Let’s be fair, even as eleven years have worked hard to ravage the mechanics it was built on, an epic task lay before anyone attempting to top the original Deus Ex, the ultimate in cyberpunk shooter/RPG greatness. I’ve made my thoughts known on Human Evolution‘s legendary predecessor and its, uh, not quite as good sequel, but Eidos Montreal (not involved with the development of either game) have worked many long years now to create a worthy follow up that wisely pulls from the strengths of both games, but in adhering so close to a winning formula, ends up inheriting some of their flaws. Still, Human Revolution is a solid title with one of the most riveting presentations I’ve seen in years.
And So It Begins…
Taking place nearly twenty years before the original game, you’re cast as Adam Jensen – former police officer and head of security for Sarif Industries. You’re no longer the plump meatsicle that you telegraph yourself onto from the other games, Jensen is an actual character here. David Sarif (who I honestly thought was voiced by Will Arnett) and your super scientist girlfriend Megan Reed are about to head to Washington to unveil a revolutionary new finding that will help humanity embrace its new future. See, in this not-so-distant future, humanity has fallen for the fruit of trans-humanism, augmenting limbs, eyes, and other features to something better than what their genes provided. In the mix is a drug that everyone’s fighting for to prevent their bodies from rejecting these augmentations, the price of which has escalated to the detriment of those who are simply trying to get by. Throw in an ever-growing faction of anti-modification fundamentalists and you have a pot that’s just about to boil over.
In the opening scenes of the game, you’re guided through Sarif Industries’ labs learning basics like movement and shooting dudes, when suddenly there’s a vicious attack by some heavily-armored and augmented terrorists. You do your best, but in the end you’re left for dead, and several key scientists have been murdered, including the love of your life… but Sarif’s not done with you. Your virgin flesh is ripped open, limbs sawed off, and you are augmented through to the core, brought back prematurely to handle a new threat to Sarif’s assets. In fine tradition, this first mission is like tugging on a thread from a massive tapestry, the product of some massive conspiratorial loom.
Gunning Down The Conspiracy
Like its forebears, this game is no mere shooter, but it’s not a straight-up RPG, either. The gunplay isn’t perfect, but it’s satisfying. Playing this and Dead Island simultaneously, they complement each other: Deus Ex has no real melee to speak of, but you’re going to have a ton of guns on hand while Dead Island is almost exclusively melee and the guns are more of a tease. Of course, you don’t even need to shoot up dudes, you can sneak by everyone in the whole game (except the bosses) and get an Achievement for it. Then there’s the modifications. As it turns out, Jensen’s body was pre-loaded with all kinds of crazy tech, like seeing through walls, jumping super high, and throwing vending machines. However, that much awesomeness would overload his puny brain, so you’re left to unlock these power as you play the game. You don’t ‘level up’, your experience is marked off in clumps to receive ‘Praxis points’ – your augmentation currency. At first, you find yourself trying to build your Jensen in a specific way that might assist you, but by the end of the game you’ll have so many points that you’ll probably debate, like I did, which upgrade to grab and then never use.
The game implements a cover mechanic that works really well, although I found myself latching onto surfaces unintentionally. Your inventory is mercifully grid-based like the original (and upgradeable!) meaning you have to manage what you load up, often ditching favored pieces to get new hotness. Your weapons can also be modified with cool help like laser sights, cooling systems, ammo upgrades, and so forth. You’ll end up with probably three or four guns that you’ll keep throughout the game. I mentioned the game sorta has melee and it sorta does: once you’re on top of some vagrant, you can opt to either knock out or kill them with wrist-mounted extend-o-blades. Knocked out opponents can be resuscitated by other guards, but killing them can pump up the volume a bit too much, which can be especially bad when you’re trying to be discreet.
Because Jensen is more delicate flower than killing machine (and because ammo is scarce enough), it’s inevitable that you’re gonna hafta deal with stealth mechanics, and for the most part they work. You hide in shadows and SWAT turn between barriers to sneak your way through levels. Your end of the bargain is fine, it’s the baddies that let down. As if the genre has not moved since Metal Gear or Thief, you spend most of your sneaking time watching the guards run along strict marching lines. If you’ve ever played a stealth-oriented game before, you know exactly what to expect before your hands even grace the controls. It’s awful that this part of the game feels so old when everything else feels so new.
And then there’s the bosses. Other outlets have ranted and raved enough about them, but they’re easily the blemish of the game. Previous titles handled battles with NPCs much more gracefully and spent some time building up reasons why you’re fighting them. Here, there are two core issues:
- Regardless as to how you build your character, they can only be defeated through combat. In the original game, you could read an e-mail and merely speak a verbal ‘kill switch’ and that baddie would explode into meaty giblets without a fight. Here, you need to whip out the biggest guns and shoot, shoot, shoot. The worst offender is Barrett, pictured above courtesy Penny Arcade, who acts as the game’s first major obstacle, taking him on at a time when you’re still trying to specialize your character. If you’ve dumped your points into non-combat skills, you will get ripped up. It’s a completely unfair challenge and latter fights survive criticism because your Jensen can do a lot more by the time you fight them.
- They completely kill the pace of the game. Barrett came after I had glided through the attached levels, in which I died over and over and over again. I watched Kelly play through the same point and die probably thirty times. The bosses of Human Revolution made me want to not play Human Revolution and it’s sad that they survived playtesting all the way through retail release when they’ve become so universally reviled by the community.
Basements & Cyberpunks
The game progresses by, for lack of a better word, quests. Sure, you’ll have your main story stuff, but you can come across various side quests if you probe deep enough. Unlike contemporaries like Borderlands, these thankfully don’t boil down to ‘go here and kill dude’ because Deus Ex’s complex gameplay and level design allows for various solutions, which make the game very different from player to player. For example, in an early quest in Sarif’s home base of Detroit, your boss asks you to infiltrate the local police station to retrieve something from the morgue. Kelly talked his way through the front door, charming his way past the guards, then just walked through the open work space to achieve his goals.
I, of course, had to spend five times longer accomplishing the same thing by infiltrating the station through a duct accessible only by sewer (unless you have a strength aug to stack some dumpsters to get over a fence). I ended up spending an hour and a half methodically killing every single cop in the station as I worked through half a dozen levels. Both are equally valid approaches, but undoubtedly, my messy method netted me a lot more experience through discovery and murderin’.
The game encourages multiple play-throughs just to see all the stuff you missed because of the way you played. On top of that, the game is littered with universe-filling e-books and e-mails to keep you busy for a long time. I spent a solid hour upon initially arriving at Sarif HQ just talking to NPCs, breaking into my colleagues’ offices, and uncovering a drug ring that ends up as a quest later. You can muse over details in Human Revolution for years and it’s the super complexity of the game’s design that leaves us with little curiosity as to why the game was in utero for so long. The game isn’t completely jank-less, though: one quest was completely broken, forcing you to reload a save when trying to complete it.
Building The World
I mentioned earlier that there’s an epic story in here. You trot the globe, meet strange, new people, and the story twists and turns with each new revelation. All of this is placed against a thoroughly-realized world much closer to Blade Runner than the other games. This universe was built with absolute care. The elite characters adopt a neo-Renaissance look with intricate patterns while others have clever outfits based around geometric patterns. Every costume looks tailored, every highfalutin office seems to have been created by an interior designer with an infinite budget rather than a mere level designer. The black and gold-helmed art direction is amazing and easily covers the rough, technical aspects of the presentation. In a twist, the game eschews the ‘interact with everything’ motif of previous games in favor of dressing the worlds better (the game’s designers claim that the sheer amount of physics involved would’ve ruined the game). But let’s be fair, do we need more rooms with spartan decorum just so you can grab and throw individual forks and knives? Nah. At times, the black and gold doesn’t really lend to the globe-trotting, however. China felt very similar to Detroit, many of the indoor ‘work space’ areas you work through all feel pretty samey.
The world of Human Revolution feels alive. You’re not wandering from barren corridor to barren corridor, you’re in a living, breathing world. People walk the streets and chat with each other, particulate flies, smoke rolls, ambient noise fills the scene, on and on. Everything feels like it was placed on purpose instead of haphazardly inserted to fill space. Honestly, the level designs are tighter in scope like Invisible War instead of wide open pens like the original game. As a result, there is no wide open Liberty Island or Battery Park level here to let you experiment with different tactics. (Thankfully, unlike Invisible War, the levels aren’t the size of broom closets.)
The story is very good here, but I did not feel the world-threatening terror of the original game’s crawl here. That’s intentional and while it’s unfair to criticize the game for it, it was a letdown for me. There’s not nearly enough globe-trotting here and the conspiracy isn’t quite as large or wild. It’s an almost laser-tight focus on the initial attack and Jensen’s investigation. At various points, you’ll have ‘interview’ portions with various characters, the first of which will determine whether a hostage lives or dies. Others aren’t nearly as dire, but I found that my ‘feel best’ responses resolved each conversation in my favor every time. In a bizarre late game chat, the guy held his point through all of my jabs about how irresponsible he was, but after a somewhat mild retort on my end, he ends up throwing up his hands in a ‘yeah, I guess you’re right!’ finale. Okay. The game also isn’t terribly interested in making you join sides as each faction is played off in a ‘well, here’s our agenda and what we’re doing and would you like our newsletter?’ fashion and there’s no clear good or bad guy here. To a large extent that’s fine, but the lack of discrete villain-y, aside from their grunt-level thugs you take down, seems like a missed hit.
This game can’t best its predecessor. What sequels can without reinventing themselves? Instead, Human Revolution just shoots to be a good game. It plays tribute to its forebears a bit too much without greatly improving the original formula, which hinders it at times. Where it shines is where Eidos Montreal went crazy on the imagination. For all its little rough spots, Human Revolution is a huge step forward for – and hopeful reinvigoration of – the Deus Ex franchise, one that has been sadly missed by far too many gamers.