When Arkane Austin announced its vampire-slaying shooter Redfall last year, it was understandable that a portion of its community was a little skeptical. Why were the creators of Prey and Dishonored moving away from meticulous, hand-crafted precision in favour of the messy chaos of co-operative open worlds? A year later I’ve learned that, well, they haven’t. The minds behind Redfall are determined to translate Arkane’s trademark smarts into a game that can be enjoyed by four cooperating players, and that begins with what the studio has always done best: single-player.
“We put an inordinate amount of work into making the single-player feel right,” says Harvey Smith, studio director at Arkane Austin. With no desire to make solo and multiplayer separate modes, Smith and his colleagues set about creating a game that worked as a satisfying single-player game just as much as it did a great co-op experience.
“It was very important to us that we allow you to play the game alone,” says Smith. “So you can pick your way along very slowly, play at your own pace, observe things at a distance, plan, formulate, harvest resources, do all those things that you probably like doing in an Arkane game.”
Fans of the studio’s previous work will no doubt be relieved that all those elements are accounted for and that Redfall isn’t, as some feared, a Left 4 Dead replica. Those fears weren’t baseless either; with Arkane’s history of critical success but commercial struggles, it was easy to believe a co-op shooter was the studio’s attempt to make something more mainstream. But that’s not the case. “We set out to do the most ambitious thing we possibly could,” Smith assures me.
That said, Smith recognises that the experience is transformed when other players join the party. “As soon as you have a second person, if that person is another idealised Arkane fan, there are times when the game still feels like [a single-player Arkane game] with another person,” he says. “But it’s less likely. It’s more likely that it becomes something new. It’s even more likely that things are going off the rails.”
That understanding perhaps informed Arkane Austin’s decision to lean towards the action ambitions of Deathloop (created by sister studio Arkane Lyon), rather than Dishonored’s sneaky sensibilities. But, like Deathloop, that doesn’t mean the beloved stealth vs action choice that characterises so many of Arkane’s games isn’t part of Redfall’s DNA.
“Stealth is important to this game, but this is not a stealth game,” says Smith. Rather than Redfall demanding quiet, surgical strikes against unaware targets, stealth is a tool to aid in the exploration of Arkane’s first urban open world. A vital part of making this work is enemy AI; legions of vampires wont inexplicably descend upon you just because you entered their patrol bubble.
“What works for us is hearing, sight, distance, view cones, and all that nerdy stuff that we love,” says Smith. “Because it means as I move my way, as I go across a parking lot, scale a little wall across the road, and make my way onto the roof of a building to rewire the antenna for this little side mission that I’ve got going on, I’m triangulating. Along the way, stealth is useful for that. It helps you avoid encounters so you can get to where you intend to go.”
Sneaking or running out in the open is just one of the choices you’ll make while exploring the town of Redfall, Massachusetts. In full Arkane tradition, key locations will have multiple entry points, each designed to offer a different challenge.
“Especially when it’s a campaign mission […] we have quality and design checklists where we’re like, ‘there’s got to be at least three ways in’,” explains Redfall’s co-creative director, Ricardo Bare. “And they have to entail different trade-offs for the player. This entrance is not guarded, but it’s locked, it has security systems. This entrance is open, but there’s guards patrolling. There’s a rooftop entrance. And there’s another way through the sewer, but there’s a hazard like flames or toxic stuff that you have to deal with. That’s our general approach to most infiltration style missions.”
Where Redfall differs from a game like Dishonored is that these locations, referred to as “tourist traps turned fortresses” by playable character Devinder in the game’s latest trailer, are just part of a much larger open world. The urban sprawl that fills in the gaps is, Smith admits, going to feel different to the meticulously designed campaign locations. “You have to pick and choose where you can do those [hand-crafted] things,” he says.
Redfall – Xbox and Bethesda Games Showcase 2022 Screenshots
But while the shift to open world means not every street can have the focus of, say, Dishonored’s Lady Boyle’s Last Party, they do still lend themselves to the gameplay loops that fans of Arkane love. Choosing paths, assessing enemy patrols, and discovering hidden stories is still woven into the fabric of Redfall’s roads. “We try to imbue all the spaces we make with history, even if there’s not a heavy handed plot,” says Smith. “Every square inch of the environment is infused with story content.”
Locations with clever level and narrative design are just one factor in Arkane’s rulebook. Another is the interlocking and reactive gameplay mechanics that breathe life into the land. Redfall’s open world offers a unique opportunity here, and Arkane is rethinking how the style of emergent events that were first pioneered by Rockstar’s cities can interact with the studio’s own signature mechanics.
“Systems that are part of the open world can crash into [campaign missions] and interfere with them in a way that we haven’t done in the past before,” explains Bare. His example is a dynamic world event known as a vampire nest, which drops a psychic door into an area that supercharges all enemies in a radius around it. While this is an optional activity separate from the main campaign, the way it affects the world can impact your main mission objective.
“If you happen to be doing the shipyard mission, the world could generate a vampire nest door nearby,” says Bare. “And if you ignore it, it might be that the shipyard mission is now encompassed by the area of effect created by the nest. And suddenly the shipyard mission is way harder, and I have a decision: should I go take out the nest first? Or am I just going to freaking grit my teeth and try to beat these guys while they’re super charged?”
It’s in this example that Redfall as a co-op game makes total sense. As a solo player, I’d probably tackle that nest before heading into the shipyard. But with two or three people backing me up, the decision to take on supercharged bloodsuckers becomes even more tempting. This, I feel, is the “something new” that Smith promises comes with co-op: a whole new layer of choice.
As Redfall’s new gameplay trailer shows, multiplayer opens up a whole new range of tactics for Arkane. Stealth-obsessed duos can synchronise sniper shots to quietly eliminate an area’s guards. More action-oriented players can combine their characters’ unique powers, such as using the telekinetic Layla’s spectral elevators to launch a friend into the air so that they can drop an explosive right in the middle of a group. That kind of synergy between characters is important to Arkane, but never at the expense of the individual player.
“Our approach is to try to make sure that [abilities] compliment each other in interesting ways to allow players to come up with cool strategies,” says Bare. “We didn’t do the thing where they were interlocking in a lock-and-key way, where it’s ‘you’ve got to do this and then do this, or you can’t kill the vampire’. We expect that players are going to find cool combinations that work for [their own playstyles].”
“There’s probably a set of powers out there that would be super awesome if it only worked with this other combination,” says Smith. “But as soon as you do that, what you’re doing is saying the single-player person has a less valid experience here.”
By ensuring that abilities are complementary rather than reliant on each other, it means there’s no pressure for a group to have specific characters in their party. “All four players can choose to play as Layla, if they wanted to,” confirms Bare, although he notes that this means such a group would miss out on all the dynamic conversation that happens between a properly mixed party.
Rather than worry about party composition, you’re free to decide which of the four heroes are your favourites, and discover the coolest ways they can work together. I’m already eyeing up Devinder, a cryptozoologist who comes equipped with a variety of bizarre DIY hunting gear that can petrify vamps, but sniper Jacob and his ability to turn invisible appeals to my sneakier side (plus an added bonus: he’s got a spectral attack crow). The synergy between these two, Layla, and the final of the four, robotics expert Remi, is not yet clear, but experimentation will hopefully be part of the fun.
Co-op won’t just be about making the most of compatible character skills, but also finding the gaps between other systems that can be filled in by another person. While discussing weapons, Smith describes the UV beam, first seen in Redfall’s debut cinematic trailer, as “a mobile way to petrify the vampires. Of course, it wears off, so if you stop they begin to thaw, and so you have to act before [they become active again].” Already I can see how co-op compliments such a gadget; if there’s another player ready with a stake launcher, you don’t need to turn the beam off and risk the frozen vampire thawing.
A co-op FPS is definitely unlike anything Arkane has made before. Yet Redfall, or at least the Redfall Smith and Bare describe, is everything I’d expect from an Arkane game. Its setting may mean we won’t get anything as intricately brilliant as The Clockwork Mansion, and its structure prevents it from having the elegance of Deathloop’s overarching rulebook, but there’s something undeniably alluring about being able to share an immersive sim with another person. For years I’ve recounted stories of the coolest things I’ve done in the likes of Dishonored, Deus Ex, and Prey to my friends. Redfall, if it’s everything Arkane Austin promises, means we’ll get to do it together.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.