More Human Than Human
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the third entry in a series that has helped to define the western style RPG. The original game was created by Warren Spector (also known for System Shock and now, unfortunately, Epic Mickey), and was released in 2000 on the PC. By contemporary standards, the original Deus Ex looks pretty rough, but it was notable for featuring an original cyberpunk setting, for being one of the first games of its kind to successfully marry RPG elements to a FPS, and for offering the player real choice on how to approach individual missions. The sequel, Invisible War, was designed as a console game, debuting on the original Xbox in 2003, and frankly was not very good. Since then the series has languished, but Human Revolution, released this week on the PC and major consoles and published by Square Enix and developed by Eidos Montreal (with Nixxes handling the PC port), seeks to bring the series back to relevance. How successful is this effort? Read on to find out.
I’ve Become An Unnatural Self.
Human Revolution is a prequel, taking place before the events of the original Deus Ex, and starring a new character: Adam Jensen. Jensen is an ex-cop working as a corporate security chief at a high-tech company called Sarif Industries located in Detroit. The game takes place in 2027, and centers around the premise that technology has advanced to allow humans to augment their bodies with robotic parts. The down side of this being that “Augs” must constantly take a drug to prevent their immune system from rejecting the augmentations.
The game starts off with a pretty good set-up. In the playable opening section, Adam is preparing to escort Sarif’s head scientist, Megan Reed (who happens to be his ex-girlfriend), to a conference in Washington D.C., where she is expected to present some vague but historic findings that could change the way augmentations are done forever. Wouldn’t you just know it, things do not go as anticipated. Sarif Industries has some powerful, and heavily augmented, enemies.
In a well produced, almost Half-Life 2’esque opening sequence, Adam tries, and fails, to protect Megan and gets mostly, but not all the way, murdered by a squad of three elite super soldiers. When the dust clears, and when the opening credits begin to roll, Adam is put on the operating table and gets the full robo-cop treatment, having most of his body replaced with augments, both saving his life and making him an ultra-powerful super-soldier with awesome built-in sunglasses. Thus begins the game.
Ideology Is A Virus
The game’s story is, by and large, quite good. Considering the game as a whole, the dialogue is well written, and plot points and twists are mostly well implemented. Of course, as with any prequel, fans of the original series will be able to predict with some amount of success where the plot is going, or at least what some of the larger revelations will be. Even so, the game still manages to entertain, inform, and occasionally surprise. All of the main players, from your boss David Sarif, to the head of the anti-augmentation front, to the CEO of a Chinese bio-tech competitor, to even a billionaire industrialist, all have their own unique and believable motivations. Despite some significant plot holes later in the game, the story by-in-large makes sense.
The main narrative is basically Adam’s journey to discover the truth behind the attack on Sarif Industries, and in the process unraveling a much larger plot tied in to major shadowy figures. The game is big on cultural and social themes. The main ones being societal change, political ideology, and intolerance. You see, the world of Human Revolution is split between those who support augmentation and those who don’t, and this rift is causing political upheaval, talks of UN investigations and regulations and eventually, full-scale riots. The player, who was non-consensually augmented, and therefore could easily go either way in this matter, is at the center of this debate.
It’s an interesting story, and it fits in well with the Deus Ex universe. As you may or may not know, the original two Deus Ex games were all about nano-technology augmentations, so it is fun to see the origin of the technology: giant friggin robot limbs, and straight up computer chips implanted in skulls. The sort of societal upheaval that this sort of technology could cause is believable, and the game successfully explores these themes without becoming overly preachy or pedantic.
That is not to say that the story is without significant problems. Specifically, it both begins and ends very poorly. After a fantastic opening sequence, the newly minted and recovered robo-Adam is sent directly to handle a hostage situation on behalf of his employer. The mission is mostly there for tutorial purposes, but it is slow, plodding, and has very little to do with the ultimate plotline. Frankly, it puts a damper on what otherwise began as a very entertaining narrative. The game could have easily skipped it altogether.
The ending, which I will discuss later on as well, also suffers from poor construction. Basically, the game commits the ultimate sin of narrative: failing to wrap up a huge number of plot holes. In both the final level and the four ending sequences, major story elements are never addressed. It is never determined what happened to key characters, and constant hints at a larger backstory plot are never filled in. Perhaps some of this is being saved for the recently revealed DLC, but if so, it is a terrible disservice for the gamers who spent hours playing the game through to completion.
Science fiction and cyberpunk fans will also find lots of fun and subtle references to some classic works in the genre throughout the game. Myself, I noticed Easter eggs referencing Blade Runner, Robocop, Hackers, and the works of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. These are all well placed, funny, and do not distract from the seriousness of the game itself. Basically, nice little touches for science fiction nerds.
I’ve Seen Things You People Wouldn’t Believe
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a beautiful game. Of course, your mileage may vary, and I cannot speak to how it looks on consoles. I played the game on a PC, with a mid-range quad-core processor, and a higher-mid range Nvidia graphics card. I was able to run the game on almost full graphics settings, with 4x anti aliasing, with no frame rate loss or other issues.
In many games, the graphical design serves to set a mood and attract players. People want “good” graphics in their games, generally. The graphics of Human Revolution are a step beyond this pedestrian pursuit: they are designed, from the ground up, with an artistic aesthetic in mind. Instead of creating a good looking sci-fi shooter, the designers of Human Revolution have created a unique and visually striking world, that has as much visual character as a film like Blade Runner (which clearly was an inspiration for the developers). There is also the matter of black and gold. These color influences are clearly seen throughout the game, and make for a visually appealing and interesting creation.
In fact, the visual aesthetic of the game was one of the major factors in driving me to continue playing. I was eager to see what interesting and unique environments were coming up next. In particular, some of the later locations in the game are striking and memorable. A lot of skill and imagination went in to designing the look of the game, and the designers should be lauded for their efforts.
Nothing is perfect, however, and so Human Revolutions has its visual problems. Nothing gold can stay (or black and gold for that matter), and so not every location can maintain the high ideals of the overall design aesthetic. Adam will be going through plenty of offices, apartments, bases and installations that could just as easily have come from any other futuristic shooter. Some of the early locations in the game, especially parts of your home base of Detroit, can look washed out and muddy. Further, some of the texture work on the more mundane objects is pretty bad, but usually you will be spending your time looking at something incredible, so you don’t notice as much.
The facial animations are also problematic. On the one hand, the game does an excellent, even laudable, job of conveying the mood and emotions of NPCs through subtle facial ticks and movements. This is essential, as interpreting an NPC’s mood and thoughts can be key to negotiating with them through the dialogue system. On the other hand, the lip synching is just bad, and took me out of the experience.
Finally, while the music in the game is wonderfully atmospheric, the voices are, well, awful. Adam growls out all of his lines with pure gravel and little emotion, sounding like a cross between Christian Bale’s Batman and Timothy Olyphant. Adam’s boss, David Sarif, sounds like a strange amalgam of a Canadian and a California surf bum. In one particularly egregious situation, the player runs across a homeless black lady, who used to serve as Adams criminal informant, and her voice is so hilariously stereotypical I was sure it was some sort of politically incorrect joke.
Old Detroit Has A Cancer. That Cancer Is Crime.
Getting back to the visual design of the game just once more, I have to talk a little about the locations Adam visits. You see, Human Revolution actually has three main characters: Mr. Jensen, and the cities of Detroit and Shanghai. In addition to a series of one-shot locations that the player will visit throughout the game, Detroit and Shanghai act as the main world hubs. The cities are both dense, unique, packed with traversable territory, and will become very familiar by the time the game is over, and they absolutely have character of their own.
You see, both of the cities are extremely distinct. Detroit is crime ridden (obviously) and desolate, with gangs in alleys, hobos on the street corners, burnt out buildings, and a general anti-augmentation political attitude. By contrast, Shanghai is high-tech, filled with stalls and vendors, tightly packed apartment buildings, multi-level districts, and a bitchin’ cyber-beehive themed nightclub called The Hive. Shanghai is the center of pro-augmentation sentiment, so it has a large number of citizens all walking around with robo-limbs, some of them blinged out in gold.
So, the point here is that the cities are fantastic. They are distinct, have great character, and are fun to explore. They have a ton of secrets, and great opportunities for divergent, choice-based gameplay. They also have wonderful and unique side-missions, but I will get to those later.
However, the designers knew they had something good with the cities, and they abuse them. You see, the game’s structure is very predictable. For each city, there is one long main quest that takes the player all over, as well as a couple of side quests, found by talking to NPC’s. You finish with Detroit, you move on to Shanghai. That would normally seem fine, but the game designers do something that is both lazy and distracting: they make you do it all over again. After finishing up with Shanghai, the player goes back to Detroit (complete with another main mission and a couple of side missions) and again goes back to Shanghai. The cities do change in between your trips, but not so much as to make the return journeys that much more significant.
Returning again and again to the same locations blunts the sense of progression that the player should feel, having played through a significant portion of the game. While designing entirely new cities would have been a hugely time consuming task, but I do believe that the game should have been designed in such a way as to limit the repetitive nature of the locations.
No Choice, Pal
So, here is my major complaint with Deus Ex: Human Revolution: the illusion of choice. Player choice, and subsequent consequences, have become a mainstay in western RPG’s. Games like Mass Effect, Fallout, and even Alpha Protocol force the player to make key choices throughout the game, and the player’s decisions signficantly affect the way that the story ultimately plays out. This is a great mechanic, allowing for multiple playthroughs, deeper player engagement, and a personalized story.
Unfortunately, while Human Revolution may appear to be operating under the direction of player choice, it is all smoke and mirrors. Gamers who have difficulty making major decisions may rest assured: Deus Ex: Human Revolution is almost entirely a consequence free zone. Despite seeming to offer the player a large number of significant choices on how Adam should deal with certain characters, or handle tasks, the game plays out pretty much the same way no matter what you do. It ultimately doesn’t matter if you let someone die or not, if you support augmentation or are against it, or if you make friends with the rogue super soldier instead of fighting him. None of it matters, and the story won’t change at all except for a few changed lines of dialogue and perhaps an experience or money reward. This is particularly disappointing since the game gives the player so many opportunities to make decisions. It would have been nice if they actually affected anything substantial.
This is most apparent in the endings of the game. Instead of factoring in the choices the player has made, the game literally presents you with four buttons at the very end, each representing a different side. Even if you have played the game squarely in the corner of one side, you can just as easily choose the opposite ending. You simply pick a button, press it, and one of four ending movies play. That’s it.
What it comes down to is the game presents a multitude of choices throughout its missions, but none of them have any real consequence. This is a huge failing, and noticeably took me out of the game.
Somewhere There Is A Crime Happening
Of course, I should mention the minute to minute gameplay. In short, it’s pretty good, especially for the FPS/RPG genre, which has a sketchy pedigree when it comes to actual mechanics (I’m looking at you, Fallout). The game is playable on PC with an Xbox controller, but I preferred a keyboard and mouse. The shooting is pure FPS. Unlike Fallout, where hits were based on dice rolls, in Human Revolution, where you point is largely where you shoot. In many ways, this is a FPS first and an RPG second.
The sneaking, a critical mechanic in the game, is also very good for an FPS, rivaling Warren Spector’s other masterpiece Thief. You see, Adam can’t take much damage before he goes down, so it is entirely necessary to avoid detection as much as possible, especially in the early game. Enemies have believable detection and eye-lines, and generally if you do not think you should be seen, you won’t be. The game also has a very well implemented cover system, which allows sneaking around corners and jumping in between cover at a button press.
Make no mistake about it, this is not a console port to the PC. Deus Ex: Human Revolution plays like a PC game, and it generally feels great.
The game also successfully retains the trademark Deus Ex flexibility when it comes to approaching missions. Throughout the game the player gains augment points both through experience and purchasing them at special vendors. These can be spent freely upgrading a dozen different aspects of Adam’s abilities, such as stealth, hacking, combat, traversal, etc. Depending on how you have upgraded your augmentations you can sneak around silently, go in guns blazing, choose to use lethal or non-lethal weapons, hack computers or crawl around in vents. This is a key element of the Deus Ex franchise, and it is alive and well in Human Revolution. Whatever choice the game may lack when it comes to story line, choice is rampant when it comes to approaching missions.
The game also has an excellent dialogue system, which can also be upgraded through augmentation. Frequently, the player is given the opportunity to convince an NPC to do something that the NPC may not want to do. Without augmentation, Adam can negotiate with them, usually by chosing one of three responses or approaches. If you screw up, there is usually no way to try again, so you have to figure out another way to accomplish your objectives. However, if you choose the appropriate augmentation, the screen get’s a specialized readout of the NPC’s characteristics and personality, offering hints on what may work to convince them. Further, Adam can choose to use pheromones to subtly swing them to his point of view. This tactic is not always a sure thing, but it is a fun mechanic, and well implemented.
I do have one major complaint about the gameplay: the lack of a basic melee ability. While Adam has the ability to use both lethal and non-lethal takedown attacks to instantly incapacitate an enemy, there is no simple punch or kick button. This is problematic for two reasons. First, resources such as ammo and energy power ups are scarce, and using one of your takedowns depletes your power meter. In short, if you are short on power, you can’t hit dudes. This feels like a wholly artificial mechanic that takes the player out of the game. While these attacks are powerful, and having the ability to use them over and over would break the game, this limitation should have been handled more elegantly.
Second, the game is absolutely full of breakable items. Boxes, crates, and even doors can be smashed, but without a melee attack you must use your already scarce ammo to destroy them. What this really means is that the game is full of breakable objects that the player will never ever break. It is just silly that a robotic super solider can move things around as big as a dumpster, he can shoot them and blow them up, but under no circumstances is he allowed to hit them. It takes the player out of the immersion of the game.
Wake Up… Time To Die!
And then we have the boss fights. Since the game was released earlier this week, the message boards have been swarmed with gamers complaining about these encounters. Throughout the game, the player will be forced to fight several bosses, all in encounters that play out significantly differently. The problem with these fights is that they are discordant with the rest of the game. These action-heavy sequences, while they are not necessarily bad, feel like they belong in a different kind of game.
As the fine gentlemen over at Penny Arcade indicated, it feels wrong that the game could allow you to play through nearly the entire story as a non-violent, sneaking hacker, only to force you to go in guns blazing with a super-soldier at the culmination of a mission. No sneaking, no hacking, no talking them down. In these boss encounters, the player has no choice but to shoot the bad guy, a lot, while trying not to die. By the game’s own mechanics, many players will simply not be equipped to handle this kind of fight, and thus will die, a lot, and get frustrated fairly quickly. Again, for a game that prides itself on presenting players with alternatives on how to handle situations, it feels wrong that it should not present some in these situations as well.
As for me, I did not mind them so much. Apart from the first boss fight (which is a bitch), the rest can be handled with a degree of strategy that makes them, if not fun, then at least bearable. They are also varied enough to stay interesting, and spaced out far enough to not be overbearing. While you may not enjoy them, I don’t feel that the boss fights break this game, despite the internet hype.
Can The Maker Repair What He Makes?
A lot can change in a week. The initial PC release of Human Revolution had a huge problem with load times. In between areas, and after getting killed, load times could stretch for as long as 55 seconds (yes, I counted). As I understand it, the console load times are not much better. This was nearly a deal breaker for me, as my frequent early deaths left me watching loading screens nearly as much as I was playing the game itself. However, days after release, the PC version was patched, and load times have been significantly reduced, to the point that they are no longer an issue whatsoever. Problem solved.
There are still a few other technical problems with the PC version of the game. First, the key layout is not ideal. For instance, the holster button (to put away your gun) is the letter ‘H.’ Fine, that makes sense. ‘H’ for “holster.” But, the button to throw a grenade is the letter ‘G.’ Again, ‘G’ for grenade makes sense. Do you see the problem? Suppose, for a moment, that you aren’t looking at your keyboard, and a friendly NPC tells you to put away your gun before he will talk to you. Well, wouldn’t you know it, your finger slips and hits G instead of H, as they are exactly next to each other, causing a hapless Adam Jensen, to suddenly toss a grenade straight at his buddy, causing death, destruction, and almost certainly requiring the player to load his last saved game. On the whole, the keyboard layout is just not ideal, with powers mapped to hard to reach, inconvenient keys, and players being forced to perform finger gymnastics to utilize their abilities fully.
Now, all of this can be fixed by reassigning your own key bindings, and I highly recommend you do this. With just a few alterations I fixed the problem entirely. It is just strange that the developer chose to go with this scheme despite these issues.
Finally, the game does suffer from a few bugs. The game crashed on me twice, both during loading screens. Also, during one of the endings, the screen went black, music played, but the ending movie did not. I had to restart the game and redo that ending to see the movie, and it did work the second time. None of these were deal breakers for me, and frankly I was surprised the game worked as well as it did the rest of the time. The frame rate was mostly stable (having brief drops the first time I would enter a large area), the physics worked, and I did not experience any problems with corrupted saves. The game is, by and large, solid.
I’d Buy That For A Dollar!
So there you have it, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is largely a very good game. In fact, it is the first real AAA game we have seen released in quite a while, and a great way to kick off the big-game season. More importantly, it is a great refresher for a series that could have easily faded from memory as the games industry moved on.
The story is well written and interesting, the gameplay is largely solid and fun, and the game has a beautiful unique look and feel that will have gamers begging for more cyberpunk-themed games in the future. Despite a few flaws, and a series of four nearly identical preachy endings that feel like they were pulled out of Metal Gear Solid 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a must-play experience. For fans of the series, and new players alike, the 15-20 hours you will spend with Deus Ex: Human Revolution will be rewarding, thoughtful and enjoyable.