in the interest of transparency, i'll admit that i was a fairly ardent defender of this game prior to release. arkane is one of the most interesting western development studios working right now - if not the only one. suffice to say i personally found it irritating seeing the same few peanut galleries online get riled up over an arkane game getting a marketing push for once. there's one particular anecdotal exchange that's seared into my mind: a few months prior to release, someone had sarcastically retorted 'oh boy another deathloop trailer, i wonder what that games about!', and then like one or two days before the game came out, that same person said 'so is it like a co-op shooter or what?'
of course, deathloops trailers did, to a certain extent, belie its actual qualities. the irony worth mentioning in this instance is that it wasn't the game i expected either. what i had been anticipating for the better part of two years was an evolution of the design expressed in prey: mooncrash. that expansion is critically underplayed, so to briefly sum up: mooncrash is a light procgen immersive sim roguelike that sees you attempting to conduct the escape of several personnel on a corporate moon base invaded by the typhon. prey's gameplay was carried over wholesale, but now with the pressure of time weighing down on each playthrough. the more time you spent on the moon base, the harder it got. escaping with one protagonist denies that route for a different protagonist, each protagonist had several subgoals to exercise so as to facilitate the safe escape of their fellow protagonists, items used by one protagonist were denied to another - across a closed-off loop, the core of the game became constant route planning, evaluating, and mitigating against the oncoming onslaught of typhon. it's unlike anything else and save for a few criticisms i have (particularly the mule, which is a mechanic that goes too far in alleviating player stress) it's very much worth your time.
deathloop shares the same basic setup. there is a loop. in order to engineer a 'successful' loop, the player has to fulfill several key objectives (plan an escape in mooncrash; kill eight visionaries in deathloop). in order to achieve those aims, the player has to spend time in the environment, experimenting and exploring, becoming familiar with its contours, planning effectively so as to minimize error, and gathering resources to promote their own growth. by the end, the player will have grown exponentially not only in general gamesense, but also in terms of their characters general prowess. arkane is excellent, almost to a fault, at achieving this design goal.
but this is where the similarities end, because deathloop isnt really an immersive sim the way prey is and its not really a timeloop game, either. and most objectionable of all given its premise, it's arguably not really a great hitman game. arkanes focus this time around seems to have been to configure dishonored's high chaos excess and intensity into a full-throttle, easily digestible experience (not that this translates well at all - the opening hours are so simple in mechanical expression yet so needlessly obtuse and overwhelming in overtutorialization that for the first few hours this is a confused and muddled mess). there's very few moments here that constitute the kind of shock and surprise at what one's own ability and insight could muster as could so often happen in dishonored or prey. in some sense, this is largely a direct result of every slab ability you get being tweaked primarily towards effective combat rather than towards environmental scrutiny and cautious exploration. the game is generally faster paced, its level design is a little rougher compared to arkanes predecessors, and so on. save for time only progressing when you exit a level, its just not as intent on the player setting their own pace to carefully explore - there's a dominant sense that you have to play to the games tune in all senses of its composition.
secondly, its a timeloop game only in much the same way that something as rote as dead cells is, with a basic understanding that failure to complete one's objectives will wind you back to the beginning. as such, it's better understood as a game about conquering several zones - each map, of which there are four, has variations depending on the time of day, not really in layout per se but moreso in terms of objective orientation and items on the agenda, so the goal is essentially to manipulate your window of time to conduct several independent investigations before unifying your answers into a cohesive whole. this is in part where the complaints of repetition stem from, and while i'll concede that it certainly gets a bit much, that process of peeling back layer after layer, bit by bit, trying to condense as much as possible within a singular loop, was something i found really appealing and satisfying. there's a staggering amount to do here beyond the main goals and often only available during certain times of day, and thats only accounting for optional and miscellaneous content - chances are you'll roll in a visionary encounter just to accumulate resources or refresh yourself on tertiary mechanics, too.
and it's not really a good hitman game, either - the process here is rudimentary, inorganic, sometimes unimaginative. the game outright spells out to you what you'll need to accomplish to complete the final loop and leaves little room for interpretation - there are only a few moments where the player can choose differently, all of which result in the death of a visionary regardless. in ensuring a quicker tempo, they've added these little scribbled margins that pop-up whenever you read a file or listen to an audiolog which basically spell out the relevant info you'll need - you're not really trusted as a player to work stuff out for yourself, and that's disappointing coming from the likes of prey. there's no room to work out your own solution to a loop and there's no room to do a bit of extra work that might make other activities easier, even where such opportunities present themselves on a silver platter. one great example of this - there's a certain maskmaker NPC you can save from a visionary. one of the last visionaries, at the end of the day, hosts a mask themed rager. my theory was that if i save this NPC and visit him later in the day, maybe i can force him to fashion a mask so that when i attend the party, ill have to worry less about being spotted. but this isn't the case. instead you get an item that resolves an uninteresting and totally separate subgoal. it seemed like an obvious thing to include on my end, so it's a shame that deathloop so rarely tickles my imagination the way i would prefer it to. and i think it's one of the strongest reasons for its relative critical dismissal in the mainstream.
but i did really greatly enjoy this. and that's mostly because despite being arkane-lite, it hits every note that it needs to, particularly in the ferocity of its gunplay. at some point style needs to enter the conversation and be weighted equally against mechanics; this is a fairly pared back and more arcade-leaning experience that still carries enough of the basic imsim tenets to succeed with flair, and building that total control over its set of mechanics over time is undeniably satisfying, to the point that im willing to call it one of the best fps campaigns in recent memory. this is also, in part, because they sharply improved the AI in an october patch so they were no longer complete pushovers. instead they're now the perfect AI this game required - exploitable and dumb, but genuinely cognizant of threats in their vicinity and when grouped together, able to break you like a twig (take that day 1'ers, you played a worse version of a game for me). this is undeniably an arkane world first and foremost, so it's filled to the brim with little details to bask in and appreciate for what they are - there's no real reward for clearing the yervah other than to have accumulated a wealth of useless trivia on blackreef, but the reward is, in a way, that investment and immersion in a fictional location. things feel real despite the psycho temporal hedonism in the foreground. writing is solid across the board with banter that i was shocked to see handled effectively and register as earnestly funny in a way i dont come to expect with recent comedic endeavours. its snappy and has quick rhythm but its charming because its rooted in characterization, not in trying to sound smart and winking at the audience. juliannas the clear standout here, with a role in the proceedings that is both mechanically and narratively sound. despite being a ball of rage with colt sometimes it's clear she's lashing out because she's trying to defend paradise (although there are a few other implicit reasons for her actions) and i didnt come into this game expecting to relate to that. despite all the hotheaded conversations julianna has a few earnest moments where she tries to convince colt to see some of the good in the situation. julianna states shes read more during her stint in blackreef than anyone else could have across multiple lifetimes - theres a ridiculous amount to learn. ive long considered my personal heaven to just be a giant library i can check into once im dead and gone. the company she keeps might be less than savory but if there's one reason to preserve an artifical paradise i suppose i find it compelling. performances of the year with both colt and julianna honestly. there's a lot to be said about how it continues arkanes interest in games as metatext ala prey with a campaign centered around liberation but i think im not prepped to write about it quite yet so i'll just make note of it
and if that wasn't enough, this is the first game since 2011's dark souls to genuinely infuse invasions with wonder and magic, again. this is not exaggeration, i would recommend watching this video because it does the best job of demonstrating why these systems are so damn appealing in a way that text cannot. in fact most everything about deathloop is so centered around invasion as its core design theming that its impossible to see it any other way; if you played it with AI julianna i genuinely think you are getting a much, much lesser experience. the gist is this: of the eight visionaries, julianna is the only one who can be controlled by a human. she'll invade your campaign once per timezone (if a separate visionary is also on the map), turning everything into a horrifyingly tense game of cat n mouse. to succeed as julianna you have to do away with those paltry notions of fairness and honor and commit to subterfuge, mixing up your approach and using the environment effectively to dispatch colt (you need to down him three times; he needs only down you once). conversely, colt's fragility against mobs, much less against julianna as well, forces him into hiding more frequently than he normally would, since you never know what rooftop a julianna might be lurking on, trained sniper in hand. every map essentially represents an incredibly charming intersection between a traditional immersive sim and a one on one stealth deathmatch, and the thrill of the hunt has never been more ravishing. there's enough tricks, mindgames, counterplays, scumbag tactics and more to keep things fresh and entertaining. i looked up global achievement stats and saw that only 12.5% of players have killed colt as julianna? you guys are insane, that's half the game! none of you understand hunting mentality. im built different. i play dirty. i used telekinesis to throw colt off a bridge, berserk rushed him with fellow eternalists, and then i posted up in a jutting-out bannister for literally ten minutes waiting for him to appear below so i could stealth kill from above. the whole time i felt hate coursing through my veins. so this game's a winner imo, exceedingly enjoyed my time with it. definitely a game thats better than the sum of its parts (which often dont hold up to scrutiny, even!)
(i also havent finished the game to be fair...ive got one or two last big things to do before i trigger the final loop and im waiting for a friend to do the same before i 'complete' it. our plan is we're gonna alternate successive invasions in a race to see who can finish the final loop first. i wish everyone could play the game this way)
Reviewed on Dec 01, 2021