Deathloop

Once upon a time I played every game to death. Even bad games I played through and through. My first amateur efforts in games writing involved writing FAQs for GameFAQs back when it was an independent site filled with TXT file walkthroughs for games.

My guides were always superfluous, unnecessary things (much like my reviews). I wrote on Pokemon Red and Blue, on a Master System game called Teddy Boy, and I was working on a walkthrough of Enter the Matrix when I was banned from the site (for threatening to kill the President of the United States in binary code) with all my content stricken from existence.

My walkthroughs were also-ran affairs, follow-ups to other more popular guides, and I knew they were unnecessary, but it wasn’t about that for me. I wrote walkthroughs because I loved games, and I loved writing, and I wanted to combine the two somehow. I played games so thoroughly that I knew them back-to-front, and I wanted to use that information for something.

Now I finish games and discard them. Hell most of the time I only finish them if I’m reviewing them — if I’m not, I’ll happily tap out well before the end. And yet I’ll tune in and donate to AGDQ every year, I’ll marvel at the speedrunning history videos from the likes of SummoningSalt, I’ll watch new “Developers react to speedrun” videos on IGN the moment they go up — even for games I haven’t played.

Deep down I still adore the idea of playing a game so much that you know every part of it. Of reading a book until the spine frays, or rewinding a cassette so much the player chews the tape. But I don’t actually do it. I pick up media, I devour it, and I move on. I have been called a content locust, and I think it’s a fair assessment.

And I’m far from alone. Between a third and half of all people just never finish games they’ve bought, let alone return to them after having finished once.

Deathloop plays like it’s been designed from the ground up to combat this issue. To create a game where you play through the levels over and over again until you know them top-to-bottom — and you love it. 

You’re Colt Vahn, a guy who wakes up on a beach in Blackreef and finds out he’s living out the same day over and over forever. And, more importantly, he can remember each day. There’s only one other person (or is there) on this island cursed with the same burden, and for some reason she really wants to kill you.

And that’s about all I can say about Deathloop’s story without spoiling things. Because Deathloop is like a reverse whodunnit — you find out early on that you’re the murderer, you just need to work out how you did it. Or will do it.

The way it unfolds is spectacular, though. Blackreef is split into four locations and four times of day. Each location is different depending on what the time is — the sun has shifted, the tide has risen, snow has formed and the number of Blackreef revellers (called Eternalists) changes from morning, through noon and afternoon and into evening.

What’s Updaam?

The layout of each location — Updaam, The Complex, Karl’s Bay and Fristad Rock — remains largely the same, but it’s amazing what a few little changes do to alter how you explore a location. Nothing makes you study a picture more than trying to find the differences, right? And so in Deathloop, as you pass through Updaam in the morning and then again at noon, the changes become obvious. There’s a charred and still smoking building right near Colt’s apartment, for example, and there hadn’t been one in the morning.

As you continue to loop, you’ll notice even more. At night there’s a fireworks celebration in Updaam, and you start to notice how they’re setting up for the festivities throughout the daytime. Over in Fristad Rock you watch how the tide and freezing water opens up new avenues of ingress into the strongholds of your targets. On the Complex, there’s a door that won’t be open until the inhabitants of Blackreef blow it open for you (they’re a chaotic bunch).

The locations exist in a sort of extended stasis while you’re at them, so you can visit each one for as long as you like without actually seeing them complete their tasks. It’s a copout, but one you accept as a necessity — instead of watching them setup a fireworks display over the course of 24 hours, you see a montage of it, and the ‘uninteresting’ parts are excised with hard cuts as Colt rats his way through the tunnels beneath Blackreef.

A man gets shot by a shotgun in Deathloop
This guy’s having an “UPLIFTING” experience. I used to hate writing captions because I never did them as good as the guys in OPSM and Hyper and PCPP. I see that hasn’t changed.

Learning these locations more thoroughly means you learn what you have influence over. You might not be able to personally blow open that door in The Complex, for example (and if you can I haven’t worked out how), but you can stop the explosion in Updaam if you know what caused it.

And that, at its core, is what Deathloop is about. Deathloop is a game about finding out what you can influence, so that you might use that influence to kill the seven visionaries on Blackreef all within the same day. But to do that, you need to learn each location as if you live there. So you play them, over and over and over again.

It’s weird, infiltrating the same place over and over. While sneaking into The Complex to murder Egor, one of the visionaries, I was struck by memories of the Metal Gear Solid demo that got with a copy of Official PlayStation Magazine, which me and my brothers played to death. The snowy locale, the sneaking mission, the action movie hyper-seriousness — there’s a weird nostalgia there that I adore.

Deathloop wraps it in Arkane style immersive sim brilliance, too, and that adds to the learning of it. Colt has access to slabs, objects of immense power which allow him to do all kinds of things — many of which you’ve seen in other Arkane games before. Shift allows him to teleport around the game space, and it is in my opinion mandatory. Kinesis lets him telekinetically throw people — but not objects, oddly. Havoc makes him take less and deal more damage, Nexus lets him link multiple enemies so they all feel the same pain and Aether allows him to go invisible.

As you acquire more of these slabs, the way you approach situations changes. Instead of stealthily taking out every enemy with the very slow-to-charge-up nailgun, maybe you can just pop Havoc and walk through them with a shotgun instead. Maybe you go invisible and walk right up to them to execute them. And by approaching the same situations in different ways, you learn more again. You can yank the batteries out of turrets for example, which is awesome when you don’t want to have to hack them, or if you need a battery. And that goes further. You could trigger a camera to kick off turret deployment, pop Aether to go invisible and then hack the turrets to stand at the centre of a glorious zone of death — all without firing a single bullet.

An Aethered Colt hides in plain sight in front of security systems in Deathloop
How did a second Now You See Me movie get made? The first one wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t good either. They’re making a third apparently.

Single Action Army

Colt has more than a few guns at his disposal too. Early weapons are trash — they have only basic functionality, and even that is limited, as they are prone to jamming. But thorough explorers will no doubt find better weapons quickly, plus the resources required to preserve those weapons — and that’s where things get interesting. There aren’t loads of guns, but the guns that exist can have a number of different variants, and that greatly expands your arsenal. I’ve got multiple types of the Sniper Rifle, all with different functions. One makes enemies bleed on contact, so even when I don’t get a headshot they perish a few moments later. Another I can charge up to deliver a shot that kills in one blow regardless of where they’re hit (I’m seeing a trend here).

Deathloop falls prey to the trap common for looter shooters, though. If you find one gun that does exactly what you need all the time, you’re unlikely to switch off it. And if you’re limited to three weapons, and two of those weapons are always equipped, you wind up with only one weapon slot for new guns. In my case it was a nailgun that didn’t jam and a shotgun of immense power, though I eventually switched the nailgun for a luger-style “Tribunal” that had a built-in silencer (the point of the nail-gun was silent kills, but the Tribunal did it much quicker). It’s almost like scientific testing in a way. You’re controlling variables, right? You’ve got your ranged silent killer, you’ve got your ‘oh fuck I need everything dead’ weapon, and then your third weapon can be the experimental variable, to see what you can do from there.

The combat isn’t all that good anyway. The AI is bad, prone to omniscience and bee-lining, which leads to situations where your best hope for survival is a small closet with a bit of hard cover, where you can hide and wait as eternalists stream through the door into certain death. The fights with the visionaries can be more interesting, because most of them have slabs that allow them to do more interesting things, but Deathloop really isn’t about the fighting.

It’s very much like Dishonored in that way. In fact, like Dishonored the large levels appear to be separated into smaller chunks of influence for most AI characters. With enough mobility — and Colt has a lot of mobility — you can see the borders that some enemies just won’t cross. It’s hardly specific to Arkane’s games, but it’s always distracting when it happens in immersive sims.

The player has this big bloody sniper rifle in Deathloop
I legit didn’t find this weapon until about 17 hours in. I found it on a player who had invaded me with it. I still don’t know where it exists in game, but I’ve got multiple copies of it now because invaders bring it to me.

Secret Invasion

One thing I think the average AI of regular enemies facilitates is the vastly more interesting “Invasion” mechanic Deathloop offers players. Julianna, the game’s principal antagonist, is able to hunt Colt down and kill him when he’s in a level where a Visionary is present, acting as a sort of protection for the Visionaries and enhancing the threat he faces.

And better still, players are able to queue up and be Julianna themselves, invading other player games to hunt them down and kill them like the dogs they are. I’m going to be honest with you — I love invasion systems in games. I’ve played literally dozens of hours of invasions in every Dark Souls game, and I spent probably a dozen hours doing it in Demon’s Souls too (it wasn’t really my jam).

Invasions are a brutal form of Player vs Player, because they represent a version of the game as it shouldn’t be. Deathloop has dumb AI, with short vision cones and deaf ears who will ignore you until you’re on top of them, twisting their head around til it faces the wrong way. But invading players buck that trend. They can see you from across the map if they choose the right vantage point. They can hear you fighting AI enemies and use that to get the drop on you. Invading players are smart, and that makes them terrifying.

In my mind, that informs the role of an invader. I don’t think it’s necessary for an invader to win to do their job, as long as they create the panic and terror the system is supposed to invoke. One of my favourite PVP memories is playing the role of Looking Glass Knight Squire in Dark Souls 2. I equipped a work hook, which I think was the lowest damage weapon in the game, and I would queue to fight for the Looking Glass Knight boss. I’d get summoned to help the boss, and instead of going in and trying to dispatch my opponent (which I probably could have done easily), I’d simply hit them with the work hook any time they tried to do something I thought the boss wouldn’t like.

Try to heal? Hook. Try to cast? Hook. Try to interrupt the boss while he winds up for another attack? Believe it or not, you get the Hook.

I wasn’t trying to kill them, I was trying to make them have a more interesting game experience. Or at least have a more interesting game experience myself. And it’s a game experience you just can’t have when there isn’t an invader mechanic. Because you can’t be certain what the invader will do. Are they agents of chaos? Are they ruthless killers? Are they small children who stumbled across mum’s open game and queued up by accident? (I swear, that’s the only thing that would explain at least 10% of Dark Souls 3 invaders).

Me, I’m an agent of chaos. I want players to be afraid, but I don’t want to ruin their run. I’d mine up the radio antenna they have to hack (to slow them down if they tried to leave without engaging) and then hunt them down, tracking their whereabouts based on the corpses they’d leave behind. And when I found them, I’d try to make them as noticeable as possible. Julianna can tag Colt (Colt can tag regular enemies, but I never used it outside of the tutorial) and every nearby enemy will see him. Shooting at Colt players will often see them leave cover at inopportune moments. And people don’t realise it, but there are dozens of gas canisters littered around every single map that can be shot to poison anyone nearby.

Colt can die three times before his run is a wipe (that’s his special power), so I found myself killing them twice before throwing my life away. Sometimes I’d wind up killing them a third time anyway. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

Julianna raises her fist to punch the camera point of view
She’s already stabbed you. That’s a machete in her right hand. I don’t think raising her fist is actually all that threatening because you’ve already been stabbed. If anything, punching is at this point de-escalation.

The flipside is fun, too. As I mentioned, Colt can die three times before he hard-resets for a day, so getting jumped by a Julianna isn’t the end of the world. All bets are off when you get invaded, in my opinion, so I relish the opportunity to delete any Julianna who chooses to join my Blackreef. I love seeing the ways different people approach the role too. I love killing an invader and carelessly running over a mine she left behind at a chokepoint, or that she used up all the healthkits I usually rely heavily on in certain sections of the game.

And if you’re not interested in getting invaded, you can play the whole game offline, or just switch it to either singleplayer or friends only mode. Suddenly the only Juliannas coming to your Blackreef are either AI or your friends. AI Juliannas are not too shabby at the game, and they can follow you all over the map, unlike other AI, so they’re decent opponents. And your friends — well you can theoretically tell them to fuck off if you need to.

I found Deathloop’s invasions laggier than Dark Souls’ PVP, but that’s the nature of peer-to-peer PVP on consoles. There’s no knowing what kind of connection someone might be using for their PS5. They might have it on Wifi, sitting next to a microwave that they keep in a Faraday Cage they only breach the field of to heat up hot pockets for all I know. When I invaded Nathan Lawrence of Reviews’ game it ran well because he has a competent network setup — we were having a great time cooperatively murdering everyone in the level — right up until it hard-crashed on me, anyway.

Arkane Knowledge

That’s pretty classic Arkane, really. They make these wonderfully complex, layered games with systems upon systems upon systems, and so I don’t mind when I encounter a bug or two. I didn’t run into anything as heinous as the issues people had in Prey 2016, for example. I didn’t lose my save game, I didn’t have to play in a world where the colour blue didn’t exist (or was it only blue that existed?). I saw some graphical glitches, a menu bug that forced a restart, and the game quit back to the home menu twice and that’s about it.

Something new for Arkane is the extended tutorial, and I hope it’s a trend that begins and ends with Deathloop. From chats with others, Deathloop takes between 13 and 20 hours to finish (I spent 20 hours finishing it, much of it getting sidetracked). But the first three-ish hours of the game is locked into a hyper-linear tutorial, and I worry that some players might burn out on the game before they get to see what it really has to offer as a result.

A screenshot of the Hell Crashers arcade cabinet in Deathloop
I would give this arcade cabinet game a score of 7.1/10. I’d score Deathloop higher, but we don’t do scores on TheGAPodcast.com.

The tutorialisation of Deathloop should have ended after your first loop — it’s about 20 minutes long, unskippable cutscenes included — but you are lead by the nose through a second loop out of some desire to show players what is possible, and it feels like a massive error. For players who get the concept immediately, the extended tutorial is like a set of shackles stopping you from experiencing the breadth of the game. Worse, those unfamiliar with Arkane games might instead learn bad habits from the lengthy second loop, sticking to their laid out objectives without exploring the world around them.

You’d be wise to persevere, though. I haven’t lost myself in a game the way I did with Deathloop since Red Dead Redemption 2. There’s so much to find in each of the game’s locations and each of those locations at different times. The story it weaves is like the game itself, constantly unfolding in unexpected ways. Even when you finish it, when you solve the ‘howdunnit’ and do it, there are still more questions left unanswered. 

More than that, it makes you want to play the same areas over and over. There are only four levels in the game and if you knew everything I knew about them, it would seem like almost too much. And I know that there is still more I don’t yet know, and I’m excited to puzzle all of that out. Deathloop rewards players who learn it forwards, backwards, inside-out forwards and inside-out backwards.

Other Arkane games have given you godlike power and let you run amok in their worlds, but Deathloop lets you be a god. Not the God, I don’t think, but a god. Because maybe the real God uses tricks, you know? Maybe he’s not omnipotent, he’s just been around so long he knows everything.

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