Deathloop Preview: If Bulletstorm And Dishonored Had A Baby

Colt Vahn is on his way to crash a party. He makes it inside, gibbing the guards on the grounds with balletic, bombastic combat skills. But once he gets in and realises it’s a masquerade ball, he figures killing everyone in attendance is probably the best way to single out his prey, a masked Visionary called Aleksis “The Wolf” Dorsey.

He sprints past ‘60s pop art decor and churns through armed partygoers with a never-ending hail of bullets. He slides through fireplace openings and into a Kubrick-esque corridor to continue his assault. But the resistance is too much and he drops dead, riddled with bullets. He wakes up on Blackreef’s beach at the beginning of his own personal Groundhog Day, right back at the start of the timeloop, and with a perpetual hangover once again gnawing at his skull. Don’t drink the night before getting trapped in some spacetime fuckery, kids.

This time, though, Colt is armed with more than just guns. He has knowledge. Before heading back to the party, he makes his way to the location of a locked safe he found the code for while infiltrating the shindig the previous night (or later the same day, technically). He cracks it open and finds a recording with intel: Aleksis will be giving a speech. It’s the perfect opportunity to identify and assassinate him without murdering everyone who happens to be wearing a wolf mask.

He arrives back at Updaam, one of Blackreef’s four districts, at night. Each district can be visited at four different times of day – morning, noon, afternoon, and evening – and depending on when you visit, the entire context of the location can change: NPCs will move around, you’ll find different intel, and there might even be some places that are locked off or open depending on the time – and that’s without even considering how your actions in each district can impact others. Colt makes his way through the maintenance tunnels connecting the districts together and slides under a laser grid, ready to become the ultimate party pooper.

Colt uses his Shift power to teleport onto a roof, zipping up like Corvo using the Blink ability in Dishonored. There are three enemies just below him and some orb-shaped street lights dangling overhead. He throws a mine onto the lights and Shifts ahead, landing on an enemy’s neck with his machete before spinning around and using telekinetic power Karnesis to pull the group of three into the air, triggering the mine.

He Shifts to a rooftop on the other side of the street and uses his silenced pistol to shoot a distant sniper in the head, causing red mist to eject from his skull as fireworks bang in the night sky behind his grim silhouette. From there, he picks up a bottle and throws it at the floor to distract an enemy, drops down, and kicks her over a railing. There’s a pop, pop, pop, as Colt takes out three more enemies with successive headshots before Shifting to another and plunging his machete into soft skin. He spins around from the fresh kill and pulls an enemy into the air like a clay pigeon – pop, pop – and they drop to the ground.

Colt continues like this, grinding through everyone using a hyper-aggressive form of stealth, until he finally makes his way back inside and gets lost among the rafters looking down at the main stage. He pulls a lever and sends Aleksis into a trap door where a meat grinder awaits, then he drops down and gets the party started, throwing people left and right with his telekinetic powers, all while dodging, sliding, and popping heads. Bodies fly through windows and over tables, glass smashes and bullets fly. It’s hypnotising.

With Deathloop, Arkane wants you to feel like a “superpowered John Wick”. If you’ve ever seen StealthGamerBR churn his way through a Dishonored level like a ballerina made of razor blades, this is an entire game that encourages the same kind of killer choreography seen in the YouTuber’s video montages.

Like in other Arkane games, you can sneak. But stealth here is used for the setup – placing mines into funnels where you will draw enemies in, scoping out an area’s hazards, or silently removing the snipers from the rooftops before you obliterate everyone on the ground. It’s a systems-driven game with an action slant. It’s Dishonored via Bulletstorm, a 2011 FPS that focused on killing with style, racking up points for performing slick combos, landing environmental kills, throwing people into the air before filling them with bullets, and, most importantly, kicking people off cliffs. While Deathloop won’t score you for killing with coolness, every system in the game screams at you to play this way. It even has Bulletstorm’s kick, which could have just as easily been inspired by Arkane’s own Dark Messiah.

You can kick people into your mines, into fireworks, off cliffs, into their friends, and through windows. You can Shift into someone to add more kinetic energy to your kick, sending them careening into the distance with comedic force. It looks ludicrously satisfying, and I can’t wait for someone to figure out a way to do a kick-only run – it’s bound to happen.

“Initially it’s kind of a shove – it stuns them and you can reload, run away, or machete them,” game director Dinga Bakaba tells me. “But of course, we were like ‘No, that’s not enough’, so we made it so if you kick a second time, they fall over. If you kick them near something dangerous, you kick them into it. The Shift power has an upgrade where you can shift into someone and send them flying. When using the Havoc power, which makes you more resilient, people tend to fly when you kick.”

It’s not just the kick that encourages this forward momentum, however. A large part of the Dishonored series is cleaning up your mess – you stuff bodies in bins, throw them in the water, and tuck them around corners to avoid alerting their friends. Of course, there’s no need for bins when you’re in a timeloop and everything resets. You can just leave your rubbish on the floor. When you kill people in Deathloop, bodies ragdoll on their way down, but they vanish when they hit the ground. As well as being a smart memory solution so the game doesn’t have to remember the location of all your victims – which is made even more complex by the fact another player can invade your game, meaning the game has to render the view of both players – it’s a clever way to encourage you to keep moving.

“We considered various solutions, because we had a first implementation with the bodies, and as much as it is definitely part of the game loop of something like Dishonored and we have a lot of fun with it, in Deathloop it did slow the momentum a little bit,” Bakaba explains. “And in the end, someone came and they started to make a weird theory about why if you die, the timeloop would actually reject your body and you will kind of crumble and leave some kind of atomic shadow on the ground. People would be able to see them for a little bit, but then they fade away, and people will not be able to know if it’s a recent kill or not.

“I think we were quite happy with this decision. Because yes, it does enable this forward momentum. So we keep the ragdoll for when you throw someone around, or when there is an explosion, or when you kick someone. But the physics engine doesn’t have to worry too much about the ragdolling bodies in two different places of the map, because there is also Julianna.”

Julianna is ever-present in Deathloop and her relationship with our amnesiac hero, Colt, is one of the core mysteries of the game. Sometimes she seems to want to help Colt, and sometimes she wants to kill him. Her objective isn’t clear, but it’s something you’ll find out as you slowly peel back the layers of Blackreef. She seemingly wants Colt to break the loop, which he has to do by studying the island and figuring out how to kill eight targets in a single day before the loop resets, but she also keeps murdering him, which is a little counterproductive. Or does she simply want to make him better? The ambiguity of the narrative is backed up by the game’s mechanics.

At any point during your campaign, Julianna can invade your game. When she does, an angelic choir calls out to warn you. Julianna can be controlled by AI or another player, and you can tweak this in the options if you find the threat of another player ruining your day too daunting. But Arkane doesn’t want Julianna players to kill you outright – the developer wants them to toy with you and for players to build up their own rules and etiquette within the systems, establishing a community similar to those found in FromSoftware games.

“I actually have a nice Bloodborne story about someone who just crushed me twice and then invaded me a third time, in the same area,” Bakaba tells me. “And they pitied me. They just stayed outside of my reach. And each time they pulled me towards this bell ringer NPC – you cannot be invaded anymore [if you kill them]. So she slowly brought me towards the bell ringer and then she disappeared. That was so cool. And each time I would go in the wrong direction, she would shoot me, which was hilarious, like, ‘Hey, stay on track’. I had no idea what she was doing until I got to the [NPC] and then they disappeared.”

These kinds of interactions are encouraged through a scoring system that’s in place for Julianna players. Points unlock new weapons and abilities for Julianna, and collecting these invasion points is also the only way to unlock cosmetics for both Julianna and Colt. Things like staying alive for ten minutes or doing damage to Colt are rewarded points, while killing Colt outright is not. Arkane hopes that these cues lead to Julianna players that harass Colt and become a proper nemesis, rather than an annoyance that simply snipes you from across the map. There’s also nothing stopping Julianna players from teaming up with Colt to create an uneasy alliance. With players able to invade strangers and friends, there’s even the possibility of approaching it like a co-op mode if you want.

Arkane’s games have always been about freedom of expression, and it looks like the addition of another player won’t change anything about that. You can namecheck other games like Bulletstorm and Bloodborne, but Deathloop is something entirely new, and it’s easily the most exciting, brave big game coming out in 2021. Deathloop releases on September 14 for PS5 and PC.

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