The original Red Dead Redemptionby Rockstar is considered by many to be a high-water mark in video gaming. Following the "open world" format of Rockstar's infamous Grand Theft Auto series, the mean streets of major modern metropoli were replaced with the Old West of Italian cinema. Furthermore, the chain of events was given the compelling story of John Marston, a former outlaw who is forced to hunt down his old gang members after the government takes his family hostage. The game became a perfect example of the growing propensity for video games to transcend film as the art form of the 21st century. Beautifully rendered environments coupled with engaging storylines and characters that literally involve the player for hours upon hours of entertainment value.
Leave it to Rockstar, then, to work this same magic on Weird Westerns. In a genre regarded more frequently as "fun" rather than necessarily "good", Undead Nightmare is heralded as one of the best examples of Downloadable Content (or DLC) for one of the best video games ever produced. Picking up before Red Dead Redemption's epilogue, Undead Nightmare throws a supernatural curve into Marston's settled life. Just when he thought his family was safe, both his wife and son succumb to a zombie plague breaking out across the frontier. Naturally, it is up to the former outlaw to find a cure hearkening back to ancient Aztec worship of the Sun.
Undead Nightmare was criticized from some quarters upon its release, as a number of fans of the original game felt that it undermined Red Dead Redemption's realism to jump on the zombie bandwagon. On the one hand, this realism is overstated: the West was not nearly as wild and bloodthirsty as cinema has made it out to be. Red Dead is an interactive Western movie, pulling tropes and archetypes from Hollywood's gunslingers. A truly realistic Western game would involve an unrelenting tedium of plowing land, driving cattle and months-long bounty hunts. Violent and gritty does not automatically equate to realistic, and it's surprising to learn that anyone has thought that way since the 1990's. Rockstar already sacrificed realism for an entertaining product.
A point could be made for jumping on the Zombie Walk. I have little doubt that the genesis of Undead Nightmare lies between the popularity of this type of undead monster and its infinite suitability to shooter games. While something like vampires, for example, would have been interesting, the biggest problem facing every Dracula-related game ever made is the fact that there is only one Dracula. Even the likes of Castlevania have had to fill out his netherworld armies with brainless goombas. Werewolves might have been a good choice and added a teasing element of paranoia over who is or isn't one of the enemy. There is no reason why they couldn't have pulled in missions from a number of sources, from staking vampires to thwarting mad scientists. Of course, the odd Steam Man would have been nice to throw in for the sake of it.
The game still does enjoy some fun references. As the world is ripped asunder by a zombie apocalypse, the Four Horsemen's steeds roam the Earth. Marston has the option of taming War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, each with their own unique effects on the brain-eating hordes. Somewhere out there in the wilds is also a unicorn. Joining him are jackalope and chupacabra, and a bizarrely pathos-inspiring episode with Sasquatch. A new mythology for the zombies does not exactly utilize the creature's largely forgotten origins in Voodoo shamanism, but does draw the modern metaphor of cosmic nihilism and urban distress further back in that direction.
Both Undead Nightmare and its predecessor have the benefit of being sufficiently involved to maintain interest but recreational enough to encourage the average player of video games. The open world format and variety of mission-based episodes allow for a few minutes of popping off bounties or zombies as time permits up to a whole day off spent plowing through the main storyline. The only real problem with Undead Nightmare is the frequent frustrating lack of ammunition.
The release of Undead Nightmare as its own standalone disk months after the release of its DLC version allow Weird Western keeners to skip right ahead to the good stuff. However, I echo the reviews which advise that the full richness of the game can only be felt after playing Red Dead Redemption. For one, it breeds familiarity with the characters and locations encountered through the game. It's amusing to see what happened to them after the first game (read: they're zombies now).
Furthermore, the process of playing the one before the other acknowledges a truism of the genre: to fully appreciate a Weird Western, one needs familiarity with the normal kind. Western stories of otherworldly ghouls and crazed inventors have their charm unto themselves and that cannot be denied. They do, nevertheless, take on greater nuance when taken in context. They're best when you can really see what's so weird about them. One might even argue that a failure to recognize this has been one of the root causes of the genre's box office bombs in the past decade. A film like Jonah Hex, for example, tried to hard to promote itself as a comic book action movie rather than a competent Western. Some pundits suggested that Weird Westerns might be the next big way to breathe life into the flagging genre of the Western. However, as Western films are now themselves a fairly niche market through which only the best survive, a Weird Western must work doubly hard and not take anything for granted. Instead of lending the coolness of big budget blockbuster effects extravaganzas to the Western, they must overcome the stigma of both types of film.
Therefore, playing Red Dead Redemption first grounds Undead Nightmare in what would actually make cowboys and zombies a cool scenario. Not to mention that it is a stellar game anyways, and Undead Nightmare builds strength upon strength.