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Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Deathloop is not what you expected – and that’s a good thing

Deathloop does not turn out to be a PvP duel in the test, but a single-player shooter with an ingenious time loop that captivates through enormous playful freedom. But not every idea works.

Talk to us: Turritopsis dohrnii. What sounds like a Harry Potter spell is actually a species of jellyfish. And a very special one at that: An identical jellyfish can grow out of its cells, the life cycle begins anew without death and the slimy underwater creatures are theoretically immortal. Not surprisingly, we humans look enviously at the ocean, and even less surprisingly, science has already found a solution to the annoying problem of dying in the arcane shooter Deathloop.

However, without jellyfish DNA: the polar sea island Blackreef is an anomaly that makes it the perfect playground for filthy rich egocentrics, who experience a single day in an endless time loop. They don’t age and get up again in the morning if they’ve had an accident or died of boredom. We are one of them and are fed up with eternal life.

So we go on the hunt and elicit the secrets of the four vast areas of the island while we take down one visionary after another. Because only when they are all dead does the loop break and we are free. It’s an exciting premise that learns playfully from Hitman, Dishonored and Deus Ex, but doesn’t always live up to its innovative ideas.

He who does not explore remains stupid

Let’s rewind for now: hero Colt is murdered and subsequently wakes up alone and clueless on the beach. Off-comments waft around us in glowing script: “This way!”, “Break the loop!”. Something is fishy here, but because Colt has amnesia and we have no idea, we can only assume.

The beginning piques our curiosity, but doesn’t flaunt a brilliant Prey-style reveal. Throughout the tutorial, we are bombarded with hints about fighting, abilities and more, but the initial situation does not become any clearer. This is where we would have liked to have seen a peaceful introduction, taking time to introduce Colt and the Visionaries before turning on them.

Um, what are we doing here? We find out how the time loop works and what's behind it only gradually. But only if we explore carefully.
Um, what are we doing here? We find out how the time loop works and what’s behind it only gradually. But only if we explore carefully.

But instead of answers, we find a gun and briefly consider whether to call it Colt Junior or Kathi Knarrenbauer – Deathloop can talk to itself humorously and the sarcastic exchanges with the antagonist Julianna over the radio take it up a notch. But the really useful information is hidden in alternative routes, documents or audio files. Only those who are curious and explore the island will find out what is really hidden behind Blackreef, Colt or Julianna.

At the same time, you have to accept that not everything makes sense if you miss something. Theoretically, Deathloop can be finished in 15, 20 or 30 hours. Even then, however, the two possible endings left us with some unanswered questions.

Great world, lame inhabitants

The path becomes the goal: Almost flawless level design as known from Arkane, embedded in an imaginative narrative world, leads us through the coastal village of Updaam. Like all the locations, it is creatively designed, mixing old walls with cramped bunkers and brightly coloured 70s furniture. Only if you look closely do you notice sterile areas or washed-out textures. The overall picture is hardly disturbed by the brilliant design, but we expect more from next-gen graphics.

The Deathloop developers can do masterful level design. Only the next-gen atmosphere doesn't really want to emerge
The Deathloop developers can do masterful level design. Only the next-gen atmosphere doesn’t really want to emerge

What’s the PC version like?

Optics and controls can be freely adjusted and the latter works perfectly with mouse and keyboard as well as controller. Apart from a crash and isolated glitches that caused opponents to tumble clumsily into each other, we also experienced no problems. Even in 4K, Deathloop ran smoothly with our RTX 2070, although it does not scratch the upper spectrum of the system requirements. Compared to Dishonored, the performance is significantly better.

The inhabitants distract themselves from the uniform daily routine by throwing huge parties with fireworks or experiencing a sci-fi adventure via Live Action Roleplaying. We have a different goal, but still admire the planetary surface decorated with papier-mâché in a specially prepared house, where a computer voice accompanies us between cut-out astronauts and aliens. Behind it is the half-brain computer 2Bit, which we call that because it runs with a piece of brain. Ewwh.

This guy is very friendly, though, and helps us launch a real rocket engine to kill everyone in the building, or enthusiastically tells us more about his builder Charlie, technical genius and entertainer to his credit. All seven visionaries are dazzling characters, legendary singers like blabbermouth Frank or brilliant scientists like Wenjie Evans.

While our heart swells with the clueless 2Bit, the actual stars remain at a distance. We encounter them in the Loop almost only as overdrawn caricatures. Frank, for example, has simply drunk away his angelic voice. Actually, that should arouse pity. But because the musician is such an ass, we just shrug our shoulders. Only Colt and Julianna achieve a certain depth through their philosophical conversations about the sense and nonsense of the time loop.

You choose time of day, equipment and location before each mission, then it goes on in the loop
You choose time of day, equipment and location before each mission, then it goes on in the loop

How does the loop work?

Deathloop is based on Roguelikes. You relive a day over and over again and lose all your equipment at the end, at least initially. You can kill the visionaries from the beginning, but first collect information. Only if you lure the targets to the right place at the right time and kill them in the right way, you can kill them all in one go.

  • Each day is divided into morning, noon, afternoon and evening
  • For each time period, you’ll visit one of four areas on the island: the Complex research facility, the Charles Bay entertainment area, the military Fristad Rock or the Updaam residential area.
  • The sectors change, snow falls towards evening and it gets dark. Previously free passages are then blocked by laser barriers, for example, doors open instead of closed or more closely guarded. And visionaries also change their location.
  • Before each visit, you set weapons and powers. Gadgets like a hacking tool and a grenade are always in your luggage.
  • Saving is not possible during a mission. However, Colt has three lives. Only after the third death do you have to start the entire time loop over again.
  • You can take found equipment and powers into the next loop if you invest a resource. We explain how to do this in the “Enrich” box.
  • Towards the end, you will pass through a time loop in one hour. If you don’t know your way around yet, it can take three hours or more.

There is no right or wrong

Knowledge is power and therefore, along with better equipment, our most important goal in Deathloop In the first mission in Updaam, the cat-and-mouse game still brings beads of sweat to our foreheads. Armed only with a machete and a silent nail gun, we scurry and assassinate our way through heavily guarded alleys to our flat, only for I-have-half-my-brain-planted-in-a-computer-Charlie to suddenly set off the alarm and send the whole neighbourhood after us. Let’s get out of here!

As we explore, however, we discover sneaky ways across the roofs or through caves. We realise that we can reprogram guns and cameras with hacking tools and distract enemies with bottles in order to kill them in a dark corner with a machete and take their weapon with more power. We also find Residium everywhere, a valuable resource that sustains our equipment across loops.

If you've collected enough Residium, you'll be allowed to keep such valuable equipment permanently.
If you’ve collected enough Residium, you’ll be allowed to keep such valuable equipment permanently.

Enrich: How to keep your equipment

To get special weapons and new abilities, you’ll have to do a lot of work. You kill visionaries or restore the energy supply in bunkers in a highly complicated way. To ensure that the new toy is not gone the next day, you need Residium:

  • You can find this resource everywhere in the levels and on killed targets. You can recognise it as a colourful, billowing veil over objects, which you can suck up by pressing the button.
  • If you die, you lose your Residium and have to pick it up again at the place of death.
  • After each mission, you can use the substance to enrich your equipment. For example, you invest 8,000 of it in the new weapon and get to keep it through loops. Over time, you’ll build up an impressive arsenal that no one can take away from you.

The fog around our actual task is cleared by the hidden clues Once we have finally gained access to the large Dorsey estate in the city centre, we are supposed to take out Aleksis there. It’s just too bad that he’s throwing a masquerade party where everyone looks the same. So first we keep looking and lo and behold – a note that party animal Aleksis likes to dance to his own music. But where do we find his notes? Maybe we’d rather take a little trouble and throw a grenade on the dance floor. For each assassination there are tens of ways and possibilities: If you have the teleport skill in your luggage, laser barriers, for example, are no longer an obstacle for you.

Otherwise, you’ll have to get close to hack them or simply explode poison gas in a warehouse with a grenade, quickly open a gate below and slip through before the deadly fumes return. So much freedom brings such tears of joy to our eyes as we last had to blink them away in Deus Ex.

Deathloop is not what you expected – and that’s a good thing

Shooter fans can rejoice

Once we’ve stocked up on our arsenal of weapons, skills and perks, we can also venture into direct confrontations. You can find new weapons like powerful shotguns, slow rifles or fast submachine guns in the level or take them from enemies. The smug visionaries naturally adorn themselves with particularly fancy guns.

Not only are they sometimes sprinkled with pink glitter, but they also have special properties due to their higher rarity level. Some reload quickly, others fire at breakneck speed, and for a particularly rare specimen we first have to procure five batteries in a trap parkour to open a door. Behind it wait two pistols that can be transformed into a thick assault rifle if desired. Fancy!

This legendary weapon will serve us faithfully yet.
This legendary weapon will serve us faithfully yet.

Despite this, we miss slightly more exotic lead shots like the foam gun from Prey, which could even be used to build stairs. It would have fit wonderfully into the vertical areas of Deathloop.

The guns all feel good in the hand and remind us via the clearly noticeable recoil and clear hit feedback that we’re not just waving cardboard guns around. However, especially with rapid-fire weapons, aiming is a little imprecise at first. This is where weapon perks come in. They also bring cooler effects than a good eye for headshots: For example, we charge bullets with lightning and roast enemies well.

Colt himself can also equip four perks. With enormous effect: for example, our ability bar recharges itself in no time, our health increases enormously, we sneak more silently or jump twice as high. All bonuses can be kept for the long term via Residium, so that you can plan a proper sneak or haul build.

Shooting in Deathloop is so much fun that sometimes we don't even feel like being stealthy.
Shooting in Deathloop is so much fun that sometimes we don’t even feel like being stealthy.

No room for frustration – and gumption

The highlight, of course, are the powers, some of which you already know from Dishonored

  •  for example, the teleport. You take them from visionaries when you kill them and are rewarded with skill improvements for every further successful assassination.

All of them feel equal and encourage creative resolution strategies: For example, using Carnesia, you fling enemies through the air while chaining them via Nexus. What happens to one then happens to all the others. The powerful magic is limited by a bar that empties and refills itself at the same time. Colt can thus trigger two abilities at the same time.

Deathloop thus invites experimentation at every turn. The loops are immensely motivating because new possibilities and ways to master the challenges always open up. Even after 30 hours, we still regularly discover new things.

However, the fact that we learn so much also has a catch: the enemies automatically become dumber and dumber for us. While in the beginning groups still like to run us down, later we effortlessly trick them, fire into the crowd, hide somewhere invisible and then finish off the rest. Colt quickly forgets and sometimes even ignores when someone is stabbed from behind three steps away.

Arkane obviously wants to avoid frustration at all costs. Free saving like in Dishonored or Hitman is not possible, so Colt is allowed to revive himself twice and the AI is not allowed to be too clever, powers recharge and corpses simply disappear. Probably also because shooter players don’t want to constantly drag dead bodies back and forth away from the action.

Julianna demands more from us, who invades our game once per loop, disguises herself as harmless cannon fodder and then suddenly chases hordes of enemies at us or takes aim at us herself. This is a breath of fresh air – regardless of whether the AI attacks or another player, because we suddenly have to react and rethink. Nevertheless, there is no adjustable difficulty level like in Prey, which would make the game experience more crisp and individual.

You level up Julianna in multiplayer, unlocking new equipment and abilities if you kill enough players.
You level up Julianna in multiplayer, unlocking new equipment and abilities if you kill enough players.

playDeathloop in multiplayer

You can visit other players in PvP like in Dark Souls and give them a hard time. After about three hours, you can select Julianna for the first time and use her abilities. As Juliana, you take on other forms and use the same arsenal as Colt – only against him. However, you only have one life; if you are killed, the chance for this loop is gone. This makes for a disappointing aftertaste: the effort is simply too great. If you have found an open game with suitable criteria and slip in, the fun is usually over after a few minutes.

A successful Julianna is at least rewarded with new weapons, perks and skills. But you can also decide to work together. Then you just have to be prepared that the other person can stab you in the back at any time – or you will become a treacherous traitor yourself.

Apart from the decreasing ambition in the course of the game, Deathloop does not make any big mistakes. On the contrary: the game mechanics pull us into the loop again and again with such brilliance that we want to start the shooter again right after playing through it. But unlike Prey and Dishonored, Deathloop sits a little between the chairs: A terrific sneaking game with a lot of focus on exploration meets snappy shooter action complete with a loot system and a multiplayer that feels a bit like a sewn-on third arm.

This doesn’t always feel like a unified whole and shows itself through compromises in stealth or AI. But when everything meshes and we run through the perfect loop, Deathloop still briefly feels like a masterpiece.

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