If you didn’t think you needed a hyper-violent interactive version of Groundhog Day directed by John Woo in his prime, with sets stolen from the Moulin Rouge, you clearly haven’t played Deathloop. This is an unapologetically breathless, adrenaline-drenched time-loop shooter from Arkane Studios, makers of Dishonored and Prey, and it gives players immense freedom to explore, combine weapons and powers such as telekinesis, and blast the crap out of things.
Set on a strange island named Blackreef, where a space-time fissure has caused the same day to continually reset, Deathloop pits wisecracking assassin Colt Vahn against Julianna Blake, the head of a secret organisation that has taken advantage of the chronological anomaly to build a weird, hedonistic utopia. Colt wants to shut the loop down by assassinating all of Blackreef’s eight leaders in one day; Julianna wants to stop him.
For the player, this means reliving the same 12-hour period over and over, getting ever more familiar with the island’s inhabitants and buried secrets. Colt can pick a few of the weapons, powers and items he finds to keep for the next time loop, and you need to make tactical decisions about what suits your style of play. You can sneakily scale the rooftops, quietly hacking security cameras and picking off enemies one by one, or you can leap straight into the crowd with an eviscerating shotgun and a fistful of grenades.
But this is Arkane, of course, one of the most stylish and intellectual studios currently working in mainstream games, so Deathloop offers more than just cathartic action. Players also need to work out the rules of the loop, using multiple revisits at different times of day to piece together information, listening in to conversations to get tips on how targets might be assassinated. Two of the characters are having a secret affair, so could they be taken out at once? One guy is obsessed with fireworks and isn’t great on health and safety – surely a deadly accident waiting to happen? The beauty of the structure is that there’s no rush to discover these narrative threads – you can always revisit them on the next go-around.
Blackreef is a luscious world constructed with the idiosyncratic eye for detail we’d expect from this team. Art deco buildings combine with 1960s kitsch and the towering painted billboards of Weimar Berlin, building a glorious picture of a ruinous, elitist society and spectacle. Filled with brilliant graphic design, it is a world that can be explored like an art gallery. What it doesn’t have is the all-encompassing, dread-heavy atmosphere of the Dishonored games, which imbued every building, every street, every object with a sickly Victorian pallor. Deathloop is more self-consciously showy, a theme-park dystopia, a ready-made backdrop for the acrobatic thrills it provides.
It’s also not as daring and morally nuanced as Dishonored. Those games sought to temper the player’s aggression by making the world a darker place for all their violence and giving plenty of options for non-lethal approaches, but Deathloop hands you an orgy of set-piece shootouts and practically dares you to dive in. Incorporating elements of Bioshock and Portal, and channelling anarchic shooter Bulletstorm with its acrobatic and super-choreographed gunplay, this is more a more indulgent and accessible game than its predecessors.
But Deathloop definitely has things to say. Alongside other recent time-loop adventures 12 Minutes, Returnal and Outer Wilds, it is part of a growing trend among modern developers to really interrogate the structural and experiential repetition inherent in mainstream action-adventure games. If it feels like you have been in these worlds before, if it seems like you have already fired these weapons, explored these buildings, completed these fetch quests and fought in these choke points, it’s because you have – many, many times. Every action shooter is a loop of death shared between the designer and the player, and Arkane definitely wants to talk about what that means while you blast its world to pieces.
The things is, you don’t have to think about anything if you don’t want to; you can just enjoy the adrenaline rush, blasting symbolic victims of player violence (enemies even disappear in a whirl of multicoloured light when shot, a self-reflexive reference to the sheer disposability of non-player characters). But a darker subtext is always there, if you want to look beneath the gleaming surface.
In this way, Deathloop gets to have its cake and eat it – over and over again. And it is, to be fair, absolutely delicious.