deathloop review: the playstation 5's most must-play game

© Provided by CNET Bethesda

Buying a PlayStation 5 is not easy. Chronic chip shortages mean Sony is struggling to make enough consoles to meet demand, so the ones that do hit store shelves are snapped up immediately. Yet little of the console's scarcity has little to do with must-play exclusives. People want the PS5 because it's an elusive new PlayStation, not to play any particular cutting-edge video games. Titles like Ratchet and Clank and Returnal are great buys for existing PS5 owners, but not games most people could justify buying a brand new console to try. 

deathloop review: the playstation 5's most must-play game

© Bethesda

Deathloop changes that. 

Launching Tuesday after two delays, Deathloop is mesmerizing, enigmatic and the best reason to buy a PS5 yet. It's also available on PC, but you'll need a high-powered rig to play it comfortably. Rumor has it that it'll come to the Xbox Series X|S next year, but that's not confirmed. 

See at Best Buy

Developed by Arkane Studios, of Dishonored fame, Deathloop is a murder-puzzle inspired by psychadelic '60s culture. You play as Colt, waking up on the shores of Blackreef Island only to discover you're stuck in a time loop -- don't you hate it when that happens. To break the loop, Colt has to figure out how to kill seven Visionaries, who are bosses scattered across the island, all within the same loop. Thus, "murder puzzle." 

The concept rules, and Arkane Studios' execution rules too. Deathloop is rife with imagination: The combat system lets you experiment and lean into your style of play, and the story unfolds with devilish creativity. The star of the show isn't Colt, PS5 visuals or the wonders of Deathloop's timeloop. 

Rather, it's Blackreef itself, the enigmatic island that you'll want to explore loop after loop, ad infinitum. 

deathloop review: the playstation 5's most must-play game

© Provided by CNET The cast of Deathloop. Bethesda

Time and time again

Deathloop is a game about being stuck in the same day on repeat, so it makes sense that time informs almost everything that you do. 

Blackreef is split into four levels: Karl's Bay, Updam, Fristad Rock and The Complex. You can visit each area at four different times of day: morning, noon, afternoon and night. Each level is different depending on when you visit. Certain characters only appear at certain times, whole new areas open up based on the time of day. Meanwhile enemies shift their behavior (and location) as the sun rises and sets. 

Each loop, you'll choose where you want to go and when you want to go there. However, you can only go to one place at each time of day. Colt can go to one level in the morning, one at noon, one in the afternoon and one at night. Then the loop resets.

In short, there are 16 levels and you can only explore four of them a day. What you do at one time of day affects what happens in the next. The puzzle is figuring out which configuration of four levels will allow Colt to kill all Visionaries in one loop. Playing through the story is like watching a mystery unfold in reverse: You know the who and the why, now you need to discover the when, where and how.

The concept is striking, but risky from a gameplay perspective. In the 25ish hours it'll take you to clock Deathloop, you'll travel through the same four levels over and over again. The variation at different times of day mostly keeps everything feeling fresh. There are still a few sections you'll play through over and over again, and doing so can occasionally be tedious towards the end of Deathloop, but the combat system largely succeeds at turning that weakness into a strength. 

Dishonored fans will be unsurprised to discover each level in Deathloop is an intricately crafted sandbox packed with a few mysteries and many enemies blocking the path to solutions. You're given a bunch of tools -- guns, a hacking device, some special powers -- and the freedom to decide how you want to go about clearing the path. You can blast your way to them, use stealth to silently clear the path, or sleuth around and (mostly) avoid enemy contact altogether.

In addition to an array of guns, you'll also get access to Slabs and trinkets. Slabs are magic slates that give you wicked powers, including temporary invisibility, while trinkets grant you enhanced attributes, like extra health, more ammo or the ability to double jump. There are five Slabs, but Colt can only equip two at a time, which means you'll have to be judicious. Some are handy if you like to play as if you're Rambo himself, while other Slabs are for the more discreet among us.

Whether your style is passive or aggressive, you'll need timing, precision and coordination. Lingering for a few seconds too long can alert Eternalists (the bad guys) to your presence, and the game is designed so that mindless shooting reliably ends up getting you killed. Colt is a badass, but he's not a superhero -- you can clear waves and waves of enemies, but it takes skill and strategy. (You can also experiment with combining the effects of these Slabs; the launch day trailer showed Colt killing Eternalists in ways I never even thought of.) 

This is why Deathloop's combat is so impressive. It gives you options, but no easy options. Other games let you experiment with all sorts of playstyles, but they don't often require you to rely on them all. By contrast, Deathloop endlessly encourages you to try new things. This is partially because you'll be playing through the same areas multiple times. I'd often gun down a room of Eternalists and then, when looting the area, find a window or a crawl space designed for sneakier players. I'd remember those tidbits next time I was visiting, and would then take down the bad guys with stealth rather than explosions.

Deathloop is remarkable in that regard: So much is the same from one loop to the next, but so much is different too.

deathloop review: the playstation 5's most must-play game

© Provided by CNET Deathloop is inspired by '60s culture, as well as James Bond. Bethesda

Two's a party

It's not just the level design that keeps things spicy from day to day, but also Julianna. She's your arch nemesis in Deathloop, taunting you as she foils your designs on breaking the loop.

While you go about eliminating the Visionaries, Julianna is going about eliminating you. The interplay between Colt and Julianna is immediately striking. Colt is disoriented and confused, while Julianna seems to know everything about him. Julianna hates Colt and Colt doesn't know why. It's one of Blackreef's many tantalizing mysteries. 

Also, Julianna is terrifying.

As you play through a level, you'll often see a message on screen saying that Julianna is on the hunt. When this happens, all the exits to the level are shut. You can either hack a radio transmitter to reopen them and then escape -- said transmitter is usually close to Julianna, making you vulnerable -- or you can try and get her before she gets you. You'll be rewarded with weapons and Slab upgrades if you down her. 

This is the game's multiplayer element. When you boot up Deathloop, you'll see a screen with two options: "Break the loop" or "Protect the loop". Picking the former puts you in Colt's boots, the story mode option. Picking the latter lets you play as Julianna, where you're dropped into another player's game and encouraged to wreck shop -- similar to Dark Souls invasions.

I've had limited experience playing as Julianna. Finding a game to drop into is hard right now, since Deathloop isn't available to the public. But I've had plenty of experience being hunted by Juliannas controlled by other players. (In one case I realized after I'd been killed that a friend of mine had, in fact, invaded my game. If you're reading this, Joab, I hate you.) 

This element of Deathloop is inconsistent. Whether you're playing as Julianna or Colt, finding the other player can take a long time since the maps are so huge. I can envision plenty of camper-versus-camper showdowns, where patience is well and truly tested. I also found the frequency of Julianna's hunts erratic. I would go forever without encountering her, and then get hunted level after level. Julianna's presence is meant to incite fear in you but, when you're deep in the story, the knowledge that Julianna is on the hunt is more groan-inducing than anything else.

Thankfully, if Julianna joins your game she typically only does so in the first few minutes of a level -- meaning she won't interrupt you when you're deep into an objective. You can also turn online mode off, in which case Julianna will be controlled by AI. 

Multiplayer is rough when you're spending minutes just to find the opponent, but it's often exhilarating. There's definitely a smug glee in successfully fending off Julianna's attempt at ruining your loop -- and I'm looking forward to causing havoc as Julianna in the coming days.

deathloop review: the playstation 5's most must-play game

© Provided by CNET The relationship between Colt and Julianna is one of Deathloop's many unfolding mysteries. Bethesda

Treasure island

This will come as no surprise to anyone who's watched a trailer for Deathloop, but one of the game's biggest strengths is its personality. It's slick and stylish, but also quirky and funny. Arkane Studios has taken all of the elements of a next-generation blockbuster -- excellent voice acting and spectacular visuals -- and used those resources to create a world that's cohesive, consistent and really, really cool. 

Colt and Julianna are compelling main characters, and the timeloop in which you're ensnared is fascinating to behold. But Deathloop's greatest asset is Blackreef itself. Not just its beautiful (and haunting) scenery, but the alluring personality it flaunts every second of every loop. 

As Colt, you feel like you're invading a world that happily exists without you. Observe the Eternalists and you'll hear them banter and gossip, and even goad one another into hazardous stunts, since dying in Blackreef just means starting your day again. Sometimes you'll hear them grapple with the same confusing questions Colt has. 

Much of the story is progressed through Colt finding written documents, audio tapes and computer-archived conversations produced by the Visionaries. As you slowly begin to learn about Blackreef, you'll also see how the Visionaries are each deeply involved in their own pursuits -- pursuits they're in the middle of as you hunt them down. Blackreef isn't an open-world in a traditional gaming sense, but it still feels like an island bristling with activity and ambition -- and drunk Eternalists just trying to get through the day.

As gratifying as combat is, and as much as you'll root for Colt to break the loop, Deathloop is at its best when it drip feeds you information about Blackreef's past -- and its future. After dropping 30 hours into Deathloop, I still have many questions that I need answered. The more I find out, the more I need to know. Blackreef is a puzzle you won't be able to resist solving, an island you should visit as soon as possible.

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