Deathloop (2021) Review

A loop for death!

Deathloop loading

I just finished playing Arkane’s Deathloop. It is a blend of time-looping first-person shooter with some interesting characters, light RPG style looting as is the norm these days, and other elements you might be familiar with from Arkane’s older games, to bring a great deal of good to what would otherwise be just four levels and a dozen or so weapons.

You play as Colt, a guy who wakes up with no recollection of his past which is the perfect narrative device for explaining a wild situation like the plot and gameplay of Deathloop. Colt gets to be ignorant of his surroundings due to the forgotten past as well as being a great character to learn about Blackreef, the island everyone in Deathloop is trapped on.

Blackreef has a ton of well done 1960’s style that is pretty fun and colorful, and the levels change a little bit as you progress between the time periods of morning, noon, afternoon, and evening where you can enter into one of the four different parts of Blackreef and shoot them up only to do it all again the next day. Time does not really progress while you’re in the levels, only in-between them. So you might go into one area in the morning and find that more of it is only accessible in the afternoon due to more ice forming on the water which is otherwise deadly to dip your toes into.

Colt wants to break the time loop in the world of Blackreef with more confidence and attitude than I’ve seen out of any previous protagonist from Arkane. Colt has a fantastic antagonist in Julianna who wants to protect the time loop and harasses Colt both over the radio, a very video game trope that I don’t honestly mind. Julianna also harasses Colt as an invader played either by the computer or other players who can drop into the otherwise single-player Deathloop and hunt down Colt. Blackreef is also protected by the Eternalists, and Visionaries. Eternalists are your run-of-the mill cannon fodder enemies of various stripes and the Visionaries are the rich people and other elites that made their way onto the island of Blackreef either by being rich and terrible, smart and terrible, or just terrible. Visionaries also have similar abilities to Colt and Juliana, so they are tougher to kill.

Deathloop title

Julianna and Colt both share an array of abilities acquired via Slabs, some of which are so familiar to players of Arkane’s prior catalog, like Shift which lets Colt or Julianna teleport for some distance or Karnesis which lets them telekinetically annihilate enemies. Players can upgrade those abilities by killing Julianna or Colt through the invasion process and looting their dropped items, or those dropped by the Visionaries and Eternalists. For example you can get an upgrade to Shift that extends the distance that you can teleport, or pauses any fall in mid-air to select where to teleport to.

Only Colt’s gameplay gets to really progress the campaign and unlock secrets and lore about Blackreef and you can (as Colt) turn off the online invasion system which restricts the game to an AI that is easier to cheese when it invades. Julianna’s progression seems to be strictly level-based progression and she cannot collect items from the levels to bring back to use later. The single player mode with AI invasions is also the only way to get an actual pause while you’re in-game, something I did not understand until I got got by another Julianna while I thought the game was paused.

Speaking of things I did not understand, the time loop on Blackreef lasts for one in-game day and you have the option to infuse weapons and their RPG-loot rarity tiered upgrades with an in-game currency of Residuum and keep them to the next day or choose to sacrifice them for more Residuum.

I had the wrong-headed idea that somehow you could infuse an item like a weapon and then still sacrifice it and get it again the next day. This is not the case and I’m sure the game explains it, but somehow playing well past midnight without enough sleep I must have forgotten that detail and kept starting with hardly anything and not realizing the loss. Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until I streamed Deathloop and someone watching pointed out the mistake I was making that I realized what was going on. Fortunately I at least had some trinkets and weapons that hadn’t been sacrificed and once I reacquired Shift through killing the visionary that drops it, I was more prepared than ever to re-run over the rest of the game and get more and better upgrades and weapons. Like a Souls game, the knowledge you pick up about Deathloop might let you speed through it even when you’ve lost everything else.

Deathloop inventory

I almost exclusively found myself going into levels carrying only the Shift slab that lets you teleport and leaving the second slab slot empty because I didn’t want to miss out on picking up a slab or losing one I cared about. This was in retrospect a real waste because I missed out on gameplay possibilities that are only available if you’re playing with a variety of the slabs. The same thing happened with the weapons, and I only brought one or two guns into the levels so that I wouldn’t risk dropping a weapon I cared about and would have one or two open slots to pick up new weapons of the three total you can bring into a level.

The good news about those loadouts is that you can really pick and choose what kind of gameplay you’re going to have through the items you select. Colt always has the option of a stealthy approach with the accessible machete. Murdering any of Blackreef’s inhabitants does leave behind a bit of smoke when they get got that bothers enemies, and quiter firearms seemed rare to find. After finding a few silenced weapons I embraced them fully and could usually get through most of a level before alerting the entire zone to Colt’s presence. Julianna doesn’t have to worry about that, because she is protecting the loop along with the other characters.

After about 45 hours with Deathloop, played almost entirely as Colt even though there is a completely separate progression system for Julianna, I am very happy with the game with a few exceptions.

For me, Julianna’s invasions are impossible to play. The latency over the internet between my location and any other player was so great that anything I did as Julianna was rolled back, even turning the camera with the mouse. I could gradually fight through the lag but it was always impossible for me to actually be successful as Julianna and kill Colt. Other players on the Steam forums for Deathloop complain about the same thing. When rollback is that painful it isn’t a fun experience for invaders or Colt, and the game might do better to give Julianna the option to quit out and be replaced with a bot, and of course maybe the game could try not to connect players if the network latency between them is so high. I’m not a network engineer, so of course there could be other solutions but either way, the current situation stinks. Most of the people who tried to invade my game had the same problem, but I did see more success on their side in connecting to my computer with lower latency than the other way around.

Unfortunately, the ending to Deathloop is disappointing and feels unfinished. Deathloop could have lent some mystery to the ending, or explained more, but instead you have a few choices and I didn’t really feel like any of them did justice to Colt and Julianna who are the stars of this show. Throughout Deathloop I was pretty entertained by Julianna and Colt taking verbal potshots at each other until one day Julianna literally said she had run out of things to say to my Colt and the radio dialog ended, but this was after I had completed the main campaign and done a bit more.

It is difficult for players to avoid how much Deathloop as a game wants to hold the player’s hand through certain parts by placing objective markers in-game and having two different idea boards that you can access to keep track of where exactly you are with different storylines.

Still, Deathloop is a good time and I’m always down for more of whatever Arkane wants to do with the formula of first-person adventuring and violence that they improve with style and a lot of substance. The time loop is more popular than ever with other games, but the Deathloop is so uniquely Arkane. I loved exploring Blackreef and even up until the end I was enjoying finding hidden spots in the levels and secret areas with more lore about the game while optimizing my loadout.

4/5 Loops for Deathloop.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Prey (2017) Review

I can’t type the word “Prey” without thinking back to the 2006 game by Human Head and the 90’s Prey from 3D Realms that was never released. The Prey game in 2006 was inspired by the idea of portal technology from the 3D Realms game. The concept was that players could look through, and walk through, portals, to take them to other places. This idea seemed revolutionary back when Duke 3D could barely manage to hold a mirror together in the BUILD engine. The idea was completely surpassed by Valve’s Portal, but there were plenty of other Prey projects between 2006 and now that shared the same fate as the original 3D Realms game that never saw the light. One that sounded particularly promising was a bounty hunting sequel by Human Head to their 2006 game. We will probably never see any of that work, but here we are in 2017 with a new exploration and brutal alien murder sim from the developers of Dishonored, Arkane Studios, that has no portals or involvement with the previous developers.

The second game to actually ship with the name Prey shares the overall genre of science fiction and first-person action but has nothing to do with any of the previous games. Today we’ll play the character of Morgan Yu. Morgan is kind of a blank slate who has lost a lot of themselves, but in a way that feels appropriate when you learn why.

Although you hear Morgan’s voice more than a typical silent protagonist like Gordon Freeman, it is still far less than you might expect. The developers have a neat trick to make you feel like you hear more from Morgan that I won’t spoil.

Morgan’s life and work are on board a gigantic space station called Talos 1 where an alien species called the Typhon are being researched by the employees of the TranStar corporation. They acquired the station after it was developed by different political groups in the alternate timeline of Prey‘s universe.

Talos 1 truly is huge, it feels complete once you’ve seen the different sections where it’s clear that different crew members worked and lived. Prey gets some things wrong, but their space station isn’t one of them. Eventually you can explore a few different modes of transportation that let you get around more quickly than hustling through the decks. Each of those alternate transportation modes have their own advantages and add to the wonderful sense of exploration I felt as Morgan gained more and more access to the station.

Different areas of the station, and rooms or maintenance facilities behind its facade, really felt like they were designed by different era’s and cultures of space explorers until TranStar finally got hold of it for their projects.

Part of TranStar’s research enabled people to absorb skills through a device that jacks into their brain via spikes inserted into their eyeballs to reach their brain. Ouch. Fortunately, as these are the regular way that Morgan can upgrade their abilities, you only have to truly experience that effect once. I’d probably recoil in horror if it were done in virtual reality.

Neuromods could give someone the power to play the piano with the skill of an extremely talented musician in just a few seconds, but Morgan’s upgrades are almost all centered around overcoming obstacles to reach new parts of the station, survival skills to live longer, stealthily sneaking past enemies, or straight up combat abilities.

The lowest form of these amorphous blobs of Typhon sludge can assume the shape of random objects on the station and it isn’t long before those skills enable them to escape their containment and start murdering everyone onboard Talos 1. The higher level Typhon can possess the crew’s minds, turn them into bipedal Typhon phantoms, or just murdering them. There are so many dead or possessed people on Talos 1 that you really might feel bad for some of the regular crew who weren’t involved in the research. It took hours before I came across any humans left alive on the station.

Other Typhon can even possess the station’s stationary sentry guns and the large flying toaster robots (called Operators) that serve as medics and engineers onboard Talos 1.

Each upgrade of Morgan’s skill tree is only unlocked with Neuromods, there aren’t any experience points or other leveling mechanics. That tree is so large that you’re really only going to get to play with a few different sets of abilities throughout the game. A lack of specialization would probably leave your Morgan unable to survive for long, and although I had many options I did end up feeling like I picked a slightly boring route by focusing on stealth and traditional firearms over the (slight spoiler) unlockable Typhon powers that would have allowed my Morgan to gain some of those mimic abilities and other more outrageous powers. Maybe I put a little bit too much of myself into my character, but I felt that the Typhon were genuinely disgusting to look at and didn’t want my Morgan to be like them.

It was a little frustrating that you’re not given any chance to test out these powers before spending your precious Neuromods on them. On the other hand, the descriptions on some powers are straightforward enough to understand what you’d be getting. Unlocking the different tiers of the hacking power, for example, makes sense because every hackable item in the game tells you what level of the hacking skill you would need to even attempt it.

Speaking of Prey’s hacking, wow is it bad. It’s a randomized two-dimensional level where your controller or keyboard input fidelity are reduced and you have to move a crosshair onto a target position and press a randomized button before time runs out. Each level of the hack introduces a new target position onto the same field of plain walls and shocking red walls that bounce your crosshair around. If you can’t complete the puzzle within the time limit the hacking attempt fails and Morgan loses a little bit of health.

I don’t know what a good hacking minigame could look like today, but this is definitely not it. I just found myself frustrated and annoyed when I had to go through with it in order to achieve some relatively minor objective like unlocking a safe that just contained eel parts and ammo.

Strangely enough, the higher tiers of the hacking minigame give you so much time to complete them, and the puzzles are so generously spaced out, that they’re actually far easier to complete than the lower tier puzzles. It’s almost like a message from the developers that they know this sucks but they needed to limit Morgan somehow, but they are apologizing by making things a little easier.

Hacking is just one of the different powers on the skill tree that allow Morgan to proceed past different obstacles and access restricted areas of the game. Sometimes you’re also given the opportunity to find a key card that can get you past a secured door without having to hack it. Or you find a maintenance duct that you can use to sneak past enemies and get into the same room. Prey goes out of its way to tell you that you have these options very early in the game. You also might be able to use the game’s gloo gun to clamber over the wall or access that maintenance duct. These options make Prey feels like a very advanced metroidvania.

One way for Morgan to get more ammunition and other consumable items is to recycle junk that you can pick up around the station through a very entertaining process that ends in a satisfying series of clinks and clunks as the the resulting pure materials land in the recycler’s bin. Once you have the raw materials you can select what you would like from the catalog of an ultra-advanced 3D printer. Throughout the game you’ll also find the raw blueprints that enable you to expand your catalog. Recycling junk and turning it into ammunition never stopped being fun for me, even after the process would sometimes leave me feeling strapped for materials once I had mined part of the station’s Typhon and trash cans for recyclables. At those points in Prey, particularly towards the end of the game, I was very glad to have unlocked stealth and other movement abilities that enabled me to speed through the world and complete the final objectives I had left.

The story has meaningful choices, and some surprisingly technical ideas. For example, at one point you find out that digital rights management has locked you out of 3D printing an item you might want, but an optional mission gives you the ability to bypass the DRM and keep printing that item. It makes sense that if all of the 3D printers on a future cruise ship or space station are from the same company they could also, and almost certainly would have, implemented incredibly shitty DRM. Some of the crew’s audiologs and e-mails are concerned with people wanting more access to the 3D printing catalog, or their abuse of it. This just adds to the lived-in feeling of the station.

It’s fun that these materials and neuromods are your currency. I can’t remember any point of Prey where Morgan has to deal with money, but it also feels like part of the game’s mostly solitary journey that you’re not interacting with any vendors.

Once you’ve made some choices for Morgan and completed your journey through Talos 1 you aren’t given a chance to play through the game a second time while retaining the powers you’ve unlocked. Another bummer. I’m kind of glad that my playthrough is unique and will be my canonical experience, but it’d be good to at least have the option of experiencing more ways to play the game without starting over from scratch.

There are more pitfalls for Prey. The weapons aren’t interesting enough. They’re close, but they’re just missing more interesting effects and ideas that seem to have been reserved for unlockable powers on the skill tree.

The gloo gun is the most disappointing because I had the highest expectations for it. Each shot of gloo lets you attach a glob for climbing or incapacitating a foe, but that’s it. The climbing isn’t particularly enjoyable, and it feels wildly imprecise even with a mouse and keyboard. There also aren’t any puzzles where Morgan could connect two objects with gloo. Prey just uses the gun once or twice to seal a hull breach on Talos 1’s exterior and even then what I saw onscreen felt disconnected from the actions I was actually doing.

It also took quite a while for me to get engaged with the game early on, although it’s difficult to say why exactly that was, I had reached the opposite end of the spectrum by the time I had finished the game with 34 hours on the Steam clock.

The worst shortcoming of Prey is that while the game did give me choices that felt meaningful, in the end it also subverted them after the credits and made me feel as if they were never as important to the developer as setting up a sequel without any consequences from this game. Will the sequel even get made? Games called Prey have a very difficult time getting past a conceptual stage and production. If it doesn’t, ruining the player’s choices for a sequel could be a fundamentally wasted decision.

There is an obvious comparison to the System Shock and BioShock games, but I feel like Talos’ designs are superior to some parts of Rapture. Of course they might not have been better if it weren’t for at least BioShock existing in the first place, but once I got to know the world of some of Talos’ crew Prey just felt more like it housed real people instead of Bioshock’s caricatures. Sure, that comparison might not hold up for everyone on the station, and I will always be happy to destroy libertarian fantasy worlds like Bioshock’s Rapture, but here we are with original characters and science fiction ideas that somehow feel more grounded in reality than a modern gritty movie or television show.

I’m also glad that my fear that this would be a horror game was unfounded. The feeling of terror you get from the Typhon springing at you quickly fades, and leaves you with a level of fright that you might experience while watching the nth Doctor Who episode featuring the same monsters you’ve seen before.

Ultimately, the Prey we got in 2017 is a different beast that surpasses any association with older games just by being better than them. It has some serious flaws, but I can’t think of many successful first-person games that don’t. I haven’t thought about the the Prey game from 2006 in years, and if anyone does care about games with that name in the future they’ll think of what Arkane created here. Even when today’s Prey was disappointing, it was an overall success that I eagerly played whenever I could because unlocking and exploring a new room or section of Talos 1 was just so much fun.

4 out of 5 Typhon for Prey. It is available now on Steam for Windows as well as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Bethesda’s E3 2016 Press Briefing Notes

willits

Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb are back for the pre-show from the old Rev 3 and TechTV days to present the Bethesda pre-E3. It’s kind of refreshing to watch people who know how to act on camera as opposed to the awkward executives of other E3 presentations.

Glad to see Bethesda acknowledging the horrible massacre by wearing rainbow ribbons instead of pretending it didn’t happen. EA

They’re opening with a DOS screen booting and it’s launching… Quake!!! All pre-rendered, non-ingame footage but I am very happy to see characters returning from Quake 3. It’s called Quake Champions.

Here’s the trailer:

Tim Willits is coming out on stage to talk about how much he loves talking about Quake: Champions. Competitive, arena style first person shooter. Looks like per-character abilities. Undoubtly using the finest ioquake3 engine fork. More seriously Tim Willits is talking about the technical details in that it’ll support 120hz framerates and responsiveness.

Tim walks off stage after announcing that there will be more info at Quakecon. Haven’t been since 2008, wish I could go.

Pete Hines is onstage now to let us know about how successful Bethesda has been at making and publishing games.

Pete Hines is talking about The Elder Scrolls: Legends, a CCG. There’s a trailer Wake me up when it’s over.

It’ll be coming to iPad, Mac, iPhones, and shitty Android tablets.

A trailer demonstrates Fallout 4: Contraptions, which is going to add elevators and all of the components you need to build a rube goldberg machine.

The trailer moves on to Nuka World?! A theme park in Fallout 4?

Video continues on to Fallout: Shelter coming to Windows later on.

Skyrim is getting a big overhaul, graphically, and mods will be on the new console versions of Skyrim: Special Edition. As rumored.  Out October 28th 2016.

Here’s that long video:

Raphael Colantonio is here from Arkane to talk about another project they’re working on. He doesn’t get very far in before we’re watching a trailer for a game that looks to have a time travel component. Somebody named Morgan keeps waking up in a kind of short groundhog day scenario. Every time he looks in the mirror things change back and it’s actually Prey. Cool.

Raphael is back to tell us a few details and that the game will be out next year for Xbone, PS4, and Windows. More details at Quakecon.

Prey Trailer:

Marty Stratton from id is trapped in a pre-recorded blurry tan office world. He’s talking about Doom and thanking everyone for making Doom a success. Snapmap is done taking a snapnap and will receive a bunch of new upgrades, all will be free. He’s talking about two new multiplayer maps now. They’ll be free. He’s also talking about the first paid DLC coming to Doom multiplayer which will add new game modes, a weapon, and more.

 

Pete Hines is back to tell us that you can now download the first level of Doom for free on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Steam. This week only.

Matt Firor is here to talk about The Elder Scrolls Online MMORPG. He’s talking about how the game sold, how the community is doing, and leads us into a trailer. If I don’t make it out tell my wife I love her. Tell my son I’m glad he can never kick me in the balls again.

On June 23rd ESO will launch into Japan. Some people in the crowd are way too loud. The Dark Brotherhood DLC will be out soon and a launch trailer plays. It looks fine, but this voice over is kinda bad? “Sweet mother” over and over again as gravely voiced dude narrates. Some guy gets stabbed in the nuts. A Hans Moleman production.

This is pretty cool. ESO gets this “One Tamriel,” players will be levelled to match the content they’re playing. So you can group with your friends once they get out of the tutorial and play together. Very, very smart move. I’ve long been frustrated by online RPG systems like in The Division where if you’re not at the same level you’re either dragging the team down or gliding through and trying to keep your buddies from dragging you down. I can’t praise this enough.

Pete Hines is here to tell us about refreshments and Blink-182.

Pete tells us about Bethesda VR. Holy shit he references Doom 3: BFG. The VR version of which never shipped due to Bethesda being butthurt over Carmack leaving for Oculus. Whatever happened with that lawsuit with Oculus? Anyway, you can take a “virtual tour of hell” or Fallout 4 in VR. Bet they won’t be using Oculus headsets! Ah Fallout 4 is coming to the HTC Vive in 2017. Exciting.

Harvey Smith is on stage to tell us about Dishonored 2. I loved the first one, not super excited for a sequel yet. We’ll see if Harvey can convince me. “Welcome back to the Empire of the Isles.” Harvey narrates the video. A camera pans through the streets. The engine has some big upgrades to audio and graphics. It looks more detailed. They’re calling it the Void engine. Name almost doesn’t matter since it won’t ever be released for others to use.

Harvey Smith is talking about who Emily Caldwin from the first Dishonored has become after she has grown up. Corvo is her father? Must have forgotten that from the first Dishonored. It looks like we’ll have the option of playing as Emily in Dishonored 2 and the in-game trailer is from her perspective. You could choose to play as Corvo, still.

More in-game footage and Emily is owning some fools. The weather changes, Emily comments on it and Harvey tells us that many machines are powered by wind. Emily turns off a turbine that was powering a field of light (forcefield to you and me) so that she can progress. The skill trees are new, as are many of the abilities for Emily.

More skillful murdering. There will be some time travel business in another level where you are inside a mansion that blocks your abilities. You can swap between two different timelines using a device that also allows you to view whats going on in the other timeline. So you could walk through an area, see enemies in the alternate version, and then step behind them so you can murder them.

Release date is November 11th, 2016, for Windows, Playstation 4, and Xbone.

Harvey Smith bids us goodnight after introducing a more traditional gameplay trailer. I like the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Woman  You can watch that here:

 

Pete Hines is back. A collector’s edition is announced with Corvo’s mask and Emily’s ring along with over items. Pre-orders will temporarily include a remastered version of Dishonored 1 including all of the DLC.

Pete gives us a live stream look in on the teams at various studios and thanks them for their work. Nice way to humanize the company.

Pete bides us adieu as the showcase ends and we’re returned to Adam Sessler who is interviewing Matt Firor for the post-show.

My major disappointment is that id software will probably never release source code again without John Carmack. I wish their split had been amicable. They’ve been surprising us lately with the quality of Doom but I don’t know if their parent company would let them release source or if anyone at id has the will to fight for it. We’ll never see a Brutal Doom 2016 or anything like that without code.