Picking a Game Of The Year for 2021 has been difficult for many reasons; the short version is 2021 simply wasn't that strong of a year for games.
This is owing to a combination of factors, namely developers getting used to new console technology, the avalanche of delays owing to the pandemic and game developers working from home.
When you're picking a Game Of The Year, a few elements come into the picture such as the games story, the voice performances, the graphics, the music, the gameplay, and in this instance, what does it do differently from every other game on the market?
'Deathloop' ticks all of those boxes with style to spare.
'Deathloop' developers Arkane are the masters of crafting swashbuckling experiences in a series of open-world environments, and in its most heated moments 'Deathloop' is as riveting and gripping as 'Bioshock'.
Half the fun of 'Deathloop' is planning out your route of execution and watching it play out, while the game still lets you improvise if things don't work out.
It's truly masterful, organic gameplay at its very finest and evokes 'Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain' with how reactive the gameplay is to the player's actions.
Giving players agency is such a difficult aspect of game design, as the trend over the last 10 years or so in gaming has been developers telling players to "play it your way!"
Incidentally, this approach is a shortcut for developers to not program as many definitive, linear gameplay options which is also a lot easier to program.
The game doesn't explicitly lay it out, but killing a target in one part of the day has consequences for tackling another part of the day, leaving the player up to decide how they want to approach their gameplay, but without doing the typical Rockstar "let's railroad the player into how we want the game to be played" or the Ubisoft "let's give players 6 different ways to play but ultimately ends up back at square one" approach.
Developers Arkane walks a very fine line between holding the player's hand and leaving them to their own devices, so when the player is granted agency, it feels significant.
By honing in on one small element of game design, 'Deathloop' is elevated above its peers.
Arkane are most famous for the 'Dishonored' games and the world-building and decor is quite similar to their hit franchise.
The 'Dishonored' games are richly detailed and layered, and when that design philosophy is transplanted into another game as style-heavy as 'Deathloop' it becomes a feast for the players to enjoy.
Oft-forgotten in the Arkane canon is 'Prey', one of the more underrated games of the last generation that was the victim of publisher Bethesda insisting the game be marketed as a game set in the 'Prey' universe despite that not being the original intent.
'Prey' sets up its atmosphere and gameplay masterfully, such as knowing where the medic bots are located, and in 'Deathloop' remembering where the health healing stations are is the key to survival.
There's no regenerating health here, and it makes the game that much more exciting to play.
The lessons learned from 'Prey' and 'Dishonored' are brought to the fore for 'Deathloop', and with a solid foundation to work from, the game truly shines when it goes off in its more indulgent directions.
Despite the all-star cast in the cast 'Dishonored' games featuring the likes of Pedro Pascal, Carrie Fisher, Michael Madsen, Susan Sarandon and Sam Rockwell, the dialogue was never particularly anything to write home about, and if there's one major criticism to be levelled at the 'Dishonored' games, the stories themselves lack focus.
'Deathloop' rectifies these problems, in some style.
The interplay between Colt and Julianna is a joy to listen to, heightened by hilarious performances from Jason E Kelley and Ozioma Akagha.
Dialogue is smart, but never approaches Joss Whedon levels of smarmy, and characters speak to each other in veiled insults that exists in a realm between Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino.
In most games, collecting audio logs is a perfunctory and clumsy way of developers to flesh out the world, but in 'Deathloop', the presentation and voice acting is so well done you want to seek out the hidden trinkets, much like 'Bioshock' before it.
The music for the 'Deathloop' in a word, is class.
Evoking the likes of 'James Bond' or the scores of Michael Giacchino (who himself got his break in video games) 'Deathloop' is the rare game where you will never get sick of the music.
The game was delayed numerous times owing to the pandemic, and the extra bit of care and love devoted to the game makes the game all the better.
One puzzle in 'Deathloop' sees players trying to unlock a code in a secret bunker.
The bunker is fairly out of its way and it's not a mandatory part of the game by any means, but this one side mission has more depth and complexity than most triple AAA games have in their entire run time.
Perhaps most crucially, 'Deathloop' makes you feel smart for tackling it.
There are many locked gates and safes to open, and the codes to unlock them are different in every playthrough.
Something as simple as randomising codes for players evokes the 1990s Lucasarts point-and-click games, where the most obvious solution to the problem isn't always that visible.
The cherry on top is being able to invade other players games, and using your own intellect to outsmart another human player is as satisfying as gaming gets.
In the hands of a less experienced developer, 'Deathloop' would have fallen apart with juggling so many ideas - here, Arkane have taken all of their past experiences and influences and melded them into the year's very best game.