As I pass the eroding façade of a fisherman’s hut, a beret-topped goon strides by in the opposite direction, casually swinging a machete. They’d be conspicuous were it not for the fact that there are no fishermen in this village anymore. If anyone were to bother putting up a welcome sign, it’d read ‘Population: Goons’. They like me, though. This thug’s two-tone mask might be impassive, but the voice beneath it betrays starstruck awe. “Julianna,” they say. “It’s an honour, really.”
“Shut the fuck up,” I hiss under my breath. “I’m in disguise. If the player hears you, we’re both mince. And thanks.”
This is invasion mode in Deathloop, a competitive stealth game like no other. As many players make their way through the critically acclaimed campaign for the first time, others hover in lobbies like vultures, looking for endgame challenge as a living miniboss. Taking on the guise of Julianna, the nemesis of Deathloop protagonist Colt, they’re planted into levels alongside NPCs. Their job is to kill the hero before he kills an important enemy character - or failing that, before he slips away into the tunnels beneath Blackreef, the blasted island where the same day repeats again and again.
The odds are stacked against invaders. While Colt enters a level with two Get Out of Hell Free Cards, Julianna’s first death is final. And so she is naturally pushed toward stealth: hidden routes, brief bouts of invisibility, and a masking mechanic named Masquerade that Colt doesn’t have.
The latter initially sounds very powerful, until you start to think about it. Nominally, it allows you to hide in plain sight by taking the face of another nearby character, hoodwinking the Colt player into thinking you’re not Julianna. Brilliant. Except that, from Colt’s perspective, there isn’t a single NPC in a level who isn’t an enemy. They’re all targets.
Using Masquerade, then, is a bit like dressing up as a pin in a bowling alley: it’s not going to stop you from getting hit if you’re in the way. And so you have to be smart about how you use it - working out the scenarios in which Colt players don’t shoot.
It helps that Colt is a bit of a glass cannon. Though certain builds can buff his health, by default he’s no Doom Slayer, quickly succumbing to direct fire if it’s coming from a few different sources. As such, it’s rare for Colt players to plough straight into a crowd of enemies - instead, they choose to make use of Arkane’s well-honed tools for avoidance, surgically removing the few baddies in their way.
As an invader, you can exploit that tendency by sticking with the herd. Run with a group of goons who are searching for Colt and you can track his movements, in character, without standing out - until an opportunity for a few choice shotgun blasts presents itself. Or until some AI moron blows your cover because they want an autograph from Blackreef’s chief archivist-turned-assassin. Hang out with goons and you get what you deserve, I suppose.
Putting yourself in the Colt player’s head involves an alluring sort of cod psychology, if you’ll forgive the fisherman’s pun. The aim is to trick your opponent into responding to you as a regular NPC - one of many threats to factor into their movements - rather than an intelligent enemy who should be their sole focus. By the time they realise they’ve underestimated you, it’s too late.
All this is just the dorsal fin poking above the surface of a mode that is fathoms deep. Many invaders won’t even touch Masquerade. Some will simply set the stage for the mother of all shootouts. The geography around each level’s antenna - which Colt needs to hack before he can escape you - becomes your backyard in the way a Call of Duty map might, a favoured battleground you know Colt will eventually show up to. And you can always fall back on camping at the exit, except - twist - there’s more than one. So working out the spot in which to set your proximity mines is a matter of getting in Colt’s brain too.
At this stage, I expect to spend more hours protecting the loop than I ever did breaking it. Do I feel guilty about being a full stop for players who, if they’re unlucky, could lose a fancy new power or gun because I sunsetted them before their time? If I’m honest: just a twinge, just the once.
After a scrappy firefight over the rooftops of Updaam, I lost one Colt for a 20 minute interlude, during which they successfully located and stabbed their target, esteemed game designer Charlie Montague, and evaded a bridge ambush with ease. I caught up with them just as they were inputting the tunnel code to leave, sinking a blade straight through their back. Gosh, they must have screamed.
When I look at my stat screen, though, I see that my hard-won kills are still greatly outnumbered by the losses. In other words, my best efforts to murder Colt have provided dozens of players with breathless, skin-of-the-teeth victories - the kind of mind-against-mind boss battles no AI could match. And the juicy power upgrades they’ve pulled from my corpse probably haven’t hurt either.
Besides: I’m a victim too. Deathloop invasions are all I want to do now. I can’t stop. Yes, I’m killing players, but is anyone thinking about the disruption to my life? “I’m an invaded party too, you know,” I yell at the latest unsuspecting Colt, as I unfold yet another turret onto the cobbles of Karl’s Bay.
It’s important to note that, despite their meatiness, Deathloop’s invasions are entirely optional. If you’d prefer to leave Julianna’s performances entirely to the computer, there’s an extraordinary single-player game here to dig into and adore. No judgement. But I hope you’ll open the door to invasions at least once. Connect with a killer, if only to feel the uneasy thrill of knowing they’re there - just out of view, like a spider you’ve lost sight of in your bedroom.