duck into cover due to a lack of people with guns shooing back at you.
The story takes a few liberties with the central plot characters and while not wishing to spoil too many of the encounters you will come across some well knowns from the original adventure who meet a bad end here and there. It becomes clear that this is not meant to be some kind of ‘missing chapter’ in the story where everything sets back to normal and you continue on to the game’s finale so we can see why it has not been ingrained into the original game like other step-in-out style DLCs.
Overall, and my own minor objections on theme mismatching aside, Rockstar have done as good a job as can be expected when planting the undead into an established background and have made a decent zombie themed game out of it. If anything, as it stands on its own, if RDR’s original outing had never existed then Undead Nightmare is a very decent and passable game for the zombie killing lovers. There is also a host of new multiplayer challenges to play through with friends or on X-Box Live, but I have not toyed with them as I have mentioned my views on XBL multiplay in the past. I never liked stepping into a game with a bunch of strangers who I cannot reach over and slap when they act like retards and grief people so I am dependent on my very slim list of XBL friends to assist me there. But single play has plenty of content to make it worth the cash.