[Update: We've added multiplayer details to this preview, which you can find below.] You've probably heard that the Old West was a dangerous place, that the rugged terrain and lawlessness was an incredibly tough environment in which to carve out a peaceful living. But history books and spaghetti Westerns never told you the real threat that dominated that period of American history. No it wasn't contagious diseases, or bears, or bears with contagious diseases. It was zombies. The Old West was absolutely riddled with the undead.
OK, so that might not be 100 percent accurate. But that doesn't mean it's a scenario that won't make for a fun video game. For proof, look no further than Red Dead Redemption's latest downloadable content, a new expansion called Undead Nightmare. This DLC takes the world of John Marston and company and asks what would happen if the rugged frontier in which the game is set were overtaken by zombies. It's something of a stretch for a game that felt so serious compared to Rockstar's previous work on the Grand Theft Auto series, but with Halloween on the horizon, the timing certainly couldn't be better.
The obvious question facing Undead Nightmare is how its events relate to Red Dead's main storyline. The simple answer, according to Rockstar, is that it's purposely left vague--at least at the outset. It's mostly up to you whether you want to interpret this DLC as something that fits neatly into the main narrative or simply the result of a John Marston fever dream. What's much more immediately apparent is the stark transformation that the gameworld has undergone. The moon glows with an eerie greenish hue, the weather is consistently gloomy, and the music and ambient sound effects are decidedly creepier. And, of course, there are zombies.
Boy, are there ever zombies. The first cutscene we were shown introduced a new friend of Seth the grave robber: his zombie pal Moses. John Marston walks up to the two of them as Seth is pleading with Moses (who simply stands there, undead, groaning like the zombie that he is) to start playing the hand of cards he's lifelessly clutching. Marston then chats up Seth, and what we get out of it is that Seth's grave robbing may have played a part in the outbreak, after Marston tells Seth he never should have robbed that mysterious, undoubtedly cursed glass eye from a corpse. This cutscene was the only real story exposition we were shown in our hands-on demo, because after that we were off to complete a few missions.
At this point it's probably worth noting that the horse we rode to our first mission was also a zombie. Decaying flesh, exposed bones--our steed was very much undead. It comes with the benefit of higher stamina than a regular horse, but with a tendency to veer wildly to either side when you're trying to steer. At any rate, we made it to the first mission, which asked us to burn a number of coffins in a graveyard while dealing with the onslaught of zombies crawling up out of the ground the whole time. Most are run-of-the-mill movie zombies, lurching slowly at you to the tune of a ravenous moan. Then there are the special types, the hulking beasts who come running at you full steam and the ones who skitter along on all fours--the latter of which have a tendency to catch you by surprise because of how low to the ground they are.
As a countermeasure, Marston has a number of new weapons he can use to deal with these undead enemies. Most notable is a gun called the Blunderbuss, which looks like an elephant gun that fires zombie parts at such high velocities as to instantly and rather violently explode any zombie in its way. Looting zombies not killed by the Blunderbuss--those that are still intact--lets you collect undead body parts to use as ammo for the Blunderbuss. Then there's the holy water, which acts as a counterpart to the Molotov cocktail, engulfing enemies in a bright blue fire. You can also throw zombie bait to attract them all into one cluster for tactical purposes (use your imagination--ours involved TNT).
Next was a mission that involved the help of a few other survivors. A small farm was being overrun by zombies, and we had to aid some folks hiding on the roof in eradicating every last zombie from the property. This mission gave us the choice to be a team player and ferry rifle ammo between the survivors and the crates down below, or simply take matters into our own hands and find the Gatling gun conveniently mounted on another rooftop. We started with the former but eventually moved on to the latter. Then, at one point we started hurling zombie bait and TNT into the middle of the farm to get the job done even faster, though tragically our zombie horse fell victim to the alluring scent of that bait as well. Poor little guy.
A later mission had us breaking into a house surrounded by the undead in order to rescue a lone survivor and escort him on horseback to Fort Mercer, one of the few safe zones in the gameworld. This one allowed us to traverse a wide stretch of land in which we ran into zombie roadside bandits, zombie wolves, and more zombie horses. At one point, we saw one of Undead Nightmare's mythical horses, which include the steeds of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, such as War, the horse who's constantly on fire.
Undead Nightmare isn't just a single-player experience, however. There's also a pretty sizable addition to Red Dead's online multiplayer as well. We had a chance to go hands-on with a new multiplayer mode called Undead Overrun. At its core, this mode is similar to a Horde or Survival mode: it's you, a team of co-op partners, and waves upon waves of enemies. The twist is that you need to chase down the randomly generated coffins that appear in unpredictable locations on the map at the beginning of each wave. These coffins serve to extend your overall survival time as well as give you some fun new weapons and ammo, so it's definitely in your best interest to keep on the move in search of the coffins instead of just holing up in one safe spot.
This DLC pack will also give you an addition to the multiplayer Free Roam experience in a new mode-within-a-mode called Land Grab, which is completely free of zombies. Yes, doesn't feature the horrors of groaning, shambling enemies--unless you count the NPCs who've had a few too many drinks at the cantina--as Rockstar wanted to make it so that anyone can engage in Land Grab battles, while only players who have downloaded Undead Nightmare can start them. The basic gist is that players split into posses and fight over territories within one of the major towns in the game world. Players can steal territory away from opposing posses, and ultimately receive greater XP for holding territories the longest. While we didn't get to play this mode, it's great to see that Rockstar is carrying on the tradition of allowing players who haven't bought DLC to still use those features as long as their friends have--something it did last year with Midnight Club: Los Angeles.
Undead Nightmare certainly struck us as an odd direction in which to take Red Dead Redemption. But then you see things like a cowboy riding atop a flaming horse while chasing down zombie wolves, and suddenly everything seems right with the world. Expect to see the DLC released on October 26 for 800 Microsoft points, or $10.