The difference between clever and cunning.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Review

A Brief History of the Future

Before we start this review let me clear the air and admit that I’m a huge Deus Ex fan-boy.  The original 2000 FPS/RPG stands out as one of my all time favorite games. It’s one of the few I’ve played that manages to combine a largely linear story with a tremendous feeling of both freedom and consequence to everything the player does.  If you were willing to look hard enough there was always more than one way around an obstacle, and it was entirely possible to reach the credits without ever firing a weapon. 

Deus Ex was also a member of that special category of game that gives you the power to be a real jerk. I still have fond memories of hunting the citizens of Paris through the streets with a crossbow. Things get hazy around the point where I re-programmed the 15 foot combat robot to target all organic life while shouting that the Machine-War was upon us. 

Barely contained sociopathic tendencies aside, the original Deus Ex did have some issues of note.  It wasn’t an easy game to get into, firmly putting its worst foot forward. The early levels were the least interesting, both visually and in terms of gameplay. While your character was supposed to be a super soldier/secret agent it could be many hours before your augmentations and skills built up to the point where they were really useful. The already aging Unreal engine barely held together at times, the combat and weapons were wildly imbalanced, and the AI could be just plain dumb. 

It's funny because it's true.
Recognizing these flaws the game was, and still is, an amazing accomplishment. The 2003 sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, was not. While not, technically speaking, a bad game Invisible War failed to recapture the feel of its predecessor, dumbing down too many elements and hacking its levels apart into tiny chunks that took too long to load between. It was a major disappointment, and one of the reasons I’m skeptical about games being developed for both console and PC simultaneously. (Though there were certainly other factors at work.)

It was with some trepidation then that I approached Human Revolution, the third entry in the Deus Ex series and the one we’re actually here to review. Set before the events of the first Deus Ex and in the believably near future Human Revolution casts you as Adam Jensen, ex-SWAT and able to really rock a pair of shades. You’re the new head of security for Sarif Industries, developer and manufacturer of cutting edge human augmentations. 

Steel and Flesh

It’s worth noting that in the previous Deus Ex games augmentations were mostly in the form of nanotech. Augmented characters basically had superpowers and occasionally unusual eyes or glowing tattoos with few downsides. Not so in the world of Human Revolution. The products Sarif makes are sleek and streamlined, but blatantly mechanical in nature. An augmented arm might be stronger than the original, but no one will ever mistake the owner for anything other than a cyborg. Still, augs make people stronger, faster and more formidable in every way.

The game drives this home in the opening sequence, when a handful of heavily augmented mercenaries storm the Sarif labs. Try as you might they’re simply to powerful for the normal human Adam to stop. They lay waste to the building, apparently kill Adam’s ex-girlfriend and top Sarif scientist, and leave Adam broken and maimed. Fortunately Adam’s boss uses the technology the company develops to not only save his life, but load him up with robot arms and retractable shades before sending him back into the fray. (After six months of healing and intensive physical and mental therapy, of course.)

Adam has trouble expressing affection appropriately. Surprise hug!
Human Revolution understands the problems that gave the original Deus Ex a high barrier to entry and works to ease the player into the game. Helpful tutorial videos pop up every time a new game element is encountered, and they can be reviewed at any time. There’s plenty of in-game documentation available for stuff like the hacking and upgrade systems. It’s a neat example of how developer and player expectations about accessibility have changed over the last decade or so.

As in the original actions and choices have real consequences to story and gameplay. Once back in control of the newly augmented Adam I chose to ignore the message from my boss to come speak with him and instead explore the Sarif building lobby. After a few increasingly urgent calls I learned that the hostage situation Adam had been brought in to deal with had worsened.  People were now dead because I was rooting through my co-workers offices for snacks and loose change instead of doing my job. Whoops. 

World of Tomorrow

The visuals and ambience of Human Revolution are beautiful. What appears, at first glance, to be a lot of brown is actually a visual theme filled with a gentle golden glow and an infinitely fractal triangular pattern. The music pulses with tension when you’re hidden and dramatic energy when your enemies are closing in. The background hum of the game, the radio broadcasts, TV news, NPC conversations, and incidental e-mails, all come together to create a convincing image of a near future world on the edge of inescapable and dramatic change. 

The game’s central theme is human augmentation, and it treats the issue with a convincing level of ambiguity and moral complexity. There’s no denying that Adam’s augments saved his life and give him amazing powers (not to mention making for great gameplay.) We’ve always looked for ways to enhance and improve ourselves. If you have access to a computer and are able to read this then the chances that you could be considered a “natural human” are very low. If that doesn’t seem obvious just consider how many people you know have benefited from glasses, dental work, or vaccines. 

On the other hand Human Revolution shows many people understandably disturbed by the thought of replacing organic body parts with dead metal and ceramics. Augmented characters are dependent on a lifelong regime of expensive drugs to keep their bodies from painfully and lethally rejecting their implants. And really, who would feel comfortable with profit driven international company writing the software drivers that keep your eyes and legs working? The full range of viewpoints is given fair treatment, even as you use Adam’s robot arms to punch through a wall and neck-snap the goon loitering on the other side. 

Not quite Neo-Tokyo, the cities look good and hide many secrets.
The environments are complex and detailed, with plenty of alternate routes, optional flavor, and useful secrets tucked away for those willing to look. The sprawling city hub levels have a cool Blade-Runner vibe and are great fun to explore and cause trouble in. There are only really two hubs, but you revisit each several times and they change as the story progresses.  

The writing and voice acting is excellent. I particularly enjoyed the back and forth between Adam and his caustic, geeky mission handler. Other standouts include the anti-augmentation activist Bill Taggart and Adams boss, David Sarif. Adam’s own quiet growl is appropriately tired and menacing by turns. The major characters have some depth to them (especially if you’re willing to go digging through their e-mails) and all are believable.

Multiple Choice

The core gameplay holds that you will always have options about how to tackle any given situation, be it by stealth, force, social skills, hacking, special augmentations, or any combination thereof. If you’re willing to hack a few doors and can make it through some toxic gas you can enter a target building unseen through the sewers. Pick up the right ID card beforehand and the guards will wave you through. 

And while you’re there why not add some excitement to their lives by hacking the turret behind them and setting it to kill anyone who isn’t you? Heck, if you have the right strength upgrades you can pick the turret up and carry it around as your personal murder-pet. You’re never at a loss for options, and while some might be more difficult all are completely valid. 

There’s an excellent and intuitive cover mechanic that helps with both sneaking around and not getting shot during firefights. The camera seamlessly snaps between first and third person when you take cover or perform a takedown. You built-in radar makes it easy to keep track of where your enemies are and where they’re looking. You have plenty of tools at your disposal for dealing with foes in both lethal and non-lethal fashion, from hand tazers and stun grenades to the classic FPS brace of pistol/shotgun/machine-gun, etc.

Choose your words with care, or he will pull the trigger.
Almost everything, from hacking to downing foes, earns XP. Practicing good stealth techniques, like silent takedowns and not triggering alarms, awards significantly more, but stealth gameplay is more time-consuming and challenging than straightforward combat. Exploration is always rewarded, and players who find themselves short on ammo should try to take on more of a scavenger mindset. Carefully cleaning out areas will net you the most loot and XP, but you’re never required to do so.

Even if you are planning on killing everyone in your path you usually have the luxury of scouting the area and planning your moves before the violence starts. This is good, because combat is a high damage, high lethality affair. Just a few bullets will drop most human characters, Adam included, so using the cover system is a must. Adam regenerates health up to a base 100%, but natural healing takes a while to kick in and works slowly. Healing items also add a buffer on top of your normal health levels, but even with maxed out defensive augments and buffer health you’re just not that durable. Running and gunning is tricky at best. Combat in Deus Ex is about stacking the odds with tactics like sniper strikes, strategically placed mines, and ambushes. Or you can crush them with a vending machine. Whatever works.

Ave Machina

The glowing nano-swords from the previous games were cool, but there were also a lot of worthless melee weapons. The melee skill and weapon class has been replaced entirely with a new and beautifully animated takedown system. Just get close enough to an enemy (or anyone), tap the appropriate button, and watch as Adam busts out an animated sequence that ends with the bad guy unconscious on the floor. Hold the button a bit longer and Adam guts his target with the retractable straight razors hidden in his arms. 

There’s actually not much incentive to use lethal melee takedowns, because non-lethal earns more XP and is completely silent. All melee takedowns consume chunks of the same energy bar that fuels your cloak and a few other powers so you can’t spam it indefinitely, but it’s still a powerful and satisfying ability. It’s also hard to resist unleashing it on random hobos or other bystanders just to watch Adam at work. The canned nature of the animations means ordinary civilians will sometimes display surprisingly skilled close combat moves even as Adam cracks their skulls with his metallic fists. The double-takedown upgrade is highly recommended.
Confrontations with major characters that don’t immediately turn violent are usually in the form of “conversation battles”. These are dynamic exchanges where you choose Adam’s attitude or response in an attempt to get information or assistance out of a character. They can feel a little random at first, but careful observation of how the other character behaves and reacts can help you figure out their buttons. There’s also an Augmentation that lets you better read and manipulate people, although some characters can tell you’re using it and will call you on it. 

It’s not a type of gameplay I’ve seen done well a lot, and it makes for some memorable encounters. Standouts include trying to talk down a cornered terrorist with a gun to the head of a hostage, and confronting your boss about information he’s been keeping from you. As always in Human Revolution it’s possible to fail these encounters and be left to deal with some interesting consequences, though this never stops you from progressing further through the game. 

The best showdowns in the game don't involve weapons.
The hacking mini-game is simple, but potentially extremely rewarding. It keeps a nice balance of tactical choice and tension that keep it from getting repetitive. This is good, because hack-able doors and computers are omnipresent, and you’re going to need to hack a lot of stuff on any but the most violent and straightforward playthroughs. I found myself hacking machines I already had the passwords for just to get at that sweet bonus XP and cash.

Six-Trillion Dollar Man

Money is plentiful but not very useful. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to buy stuff, and any player who checks all the drawers and gains a basic understanding of hacking will earn more than they can spend. You never see any sort of paycheck or stipend from your boss, but perhaps he’s putting that towards the cost of your surgery and robot arms. Even an option to buy low-end healing items or ammo from the vending machines everywhere would have been welcome. As it is you can only use them as bludgeoning devices or moveable cover. 

Character advancement has been simplified, but is still far more satisfying and complex than the barebones system in Invisible War. Every time Adam earns enough XP he gets to choose a different latent augment to unlock. Adam’s actually a pretty capable character right out of the box, and most augmentations open up new abilities or paths, (being able to move heavy objects or hack higher tier computers) or serve as quality of life improvements (being able to carry more stuff). A few, like the personal cloak and Typhoon Explosives System, are almost game breaking powerful. The Icarus landing System, which lets you leap from any height and land safely amid a flash of energy, is especially cool to watch. 

Adam's never afraid to go for the low blow.
No upgrades are mutually exclusive, and most don’t have a lot of levels. It’s more of a matter of choosing what abilities to get first rather than having to make character defining choices. By the end of the game I had about 80-90 percent of Adam’s augmentations unlocked. It’s rewarding to earn new abilities and upgrades, but you won’t find the same opportunities for serious character customization as in the first Deus Ex.  

Sunglasses at night

Almost every element of Human Revolution fits smoothly together except for certain major combat encounters. Whenever you finally run down one of the augmented mercenaries who wrecked Adam’s day in the prologue you’re locked together in a small arena. You can’t sneak past them, you can’t outmaneuver them, and you can’t escape. They’re immune to being knocked out, so all you can do is kill or be killed. 

I wasn’t surprised to find that Eidos contracted these out to an entirely different company, because they couldn’t be more out of place. Just to be clear, these aren’t badly designed fights. The bosses display the occasional interesting ability and there are plenty of supplies and environmental hazards scattered around to exploit. Even a player without any combat augs can probably fumble through with a few well placed stun grenades and some headshots. The Typhoon augment reduces the fights to speed bumps, and in any other action shooter they’d be perfectly functional if uninspired.

The boss fights are, however, completely out of character. Forcing the player into a lethal combat scenario with someone with a pile of hit-points and no way around them is counter to the design philosophy of Human Revolution and the rest of the series. You also never really have any idea who the hell these people are, aside from jerks. The fights don’t have any impact or depth. I don’t think you even learn any of the mercenaries’ names, unless they go by “guy with gun for an arm.”

Nice symbolism. Very... direct.
Boss fights in Deus Ex were with villains you could love to hate, or perhaps even felt a bit of sympathy for. They could be evaded or defeated without firing a shot under certain circumstances. Even the major encounters in Invisible War were with characters you’d been introduced to and been interacting with for big parts of the game. The bosses in Human Revolution could be cut completely for a net improvement in pacing and gameplay. 

Without giving any story details away Human Revolution’s final levels are a bit odd. The tactical stealth/action and exploration of the previous 15-20 hours give way to a sequence that would be more at home in the Left-4-Dead series. There’s an almost unintelligible final boss fight that I was able to flail through without actually understanding what was going on, and then you’re left to chose your desired ending with a single arbitrary button press from the Console-Of-Destiny. It all felt a bit unsatisfying, but I suppose one problem with prequels is that you can’t tamper with certain aspects of the world and core story too much.

Make your choices, deal with the consequences.
These unfortunate sections aside Human Revolution is still an amazingly rich, complex, and fun FPS/RPG. Eidos Montreal has managed to create a worthy successor to the original Ion Storm classic. It’s impossible not to recommend to anyone who enjoys more than the most light and casual gaming.

Reasons to play: Complex, satisfying gameplay with a multitude of paths and options. A deep and engrossing vision of a near future world. Punch hobos with robot arms.

Reasons to pass: Totally out of place boss fights. Final levels wildly break tone with the rest of the game.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games, images, and videos copyright their respective owners.