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Deathloop review: this is not your daddy's Dishonored

Stealth is just the thing that goes wrong before a good fight

William Blake once wrote: "Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour." Shut up, Blake. This is Deathloop. It is a full-blown action-comedy with a double jump. You get a sideways dash and a gun that splits to become two, smaller guns. If I see anyone trying to be too smart about this game, in which a time-looping assassin tries to break free of hilarious eternity by murdering many people who deserve it, I will look at them with hollow eyes and say: "In Deathloop you regularly snap necks by 270 degrees." Turn away, poets and stealth likers. This is not your daddy's Dishonored.

You are Colt, a buff gun professional who wakes up on the shore of Blackreef, a misty island caught in a day-long time loop and inhabited by the worst of humanity. These goons are a loose-knit cult called the "Eternalists", led by eight asshole archetypes. Bratty artist. Megalomaniac executive. Mad scientist. You know the ones. It's a world of snide remarks and foul-mouthed hostility but offering actual belly laughs, with sharp inter-murder banter that brings a smile. Imagine if Bioshock Infinite had a sense of humour and you basically understand this game.

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There are also moments of slapstick in the brutal action-hero antics. You might kick a guy into a harbour as he plays guitar, or send three machete-wielders flying with a well-placed proximity mine. This is a shooter with stealth elements, rather than an immersive sim with guns (hi Prey). The shooting is not as tight as a Doom or a Destiny, but Arkane's love of mouse smoothing has been toned down (even if an overzealous deadzone on controllers remains). If you can match its rhythm, you'll appreciate the type of hit-and-run gunbrawls it wants to encourage.

But it might take a bit to reach that point. After a few hours of sneaking, blasting, hacking, and peeping into every bakery, candy store, cavern and crevice, you'll have earned some powers and learn how the time loop should be approached as a player. To break the loop, you need to kill all eight leaders of the weirdo Eternalist cult. However, they're spread throughout the island, in any of four explorable areas. Every day will have four periods: morning, noon, afternoon, and night. Your targets will be in certain zones at certain times. For example, Alexis, a wolf-masked corporate asshat, will be partying in his manor at night. Dirtbag rock star Frank will be in his club in the morning. You see where this is going. Deathloop seeks to make seasoned speedrunners of us all. But there are complications, of course. What if two targets are in different parts of the island at the same time? You'll figure it out.

Talking to yourself
Colt's inner monologue appears as text, splashing across walls and floating above heads. At one point, a drunk guard wanders back and forth on a rooftop. "Security's tight here," says the floating text as the guard loses his balance and tumbles off the roof.

Areas will change as you come and go. Visit the townish district of Updaam in the morning, for example, and you'll spy two pickaxe chumps, chipping at a wall. By afternoon the chumps are gone but the wall has a handy hole in it. In the morning a mysterious building can't be reached because of a chasm, but at noon a bridge will be down, inviting you to explore. You have control over some of these changes. At noon, for instance, you'll find a workshop in Updaam has burnt down, due to a faulty generator. But if you disable that generator in the morning, the fire won't happen, leaving the workshop open for critical snooping later. This sort of interventionism works both ways. Kill those diggers I mentioned and that hole in the wall will never appear.

The levels themselves are intricate. They weave together: corridors, tunnels, caves, passages, clambers, leaps, all connecting one area of note to another, so that abandoned installations which feel big in your first few hours become tight and interlaced when fully explored. The whole island is revealed quickly (it's almost overwhelming just how quickly) but the limits of each place, its secrets, its inner workings, are obscured until you spend enough loops falling into holes and stepping on landmines. It lacks a standalone hit level, a Jindosh mansion or a time travel derelict, where walls move or magic reigns. But this is because the whole game is arguably one big level of moving parts. And it's still got the Arkane staple of a masked party at one point, so, there is that.

Usefully, time does not technically "run out". You can spend real life hours exploring in the morning and the day won't turn over to the noon phase until you actually leave that zone. This is not the strict clockwork of Outer Wilds or even Hitman. But it works for Arkane's twisting streets and diary-strewn apartments that demand noseying. The "one zone, one timechunk" design is a good compromise. You can also skip whole periods of time, which comes in handy if you want to spend a few loops skipping straight to the evening to kill Aleksis. Trust me, you will.

The dialogue between Colt and his nemesis Julianna is particularly good. This is a woman who endlessly pursues and kills you, yet calls at least four times a day to insult your clothes or call you a big baby.

You're going to die, by the way. But really you get three deaths before you truly bite the dust. They're called "reprises". Drown in the icy water or fall to a hail of bullets and you'll reappear a few corners back with full health. Three strikes and you're out, and have to start the loop from the top again. But survive and find your old corpse and you can suck the magic dust from its warpy bones. The same magic stuff you'll suck up from glittering objects scattered around, or the bodies of your targets. This currency, Residium, is what you'll eventually use to "infuse" weapons or powers to carry them across loops.

In other words, you can make that one rifle you really like permanent. You can keep its reload upgrade and the power that lets you turn invisible. Just infuse them with time glitter. This soon gets silly as you become capable of saving basically everything you want from previous runs, rendering any roguelike comparisons a bit questionable. This is not quite Hades, even if it feels sometimes inspired by it. Importantly, that process of infusing only happens in a menu when you leave a zone and essentially "clock off".

"This is a game about embracing the moment, not save-scumming until you get that kill juuuust right."

Significantly, you can't change your loadout on the move either. Between outings you decide what guns and powers to use on your next jaunt, and then that's it. No swapping one power out for another in the middle of a street fight, no fiddling with gun plug-ins to make your bullets pierce through multiple bodies, or using a quiet moment to eject one upgrade in favour of another you've just found. You pick your gear (two powers, three guns) and you commit.

It might seem pointless to have useful character trinkets jangling in your pockets until the next level. But no swapping means you're not constantly pausing the game, interrupting the flow. There isn't even a weapon wheel here (thank God). This is a game about embracing the moment, not save-scumming until you get that kill juuuust right. The three "reprises" make mistakes forgivable and gambits inviting. Die to a fight-gone-wrong in Dishonored, and you are treated to a loading screen. Die to a misjudged brawl in Deathloop and you get a fun wobble transition and another chance to kill. It is a quicksave in all but name. As someone who struggles to love previous Arkane games thanks to a caustic mix of perfectionism and impatience, I'm pleased with how the design has evolved here.

The average cultist thug doesn't care for any of this. Enemies have nasty health-chomping attacks, especially at close range. They have some differing roles, but they feel less cohesive than, say, a band of Far Cry reprobates. There are some baddies who will call for backup (you can hack their radio to stop this), while machete wielders will try to get close. But mostly, they're all very shootable meat. And that's okay. Next to Prey's nuisance ink spiders and teleporting Rorschach blots, these masked idiots are much better fodder. You can't kick an alien made of Bic juice into a ravine, that's the point I want you to discern here.

A far more deadly foe is Julianna, your nemesis and potential multiplayer adversary. She will show up every day, a big red message declaring her arrival. This puts the area you're in on lockdown, and you can't leave until you hack a special antenna. Julianna might be a computer-controlled enemy, like any other high-level "visionary" target. Or she might be a human player, invading like a Dark Souls phantom (you can turn off these invasions easily). And you too can be Julianna, out to ruin someone's day.

I did successfully invade a bunch of other reviewers. I had one running battle in a snowy mountain pass with a Colt I killed twice by filling the clearing around the critical antenna with turrets. He gunned me down in a final tense encounter. A good fight. The others were... less so. The multiplayer I find more interesting as a game of hide 'n' seek than a fluid multiplayer shooter. That's down to the speed at which Colt and Julianna are capable of moving, and the wacky way their character animations seem to move around the map. Still, we have enough competitive shooters in our lives. This cat and mouse game feels more about setting traps and being a nuisance than about being lethal with flickshots.

As divisive as the multiplayer invasions are likely to be, they're key to the tension of the story. The jibing between Colt and Julianna is the heart of Deathloop. Colt is the charming rogue, playing it by ass. He's storming through on muscle memory and some inner sense of obligation, tenacity or spite; it's not clear which. Julianna is an impatient, one-step-ahead wunderkind who is frustrated by Colt's dozy predictability. They are a pair of lethal frenemies, and one of the most fun-loving duos in gaming's recent history. The excellent voice acting goes a long way.

There's a lot more I liked in the 30+ hours it took to hit the credits, but I only have one life, not millions, so I can't type all day. Just know that those who prefer the quiet quicksaveyness of the Dishonoreds will grumble at the inability to use all their powers, the shift to shootybang, the disappearance of non-lethality and corpse hiding - all the signposts of a true immersive sim.

Not me. Colt is High Chaos Corvo with three lives and no patience, as reckless in personality as I want to be in play. His boot contains more power than any Outsider's mark, and stealth is just the thing that goes wrong before a good fight. More surprising is that, despite the wonkiness, I'm ready to play more games as a sneaky, invading Julianna in multiplayer. Because she's right. When the loop is this good, why stop?

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About the Author
Brendan Caldwell avatar

Brendan Caldwell

Former Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.