Deathloop is the kind of idea that only an immersive sim developer could cook up. A beautiful world full of bizarre characters and a concept that an idiot like me needs a notepad to keep track of. Two assassins are locked in a time loop, with your lead character Cole trying to shoot and wisecrack his way out, while Julianna tries to maintain the status quo by taking Cole out. Again and again and again.
It’s clearly an Arkane game because, well, you get the type of superpowers you’re used to seeing in Dishonored and Prey, and it also builds on the studio’s greatest game Prey: Mooncrash, which played with roguelike elements and time fiddling itself.
Not that Deathloop is a roguelike. It’s a narrative shooter with its own tricks and while both immersive sims and roguelikes usually encourage you to keep it quiet, conserve supplies and scope things out carefully before you make a move, Deathloop seems keyed to a more cavalier style of gameplay. The time loop you inhabit means you’ll start every day the same, feeling like shit after a bender on the beach, and with this great power comes no responsibility.
During my first few hours with the game – I’ve played five hours of Deathloop – this beach area functioned as a tutorial area and then very quickly became a zone that I sprinted through at speed, grabbing guns and gear as I headed out the door to see what chaos I could cause.
Sadly, the combat in Deathloop is my least favourite part: gunfights don’t have enough feedback while the shooting itself feels floaty and it is hard to know whether you’re even taking damage, let alone dishing it out.
As a result, I found myself avoiding head-on conflict and either hacking a nearby turret or avoiding the enemies by exploring Blackreef, creeping around looking for clues like some sort of own-brand Batman, replacing his trademark scowling and cowl for a cool leather jacket and a sardonic quip.
Blackreef feels teeming with life, with the constant loop of the Eternalists within having the same cadence as starting a Hitman level again and again, a microcosm of routines and patterns that you can learn, influence and manipulate. Cole, your main character, feels like a real human being and he’s quite likeable – something I say because he, as an amnesiac who is learning things at the same time as the players – has some ties to the villainous organisation and nemesis Julianna that haven’t been fully explored yet.
The art direction in the game is astounding, and the neon-coloured Eternalists you fight with are as visually striking as the complexes and streets you explore. Arkane is a master of worldbuilding, and I think the island of Blackreef is one of its best creations, all retro-tech and whatever the fancy term for ’70s propaganda is.
A core part of the experience is just learning to roll with the punches. An early pick-up lets you die twice before a final third death resets the loop for you, and while I never hit that third death, knowing I had a little room to manoeuvre encouraged me to try silly things like jimmy open a window to a place filled with enemies and duck in to have a poke around. Two minutes later, I found myself trapped into a room with enemies on all sides, had to hack a nearby window to escape, and hurl myself through a third floor window onto the waiting cobbles and hope to survive.
This is when the game really opened up to me. While at first you don’t have the ability to retain anything through the time loop process, you do remember what you’ve learnt. For example: in your first loop you learn about a safe code and go back the next morning to clear it out before Julianna can crack the safe, but later on you’ll learn the location of weapons caches, the routines of guards and the way to access just about any opening. Add to this the knowledge that you retain as a player: the fastest routes through the game’s four areas, the weaponry you’re best with, exactly how far someone has to be from the edge before you can kick them in the arse and send them tumbling to their death.
I’d be very interested to see later speedruns of Deathloop, where players – pre armed with all of the keys and every route to kill their targets – should theoretically be able to start the game and immediately kill everyone to close the loop. But for me, closing the loop isn’t really the important part. I’m looking forward to explore every building, pull every thread and learn what makes Blackreef tick.
Then I want to throw it all into disarray.
Deathloop is out on PS5 from September 14, 2021