Over the past three or four years, during a period in which internet-ready home consoles have have become an integral part of so many people’s living rooms, it has often seemed as if Rockstar Games were pioneering the art of downloadable content almost single-handedly. The concept of releasing optional bolt-on extras for hit games is now nothing new, but Rockstar are one of the only developers who appear to have taken the concept of delivering DLC as seriously (and generously) as is physically possible; shaming most of their competitors in the process.
Undead Nightmare might just be the best thing that they’ve ever done, and is a revelatory experience in the same way that GTA add-on The Lost And Damned was last year. By eschewing many of the traditional sandbox bells and whistles, Rockstar not only manage to appeal directly to those gamers who may not warm to open-ended sandbox play, but also streamline their incomparable storytelling smarts (occasionally lost in the gargantuan worlds of their fully-priced brethren) into one single narrative, which brings out the best in both it, and them.
What’s most gratifying is the way in which it turns something that was (for the most part) a deeply serious endeavour into a totally riotous offshoot that places as much emphasis on character development as it does on droll comedy and genre pastiche. From the opening monologue (delivered by what sounds like an uber-camp Vincent Price impersonator) to a five minute cutscene that stands as a brazen love letter to Shaun Of The Dead, to the constant surprise of the ceaseless, anything-goes plot twists, Undead Nightmare delivers more thrills and spills in its opening two hours than many games can manage during five times that duration.
It shows Rockstar having lot of anarchic fun with RDR’s world and its inhabitants, and you’re never once left out of it. As amusing as it is to hear these familiar characters bicker about what has caused this zombie outbreak (and everything from snake oil, Mexicans, the government and the moon are targeted) every scene – side-missions very much included – now form part of an impeccably tight narrative. And because John Marston’s role as hero is much more clean-cut this time, more floorspace is given to the cast of oddball supporting characters, and all of them shine brightly regardless of how long the spotlight is placed upon them.
As is to be expected, the run-and-gun nature of the gameplay is beefed up considerably, but it’s never allowed to slip into mindlessness thanks to some shrewd survival horror-inspired cherry picks. Ammunition is scarce, and (as stores no longer operate) it’s a commodity that you’ll earn only by helping out the odd stranger, completing story missions, or looting the pockets of the previously undead dead. Even this latter dynamic isn’t out of whack with the skewed realities of the game’s universe, so rummaging through the pockets of deceased, tweed-clad women isn’t going to result in extra bullets.
And even when you pass by a town that has descended back into zombified chaos, you’ll be more than keen to assist the defending townsfolk, not only because you’ll almost certainly need more ammo, but also because the gunplay remains as brilliantly fine-tuned as ever. Dead-eye is in much more generous supply than it was in the main game, and the new torch and holy water weapons make for some superb last-ditch options during battle. And as was the case with the main game, the difficulty curve is quite perfectly pitched.
For the amount of content and (especially) entertainment that it offers, Undead Nightmare is almost worthy of a full-price release on its own. But not only has the disc-based version arrived at a seriously inviting budget price, it also contains three other sets of previously released DLC – Outlaws To The End, Legends And Killers and Liars And Cheats – as well as the new Horde-style Undead Overrun mode, that is every bit as compelling as its primary inspiration was. It’s an utterly formidable package, and nothing less than a must-buy for anyone with a Playstation 3 or Xbox 360.