Deathloop (PC) Review: A hilariously witty sandbox shooter where rules are simply guidelines
Time to get creative
Failure is the mother of success. Or so people say.
In that case, I hope "mother" knows she can sometimes be an absolute pain to deal with in Deathloop, especially the part where she literally forces you to start from ground zero every time Colt kicks the bucket. Nevertheless, you should be prepared to visit her often, but that's not all bad because learning from your mistakes and more importantly, not repeating them is the one underlying principle that the game wants to impart to players. By that token, call it a glorified lesson in life skills if you want, but I'll be damned if Arkane Studios didn't do a fabulous job of delivering it.
Keeping you in the loop
As always, let's set up a little context, which is especially important in a game where lots of things aren't exactly as they seem (more on this later!), not to mention that some of us might not be very clued in on what Blackreef island has to offer.
In Deathloop, players step into the shoes of Colt Vahn, an amnesic assassin who finds himself caught in a time loop on the mysterious island of Blackreef. The only way for Colt to break the loop, as explained to him by a woman named Julianna, is to take out all eight of the island's VIPs within the span of a single day. If Colt fails to accomplish his mission within the time limit or dies trying, he'll be sent all the way back to square one - waking up on a beach with nothing for company but a nasty hangover.
Of course, things aren't going to be as simple as Keanu Reeves makes it look in the John Wick movies. Each Visionary, or at least most of them are in possession of Slabs, mysterious artifacts that grant them various abilities, including teleportation, superhuman durability, and the like. Curiously, Colt himself also possesses a Slab, one which allows him to rewind time and avoid death.
Accordingly, Colt begins his expedition to uncover the truth about Blackreef's time loop, becoming stronger, wiser, and more tactical in his approach with each cycle. And if the stress of having to kill eight superpowered individuals in a single day wasn't enough, he'll also have to contend with the other assassin on the island who's been tasked to kill him - Julianna herself.
There's lots more beneath the surface
In terms of its narrative and context, Deathloop doesn't appear to be very ambitious when you first boot up the game. The amnesic protagonist trope is extremely, even hilariously well-worn territory in gaming, but what's impressive about this particular attempt is that the game is very, very good at keeping its cards hidden from players. Heck, I'll even go so far as to say that the only time it actually lets anything important slip is when it wants you to find it.
Case in point, at the start the situation seems pretty straightforward - Colt appears to be the victim of someone's cruel joke where he needs to take out the eight Visionaries in order to uncover the truth. As players mull it over, the game drops little hints that Colt might actually have had some involvement in the loop in the first place, which opens up a whole new can of worms for players to deal with. Amusingly, these little hints then lead up to a big "sucker-punch" moment where the game reveals on a billboard that Colt was involved, though it takes great care to keep the "why" and "how" hidden.
In short, I think the way in which the developers are able to continually add new factors into the mix without diluting it is impressive narrative management in itself, not to mention that the constant "ruining" of players' mental jigsaws also keeps the intrigue factor going strong throughout the game. Too many titles nowadays are quick to reveal their plot twists and have the hero save the day from there, which essentially ruins most, if not all of the scaffolding they might have established along the way.
In this aspect, although Deathloop is admittedly similar in the sense that you discover Colt's involvement in the loop early on, the game still manages to keep you hooked by forcing you to search for the "why", and each time you think you've got the tiniest shred of an idea about what's going on, the game throws in something else that forces you to second-guess yourself. The process is annoyingly fun and if anything, I have to admit it works marvellously in tandem with the open-ended nature of the gameplay, as it will always leave you wondering if there's something you might have missed along the way.
Embrace your inner 007
Speaking of which, one of the key reasons that you might miss out on key details if you're not careful is because the island of Blackreef looks amazing, thanks in part to its quirky fusion of old and new aesthetic styles. This culminates in a vibe that's reminiscent of classic spy movies like Goldeneye, which ties in conveniently well with Colt's whole assassination gig. Take the suburban district of Updaam for instance. On one hand, you've got shophouses, alfresco bars, and disco-era interior decoration, and on the other, the district is also peppered with futuristic vending machines and Elementalist enemies who wouldn't look out of place in a modern game of Fortnite.
The contrast is rather refreshing, and when you pair up the fancy-looking Slab abilities with the old-school feel of most weapons and Colt's Hackamajig device, it becomes even more obvious and makes Deathloop feel like it doesn't exactly exist in the past nor the future - a perfect setting for a game revolving around a time loop, wouldn't you say?
As for how the gameplay looks, well, I'm not sure if my personal bias is acting up, but the movement doesn't feel as fluid as I initially thought. It's not bad in a vacuum for sure, but for those who are used to the level of aesthetics in shooters like modern Call of Duty or Battlefield titles, Deathloop is probably a step or two down from that bar. To be more specific, I think Colt's movements can feel somewhat "blocky" and unnatural at times, especially when he reloads or mantles over objects. It feels stilted, even cartoonish compared to what I'm used to seeing, but based on what most folks have been saying about it, I feel like I might be unconsciously setting the bar too high here, so I think I'll leave this bit up to you.
All in a day's work
For the record, this is probably the wittiest description of the game I can conjure right now. Apart from the masterful storytelling and generally good aesthetics, the game also takes great pride in its gameplay, and make no mistake - it has every right to be. Deathloop is undisputedly one of, if not the most novel shooter that we've gotten to date, and unlike many others who are forced to rely on their Multiplayer aspects for long-term replayability, Deathloop can hold its own in that department using its singleplayer aspect alone.
The reason? The number of methods and permutations that you can use to kill the Visionaries is potentially infinite, and Arkane has ensured that as far as possible, every single aspect of a playthrough that can be different from another will be different.
You see, even the codes that Colt uses for various purposes throughout the game are specific to that playthrough, meaning you can't apply the same ones your buddy used to get a head start early on. It's a small but highly significant factor as far as playthrough variance is concerned, and it forces people to clear the game on their own terms. So, no cheating the system here.
Going back to the point on infinite permutations, Deathloop's gameplay format is technically in the same boat as the Hitman games - where the "how" element is entirely up to the player to decide. Do you want to be stealthy, go in guns blazing, or just boot the guy off a cliff? It's your call to make and having to start from scratch every time you die forces people to approach each run differently. For example, your first run might have seen you going in with a powerful shotgun, but barring the Infusion process, there's no guarantee that the same approach will work for the next, and you might end up having to beat the guy in a fistfight or something.
At the end of the day, the gameplay requires that players be as infinitely versatile as the game itself, although they will have the benefit of information - allowing them to come up with more feasible game plans to take the eight Visionaries out as the loop continues. It's also worth noting that Colt doesn't have to target Visionaries all the time - part of the game's sandbox aspect means Colt can simply enter a level to collect resources for Infusion if the player desires, and you'll soon find the game's lack of an individual "level timer" is quite a godsend.
As for the intensity of the grinding, I should probably point out that the game isn't stupid, and the good thing is that its intelligence generally works in your favour. Assuming you perform a decent clear of a level's resources, you should have enough material to infuse the rarest and most important bits, like Slabs or Heritage quality weapons. Essentially, the Infusion system will allow Colt to retain certain items from his previous loop, but you definitely won't have enough to keep everything, so be sure to always make a mental note of which gear you need to keep from a run and which you can afford to forego.
V.I.P stands for Very Irritating Person
Since we're on the topic, this is where I bring in the most open-ended and unpredictable aspect of the gameplay - Julianna. Although we certainly enjoy the snarky banter between her and Colt (it's quite endearing, really - they're like a married couple!), her mission to take you out might end up with more than one controller or mouse being hurled at the screen.
Basically, she can be anyone and anywhere at any given time within a level, though the one guarantee you have is that she'll always appear if you enter a level with a Visionary in it. She's able to disguise herself as ANY random NPC there, and once Colt gets close enough or takes potshots at her by accident, that's when the mask (and her gloves) come off. As the biggest wild card in the game, Julianna is, unsurprisingly a Visionary herself, and that means she's equipped with top-tier equipment and a Slab, though it is always scaled to a level where Colt is able to beat her if he plays his cards right.
Naturally, this means that killing her grants him access to the Slab she's currently holding as well as a chance at some high-quality gear. Functionally, Colt will be informed once Julianna "invades" the level, and her entry means that he will first have to disable a satellite on the level to regain access to his tunnels. Of course, it's pretty stressful to do that when you know she could be lurking around any corner, but believe me, it gets even more nerve-wracking when a real player gets behind Julianna's wheel.
Accordingly, welcome to the game's multiplayer aspect, where you can invade other people's playthroughs, or have your own invaded by others. Both ways are definitely exciting for everyone, as you'll really have to put your tactical and mechanical skills to the test. Interestingly, the scariest bit about the PvP here is that the opposing Julianna (or Colt respectively) is a true and completely "unknown" factor - you don't know how good the player on the opposite end is and how familiar they are with the game. As a result, it really puts both players on high alert, and I absolutely adore how the age-old cat-and-mouse format can be restyled into something that's so entertaining.
It's worth every cent
In short, it's an amazing formula that Arkane has managed to dream up, and even if you don't like PvP, you can always turn the feature off and let the AI pilot Julianna. Sadly, you can't play as Julianna in Singleplayer mode (which would actually be cool), but the "looter-shooter" nature of the game when you're using Colt more than makes up for it. Additionally, there's also the consideration that the game has no correct answers per se, and as long as you get the task done, it doesn't matter whether you brute force it or take the stealth option. I think it also helps that the AI for the normal Elementalist enemies is, for lack of a better description, rather blind and stupid. You could be standing right in front of them, and they would still take a few seconds to say "Hey, it's Colt - kill him!". In that sense, you can kind of understand through the woodwork that the game innately wants you to succeed, and it simply wants to make sure you enjoy the process. After all, don't they say that success is actually a journey and not a destination?
So yes, I quite like this game, even as it continues to torture my brain cells (with its open-endedness) and my patience (with Julianna). It's one of those titles that is, as I've said before is annoyingly fun to play, and it's a refreshing shift away from the usual point-and-shoot formula. The fact that Arkane happens to be a great storyteller is certainly a nice bonus, though the general hilarity of the banter and the near-infinite variance of the gameplay is already more than enough to ensure anyone who picks it up will have a good time.
As such, I've got no issues telling you that Deathloop is certainly worth every single penny, and more importantly, every single minute you spend on it.