Deathloop opened to very mixed reviews. Mostly due to the monumental, and shamefully standard, day one bugs. I love paying publishers to be a Games Tester. But those who have seen through the glitches seem pretty taken with it, calling Deathloop ‘masterful’ and ‘compelling’. How have the Dishonored and Prey developers Arkane managed to make a game where you endlessly repeat the same missions compelling and masterful?
Colt wakes on a beach with no memory except being murdered. Guided by strange messages, Colt discovers he’s on an island where the same day loops endlessly, resetting at midnight. Contacted by a woman called Julianna, who both goads and guides him, Colt must break the Loop by killing eight key people involved in the experiment that created it. But how to manage this feat in a single day? By taking it the same one day at a time…
At first, this is Game of the Year material. Accepting everything you do will reset, that you need to learn routines, have patience, use time as a resource, it’s amazing. But then you realise this isn’t a Game of the Year, it’s riffing off every other GotY in your library.
The island’s 60’s style is amazing, but we were amazed by it in No One Lives Forever and We Happy Few, and it feels Far Cry-ish; the self-aware dialogue and offbeat missions are Outer Worlds meets Borderlands, the super-powers you obtain are Bioshock meets Control, and it feels a lot like Dishonored meets Prey. The list goes on. But the plot, the idea of repeating a day until you reach a perfect run is original, right? No, it’s gimmicky and not what you expect; Remedy made this kind of temporal time twisting clever/frustrating in games like Alan Wake and Quantum Break, but when you boil down Deathloop it’s generic, a standard FPS plot to reach the final boss so Colt can break the Loop and marry Andie McDowell.
In Groundhog Day, it’s thought that Phill was trapped for 8-10 years, and that’s how long Deathloop feels. The best bit of Groundhog Day was the montage where he rushes about doing good deeds, catching the kid falling out the tree and so on, but while that happens to a degree within the main plot, you can’t use your foreknowledge of events in a meaningful way within the gameplay. Time should be an enemy that eventually you turn into an asset, a power-up, but time doesn’t march on, forcing you into desperate plans or give you opportunities, it’s not really against you; you return to home base and it advances automatically much like a regular FPS where leaving an area causes it to respawn.
There is something compelling about getting to know an area, the freedom of knowing it'll restart so you can be reckless, finding clues that will guide you tomorrow/today again, but eventually you realise it doesn’t matter beyond helping you get through it quicker, because the four regions don’t change or require a different approach depending on the time of day/mission. You can load Colt up with a sniper, silenced pistol, sneak power-ups, and invisibility, or turn him out like a tank but it’s the same tiring experience; a building that was open in the morning is shut in the afternoon, or it’s snowing in the evening. Even at night the enemies’ behaviour is the same. Same shit, same day.
The seemingly insignificant tasks building to the end game make it feel like a game of side-missions, and it’s worse if something blocks you from progressing – one mission has Colt trying to restart generators, but a stray bullet can cause them to explode, ending any chance of progressing that day. A lot of the missions are like that and you often give up, just restarting the Loop and dragging yourself through it again. And through the enemy AI.
The island is populated with mercs, who for no reason are in strange masks and outfits. They have some nice idle animations, but rush mindlessly toward you when they spot Colt, yet within seconds revert to ‘it was nothing’ routines. It’s like the AI’s Loop is from 2000. They’re also insanely good shots, and that’s when it gets really annoying.
Colt can find objects imbued with Rememberium, or something. Once back at his safehouse (no idea why he needs to be there to do this), Colt can attach it to inventory items and weapons, and they remain in the next Loop. Problem is, this makes you nervous. Colt can rewind time twice when killed, but if it happens a third time you lose everything and the day Loops, and he is incredibly easy to kill, so you end up going back to save everything and bolster your chances next time dragging it out further. Also, Colt can only keep up to 3500 of the memory-foam on a Loop – it stops objects resetting but not itself?
And for a game all about weaponising time, we’re on a linear path beginning to end; we’re just pointing Colt toward the mission marker. There’s absolutely no opportunity for you to choose how this goes down; we have an infinite loop of possibilities on a free-roam island, and my Loop is exactly the same as everyone else’s.
One of the big selling points of Deathloop was the ability to play as Julianna within other random players’ games and kill off their Colt. It would have worked better as pure Co-Op game with one breaking the Loop, the other protecting it. I never managed to enter anyone else’s game, it would always time out; either no one’s playing, or like me, gamers have set Julianna to idiot AI NPC mode; getting killed by her and losing everything is a Loop too far.
Still, something about Deathloop does keep you going. The writing is great, and the plot is cool – and for all its influences, it feels original and has a real charm to it. Colt is a great character, as is Julianna, who’s favourite part of the day is hunting him. It’s a 20-hour recon and one actual mission and that is cool, but it just took a damn long time to reach a point where I thought I was getting somewhere, and the freedom of learning from your mistakes and playing with time is just for the cut-scenes; as a concept it’s great but the execution is the wrong kind of repetitive. I really wanted to like it, and often did, but I’ll never play it again and again and again.