Red Dead Redemption + Undead Nightmare Review

Genre: Sandbox/Western

Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Developer: Rockstar San Diego

Price: $59.99 (USD)

I’ve always been a fan of the Western genre. Maybe it’s the picturesque landscape, tough as nails heroes and villains, or the lawless nature of the wild wild west that intrigues me so, but one thing is for certain; the genre is woefully under-represented in video games. The few titles that have gone down the western path are mostly average, with one or two notable entries. I was beginning to lose hope on ever experiencing a truly awesome western video, but lo and behold, the developers at Rockstar San Diego rode into the scene on a white horse and a gleaming badge of “awesome game,” and produced what is, I believe, the definitive western game this generation. Read on to find out why.

Rockstar Games is known for the Grand Theft Auto series, and while I’m a big fan, I always felt that the game design (do bad things for fun) didn’t lend itself to the setting the series inhabits (roughly contemporary crime). What I mean is that often, in a Grand Theft Auto game, you are punished for doing something awesome (like standing on a rooftop firing rockets into busy traffic). On the outside, Red Dead Redemption looks a lot like a GTA game set in the west. And in truth, it is.

The key difference between the two franchises is that the natural lawlessness of the west fits with the lawless design of the GTA games much better than GTA. Whether you are a saint or a sinner, you don’t feel like the game is unfairly punishing you for having a good time. You want to start a bar brawl in each tavern in the game? Go right ahead. Spot a ne’er do well accosting a poor woman and you want to dish out some old fashioned hot lead justice? Well do it, cowboy. Never once during my 50+ hours of Red Dead Redemption did I feel like I was being handheld into how I should play the game. I was able to use my own moral compass to decide whether or not I was being a jackass or a hero while playing.

The story of Redemption is simple: You are John Marston, a tough cowboy with a mysterious past who is roped into hunting down a dangerous member of the gang he used to ride with. I won’t reveal more of the plot, but during the course of the story, Marston will encounter a rather excellent cast of colorful and entertaining characters, and travel across the pre-industrial western America, and even Mexico.

The game is vast. And I mean that. The map is simply huge. Despite a relatively brown and orange color palette, the developers at Rockstar San Diego did a marvelous job of not only realizing their 1905 setting, but differentiating the various regions of the map visually. From the great plains, to dense forests and washed out desert, Red Dead Redemption is not short of visual diversity. Add to this one of the most amazing sky and weather systems I’ve seen in a video game to date, and the whole world of RDR just feels unpredictible, a little bit wild and dangerous, and most importantly, alive.

While the player is free to tackle the story straight through, the game is so full of side missions and random events that it’s easy to spend upwards of an hour just roaming the countryside for some reason or another. The random events are what really set this game apart from other sandbox games released this generation. I won’t reveal too much, but one random event in particular I think really encapsulates the Red Dead experience: I was riding my horse across the night time plains, when I come across a campfire off in a clearing. Upon approaching the campfire, I see a man, kneeling over the body of a dead woman, a bottle of alcohol and a pistol nearby. The distraught man cries and weeps incoherently, then picks up the pistol, puts it to his head, and pulls the trigger. I just stood there and watched, slack-jawed. Scripted as the event may be, it nevertheless felt real, and I felt powerless to stop it.

Other events are directly influenced by your actions, or lack of actions, such as a stranger who runs up and declares that his loved one is about to be hung. You can try and help the stranger, or leave him to his fate, but either decision is up to you, and the outcomes are often surprising. I saved a woman from a pack of coyotes, only to have her run off and get devoured by a cougar. C’est La Vie, right?

John Marston as a character, is fascinating. He’s tough and coarse, but with more than just a hint of humanity and dignity in his manner. He claims to be an ignorant rancher, but his way with words speaks otherwise. By the time the game ends, you will have grown attached to John Marston in a way few games this generation have managed. He doesn’t just feel like a game character, but a believable person. The last events of the game are particularly powerful and really nail home what a spectacular job Rockstar San Diego did with characterization.

On the game play front, Red Dead Redemption is a joy to play. Players experience the world from a 3rd person perspective, and are given free reign in how they approach the game. Story missions are designated with icons on the map with a character’s initials, and “Stranger Missions” are highlighted with “?” marks. The game is also filled with various survival challenges, which include collecting various plants, hunting particular animals, and finding treasure. The game never seems to stop throwing things your way when you are not pursuing the story quests. Other sandbox games seem to cease to exist outside of the story missions, but not so here.

Controls are smooth, physics are excellent, and the combat system is a joy, thanks in no small part to “Dead Eye,” an upgradable ability that lets John at first slow down time to pick off an enemy or prey, then paint the target with an “X”, then target specific body parts or weaponry. Taking out multiple enemies while galloping down the plains at top speed on your trusty steed is too satisfying for words. Speaking of horses, there are numerous breeds in the game, each with differing stamina attributes. It often pays to go out and try and rangle up a new horse, if anything because it’s stats may be better off than your current ride. Hunting animals and selling their pelts is a great way to earn revenue, and the game has numerous activities to enjoy when not completing story or side quests, such as Horse Shoes, Liars Dice, and Poker. The game simply encapsulates the Old West in a way I simply have never seen before in a video game.

Did I forget to mention there is multi-player? Although I’m not the biggest multi-player gamer out there, the MP in Red Dead offers Free Roam MP, and Competitive MP modes. Up to 16 players can enter the world and play co-operatively or competitively. I admittedly didn’t spend much time in RDR MP, but what I played was enjoyable. Players earn money and XP while playing, which allows them to upgrade their character with new and better weapons and mounts.

VERDICT: BUY – I can’t stress enough how excellently realized Red Dead Redemption is as an entertainment experience. The visual presentation, characterization, game play, and the way it takes the best elements from Grand Theft Auto, and marries with a much more complimentary world setting, makes it a title I can’t help but recommend to everyone who enjoys sandbox games. I even recommend the game to gamers who may not enjoy the Grand Theft Auto series, but enjoy the Western genre. It is a very different experience from GTA, that I guarantee. I would go so far as to say Red Dead Redemption is the best sandbox game released this entire generation, and that’s saying something.

Read on for the review of Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, a zombie filled DLC adventure that turns the Red Dead Redemption world on it’s head.

Undead Nightmare

Genre: Sandbox/Western/Survival Horror

Platforms: PlayStaiton 3, Xbox 360

Developer: Rockstar Sand Diego

Price: $9.99 (USD)

I’m generally not a huge fan of downloadable content. Often because the content either doesn’t fit the price asked (see: the Prince of Persia 2008 extra area DLC), is charging players for content that should have been included on the disc (see: Tomb Raider Underworld’s DLC), or actually was included on the disc, but the unlock had to be purchased (see: Resident Evil 5’s DLC).

Such is not the case with Undead Nightmare. I won’t reveal any of the story points, as that is one of the best parts of the DLC, but the plot revolves around the dead suddenly rising from the grave, and turning the world of Red Dead Redemption into Red Undead Redemption. The content takes place during the “Home” period of RDR, and has players controlling John Marston once again as he tries to get to the bottom of the sudden arrival of the undead.

The beautiful countryside of RDR is transformed into an ominous nightmare thanks to constant rain and fog, and, of course, packs of zombies shambling over the plains. Game play is similar to the core Red Dead experience, with some notable changes. First, and most obvious, of course, is the fact that all enemies are now zombified, even the animals, making them tougher and more dangerous to kill. If you’ve watched any zombie movie, then you should know that shooting them in the head is the only way to take them down. This is no different in Red Dead Redemption. I will save you the ammo now by fervently exclaiming: Shoot them in the head!. Otherwise, they’ll just get back up and terrorize you.

Another change to the game has Marston clearing out towns from the undead, making them safe for survivors, and opening up a place to sleep (and thus save your game). These freed towns can, and will, become prey to more zombie attacks, so it pays to keep your eye on your map for such instances. There are also new weapons to aid you in battling the undead, like a torch (I won’t disclose the other weapons, as to not spoil the fun), as well as the addition of mythical creatures that Marston can track down and hunt (again, I won’t spoil them).

The DLC could be considered short, but that is wholly up to how the player approaches the game. There are still side quests, and Undead Nightmare specific world events (such as coming across people under attack from the undead), and the whole of the RDR map is yours to explore. Not to mention a new multi-player mode that lets you and your friends take on increasingly dangerous hordes of zombies, as well as new character skins and costumes for both single and multi-player.

As far as DLC goes, this is the most comprehensive and packed DLC I’ve seen released.

VERDICT: BUY – This is what downloadable content should be. It turns the games world on it’s head, and offers a lot of value for your dollar. The game still feels like Red Dead Redemption, but the zombie setting really alters your perception of the world. The new game play addtions/weapons, story, and scare factor make this an excellent purchase to snag before Halloween.

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