Saturday, January 4, 2014

Undead Nightmare is .... Interesting?

I wasn't very impressed with Red Dead Redemption, but since I bought the Game of the Year edition which comes with the DLC expansion Undead Nightmare, I figured I may as well give it a shot. Besides, the concept of taking a familiar game and turning it into a zombie survival scenario was just too interesting to pass up. "Interesting" is the key word with this DLC, because I'm not sure whether to call Undead Nightmare good or bad. On the one hand, it's really cool to see how different everything is, but on the other hand, Undead Nightmare proves almost as tedious and repetitive as the base game. 

Undead Nightmare picks up between the ending moments of the base game, after John Marston is reunited with his family, but before he's murdered by the government agents. After a serious storm hits, John's wife and son are bitten by the undead, zombified "Uncle," leaving John to tie them up in the house while he sets out to find out what's going on as well as a way to cure them. Along the way he reunites with familiar characters in familiar locations, while rescuing survivors and cleansing graveyards of the undead. 

The biggest praise I can give Undead Nightmare is the fact that it can be completed in under 10 hours; my final time after I'd finished the main questline was 7 hours and 5 minutes, having done all the missions I could but while neglecting the bulk of the challenges. Undead Nightmare still commits many of the same sins as the base game, but being only a fraction of the total length, it makes some of the tedium easier to swallow because it doesn't stretch itself out as much. It also helps to finally see some actual change in the game world -- something I was incredibly disappointed not to see during the epilogue of the base game, after three whole years have passed.

Lassoing War, one of the four horses of the apocalypse

As a zombie game, Undead Nightmare also emphasizes the survival element of gameplay much more than the base game did. There's no economy whatsoever and ammunition is far more scarce, so you have to conserve ammo much more (at least in the beginning) as well as live off the land a bit more, with functional uses for plants and animal trophies. Unfortunately, Undead Nightmare never captures the true spirit of an actual survival-horror game, because after a few hours ammunition becomes just as readily available as in the base game (meaning you have hundreds of bullets at your disposal and no reason to conserve), and without the option for "hardcore" difficulty balancing you get insanely fast auto-regenerating health and dead eye meters. Admittedly, it's really more of a "zombie action/adventure" game, but I feel like more difficulty and survival would've enhanced the experience more.

Combat feels perhaps even more pointless than it did in the base game. In the original, you could at least count on looting money and ammunition from corpses, giving you at least some incentive to kill enemies, but in Undead Nightmare, a majority of zombies don't drop anything at all, meaning more often than not, killing enemies is just a waste of ammo. (Of course, this becomes pointless later on when you're rolling in more ammo than you could ever need.) Combat is not even that challenging, considering the lack of "hardcore" difficulty balancing meaning you can absorb a ton of damage before dying while relying heavily on dead eye. And since most zombies don't have ranged attacks, you can just stand still and let them get close enough to perform the cinematic "executions," thus guaranteeing a one-hit kill.

In sort of the same fashion as Left 4 Dead or Killing Floor, there are a number of different zombie types to prevent combat from becoming too boring. There are basic zombies that move at a respectable pace and can grapple you if they get too close, but there are also bruisers that charge at you and knock you over, retchers that spit acid at you and which explode when they die, and bolters that run along the ground on all fours at fast speeds making them difficult to outrun and headshot. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter that much, but it's nice to see some sort of variety in enemy behavior, since basically every enemy in the base game behaved exactly the same.

Liberating a town from zombies, using a torch as a melee weapon

There are, at least, a few new tricks up Undead Nightmare's sleeve to continue to spice up the combat a bit. All of the weapons from the base game reappear in the DLC, but there are several new inclusions as well. The best new weapon is the blunderbuss which has a small AOE effect that gibs zombies and uses body parts from fallen zombies as ammunition. You can make a tonic from various plants to lure zombies to one location before exploding them all with dynamite. You can craft phosphorous bullets to set zombies on fire. You can splash them with holy water. In practice, you may not end up using all of these new gimmicks, considering your conventional firearms in conjunction with the overabundance of dead eye are sufficient, but they're fun inclusions nonetheless.

Where Undead Nightmare really starts to fall apart is in the fact that most of actual gameplay gets to feel quite tedious and repetitive. There are only seven main missions and six side-missions in the game, which aren't terribly involved, so the bulk of the gameplay consists of going around the map liberating towns from zombie outbreaks and burning down graveyards to stop the spread. There are something like a dozen or more towns and outposts to rescue, and each and every one plays exactly the same -- arrive, talk to the town's surviving leader, collect ammunition from chests and deliver them to survivors, then kill off the remaining undead. It got to be tedious and repetitive after the first three I did and I lost interest completely, except that liberating towns is the only way to unlock the game's various weapons.

Headshotting a zombie. 

It's kind of fun at first to see familiar characters like Seth, Nigel West Dickens, Bonnie MacFarlane, and Landon Ricketts (among others), but it drives me crazy that John is so quick to going back to being everyone else's bitch, doing all their pointless random favors all over again. I don't even understand his motivation; in one side-mission, he agrees to return a live acid-spitting retcher to a filmmaker he met in the base game, even though he thinks the idea is completely stupid, because he "wanted to help an old friend." When he returns the retcher, the zombies attack the filmmaker and John makes no effort to save him. What was the point of helping an old friend if you were just going to let him die? Was that supposed to be your idea of ironic justice? What's my fulfillment supposed to be for completing this quest?

Undead Nightmare can be a fun treat if you really enjoyed the base game and are looking for more adventures within that world, but I didn't feel any satisfaction from completing it. Parts of it were really tedious and enervating, and its strongest aspects (mainly in terms of the new variety and the dramatic change in atmosphere) are only enough to make it an "interesting" experience, more so than a genuinely "good" one. 

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