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Before we start in, let’s just silence any misconceptions right off the bat: despite any appearances to the contrary, the Undead Nightmare DLC for Red Dead Redemption is not a “just add zombies” mod for the hit Western game. A huge, open landscape overrun with the walking dead is the central draw, sure, but Undead Nightmare’s changes run a lot deeper than that. Everything, from the music and color palette to the weather patterns and towns, has undergone drastic changes that give the Old West a much more unsettling, apocalyptic feel. There are ridiculous new weapons to unleash on the cannibal hordes, and things you took for granted, like camping to save or fast travel, are now too dangerous even to consider.
And zombies, while a constant threat, are far from the worst things you’ll find lurking in the newly corrupted wilderness.
Above: This isn't the worst thing either, although it's close
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. At the center of Undead Nightmare is a new story campaign, which we’re told will take about five or six hours to complete, and which, like the DLC episodes for GTA IV, will be accessible from the main menu at any time. Taking place somewhere during the game’s “home” sequence (after John Marston returns to Beecher’s Hope, but before the finale), the story predictably tasks Marston with discovering the reasons behind a sudden undead plague, and with putting it down.
One possible theory is that it’s all Seth’s fault. Our demo began with Marston confronting the emaciated grave robber in a cutscene at the Old Bacchus Place, where he was unsuccessfully playing cards with his former partner Moses, now zombified and oddly docile. Seth didn’t seem the least bit surprised by the dead walking the earth; in fact, he said, this wasn’t even the first time it had happened. When Marston said that folks in Blackwater thought the plague might have been stirred by a magic eye Seth stole from a grave, though, Seth flew into a rage and ordered Moses to attack Marston – which he didn’t. Eventually, Seth calmed down enough to tell us what to do: travel to every graveyard on the map and clear out every last flesh-eater.
The first one the game pointed us at was the little cemetery by Coot’s Chapel, but what happened on the way was actually more interesting, and came with a surprise. After saddling up a convenient zombie horse (which was more or less like any other horse, apart from continually wanting to veer in random directions and looking roughly 500 percent more disgusting), a blip on our radar appeared to let us know that a “mythical creature” was in the vicinity. This was one of the big reveals during our session: in addition to zombies, Undead Nightmare adds assorted monsters and mythical beasts that Marston can hunt or capture.
After chasing down the blip (which turned into a large, blue searchable area when we got close), we spotted a big, black horse with flaming hooves. This, we found out, was the horse of War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – and, yes, Pestilence, Famine and Death are lurking in the DLC, too.
The good news is that War’s horse was friendly… once we’d chased, lassoed and broken him like we would any other wild horse, that is. The better news is that, once he’s your horse, you can gallop through zombie herds and set them on fire, assuming you don’t get yanked out of the saddle in the process. Meanwhile, we’re told Famine and Pestilence will both have infinite stamina (meaning you can gallop nonstop), and Death’s horse can explode zombie heads, presumably by touching them.
As we rode on to Coot’s Chapel (which included a detour through a boarded-up version of the MacFarlane Ranch dotted with flaming wreckage), we were attacked by a few crowds of zombies, which wander the landscape like wild animals (but with much greater frequency). As it turns out, these bastards fall into four categories: the Undead, your garden-variety shambling corpses; Bolters, who scamper around low to the ground and are incredibly difficult to hit; Bruisers, who are big, slow and tougher to kill than most; and Retchers, who glow green, spit bile and explode when killed.
It took a while to get used to them as enemies; taking them down with bullets means shooting them in the head, something their erratic, flailing movements made it difficult to pull off. If you plan to stand and fight instead of running away, get ready to use Deadeye a lot. Or, alternately, to let them get close enough to use a close-quarters finisher – although that’s risky.