Deathloop is a game that could have only come from Arkane. “An inverted murder puzzle,” according to Game Director Dinga Bakaba, Deathloop is the culmination of a 20-year journey for the studio. Bakaba also calls it “our wildest game yet.” Given the pedigree of Arkane, that’s a big statement, but from what I’ve seen so far, it’s right on the money.
Deathloop is a first-person shooter which includes supernatural powers, a historical setting, megalomaniacal enemies and deep, probing questions about morality. No, it’s not BioShock, but it’s the next best thing.
I was recently able to watch a hands-off demonstration of Deathloop with Dinga Bakaba (Game Director) and Sébastien Mitton (Art Director) and I was blown away by the gameplay, storytelling, style and fluidity of the game. BioShock, Dishonored and Prey may be in Deathloop’s DNA but none of them can hold a candle to what it’s shaping up to be.
Deathloop is set on the island of Blackreef in an alternate version of the 1960s. Players take control of Colt, who wakes up each day — or is that at the start of the same day? — on a beach, disorientated and suffering amnesia. The Groundhog Day resetting of the day causes everyone on Blackreef to also have their memories reset, even Colt. It also means players start each loop fresh. As Bakaba says, “It’s a convoluted way of saying you lose all your shit when you die.”
However, over time (and thanks to the power of being a player-controlled character), Colt gradually begins to retain memories and learns how to keep hold of items, objects and weapons across loops, putting him in a tremendous position of power. He knows what the future holds and his enemies are none the wiser. Best of all, all intel collected throughout each loop is retained so the more Colt learns, the more he knows each and every time he dies and lives again.
Colt’s blank slate state means that early on his only goals are to find out who he is and where he is but things quickly escalate when he meets Juliana. One of Blackreef’s eight ‘Visionaries’ and its most powerful, Juliana is Colt’s opposite and equal. Colt’s mission is to ‘Break the Loop’ and to do so he needs to kill each of the eight Visionaries within one single loop. Juliana is not a fan of this plan but goads Colt over the radio, egging him on to keep trying so she can keep killing him over and over again.
Appearing periodically (accompanied by an audio cue) Juliana will stop at nothing to protect the Visionaries from Colt’s murderous vendetta. Juliana also represents Deathloop’s take on multiplayer via invasions. Real-life human players are able to invade another player’s game, take control of Juliana and attempt to murder Colt. Arkane is hoping to ratchet up the tension with this mechanic and to create “shared water cooler moments.” Bakaba explains that Arkane’s games, especially Dishonored, have always had these kinds of moments but unless a player was streaming, they’re unlikely to have been experienced by anyone else. ‘Juliana vs Colt’ is a way to enable these shared experiences. However, knowing that having your game interrupted by xXxBongLord420NZxXx isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Arkane has wisely allowed for players to set invasions to friends only or even disable them altogether.
What makes the invasions particularly special is that Juliana, whether human or AI-controlled, is not unbeatable. Bakaba explained that Juliana is far less powerful than Colt, presumably later in the game after picking up a tonne of upgrades, but what she lacks in “power” she makes up for with numbers. Colt is alone on Blackreef, but Juliana has every other person on her side and she doesn’t seem to be a fan of fighting fairly. Whether Colt kills Juliana or Juliana kills Colt, the loop resets and the day starts anew so even if NZDope420 murders you, it’s not the end of the world.
Hell, it’s not even the end of that day.
Interestingly, Bakaba and Art Director Sébastien Mitton described the challenges in bringing the invasion mechanic to life. As a “sim,” Deathloop’s world continues to exist and function outside the sphere of Colt’s influence. This means that while Colt may be exploring one area of the map, NPCs all across the island continue to do what they’ve been programmed to do. They don’t pop out of existence when Colt’s not looking right at them and so Arkane has created a “bubble” around Colt that extends beyond what the player can see to ensure Blackreef and its denizens function as they’re supposed to. These bubbles help create a seamless and fluid lived world.
Without them, the illusion would be shattered. The same technique was employed in the Dishonored titles and Prey. What makes it more of a challenge with Deathloop is Juliana. Now, instead of one bubble, there needs to be two. If a player invades, wherever they enter the world, it needs to be consistent and cohesive. Bakaba says that the creation of these two “live” bubbles would have been a significant challenge on older hardware and to make it work, sacrifices would have had to have been made. But with the power of PS5, and PC, means that Arkane has been able to flex its creative muscle without restrictions.
The PS5 has also allowed Arkane to experiment with new types of interactivity. The DualSense is a huge improvement to immersion, according to Bakaba. Taking full advantage of the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, each and every weapon has a distinctive reaction and feel in the player’s hands. Which is a hell of an achievement considering the number of weapons in the game. Colt is able to use a range of firearms across six categories; Hand Gun, SMG, Machine Gun, Rifle, Shotgun and Silenced Nail Gun. Weapons also carry perks and come in three tiers, Common, Rare and Legendary.
The higher the tier, the better the perk.
And that’s not all. Players are also able to equip Trinkets on weapons (and Colt) to modify and improve them. Like weapons, Trinkets come in three tiers (Common, Rare and Legendary) with higher tiers offering better bonuses. They augment weapons by increasing damage, range, accuracy, magazine size and so on. Trinkets applied to Colt himself will give him a range of handy skills and upgrades including double jump and damage reduction. Trinkets seem to go hand-in-hand with Slabs, which are collectibles that grant Colt his supernatural abilities.
Abilties includes Aether, Karnesis, Nexus, Havoc, Reprise and Shift.
Aether allows Colt to vanish and move silently. Karnesis is a telekinesis. Havoc reduces and absorbs incoming damage allowing players to send it back at enemies and Shift is basically Dishonored’s Blink. Reprise allows Colt to die and rewind time twice within a single loop without having to start again. Die a third time though and it’s lights out.
In the demonstration, we see Colt die twice while using Reprise and each time, he’s required to interact with a floating ethereal version of his corpse in order to regain his essence and Residium (in-game currency used for upgrades) or else risk losing it should he die again. It kind of feels like Dark Souls in that respect.
Nexus, however, is very cool and new. It links enemies together so they share the same fate. In the hands-off preview, we saw Colt link three enemies with Nexus before shooting one of them in the head and watching them all fall dead with brand new holes in their heads. This kind of forward-thinking, planned out and trap focused gameplay is at the forefront of Deathloop’s combat design. It’s something I’ve not really seen used in games since BioShock 2 and it’s a system that can be incredibly rewarding and satisfying. Another example from the presentation makes use of the in-game grenade. Unlike your standard ‘pineapple’ which explodes after a few seconds, Deathloop’s grenade has three distinct functions; regular, proximity and trip mine.
In the demonstration, Colt places a proximity grenade on a string of lights hanging above a street. Several enemies are lurking below, chatting and not paying attention. After placing the proximity grenade, Colt links the baddies, called Eternalists, with Nexus then launches them upwards with Karnesis. In a split second, the proximity mine is detonated and a handful of Eternalists are murdered in a creative and effective manner. Examples like this conjure up all kinds of ideas about how to set and spring traps using the various powers and weapons available in Deathloop.
This powered up, deadly version of Colt, a super-powered John Wick as described by Bakaba, may be available to players later in the game but initially, Colt is pretty unprepared and vulnerable. In the early stages of the campaign(which lasts 15-20 hours according to Arkane) things are fairly linear and directed while players learn the rules and mechanics of Deathloop. But Bakaba promises that after a short time, the game fully opens up. Players will be able to explore four regions — The Complex, Updaam, Fristad Rock and Karn’s Bay — across four time periods; morning, noon, afternoon and evening. Bakaba explains that each district is radically different depending on the time of day Colt visits. Buildings and locations may be open or closed, Eternalists and Visionaries will move around and a range of different events will take place. Bakaba says that Deathloop is like Dishonored 2’s Clockwork Mansion but instead of being one mission, it’s the entire game.
This kind of design is atypical in AAA design says Bakaba and I ask him why this is. Recently we’ve seen games like Returnal and The Outer Wilds play with the notion of time and loops but not since Majora’s Mask in 2000 have there been many games to embrace the time loop. Bakaba’s short answer is, “It’s really fucking hard.” He elaborates and explains that the central theme of the loop goes against much of what is established and typical game design. This means going against his natural instincts as Game Director in order to make sure Deathloop works as it should. One small but notable example is the lack of any keys within the game. Keys are an absolute staple of videogames but in a time loop, players would need to collect them every single time or have them carry over between loops. Either way, it’s not a great solution. The same goes for in-game currency. As Blackreef is in a loop, there’s no thematic need for money, so the island has no shops and no cash. These may be small in the grand scheme of Deathloop but when so much of what is accepted, standard game design gets chucked out the window, you can imagine why Bakaba says it’s really fucking hard.
Conversely, the notion of a time loop gives Arkane an enormous amount of creative license when it comes to characterisation, themes and plotting. The lack of cash may be necessary due to the loop but it also ties thematically into Blackreef. When its residents know they’ll wake up fresh each day, the have no need for money, so they’ve abolished it. Mitton touches on smaller details players may notice such as nobody working on art or projects that take longer than a day. Nobody is painting a picture or recording new music or writing a novel. Instead, the Eternalists play games like seeing who can jump to their death the best. When there are no consequences, humanity’s worst instincts rush to the surface.
Watching the hands-off gameplay demonstration, it’s clear Arkane is attempting to make Deathloop as stylish as possible. First with the aesthetic. Inspired by The Avengers (British, not Marvel), James Bond and the 1960s, Deathloop has an undeniable air of cool about it. The visuals are highly stylised with pastel colours and geometric patterns featured heavily. It’s almost like Quentin Tarantino’s Austin Powers. If you can mash those two things up in your head, you’ve got some idea of what to expect from Deathloop. Beyond the visuals and aesthetic, the stylishness of the game extends to the gameplay. Watching the nads-off demonstration, I was gobsmacked by how fast and fluid the combination of shooting, melee, stealth and powers was. Being hands-off, the real game may not play as well as it appeared but the way in which Colt moves, kills and combines powers and shooting is draw dropping.
Finally, the style and coolness are very much on show with the soundtrack. A throwback, swinging 60s, summer of love/rock and roll groove underpins everything that happens and is punctuated by a louder and punchier rocking beat when the action gets hectic. All three elements, visuals, audio and gameplay, come together in perfect balance and harmony in what I’ve seen thus far and each of them is a cut above anything else shown in this generation.
That’s not even mentioning that Deathloop runs at a locked 60fps with adaptive 4K on PS5. A first for an Arkane game and something Bakaba says would have been impossible on previous hardware.
Deathloop is still quite a few months away, launching September 14, 2021 but so far it’s looking like a game you’ll be playing over and over and over and over and over…again.
Deathloop launches for PC and PS5 on September 14, 2021.