If there’s one thing Harvey Smith wants you to take away from Redfall’s gameplay trailer shown at Sunday’s Xbox and Bethesda Games Showcase, it’s that Arkane Studios Austin’s next game is not a Left 4 Dead-like.
“It should, unless I’m mistaken, it should put all the Left 4 Dead comparisons to rest,” Smith, the studio’s director, said in an interview on Monday.
Redfall looks more like Borderlands than any of the asymmetrical or PvE cooperative multiplayer games that have made a revival of Left 4 Dead’s gameplay loop over the past two years. This is mainly because it’s an open-world title (although, to a certain degree, so are L4D-likes such as Second Extinction). More importantly, the campaign is a completely solo-able experience, and no, you can’t bring along bot teammates, another important distinction.
It’s probably better to talk about Redfall, in which players will fight to save a New England town overrun by vampires, in the context of other Arkane games. Redfall is the studio’s first open-world game; that’s where the Austin developers are stretching their legs, seeing if they can present Arkane’s distinctive visual style in a more open-ended format.
“We’ve always tried to be fairly non-judgmental about the different approaches,” Smith said. “Missions that are very bespoke, with wide linear paths to a location are obviously very strong, and that’s what we did with the Dishonored games. A game where there’s only really one big mission, in one big space, like Prey, that’s also a strong approach. The open world gives you new strengths. So we were excited about that risk, we’re excited about the creative strengths that an open world offers.”
There are also the multiple protagonists that players will level up across their playthroughs. That also is an Arkane first, where titles like Deathloop and Prey were led by a single player-character. “Of all the games Arkane’s made, it may be true to say that Redfall is the most …” Smith began, searching for the words, “it’s the party game, right? You can creep along, and stealth, and play at your own pace, and absorb all the environmental storytelling and all the readables. If I was a player, the first time I played, that’s the way I would do it from beginning to end. But it’s also a party game because, as soon as you add another character, those two characters are talking to each other. And it’s just meant to be fun in that sense.”
Redfall’s four heroes were introduced when the game’s original announcement trailer capped off 2021’s Xbox and Bethesda show. There’s Jacob Boyer, a sniper type who showed up in Redfall on a contract with the private military corporation that employs him; Remi de la Rosa, a Coast Guard officer and engineer-controller type whose gadgets buff the team and shape the battlefield to their advantage; Devinder Crousley, a cryptozoologist who packs a powerful offensive toolkit with attendant tradeoffs; and Layla Ellison, “the telekinetic threat in student debt,” an all-rounder who adds psionic capabilities to her athleticism and firearm skill.
“You can use your powers against the very dynamic AI in ways that would come to expect from Arkane games,” Ricardo Bare, Redfall’s creative director, with credits on Dishonored and Prey. Layla’s psychokinetic powers can form a shield, or elevate teammates to higher ground by literally manifesting an elevator car. Jacob’s sniping abilities are aided by the “vampire eye” and “ghostly Raven” familiar he acquired after getting ambushed by undead.
Redfall comports with other Arkane games in its weird blend of supernatural and metaphysical abilities with basic, first-person combat, but it diverges in terms of its atmosphere and antagonists. Redfall’s seaside setting reflects a Massachusetts beach hamlet full of shabby tourist traps and accommodations; it’s deliberately familiar, at least moreso than Dishonored’s strange steampunk whaling port or Prey’s space station.
“What if, instead of a fantasy land, it was a real place you might have visited?” Bare recalled, going back to the original discussions the team had, shortly after Prey launched in 2017. “Like a seaside resort town in New England, with liquor stores, and a dumpster in the alley, and wires over the street, and a historic museum. What if we turned Arkane’s powerful art and narrative focus on that?”
For the antagonists, Bare and his colleagues arrived at the vampire incursion, abetted by a powerful vampire witch who manages to put the Sun in a permanent eclipse. Bare said that narrative trick wasn’t meant to avoid a dynamic day-night cycle (it’s still plenty bright when the eclipsed Sun is out) but more to make the vampires more involved and active during the game’s daytime, instead of contriving a dormant period that is less action-oriented.
“We definitely wanted to do a day-night cycle, and our tech team has the muscle to do it —kudos to them,” Bare said. “Our tech team put an inordinate amount of effort into a dynamic day-night cycle.” This covers game mechanisms like enemy and monster spawning, their relative strength (sunset is a dangerous time), and other features.
The vampires are helped out by gangs of suck-up humans who have ambitions of becoming just as powerful (if not also as dramatic) as their idols. Vampires will set up “psychic nests” over in-world landmarks, where players can either battle the threat in Redfall proper or venture into a psychic portal, which distorts the location and ramps up the opposition, to take out the nest’s “heart” and get rid of the menace. Obviously, one path supports more immediate, short-term gains and grinding, with the harder option necessary to taking control of Redfall’s world and driving the story to its endgame.
Redfall was originally expected this year, until Bethesda Softworks announced both it and Starfield, Bethesda Game Studios’ newest RPG, would be delayed to 2023. Smith said Arkane Austin developers were “given a lot of latitude, a lot of freedom,” when they were assessing development milestones and whether the project was truly on course for the delivery window that had been promised.
“We understand that the best thing is to make a great game that people will remember and play for a long time, and talk about the way they still talk about Dishonored or Prey,” Smith said. “Ricardo and I worked on Deus Ex together 20 years ago, you know, so if you do it right, it gets under their skin. It gets in their blood. That’s what we’re always trying to do; make a game that we think is meaningful, both for our time and for your time.”
When it arrives — which Microsoft said is in the next 12 months, in a blanket guarantee made during Sunday’s showcase — Redfall will launch on Windows PC and Xbox Series X. It’ll also be available day one on Game Pass.