Friday, June 2, 2023

Design review of Redfall by Arkane Studios Austin

I completed the main campaign in Redfall (official site, Steam, also on Game Pass), a 4 player co-op open world shooter by Arkane Austin, who's mostly known for detailed single player story-filled action games. The reviews and player reaction haven't been positive, but as an Arkane fan I felt compelled to play it for myself and take it on its own merits.

Overall I feel it's an OK game that's basically playable, despite the bugs and aggressive texture streaming and general unfinished feeling. If Microsoft had given them another 6-12 months to truly polish everything, then it maybe would've been a more solid OK game. 

Anyway I didn't mind the incompleteness so much because I was playing less for fun, and more "for work", as a first person game developer. In this sense, playing a 75% finished game is more useful than playing a 100% finished game. You get to see more of the big broad strokes before they got quite resolved, the intent vs. the execution. 

So this post will focus on my read of the general game design and player experience.

SPOILER WARNING: lots of general systems spoilers and gameplay screenshots, some story spoilers

The high level narrative premise has promise. What if vampires invaded Cape Cod (hmm, ok?...) but also the vampires are evil biotech CEOs who devoured the next Henrietta Lacks to oil the gears of capitalism forever (not bad!)

There's a gamer joke about how every JRPG ends with killing god, and the emerging Western millennial equivalent is to end with the final boss of capitalism. Redfall's final boss of capitalism is an Elizabeth Holmes / Maleficent type who has enclosed a public good known as the sun. You're fighting not only the privatization of public health but also reckless climate engineering!

But not really. The player never quite experiences these ideas in the game itself. Instead there's cutscenes without animation, scripted conversations without choreography, and readables you rarely read because the game never pauses. As a narrative stop-gap, every boss unlock quest features mandatory scripted scenes where you listen to faceless blood ghosts re-enact the boss backstory while you jump on furniture. Unfortunately I felt this approach didn't work in Tacoma either, it never transcends the cost-saving measure it feels like. (Maybe the final boss of capitalism is tougher than we thought.)

Similarly, you can see where the core game design wanted to hit. 

While the popular comparisons to Left 4 Dead x Borderlands x Destiny x Far Cry x Fortnite are difficult to shake, I think many don't remember how Left 4 Dead is very different from all the others -- it had a surprisingly minimalist design with no numbers-y progression systems, and relied heavily on human sociality and level design to keep things fresh. 

A L4D-like-with-stuff actually sounds like a decent fit for an Arkane style shooter? Combine a Valve-like artful level design core with Destiny's tight skill tree, as well as Fortnite loot systems and skins, and you can imagine a somewhat decent pitch that lets the studio keep its soul despite a blood pact with the Zenimax money vampires. (In the end of course, they cut out all the planned monetization stuff anyway, and I didn't even realize there was a skin customization screen until I was prepping for the final boss.)

Instead of the threat of live game monetization, I think Redfall's biggest core technical problem was not auto-populating for consistent multiplayer co-op. There's no Destiny-like seamless matchmaking and no Left 4 Dead style good-enough bot AI. It feels like such an obvious absence to me, so I imagine they attempted some kind of solution but then the engineering complexity forced them to cut their losses.

Regardless of the how and why, this is a worst-case scenario for the designers on the ground. They had to design a 4 player co-op game that all the friendless Arkane fans play as a single player game. 

The chaos of 4 players throwing around 12 different spells is overwhelming, but 1 player using 3 spells (if they remember to) is underwhelming. Plus the Left 4 Dead inspired enemy types don't work without other players; for example the "Angler" type grabs you with a grappling hook, but what if no one's there to rescue you?... So then you have to let the single players shoot the Angler to rescue themselves (if they remember to) but then what's the point of this enemy type if you can save yourself?

The emptiness also breaks all the core room-to-room level design. All these big wide streets and corridors and oversized ADA-accessible bathrooms fill up with 4 players. But in single player now they're filled with nothing except some set dressing and trash loot.

All these big battles with generous arenas and vulnerability windows give much-needed time and space for 4 players to coordinate and pay attention to each other. But in single player now you're just standing there wondering why everything is so slow.

All the dynamic cutscenes and dialogue sequences relied on 4 player characters all bantering amongst each other like in Buffy or something. But in single player, your character is just vaguely talking to themselves in a kind of sad and lonely way.

All the mission pacing and scripting design was constrained by the possibility of 4 different players being in 4 different parts of the map, making stealth and structured encounters impossible, yet now as a single player... OK you get the idea.

Let's zoom out. There are two open world regions, Redfall Commons and Burial Point.

The first region is much better since it's smaller, the compactness means nothing overstays its welcome. I also have a suspicion this was the vertical slice map they built first, with good density of POIs and compelling experiments like the shipyard area -- a big well defined concept with interesting shapes, entry points, and unique monumental modular kit... a typically Arkane-ish setpiece scale which you never see again. (The large hospitals in both regions are OK but you can really feel their kits.)

I was surprised but in hindsight I realize I shouldn't have expected a Dishonored sized level or even a Deathloop dungeon scope. They obviously couldn't make the big sprawling maps key to their studio identity, since those would require long multiplayer sessions with no real savegame support. L4D works because the flow is fast and mostly linear in 10-15 minute chunks across a 1 hour campaign where you can dropout whenever. Deathloop's unsavable 1-2 hour marathon sessions were really pushing it. Given the multiplayer constraints, they ended up in this uncomfortable Far Cry / Destiny sparse outpost-style level design space except with no vehicles or varied enemy roster to spice it up.

So instead we're left with smaller granular level design beats. There's semi-random world events and vampire dens, but I think the most successful of these are the safehouse unlocks.

Each open world region is divided into districts, and each district has a safehouse, an unlockable checkpoint / fast travel point. To unlock each safehouse, you have to hold F on a nearby sometimes-hidden generator (follow the yellow electrical cord from the locked basement door!) and often the generator needs keys that are hidden nearby.

These types of small key hunts are probably the closest that Redfall gets to traditional single player level design beats. You have to gather environmental clues about where to find a key, with no goal marker to spoil the exact location for you. Maybe a survivor took the keys with her to call for help from the roof, and you'll find the keys next to her corpse? (... But now how do you get onto the roof? etc.) (CORRECTION: turns out this roof scenario was actually a hidden side quest that I mis-remembered as a safehouse unlock beat. Oops. Similar vibes though!)

When you unlock a safehouse, you get a lot in return. Sure it's a respawn point and fast travel location, but it's also a convenient way to refill healing and rare ammo (sniper bullets, stakes, batteries) without returning to the hub, and the unbreakable infinite UV floodlights outside give good cheese to shred mobs and even midboss vampires.

Here the safehouse design feels elegant. The game doesn't have to drop a bucket of XP or loot rewards on me, because the safehouse functions provide enough reward already. Then I can do some extra optional safehouse missions to upgrade the safehouse with more perks if I feel a special attachment to it.

Unfortunately this sense of intrinsic value gets a bit wrecked when the optional safehouse missions aren't actually optional.

The first safehouse mission is always to clear a mob or blow up an objective somewhere nearby, and the second is to kill a named vampire and collect their skull. 

Three safehouse skulls + main quest macguffin = boss fight. So if that's 3 pairs of safehouse missions to unlock each of the 4 bosses, in total that's 12 safehouses you're required to upgrade... 24 required side quests, but really there's only like 3 mission types... it's not the best spread.

All this mandatory repetition means safehouses feel less like special tools that I unlocked for my own uses, and more like required objective icons to clear a board. It's a little sad to lose the subtlety of leaving them optional, but I guess it makes sense to force players onto it since safehouses systemically feel like the most integrated part of the open world and systems.

I'd like to end with what I think Redfall does well: overall worldbuilding and sense of place.

The hub for the second region is a "maritime center" that features its own branding, graphics, and pitch perfect museum-voice wall text about supporting boaters, helping the environment, and embracing local heritage. It's a very authentic American voice ("capitalism AND the climate, working together!!") that a bigger US AAA or a non-US indie would've failed to capture. There's also a US Coast Guard facility, ranger station, boardwalk, and tutorial ferry that all feel pretty well-researched and faithful. 

It's these small moments and details that stand out above all. Marveling at the sculpted frozen waves that could've come out of a FromSoft game. Basking in all the little halos of streetlights in the sleepy foggy distance. Fighting your way into a base, only for the boss to get so scared she locks herself in a closet and begs you to leave her alone (you can lockpick the closet door and attack her anyway). 

Or consider a rare branching moment, where completing one mission before the other mission results in enemy guards diverted to meet you -- an ambush which you can predict and sneakily evade, a responsiveness (and stealth support) that hints at what a different Arkane open world game with different core pillars could've been.

I think fans and critics been somewhat sympathetic about the situation though. For some behind the scenes industry background gossip, see Jason Schreier's piece from yesterday, but basically we've all apparently agreed to blame the corporate valuation vampires at Zenimax so we can psychically shield our beloved darlings at Arkane.

So everyone's hoping Arkane gets another chance. The question is, what will that chance look like?

They could maybe pull off a No Man's Sky / Final Fantasy 14 style maneuver and reboot a re-design as Redfall: Revamped next year, but that's probably not the complete second chance you'd want. A Dishonored trilogy remaster also sounds tricky, since they'd have to port everything from their old in-house engine to Unreal, for not much benefit since the graphics still hold up pretty well.

Whatever they're planning, good luck to them, they've probably learned a lot from making this and I'm looking forward to hearing about it next year.

(see also: my very detailed and spoilery Deathloop design analysis from 2021)