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A timed exclusive for the PlayStation 5, Deathloop is surely one of the most stylish shooters we've ever seen. We were recently invited to a preview session with Arkane Studios, as well as a Q&A with Dinga Bakaba and Sébastien Mitton, the game's director and art director respectively. What I learned is that it's going to be the conflict or camaraderie between players that will underline the possibilities of this dystopian island.
The visuals are always the star of the show when it comes to Arkane Studios' games, and Deathloop is fortunately yet another feather in its cap. Check out the effortlessly stylish combat below.
Lying on the sand, Colt awakens to the sound of the waves crashing. Our hero is an assassin, specifically one that is trapped in a time loop and must eliminate the eight Visionaries of Blackreef Island to break the cycle and set himself free. The day repeats over and over in this strange corner of the world, and therefore, nothing matters. In a hedonistic display of greed, the denizens (called the Eternalists) murder, firebomb, steal, maim and all sorts knowing that the mess will be gone in the morning.
Colt's sick of it. In killing the Visionaries - scientists, artists, inventors and other eccentrics that ensure that Blackreef's loop continually ticks over - this prison will shatter under its own weight. The catch? He has to kill every single one before the clock strikes midnight, or else the loop rewinds and his work is undone.
At the start of each loop, the player may travel to any one of the four districts of Blackreef Island. These are The Complex, Updaam, Fristad Rock, and Karl's Bay. Each environment snaps and sparks with colour and slick artistic direction, like the collection of concept works and the world you step into are one and the same. The developer is very good at this, after all, ensuring that the gap between the ideal and the reality is a hop rather than a yawning chasm.
Mitton mentioned influences on the look of Blackreef like the Avengers, James Bond, Point Blank, and Tarantino movies to create its "own little recipe" for a world that wants to surprise you. Additionally, the player has the option to choose what time it is when they visit the four locations - morning, noon, afternoon and evening - and dynamic events will wax and wane over the day. This is vital for understanding where the Visionaries will be and when, and whether you could chart a new course for them and seize an opportunity.
The two sang the praises of the PlayStation 5, too, because the power of this chunk of plastic and circuitry let the team realise their ambitions for the world that Colt inhabits. To compare, it's about double the technical "load" of Dishonored 2. "It's always heartbreaking when you get to the end of a project, and you have to optimise things, and now you have to cut your map in half, and you have to justify why it's into two parts," said Bakaba, and described this new system as a "breath of fresh air."
"This is really cool, because our games, yes, you can play them slowly, but when sh*t hits the fan, and things get crazy, it's really nice to get that kind of reactivity that you were able to get only on the high end PC," elaborated the director. "I don't think that we would have been able to preserve the level of ambition of this game were it not for the move to next-gen."
Moreover, Arkane Studios was wont to emphasise freedom here, and like the levels in Dishonored and Dishonored 2, there are no time limits to worry about. Instead of aiming to off all eight Visionaries in one go, you should use these journeys like reconnaissance outings. Painful ones that eventually end in death, but the plus side is that you'll look really, really, really cool before that stray bullet nicks your carotid artery.
Hand guns, SMGs, machine guns, rifles, shotguns, and even a silenced nail gun are knocking about Blackreef for Colt to borrow. This will allow players to customise their approach from location to location as well as based on their mood. Though I prefer super-stealthy playthroughs in Dishonored and Prey, the gaudy backdrops of Deathloop might make me change my tune. They're simply asking for chaos to reign, especially with the powers that a fair few of us will recognise from Dunwall and Karnaca.
Aether is an invisibility cloak - perfect for slipping past crowds of Eternalists to a higher vantage point. Shift is teleportation that gives Colt the option of a hasty exit. Karnesis tosses enemies about like they're as light as a feather, whereas Havoc consumes the damage dealt by enemies and then discharges it in a tremendous explosion. Nexus chains targets together so that they share the same fate and Reprise offers Colt a second chance on death without restarting the loop. These powers are technically termed Slabs and come in the form of a strange rectangle of stone, and they are scattered around the island. Upgrading these powers involves killing the Visionary associated with this Slab over and over, and there are about four or five levels to each of these.
"Just going to a target location and killing them isn't something that makes you progress through the story," clarified Bakaba. "It makes you progress in the rise to power because when you kill for instance, Alexis, you will be able to use the Karnesis power and if you save that and then kill him again, you will get an upgrade for Karnesis."
Colt is a dab hand with inventions, and one of the tools I'll definitely rely on is the Hackamajig. This doodad unlocks doors, turns turrets against the Eternalists, zaps security cameras and more so that the player has an even greater arsenal at their disposal. There's also an automatic turret and something called a sapper charge, which is a grenade with two alternate modes (proximity sensor and trip mine).
Here's the elephant in the room: the loop will mean that you lose your gear and have to start from scratch every time you die. However, there's a collectible resource called Residuum that is unlocked early on in the game and this will let you hang onto your favourite stabby-stabby and shooty-shooty stuff. Furthermore, trinkets are attachable to weapons and to Colt and offer upgrades. Hipster grants greater accuracy when shooting from the hip, Shock Absorber diminishes recoil, and Creeping Death minimises the noise you make while moving. In short, think of Bonecharms from Dishonored.
Julianna Blake. The brightest of the Visionaries... and also the most dangerous. She takes it upon herself to disrupt Colt's plan to break the loop by hunting him down and killing him every single day. While she may be piloted by the game's artificial intelligence, Bakaba stressed that players should step into her shoes and invade other people's games as Colt's rival. However, with a playground like Blackreef, this needed careful consideration to allow the player the ability to take whatever approach they like.
"We wanted to be very freeform," explained the director, adding that player-controlled Juliannas may be efficient, sneaky, underhanded, or even friendly towards Colt and all of these personae would still fit within her characterisation. "So that's really something where we had to take all that into account, like the mechanic and the dynamic, and write the character and give her a philosophy that would accommodate all these playstyles," continued Bakaba.
Julianna will taunt and converse with Colt via a radio (an idea lifted from Campo Santo's Firewatch) and apparently a "tonne" of dialogue between the characters was recorded to ensure things never get stale. "We really don't see gameplay and story as two different things. We really try to see that as something that is one and the same thing," explained Bakaba, and that the multiplayer will generate stories of its own. "When you're playing [Arkane titles] alone, there is always a moment where you're like, 'Whoa, that happened. I wish someone was there to experience that with me,'" he continued. "And I think that's one of the goals of having this multiplayer. It creates some memorable moments of rivalry, and sometimes mind games, and also we are very, very curious about what players will do with it."
What's the incentive for playing as Julianna? "Besides the warm and fuzzy feeling of ruining someone's day?" joked Bakaba. Players who choose Julianna (who unlocks as an option after the first few hours of the game are complete) start out with very little and her role is better likened to an "entertainer" than a hunter. "What we reward is playing with style, playing creatively or playing cautiously, things like that," said the designer. "And if you accomplish those feats, you get some points and those points progressively unlock more and more tools for her - the same kind of tools that you would get in the campaign if you were playing as Colt," he continued, referring to the weapons, powers, upgrades and trinkets.
The prospect of a cat and mouse game structured with the players as a central cog in the machine is intriguing to me, but I'm hung up on one particular detail. The practicality. PlayStation 5s are as rare as hen's teeth - even Deathloop's director doesn't have one in his house - so how likely is it that players will be pitted against each other? Will we see a lot more AI Juliannas instead of player Juliannas? Knowing how intricate and exciting Arkane Studios' portfolio is, I'd like to hope that players do have the opportunity to play as either side of the same coin.
All in all, Deathloop is flamboyant, experimental and stylish, like a box of fancy chocolates. Each loop serves as a taster of what's to come, and by the time you've polished off the box, you'll know exactly what you want. Yet, you'll always be tempted by the zaniness of a different flavour, and that box is so beautifully presented... it'd be a shame if someone had to... start all over again.
Deathloop comes to PC and PlayStation 5 on September 14th.
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