First-person shooters get a bad rap. Whether they be boomer, military, or futuristic, they all get thrown into the same category – mindless. This is an unfair label that can be easily debunked by pointing at a myriad of games and developers. Arkane is one such studio. Arkane has a long history of injecting a copious amount of freedom into their games. Whether that be via exploration, progression, morality or even combat. They are experts at crafting small, but dense, open-world experiences. Deathloop is their latest game, and it harnesses decades of expertise to form what I consider to be their Magnum Opus.
We Gotta Break The Loop
You wake up on a beach. The first thing you see is a swankily clad woman toting a wicked knife. The knife does what a knife does, and you die. Before the confusion can fully sink in, you wake up on a beach, only this time the woman and the knife are missing. Welcome to Blackreef – your new home for the next 24 hours. Exploring the nearby tunnels reveals a bizarrely familiar pistol, a noticeboard with some names on it, a direct line to your murderer and passageways to every major site on the island.
As far as introductions go, Deathloop sets the scene perfectly. Within seconds, the concept of looping is introduced, and after following the crumb trail for a bit, that concept is expanded even further. Going into Deathloop’s story beyond this would do the game a disservice. Just know that, for the most part, Deathloop is a thrilling ride filled with intrigue, twists, turns and depravity. You may have a gun in your hand, but the game wants you to be invested in why you have a gun – and it does a wonderful job.
Progression is handled via leads and discoveries. This could be a document detailing where someone will be and at what time, where a particularly potent weapon can be found, or a sweeping story revelation that ties into breaking the loop. Despite the sheer number of things to read, Deathloop keeps most of its documents short and to the point. This leads to brief moments of downtime whilst you piece together a grander mystery, but it doesn’t completely remove you from the action. All your findings are recorded too, so you can refer back to them at a later date.
Not all progress is made via grand story reveals or leads on how to break the loop. There are a bunch of Arsenal Leads and Discoveries to be made. Arsenal Leads inevitably direct you towards some of the best weapons in the game, such as a powerful sniper rifle or a legendary set of pistols that transform into a SMG. No matter where you go, or what you do, there is always something to see, find and uncover on Blackreef. That’s not even mentioning trinkets and upgrades – both of which let you fine tune how Colt or his kit operates.
Characters are another aspect that sells Deathloop as an engaging narrative and mystery. The eight Visionaries are all complete bastards, but manage to sell their wankery in eight unique and wonderful ways. Harriet leads a suicide cult, Alexis is an entitled rich-boy douche bag, Egor is a depraved scientist etc. On a surface level, they all deserve death, but snoop around long enough and you’ll see just how far each rabbit hole goes. Even Colt, the character you play as is a fantastic example of an amnesia plotline done right. It also helps that he plays off of Juliana perfectly to establish a hilariously grim relationship built on insults and murder.
As good as it may be, I do have some criticism that detracts from the overall storyline. Firstly, nearish the end, the story gets bogged down by one plot thread that felt like 30 minutes of padding. The ending was also a little bit weak. It felt like it was building to something greater, but kind of dropped the ball. This is a case of the journey being better than the destination. Finally, Deathloops biggest sin – and I don’t mean just narratively – is that it has the audacity to end. It took me around 20 hours to get there, but I was not ready to leave Blackreef.
…It has the audacity to end.
That’s in part due to the staggeringly phenomenal gameplay that elevates Deathloop to one of the best games to come out this year. Firstly, the game has a lot of weight to it. Don’t mistake this weight for clunk, however. Colt can sprint, slide, double jump and clamber with the best of them – he just has a purposeful heft to everything he does. He is far from floaty, and that is a good thing. If you can see a rooftop, then you can probably get to it. Very few areas in Deathloop are inaccessible, so each zone becomes this intricate playground for Colt to navigate how you see fit.
Gunplay is also amazing. Every weapon feels like it’s firing an exploding train thanks to some outstanding audio-visual feedback. The MG1-’Peppermill’ looks – and feels – like someone built a chaingun from the contents of a plumber’s toolbox. Whereas the Strelak 50/50 is a burst-firing shotgun that tears through hordes of enemies and almost deafens you with its symphony of carnage. Running, sliding, hopping and popping feels fantastic, and Deathloop wants you to be on the move at all times. Death is swift, but you are swifter. The game also has a very satisfying snap-aim that helps make dual-analogue feel just as smooth as keyboard and mouse.
The game gets into its stride with the inclusion of Slabs. Slabs are little bundles of magic that give Colt a variety of powers that more-or-less break the game. You start with the ability to revive on death, which is handy and makes the game much more forgiving. That’s child’s play compared to everything else. Colt can turn invisible, teleport short distances, toss enemies around with telekinesis and link groups of enemies together in an astral death pact. Experimenting with each power, and how they interact is oodles of fun. The game doesn’t tell you everything each power can do, so discovering new quirks further opens up your exploration and combat possibilities.
Combining powers just adds to the insanity on offer. Using Nexus to link a group of eternalists together, then using Karnesis to throw one of them off a cliff and watching as 10+ enemies start flying through the air, is indescribably awesome. Each power can also be upgraded, applying even more effects. Your teleport can suddenly be used to swap positions with an enemy, whilst Aether can eventually stay active during a firefight turning you into a 1988’s Predator. Deathloop is a game about options and freedom, and the way the powers, weapons and exploration all weave together is magical.
It’s a shame the AI is a bit naff at times. Unlike Arkane’s previous work where the AI is capable of detecting you when sneaking about, Deathloop’s AI is a bit lacking. It almost felt like design though. Enemies take a long time to react to your presence, and this makes stealth fairly easy. Once alerted, however, things get dialled up a notch. You might have the power of a god, but those powers inhabit a squishy human body. Colt goes down quickly if you aren’t careful, and the AI is more than ready to pepper you with bullets once the going gets tough.
The eight Visionaries are a bit of an exception. They can take a bit of a beating, are typically in locations that make stealth difficult, and their AI is tuned to detect you a smidge faster. They are also deadly in a fight and most of them are packing Slabs (you kill them to obtain them). Juliana might be the highlight here. Unlike the other seven, she spawns into maps every now and then to hunt you down. She packs rare items, sometimes multiple slabs, and is more than capable of combining her powers to do some seriously impressive things. There is nothing more terrifying than hunting a Visionary and Juliana dropping by to ruin your plans. It might sound annoying, but it ended up being way more thrilling than anything else.
It Has Multiplayer
This leads directly into the multiplayer. Once you’ve reached a certain point in the story, you can take control of Juliana and invade other peoples worlds ala Dark Souls. Hunting down players whilst they are mid-mission feels amazing. You know you are being a dick-waffle, but the scales are fairly balanced. Juliana needs to kill Colt 3 times due to his default slab, Juliana doesn’t know where Colt is, so you need map awareness to hunt him down, and you have no idea what loadout Colt has. Sure, they don’t know what you have either, but you only have one chance to win. The more you play, the more weapons and powers you unlock. The mode can be turned off if you just want to face an AI Juliana, but multiplayer did add an extra layer of tension to the game that I couldn’t get enough of.
What makes Deathloop tick, is how all of this ties together and feeds into the idea of looping. Finding out how to manipulate the timeline in one loop, so you can achieve something next time. Finding what elements of the world don’t loop, and exploiting them. Learning enemy placements, and movement patterns. Unlike most Roguelikes, death isn’t a punishment in Deathloop. There was never a loop where I didn’t learn something, or do something, that advanced…well, a third something. Provided you get through the tutorial, you won’t even lose your equipment on death. Heck, you use death to escape situations. Say you are being chased by a horde of enemies. Jump off a cliff, revive at the point you were 10-or-so seconds prior, and suddenly you are free to sneak into a now-empty complex. Death is a mechanic, and it feeds into everything.
I am not a huge stickler when it comes to presentation, but Deathloop is quite the looker. Style erupts from every dark corner and crevice. Environments are just large enough to feel open but so dense with things to see and do that it feels natural. Enemy designs are bright and creative, weapon models are over-the-top and chunky, and the effects are flashy and extravagant. Even the little cutscenes that play when you end a loop with new information have this cheesy Pink Panther vibe to them that fits perfectly. It also runs flawlessly on PS5, although I have seen reports of PC performance issues at launch.
The music in Deathloop is pretty swell too. Whilst not the most memorable of soundtracks, it does its job. The combat track in particular slaps pretty hard and drives the action in all the right ways. Sound effects are loud, crunchy and explosive in all the right ways, whilst the voice acting is top-notch. Colt and Juliana deliver their lines perfectly and are the stars of the show. They drive the game forward, and the sheer amount of dialogue they share is seriously impressive.
As I played the PS5 version I thought it would be fitting to include a bit here about the Dualsense implementation. Deathloop uses haptic feedback nicely, with every step resulting in a little jiggle, and every gunshot reverberating through your palms. Adaptive triggers are nice too, although I didn’t really notice them once I had spent a couple of hours playing. The mic is also used for radio dialogue and is just crackly enough to sell the feature. Overall, Dualsense still feels like a gimmick and nothing here enhances the experience enough to make it better than any other version of the game.
Deathloop is an exquisite soup made from ideas, mechanics and execution. In a year that has had some serious corkers, Deathloop stands tall amongst them, and may even cast a shadow on most, if not all of them. Arkane are masters of their craft and practically every aspect of the game delivers. I genuinely wish the game was longer, or had a hard mode, because I simply wasn’t ready to move on once those credits rolled.
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