Deathloop preview: Arkane’s greatest hits with an asymmetrical twist

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Break the loop

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Deathloop always starts back at the beginning. Colt, struck with amnesia, wakes up on a beach with one heck of a hangover and the revelation that time, on this island, is looping. He has a simple objective: to hunt down the Visionaries spread around Blackreef and kill them all in a day, closing the loop in the process. 

He can wield handguns, nail guns, shotguns, a machete, and a handheld hacking device, all in the name of taking out Blackreef’s partygoers and scholars, but there is one problem larger than the legion of Eternalists between him and his targets: Julianna Blake. She’s armed, and she has one goal: stop Colt from ending the loop.

I recently attended a preview session for Deathloop, where we got to see a slice of hands-off gameplay of the time-looping adventure. Across the preview, we saw a few different options for Colt: means of approach, ways of playing, and methods with which to dispatch the various Visionaries. And it looks pretty dang good.

Blackreef is split up into four areas, each of which can be visited at different times of day: morning, noon, afternoon, and evening. Different people will appear at different times of day, and the status of each can change too; in one area, a concert may be in the process of getting set up, while approaching the same place later in the day might show the aftermath of the show.

In our specific glimpse, we got to see Colt try and take out Aleksis Dorsey, a foul-mouthed Visionary who’s hiding, masked, amongst fellow partiers. The trick, as Colt discovers, is figuring out which attendee is Aleksis. You have to learn their personality, look for tells, and do it all while trying not to get shot by the many other locked-and-loaded guests.

All the while, Julianna taunts Colt over the radio. This was one of the more interesting features shown in the preview—Julianna isn’t just a looming specter that hunts Cole, either as an A.I. opponent or as an actual second player, but she’s a “voice-on-the-radio” too. She both mocks Colt and eggs him on, leading him to suspect the two have a history; whether they do or not seems to be something for the player to discover.

There are a lot of ways for Colt to deal with the Eternalists—the faction who want to keep the ever-lasting time loop going—that are scattered around each area. They’ll all shoot Colt on sight, so stealth is one tactic, and it will feel especially familiar for any fans of Arkane’s Dishonored series. Abilities like Shift, which teleports Colt a short distance, and Nexus, which ties enemies’ fates together for one kill shot, work as they did in Dishonored. Meanwhile, if he goes loud, Colt can use Havoc to absorb damage and expel it in one big blast, and Karnesis lets him fling opponents into the air and off cliffs. 

There are a myriad of weapons for each approach too, like the silenced nail gun, shotguns, and rifles. Trinkets can upgrade these weapons too, lessening the recoil or even making bullets perforate enemies, and they can add abilities to Colt as well. There are a lot of tools for dealing out maximum damage, regardless of whether you’re trying to sneak through corridors or kick down the door.

In Dishonored, players had to make a choice between killing or not killing, with morality tied to the question; here in Blackreef, Colt is free to use any and all means, and a wealthy arsenal, to complete his objective. My personal favorite was the Sapper Charge, a grenade with two additional modes: Proximity Sensor and Trip Mine. In one gameplay segment, we saw Colt throw a Proximity charge onto an overhead object, then fling an enemy upwards towards it with Karnesis. Was it a little extra? Absolutely. But it looked real, real cool.

And Deathloop is, overall, pretty cool. Blackreef is a mix of stark bunkers and tunnels contrasted with the style of the ’60s and ’70s. Art director Sébastien Mitton drew a line back to Prey (2017)‘s aesthetic, with pieces of the space station showcasing different styles of design, and that they tried to bring a similar approach to designing Blackreef.

“[…] Because the goal is always, really, to create something that is going to be profound, because in the end, we want to generate emotions for the player,” said Mitton. “So that necessarily goes through visuals, and those visuals are going to inform everyone during pre-production, production. It’s very important to have a whole lot of energy on that side.”

Tools of the loop

As Colt’s mission progressed, he eventually had to go loud and died, losing his loop in the process. Luckily, some things get to persist through the constant loops of time. Residuum, a certain resource you can find, lets you keep weapons, trinkets, and powers across loops. And while this might make Deathloop sound a bit like a roguelike, game director Dinga Bakaba says the team believes it is not one.

The goal of Deathloop is to take out your targets in one day, and alongside the arsenal you can bring across loops, there is also knowledge. Colt can discover clues that will open up new kill opportunities, some in almost Hitman-alike ways. The idea is that eventually, you will have the tools and wherewithal to break the loop.

Of course, this begs the question: what do you do when the loop ends? Narratively, we don’t have the answer to that. But gameplay-wise, there’s always Julianna Blake.

One of Deathloop‘s big components isn’t just the time-looping, power-bending, gun-toting assassination quest, but the person trying to stop it from happening. Players can “invade” others’ games, either their friends’ or random players’, to take on the role of Julianna Blake and try to eliminate Colt. On its own, this is a pretty interesting concept: the hunter-vs.-hunted gameplay certainly seems fun, and in other games like the Souls series, an invasion always ratchets up the tension pretty quick.

It sounds like there’s a fair bit more to it than just two players trying to kill each other, though. Bakaba says the team wanted the multiplayer mode to be an “anecdote generator,” something that can hopefully incentivize creative moments between players. 

When a player invades as Julianna, they will have a couple of items and weapons, but there will also be “feats.” These feats offer score incentives for different methods: playing it slowly, or damaging Colt instead of killing him, using mines or turrets, etc. And by accumulating a good score, you can unlock a random smattering of bonuses, as well as some cosmetics for both Colt and Julianna.

“But overall, we really wanted something where the real goal was social interaction, the stories we can create,” said Bakaba. He offers up several different styles: playing violently or taking things slowly, potentially role-playing a bit, or even helping Colt by giving him a decent gun. There are score incentives, but otherwise there’s nothing really stopping you.

“I almost hope that some people create some kind of etiquette about those encounters, that would be interesting to see,” said Bakaba. But yeah, it’s all about the intrinsic reward of interacting with others in interesting ways.”

Where Deathloop looked, in some ways, like the building-up of what Arkane’s been doing for years now across Dishonored and Prey, even earlier immersive sims and a host of unfinished projects like The Crossing, it’s also new ground. It’s a fairly fluid structure, open for players to intuit their own personalized methods for executing the various Visionaries of Blackreef while avoiding the crosshairs of Julianna—or aiming those sights yourself.

It also looks pretty amazing. Deathloop is steeped in style, layered in potential for different encounters to overcome in a variety of ways, and it keeps tugging you back with the mystery of the island and Julianna’s unending hunt for Colt. Arkane’s immersive sim looks like it could be carving out a new path for the genre, and it’s definitely one I’m eager to venture down.

Deathloop will launch for PlayStation 5 and PC on Sept. 14, 2021.

About The Author
Eric Van Allen
Senior Editor - While Eric's been writing about games since 2014, he's been playing them for a lot longer. Usually found grinding RPG battles, digging into an indie gem, or hanging out around the Limsa Aethryte.
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