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Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare was more than a trendy zombie game

The game’s zombie DLC made a great experience better

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare collage Rockstar Games | Illustration by James Bareham/Polygon

A decade ago, we were lost in a horde of zombie games. From Minecraft to Dead Island, video games were toying with the undead, capitalizing on our cultural zombie obsession with varying degrees of success. But Red Dead Redemption’s spin on the walking dead, as strange a pairing as it at first seemed, worked perhaps best of all.

In October 2010, Rockstar Games released Undead Nightmare, an expansion to the original Red Dead Redemption. The new content struck before we hit zombie games’ saturation point, and it differentiated itself from the pack. Instead of just a mode that cobbled together shambling corpses and the Old West, Undead Nightmare was a separate single-player campaign that just so happened to feature zombies and mythological creatures. The alternate timeline sprinkled bits of horror — and humor — into the world of Red Dead Redemption in a way that a more straightforward expansion wouldn’t have.

Undead Nightmare was a stand-alone story that followed John Marston as he searched the frontier for the cure to the zombie plague that befell his wife and child. Over the next six hours or so, the expansion remixed gameplay elements of the Red Dead formula, such as destroying hordes of the undead in towns rather than disposing of random bandits. Clearing out the undead would make each location a safe haven for a few days of in-game time, but soon enough, the town could be overrun again. This setup created an endless loop of clean-up duty in line with the unrelenting zombie menace.

And just like Red Dead Redemption, Undead Nightmare had more to offer by way of side missions handed down by the folks that Marston met on his travels. Some of the missions, like one where Marston needs to save a convent of nuns from zombies, felt right at home with the serious nature of the main game. Others, like a budding filmmaker who needs Marston to round up a special type of zombie for him, were much sillier. The best quests subverted all expectations; there’s one heartbreaking twist at the end of a Sasquatch hunt.

The Four Horses of the Apocalypse: Pestilence, Famine, Death and War
Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

The expansion also went beyond simply changing the makeup of Marston’s quests; it changed how he went about them. While the original game might have seen the player hunting for the best breed of horse, Undead Nightmare allowed you to tame the Four Horses of the Apocalypse. Pestilence, Famine, Death and War not only added mythical flair to the DLC, they also had special perks: War lit zombies on fire on contact, while Death caused their heads to explode. Finding and breaking these horses was optional, but it added such a strong thematic twist to an otherwise standard aspect of Red Dead Redemption’s gameplay.

Additions like these elevated Undead Nightmare into something stronger than a zombie-themed cash-in. It felt especially welcome when there were other games at the time that used zombies as simply an aesthetic wrapper, like Plants vs. Zombies, and ones that made hordes of the undead easy fodder for a minigame, like the first Nazi Zombies mode in Call of Duty: World at War. Of course, not everything was just throwing in zombies for zombies’ sake; Left 4 Dead leveraged the genre appropriately, as did the Dead Rising series. But rare was the game that transformed the nature of its story by adding these creatures.

Undead Nightmare wasn’t simply “Red Dead Redemption, but with zombies”; it was a refreshing take on how zombies could feel original in Rockstar’s existing world. The plot, albeit a simple one, personally affected the main character. The zombies weren’t just a new enemy type for Marston to gun down, but a specific threat to his family and his neighbors.

Among the DLC of its era, Undead Nightmare stands as a great example of how to be trendy in the most natural way possible. It’s one of the things that remains a fond memory for us, nearly a decade after the first Red Dead Redemption.

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