Welcome to Redfall, where the town motto is "Calm seas and sunny skies." Today, the seas are unnaturally calm. It's quietly horrific, actually. Go down to the dock and the ocean is frozen mid-tsunami - a giant sculpted wave caught in all its Hokusai curves and froth, the whole thing locked in space, with the soft matte edges giving it the likeness of old sea glass. There are ships caught forever in its tumble and swell - small fishers, but also a huge container ship, stopped mid-catastrophe, its cargo stuck in the silent spray.
You see this sea very early on in the game, and it's stayed with me. I should say here, I'm still quite early on in Redfall myself. This isn't a review, even though the embargo is just up. I haven't had time to play enough, and since this is a co-op game at heart - Arkane is calling it an open-world co-op FPS or words to that effect - I really need a good sense of it with other players. But there's more too. I'm playing on an Xbox Series X and the game is rather rough - rough in a way that I wonder if a day one patch might fix. So I'll give you some basic impressions today with the caveat that they may change - change once I've finished the whole game, and also if any patches are released. (Full disclosure - a patch from this afternoon locked me out of the build for a few hours, and while I'm back in I can't yet tell if it's improved much.)
Redfall is a game about a small American sea-side town - a rich one, somewhere Cape Coddish, like Provincetown, perhaps - that has been taken over by vampires. It's like Left 4 Dead in that you go out on missions in heavily tooled-up online squads and smack vampires and other horrors around. But it's also not like Left 4 Dead, because this is Arkane, so there's DNA from immersive sims in here too. You go out on missions around town, completing tasks and unlocking safe houses and other fast travel points as you go. Missions tend to be short and broad, giving you a place to go and people to kill or an object to retrieve, but an enormous amount of leeway in how you do this. Because this is 2023, there is loot, so you're always picking up slightly better weapons and salvaging old ones for cash. Because it's 2023, there are character classes, of which I've been playing only one so far - a British Cryptid hunter who can teleport a bit, fire out an electrical javelin that stuns people, and for a super can plant a big sort of holy ring light in the ground that turns vampires to stone for a few useful seconds and can heal me to boot.
This game is rather beautiful, if you ask me, but it's beautiful and ugly at the same time. The art design is wonderful, with noble clapboard houses topped with sagging roofs, trees brilliant with red and gold leaves long passed into autumn colours, and lines of carved pumpkins out on stoops. The town is quaint and adorably smug, with much of its pre-Vampire affluence poking through in broad Ozymandias strokes. The woods are lovely and craggy, spread across mountains that are interesting to climb. Everywhere you go there's a set-piece building to enjoy, and have a set-piece battle in. There's a light house, an old mansion on the edge of town, a wriggle of a hiking path up into the heights and a beautiful old movie theatre on main street. Hold me: your hub is an old fire house. I know right.
So how is it ugly? It's technical stuff, I think, and while I'll leave that to Digital Foundry I'll say that the edges - technical term - are a little rough. Textures sometimes pop in late or not at all, so those beautiful trees are always bursting into fiery life a little too close by, and at one point the classic immersive sim storytelling graffiti on a wall was weirdly pixellated. Character models are still and oddly lit. I should add here, I'm trying to be objective, which is always a mistake. I think the patchy textures - yes, I'm really about to say this - gives the town a slightly impressionist feel. The waxy characters are wonderfully waxy, the kind of things you might meet on a trip through a haunted Hall of Presidents. Even so, there's no ducking the fact that my wife came into the room when I was playing, looked at the screen in horror and said, "Jesus! What happened to Fortnite?"
I'm no cryptid hunter, but I have spotted a few technical problems elsewhere too. Once or twice I have died and reloaded without crucial parts of the UI present - I think this has been the case anyway. Enemy AI seems a bit clumsy, too, although I should add I have had the most fun, and played the most of the game, on the easier settings, so they may be performatively dumb for my entertainment. What do I mean by clumsy and dumb? They can get stuck in doorways if there is more than two of them, each one eager to go first. They are slow to react when being fired upon. I think - and maybe I am reading too much into this - they don't always understand the weapons they've been given. In one mission, snipers came up very close to blast at me, while shotgunners hung back and effectively gently misted me with buckshot. It should be said: I do all this stuff in games too, because I am thick. It's just not the kind of human behaviour I think AI design is often going for.
That's the non-undead enemies, by the way, the grunts and cultists. The vampires are often more successful. For one thing, tall and thin and often floating silently in the air watching over things as you approach, they are spectacularly villainous. And when triggered they often run straight for me, so I have to blast away and then stake them when they're stunned. That running at me gains in panic because I've found the default control settings a little cumbersome. They're overly twitchy, by which I mean they move too far one way when I nudge them and too far the other when I nudge them back. You know those first person games where it can be a pain to highlight an in-screen button you have to press until you've gone into the control options a bit? Redfall is that game.
All of this sounds bad, or at least nitpicky. But here's the thing: I don't want to pick nits at all here. One of the reasons why I'm still so early on in Redfall is because I've been playing it very slowly, savouring the flow of missions, the scraps of notes to read, the lovely atmospheric storytelling that goes beyond the timely satire to deliver a place that feels not just generously imagined but generously observed, that feels like someone loved it and studied something intently in order to make it. I love the fact that my base of operations is a fire house, and I love that an early side mission had me restoring its popcorn machine for morale purposes. I'm not bothered by loot, but I love a stake gun I just found - my third or fourth of this strain of weapon, but the first to really kick - that finishes vampires off in one blast.
I love the missions, too, which send me out in this lovely world of creaky Americana either to do something quite cool and find out a bit of backstory, or to go somewhere where it's just brilliant to shoot vampires. The mission I had to the lighthouse was essentially Silent Cartographer: Pocket Edition but in reverse, going up rather than down. The mission that took me down to a huge warehouse by the sea left me in one of the more interesting places to pick off enemies, using a mixture of stealth and all-out blasting. Remember: I'm playing this alone. I can't wait to see what these spaces are like with colleagues.
Elsewhere there's a lovely sense of progression. Taking safe houses, which allow you to fast travel and open up their own side quest chains. Rooting out vampire nests, a lovely bit of dream-time asset reuse that gives you a raid area to push through and a load of loot at the end. I look at the map now, and I can see my influence on it, just as I see more people waiting whenever I return to the fire house and offering a greater sense of my effect on this world.
Redfall, then: from about a third of the way in - my guess - and playing solo in a game that's meant to be played with others, I'd say there are some good bones here. The tech seems to be creaking and some of the ideas - the loot and other assorted Destinyisms - might possibly have been imposed from above. But this game already has an awful lot of charm, and that's much harder to patch in after the fact. Calm seas and sunny skies? I'll have a full review for you later in the week.