When it comes to the games we play, oftentimes we associate freedom of choice as a specific digital path to take. A fork in the road. Your different classes in a role-playing game, moments where you’re siding with one faction over another, heading into a mission choosing stealth-and-shadow over guns-and-fireworks. These digital routes are in many ways exactly that, pushing you towards a goal whilst letting you enjoy the ride.
Keeping the GPS theme going, deviation and variation is pretty much the videogame equivalent of messing with your GPS and taking the next left... after next. Gentle put-them-to-sleep stealth versus the neck-twisty-stuff.
Arkane’s Deathloop plays with the very form of choice and player freedom, its design an intricate collection of disparate pieces all working as a part of a greater whole. The complete opposite of a corridor shooter, it’s the sort of game you’d expect from the studio behind the excellent Dishonored series. Even so, it doesn’t mess with the outcome -- that being a great game to pick up and play.
Saying Deathloop plays with the form isn’t mere hyperbole. In much the same way great films defy comparison, or push their respective artform forward, Deathloop does so for the first-person shooter. By pairing the idea of ‘where to go’ and ‘how to approach’ with that of a deep underlying mystery, Deathloop is as dense a puzzle to solve as it is a combat playground to conquer.
Deathloop plays with the very form of choice and player freedom, its design an intricate collection of disparate pieces all working as a part of a greater whole.
And with that the question of ‘What is Deathloop?’ is a fairly difficult one to answer. At least in simple descriptive terms that could sell you on what it’s actually like to play. Sure, there’s the setup where you take on the role of Cole, an assassin who’s looking to end a repeating time-loop on the mysterious island of Blackreef by assassinating eight key targets. An assassin that’s also being hunted by the mysterious Julianna, who seemingly wants the loop to continue ad infinitum.
Learn behaviours, find new weapons, equip Force-like abilities, try not to die. Double barrels blazing, neck-twisty-stuff, some machete action, hacking turrets. Deathloop’s action is on point, yet it plays unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years. Deathloop is not a ‘rogue-lite’, here everything is scripted and laid out just so. Repetition is the key to unlocking its many secrets (there’s a lot to take in), and it’s a testament to Arkane that the first few hours of the game not only serve as a tutorial -- teaching you all about the Visionaries, what Residiuum is, and how to crouch -- but every step is seemingly conscious of laying out the very unique combat-meets-puzzle-meets-stylish-action nature of the experience.
All by loading you up with, but not overloading you with... well, information.
Residiuum by the way, is the stuff used to infuse weapons and mods and passive abilities so you can take them with you on all future loops. Okay, so maybe not ‘take them’ exactly, it’s more of a have them be there or become a part of you sort of deal. This was gleaned after (mistakingly) leaving behind a sweet infused shotgun by swapping it for a pistol mid-run and having it (thankfully) return for the next loop. As did the concept of, ‘Oh yeah, this is some pretty heady science-y stuff to try and stay on top of’.
Complexity is to be expected whenever you throw in time-travel, paradoxes, and other strange sci-fi concepts that sees you reliving the same day over and over. The fact that this complexity results in the sort of approachable structure you’d expect to find in a big release is commendable. With so many secrets and potential directions to go, the flow-chart style interface that lets you track and follow various leads is as intuitive as it is an impressive peek behind the design curtain.
Learn behaviours, find new weapons, equip Force-like abilities, try not to die. Double barrels blazing, neck-twisty-stuff, some machete action, hacking turrets. Deathloop’s action is on point, yet it plays unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years.
Like a board game with its own world, players and ruleset, the only real way to get a proper feel for the flow is by living through that first loop -- that first time around the board or table. The major moving parts and potential pathways are all presented in a clear and linear fashion, as are the mechanics before the training wheels are removed.
Deathloop is also exceptional at giving you a clear goal to choose from at all times, and it does so without feeling like it’s holding your hand. In a pure videogame and setting sense, having Cole become a time-traveller paves the way for the addition of overlaid text in the form of inner-monologue which doubles as direction and guidance whilst also being a brilliant way to convey story and tone. Like exposition and tutorial all in one, that simply adds to the mystery and very nature of the loop.
Deathloop’s biggest selling point, at least in terms of immediacy, is its stylish art direction, wonderful use of colour and hyper-realistic animation that gives the human enemies, outside of the eight Visionaries, an otherworldly and faceless presence. Style that bleeds into the combat; from the various weapons to equip to abilities that can freeze enemies in mid-air or have them fly around the screen like a stormtrooper on the receiving end of a videogame Jedi’s power.
There are shades of Tarantino cool, especially with use of music and the fun-to-watch-and-dish-out hyper-violence. But, there’s also a dose of 2000-era PC classic No One Lives Forever, with its highly animated and vibrant alternate history version of the 1960s. In Deathloop we get a cast of memorable characters alongside strange versions of technology from the peak boomer years of 1960 to 1980. As the studio’s first game designed for next-gen hardware and high-end PC rigs, the original setting and tone is used to great technical effect pushing the width, depth and complex-machine that is an Arkane level, forward.
Though on this front there’s very little in the way of destruction or shaping the world in any sort of dynamic way. Weather doesn’t change during play, and within a region you’re given as much time as needed to explore and make your way through. The rigid nature of the loop and working out how to play with it is a key part of Deathloop. Here, the added grunt of beefier tech paves the way for more detail, more nuance, and some impressively crisp textures. Each region of Blackreef is brought to life with detail and clarity, but all within the very straightforward and rigid structure that you normally associate with a linear game.
There are shades of Tarantino cool, especially with use of music and the fun-to-watch-and-dish-out hyper-violence.
With four regions and four times of day, Deathloop's island setting is essentially four stages, each with four variations. Again, breaking it down like that it’s all very game-like. Four moderately-sized regions to explore might not sound like a lot, but in terms of detail Blackreef and its four locales are some of the most ambitious environments Arkane has created to date. Learning through repetition not only adds a sense of familiarity and confidence for any potential plan but there’s a great way in which multiple threads overlap and new secrets or discoveries almost always pop up.
This puzzle approach can detract from the narrative, though. And often Deathloop is more fun to play than it is to unravel in a pure cinematic or storytelling sense. And on that note, once the final pieces begin to line-up it does begin to lose some of that mid-game charm. But even so, there’s nothing quite like spending time with Deathloop and having it all click. If you’ve ever been a fan of the style of first-person game Arkane has made in the past then it’s something of a no-brainer.
This is easily the most Arkane-like game ever made. And as strange as it is to reference a game’s studio as a means to explain how it feels to play, there’s something comforting in that idea. As a PlayStation 5 exclusive (Deathloop is also available on PC) it’s remarkable that a large studio in the form of Bethesda and platform holder in the form of Sony put their full backing behind its creation. It might take a flow-chart or two to understand its premise, but it takes experiencing a loop or two or three to discover its genius.
What we liked
Complex and approachable
Wonderful art direction, style, and action
Freedom of choice in a way that feels new and exciting
Exceptional environment and level design
Mutiplayer is fun and makes sense within the loop
What we didn't like
Narrative tends to take a back seat to the puzzle-like nature