By Jeremy Peel published 3 days ago
Big in 2022: As Arkane goes open world for its Xbox-owned debut, the rest of us scramble to work out what that means
Back when Redfall co-director Harvey Smith worked with the legendary Deus Ex designer Warren Spector, the two would talk about the 'one city block' – a dream game so small in scope that every inch could be made interactive and reactive. On this smattering of streets, every business and hotel would be enterable and stuffed with characters – each living their own stories and governed by complex AI which the player could study and interfere with.
Spector still hasn't had the chance to make good on his design – but Arkane Studios got pretty close with last year's Deathloop. Blackreef Island was made up of four levels, rather than just the one, but easily petit enough for a player to learn the layout of the local library, and the routines of the eight eccentric targets they were hunting. Deathloop was rightly celebrated for its density and detail, qualities that simply wouldn't have been possible across a typical open world sprawl.
Crossing the threshold
All of which makes the official classification of Deathloop's follow-up something of a surprise. Redfall is an 'open world co-op shooter'. It's a phrase that suggests scale, and with scale comes sacrifice. Take Bethesda's Fallout games, for instance. While deeply influenced by the original Deus Ex – in their stealth systems, tactile environments, and individually-tracked limb injuries – they can't possibly offer the many authored player paths you'd find in a typical Arkane level. What the 'one city block' pitch promises above all is designer care and attention; there were parts of Fallout 4, by contrast, that its lead developers had never even seen.
There are hints, however, that the Redfall team at Arkane Austin has taken measures to tighten its field of view. Where Fallout 4 tackled a huge chunk of Massachusetts, Redfall concerns only one 'quaint island town' within the state, a boardwalk retreat cut off from the rest of the world by besieging vampires who have blocked out the sun. It's a conceit that allows the developer to introduce fiction-friendly boundaries to its realm – and so spend more time colouring in the corners. You can be sure that Smith and co-director Ricardo Bare, Deus Ex veterans both, won't easily abandon its design principles – having held to them for decades. Whatever way the studio has found to balance sprawl with specificity, it's clearly happy with the result.
"In signature Arkane style, you will choose your path across the island and through the vampire masses," Bethesda says. Human cultists will run outposts across Redfall, which players will clear to make areas safe. Or safer.
The other exciting question mark hanging over Redfall – jostling for space with that blackened sun – is multiplayer. It's an Arkane rarity, yet the developer revealed an experimental PvP streak with Deathloop's invasion mode, inspired by the semi-competitive 'dance' of director Dinga Bakaba's capoeira hobby. Some fighters chose not to compete at all and instead face Deathloop as impromptu co-op partners, and co-op is exactly what Redfall supports, formally this time. You can play alone, or with up to three others. "Teammates can try different hero loadouts and combine their strengths to overcome the vampire legion and their brood of maniacal followers," says the developer.
If Arkane Austin has taken any notes from the Deathloop team in Lyon, we're in for a treat when it comes to loadouts. That titular 'loop' never became repetitive, in thanks part to the huge pool of gun and power upgrades players could bind to their character, Colt, and combine in clever combos. In that respect, Deathloop felt less like a loot-shooter and more like a deckbuilder. Its trinket-slotting metagame rewarded you for finding and testing overpowered matchups – such as rerouting your health bar to overclock your mana, granting extended bouts of invisibility. It's a marvellous foundation to build a co-op FPS atop of, should Arkane choose to go that route with Redfall. We already know that its weaponry will be found throughout the island, be customisable, and complement the unique abilities of its cast.
Speaking of, invisibility comes as part of the package with Jacob, one of Redfall's four player characters. You might remember him as "Edgar Allen Bro" from the trailer – an ex-military sharpshooter who appears to have dropped straight out of Warzone, separated from his PMC platoon by the town's vampire crisis.
His stealth focus and goth raven make a stark contrast to, say, Layla's showy telekinetic powers. It's she who sees off a newly evolved vampire – an angler, which separates players from their team using a psychic harpoon – with an enormous, unfolding spectral umbrella, which seems to act like a rain-proof patronus. But her juiciest-looking conjuration is a translucent purple elevator, simply because it implies the sort of vertical, secret-searching exploration Arkane is known and admired for.
Layla, incidentally, is right at the heart of the island's mystery – apparently spat out by the same scientific experiment that birthed the vampires. Her secrets, along with those of the town and each of the protagonists, will out during the course of Redfall's campaign. Perhaps it's only fitting that the game as a whole should remain something of a black box for now, even as its summer 2022 release approaches.