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‘Deathloop’ chucks the stuff that sucks about games in 2021



Available on: PlayStation 5 and PC

Developer: Arkane Lyon | Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Release: Sept. 14, 2021

“Deathloop” can be charged with a litany of traditional-game-review style crimes. The enemy AI behaves erratically, particularly in moments of high tension. Combat can feel finicky and imprecise; More than once, minor input errors put me into situations completely opposite to my original intent. The game crashed — a lot and repeatedly — trapping me in its own meta death loop. (I played on the PlayStation 5). Inexplicably, the game inspired joystick drift in two relatively new controllers.

But these elements are the kinds of thing we accept, and even expect, in games. And in a way, that’s what it feels like to play “Deathloop.” It is the point of convergence for all the stuff you might expect of “a game” in 2021, wrapped in a stylish, meticulously-constructed package. It could be the final chapter of a book titled “An Abridged History of Western Computer Game Design,” which inspired a minor kerfuffle on academic Twitter that nobody else noticed. And the stuff that sucks about games these days — too-big open worlds, ambitious but naive storytelling, bolted-on multiplayer — is not found in “Deathloop” or is at least scaled down to the point that it’s tolerable.

Shut off the haptic feedback on the PS5 controllers. You cannot be “immersed” in “Deathloop” in the traditional sense. You are always at a remove. In its design, by its flaws, even where it succeeds, “Deathloop” will always remind you that you are playing a game. And what a game it is.

You play as Colt Vahn. He’s an amnesiac (a classic of the medium) who pieces together that he’s stuck on an island named Blackreef. By some mystery of magic and science, Blackreef is cursed to relive the same day over and over again. But Colt, by contrast with most of the figures on the island, is aware of the loop, and remembers what happens the day before. He wants out.

The core of the gameplay is learning — about your origins, your circumstances, the broader world, how to escape — by living. There are four key locations in the game, and four portions of the day (morning, noon, afternoon and evening); in effect, 16 levels. Plot contrivances shuttle Colt around the island, and on your travels, you learn about the comings and going of people across the different locations and at different times. You then use that knowledge to upend the terrarium.

Say, to give a low stakes example, each day a person receives an important package at noon. If you swing by their place in the morning and nab that package or change its contents, you can alter the recipient’s behavior later in the day. The game spells out many of these connections for the player, but I also often felt like I was one step ahead of the mystery, a feeling I will chalk up to intentional good design on Arkane’s part, rather than particularly good sleuthing on my end.

And if you mess something up, it doesn’t matter. Everything resets. Tomorrow is just the same day, again.

In the course of your adventures, you will fight and kill eight “visionaries,” VIPs with some connection to the island’s core mystery. Each one is imbued with a “slab” that grants special powers, such as the ability to teleport or become invisible. When you kill a visionary, their slab becomes your trophy, a part of your arsenal.

Here too, the game makes the player feel smart by rewarding clever play. Unique combinations of slab powers unlock, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, many of the puzzles and obstacles on the island. They can also be just plain thrilling to use: The best I felt playing the game was when I would leap from a rooftop or ledge and teleport to safety from midair, crossing a distance that didn’t seem possible without that leap of faith. And the puzzles — and AI, crucially — are tuned to be forgiving enough to grant players leeway to experiment.

The visionaries themselves are mostly caricatures; you learn a minor Wikipedia entry’s worth of information about each, at most. Still, their personalities are rendered in great detail — a remarkable achievement. You can hear the humanity in their verbal tics, their desires, the things that irritate them.

One of the most convincingly sketched visionaries is Julianna Blake, the game’s chief antagonist, who has made it her mission to kill Colt and stop him from breaking the loop. During certain missions, she’ll invade your game to try to stop you from completing your objective. Despite this, she and Colt maintain a tentative but testy ongoing dialogue. At the start of each level, Julianna and Colt have a brief chat via walkie talkie. These can be funny, existential and even heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, “Deathloop” indulges the habit — not unique to games — of dabbling in deep questions in ways that are ripe for excavation across subreddits and video essays, but are not necessarily engaged with or even felt in the course of play. There are hundreds of lines of dialogue, primarily conversations with Julianna, that alight upon what it means to live a good life, the ways in which perspective can reshape what a “good life” means, being amenable to change, and living in defiance of cruelty and evil. But the game is about those moments in the same way a car is about its stereo system. It may be nice to have. It may even be essential to you. But in the game’s design — and even in its narrative ambiguities — you can sense that it is not central.

As with Colt’s amnesia, the hallmarks of the medium are all here: Gathering crucial information by eavesdropping and picking through notes and audio recordings, strewn around the island; letting pivotal moments hang indefinitely, suspended in time, as you poke and prod for alternative options and interactive objects you might have missed. Your main modes of interacting with the world are to bust in guns blazing (spicy); to sneak around (mild); or to find a happy medium — killing as necessary, sneaking when convenient. These elements, which exist in worse, less tasteful forms across a number of different games, are all at peace with each other here. “Deathloop” takes what is necessary from its forebears to craft a game and jettisons the rest.

The craftsmanship of it all is top of class. Look at “Deathloop” from any angle and you will find that it is stylish without being pretty or obvious. The music and sound design deserve particular praise; the game wears its references on its sleeve — compare “Déjà Vu,” which plays during the credits, to Bond themes like “Diamonds Are Forever” and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — but “Deathloop’s” takes on the source material are inspired and sometimes freshly unintuitive.

Of course, true to the medium, the astonishing craftsmanship is sometimes hard to appreciate. Some of the vistas are clearly designed to look nice, but the finer details can get lost in the rush of movement. You will never really get to appreciate a Visionary’s outfit except maybe through the scope of a rifle, or from behind, in the seconds before you snap their neck. Gawk for too long — at a building, person or piece of decor — and you’ll be spotted by an overeager NPC. It all adds up, in a pointillistic way, to a stylish whole, but the game’s very nature makes it difficult to appreciate the composite parts.

One easy fix is to just kill everyone and walk through “Deathloop” like a museum, but that robs the place of life. You’re staring into an ant farm with no ants. And so playing “Deathloop,” I often knew I was in the presence of beauty — I could intuit the signifiers of style and tasteful design around me — while simultaneously feeling shifty, compelled to move on.

Some media inspires, deep down, the feeling that you are communing with something that will be with you forever. Usually, it sneaks up on you. If you are still reading, there’s a chance you’ve felt this with games. But when credits rolled the first, second and third time on “Deathloop,” I didn’t feel it. As I write this, I still don’t. I have no specific qualms with “Deathloop.” It is compelling and, as an object, near-impeccable. But even as it grew familiar, it did not move me in that deep, essential way.

There is a level in which you enter a fortress designed like a giant “real life” game, designed by one of the visionaries, an obnoxiously vain game designer. It plays no differently from the rest of “Deathloop.” You ascend through levels, killing or sneaking by enemies and solving minor puzzles. It just looks a bit more crude.

In that way, “Deathloop” is a big winking self-reference. It is not really a social space, even with (limited) multiplayer. It is not a shop, or a metaverse or a simulation. It is not film, and efforts to translate it to prestige TV would snuff out its red hot heart. It is not borne of a producer’s latent anxieties about games being kids’ table fare. It is a game with ambitions to be great at being a game, and mostly just that. It exists in a clear lineage of games. It includes games, and is about games. It is refreshing to participate in something that is so itself.

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