Deus Ex. The name holds a strong pedigree in the gaming world. It demands prestige as well as characteristics that you would be certain to expect - Choice, Consequences and Conspiracy to name just a few. But, the gaming world has changed in the years since the original Deus Ex was released eleven years ago, as well as the sequel The Invisible War three years later. In that time we’ve seen luminary games released such as Splinter Cell, Gears of War, Oblivion, Bioshock, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Mass Effect. I mention these games for a reason as you can see how they, along with the ideas of the original, have bred Deus Ex: Human Revolution into something else entirely. Something almost beautiful.
Human Revolution, developed by Eidos Montreal and published by Square Enix is a prequel to the original series. The year is 2027, some 25 years earlier. Full augmentations of the human body have been developed and are starting to change the boundaries of humanity leading to conflict and division in society. You play the role of Adam Jenson, chief security agent for one of the largest firms involved in these mechanical augmentations. In a rather horrific attack on the company, which acts as a very classy introduction to the games mechanics, you are injured beyond the repair of ordinary medical science and only the installation of a whole body of augmentations can save you.
This near future cyberpunk setting provides a beautiful and stylish backdrop for the game. Everything, from the detailed maps to the fashion of the characters and citizens oozes an elegance rarely seen in any game before. Fans of the original will be pleased to hear that the level of in-game text has not been diminished in the face of the current trend of casual dumbing down for consoles - littered around the maps are papers, e-books and ‘pocket secretaries’ filled with text that outline how the globe has changed. For a game based on drawing you into its world all these elements superbly entwine to create a fictional future you can believe in.
The first glaringly obvious difference between this and the original occurs when you enter cover mode with the left trigger. Suddenly the camera swings to a third person view, showing Adam taking cover behind the wall (chest high or otherwise) you were facing as well as the surrounding area behind the cover.
Essentially at this point the game has the feel of Gears of War or perhaps, if you are stealth inclined, Batman: Arkham Asylum. In this view you are stuck to the wall until disabled and pushing directions will manoeuvre your character around cover. You may lean out, or over, to fire (still in third person) or, if there is additional cover nearby, hitting the A button will force a dive between them. It is very smooth, proficiently designed and works incredibly well; however I can still see this being a point of contention for some of the purists out there. In my personal opinion I believe it suits the game, it bonds exceptionally well with the stealth aspect of the game, allowing you to hide and dive out of sight and if you do get into a fire-fight it at least gives you a chance of survival. However it must be noted that perhaps the strangest thing about the 3rd person cover system is that, unlike nearly all other in-game features, it is never explained how it is possible. Why does Adam have this ‘floating eye’ always ready to come into action? It would be possible to argue that this feature does jar one out of the sense of reality that the game is trying to impose everywhere else. Certainly it is a bold move by the developers but given the torrent of ‘cover based shooters’ flying off the shelves you can see why it makes commercial sense.
Here, along with the cover system, the radar in the bottom left corner of the HUD comes in very useful. This will tell you the position and direction enemies are facing and their alert status and can be upgraded to provide even more useful intelligence. Similar to previous stealth games, in particular Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, staying out of sight and sound is vital. On spotting or hearing ‘something suspicious’ such as a darting shadow as you dive for cover or the sound of running footsteps, a guard will immediately become alert and move to investigate. After a time, if you’ve managed to remain hidden, their suspicions will eventually subside and they will return to their normal routines but, if they do spot you they will immediately rise to hostile status and shout, or worse set off an alarm, to draw others attention. Thankfully, unlike the original, the AI of the guards is far more predictable and reliable. You can be fairly certain that if you approach someone from behind quietly then you will remain undetected and if you are hidden behind a substantial amount of cover they will not randomly spot you and run for the alarm and as such if you watch the guards’ movements and move systematically usually you can usually avoid detection. Sometimes however it is essential, or just more entertaining, to take down your opponents…
The take down system may be another potential irk for purists. Gone are the melee weapons (and there’s no punch option); instead if you manage to get close enough to a guard to touch them then pushing B will initiate a silent, non-lethal, takedown. Doing so will again zoom the camera to third person as you watch Adam perform one of several brutal moves which knocks the guard out cold. It is clean and extremely efficient. On the other hand, holding B will initiate a not so quiet vicious kill move, usually involving Adam’s protruding sword-arm augmentations. It is perhaps a little over the top but is certainly cool in a modern brutally violent’ kind of way and as such never seems to get old.
Choice 1: Classic Rambo Technique.
You could charge in through the front door, immediately alerting the entire station and many policemen inside. With reckless abandon you gun down all that you see and push on to your goal.
Consequence of 1: As well as certain failure on anything but the easiest difficulty, all the police in the city are now your enemies and will
consequently hunt you wherever you turn. Perhaps worse, key characters will disagree with your decision and will be less likely to aid you in the future. All in all not a good, though at least thoroughly entertaining, choice.
Choice 2: Stealth and cunning approach
On pushing some boxes out of the way you discover a sewage system. You’re fairly sure that someone mentioned that the sewers used to connect with the cellar of the station and so you investigate. You then find a secure door with a conveniently hackable lock (physical lockpicks are gone). Luckily your tech skills are high enough to overcome the brilliant hacking mini-game (which is discussed in the panel to the right). You sneak in and unseen stealthily make it to your goal.
Consequence of 2: No-one knows you were there. Like a ghost you got what you were looking for and your boss is happy and the police are none the wiser.
Choice 3: Manipulation and persuasion
An old colleague of yours is sitting on the front desk. Unfortunately he’s a little bitter that despite once being on the same SWAT team you’ve gone on to become head of security for one of the largest companies on the planet and he’s ended up barely a receptionist. It will take some persuasion to make him open the doors for you but after a long and painful dredging of the past you convince him.
Consequence of 3: You achieve your goal, but at the same time you’ve regained an old friend who may help you later in your life. Or, perhaps he will realise that you manipulated him and will resent you. Only time will tell…
This is just one example of a choice that you will face many, many times throughout the game. Taking heed from games such as the Mass Effect series, most choices you make will have consequences that reach far beyond just the scope of the situation and it really makes you think about every action you perform.
At this point, I would like to mention how superb the voice and visual acting within the game is. It is in playing games such as this that you can appreciate how capitalism and the growth of the video games market have really affected the industry. With more money to burn, studios now hire professionals to not only provide voicing, but with motion capture technology, actually perform. Sure, there are no obvious A list actors (such as Martin Sheen or Seth Green in Mass Effect) but those hired have done an extremely good job and should be commended. Not only have they, along with the development team, made the cut-scene conversations believable but also brought alive the innovative persuasive ‘battles’ (such as the one with your old ‘friend’) in which you have to judge what to say according to the reactions of your conversant.
The music in the original was generally considered to be one of the major contributors to its success. While there were no epic sweeping scores, the subtle blend of synthesisers that adapted as the game and environments changed really helped draw the attention. Even now I can hear some of the melodies echoing around my mind. For Human Revolution, Eidos – Montreal hired award winning composer and sound-designer Michael McCann, who interestingly also worked on Splinter Cell: Double Agent. McCann has done a brilliant job of taking the original’s ideas and blending in some of his own ideas. The way the music evolves as the tension of guards being alerted and then erupting as they become hostile before dying back down as you escape is superb. Like a film, it really adds to the experience and, if you keep a keen ear, you may even hear some of the original score which will cheer those with their minds still stuck in the past.
I’ve avoided mentioning the levelling up system until now as it may be a bone of contention for both purists and new players alike. As with virtually all role-playing games, your character slowly improves to match the changing difficulty as the game progresses. In Human Revolution this is achieved by gaining ‘Praxis’ points which can be found, bought or bestowed upon you for every 5000 points of experience received. In turn, these can be placed into the various slots on Adam’s augmentations to grant the use of certain powers. For example, investing a couple of points in his arms will unlock the ability to smash through certain, conspicuously cracked, walls.
It’s always hard to bring a sense of reality to gaming ‘levelling-up’ systems, very rarely can we comprehend why killing x amount of enemies will grant us more powerful abilities. However, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which is constantly trying to justify its own world to the player, rather neatly explains this system by describing how Adam’s augmentations already have all the possible powers installed. It is simply Adam’s brain slowly adapting to the new augmentations, which is why the experience gained from progressing through the game can be used to release each augmentations power. Furthermore, ‘Praxis’ kits that can be found lying around or be bought supercharge Adam’s brain.
It is not however the believability of the system that is the problem; it is rather that it is just too unbalanced and simplistic. Gone are the tough choices from the original which would exclude one upgrade over another. In Human revolution all options are always potentially open so long as you have the points to spend. And points are not particularly scarce either. If you are any kind of ‘completionist' gamer you will gain experience for virtually every action. If you see an opening to one of the almost omnipresent air-vents then it is worth investigating as you will more than likely nab a few points even if it takes you away from your objective. Furthermore, because you do not have to invest the points as soon as they are gained, they can be stashed away for spending when you find a challenge that requires a certain skill you do not possess, almost undermining the elements of choice that the game is trying to instill. To make matters worse, although the game states that not all upgrades can be achieved in one game, some powers are so obviously underwhelming that by the end every player will have virtually the same skill set. For example, the special walls required for the ability mentioned earlier are so scarce, and often other solutions are more appropriate, that the investment is almost a complete waste.
It is a shame that, for a game so heavily imbued with choice, the developers decided to remove this element. It diminishes re-playability and also takes away what is unique and special about your own character. When discussing the game with other players, you will almost certainly find that they will have all the same abilities and while they may have taken different paths the overall feel of the game will most likely be similar.
Possibly more upsetting is the plot. Considering the depth and beauty of the world that has been constructed, you would hope for a more outstanding story than the rather tepid and plodding one provided. While the elaborate overall themes of conspiracy, social segregation and human evolution from the original are still clear and present, the deceptive twists and turns are far more predictable and often you find yourself ten steps ahead of where the story teller feels you should be. It also takes a very long time to progress and often you may find yourself asking what, in terms of plot, has actually advanced over the last several or so missions. Furthermore, for all the choice and directions the game wants to offer the player, the overarching plot is still stuck on a single track and cannot be derailed no matter how many choices you make. Perhaps this is too much to ask from any current generation game bearing in mind the amount of development it would require, but taking into account the back of the box blurb: “The choices he makes…will help determine the fate of humanity” it was at least something worth hoping for.
One final gripe, on the Xbox 360 particularly, the loading times are shamefully sluggish. If you do not install the game this can lead to almost a minute of waiting (perhaps half of that if you do). While this is understandably a limit of the aging console hardware, it can get incredibly frustrating especially during sequences such as the terrifyingly difficult ‘boss’ fights where you may find yourself staring at the barely helpful loading tips for more time than actually playing.
These are perhaps just small disappointments in a game that is otherwise exceptional. The sheer gravity of what is achieved by Deus Ex: Human Revolution is immense. The game is huge, a standard player can expect to spend between 20 and 30 hours playing, more if they investigate all the side quests and avenues available. What we have here is a game with both a sleek stealth system beyond most of the current generation stock and an action shooting element that stands at least as tall. A game open with choices waiting at every corner, that while do not have a huge impact on the plot, can create ripples and repercussions much further down the line. A game with a dark, enriched and believable world and a conspiratorial plot that evolves throughout, and though predictable, contains all the twists and turns of a modern cinematic classic. Certainly what we have here is a gaming masterpiece, up there, if not soaring above, its predecessors deserving of all the recognition, celebrations and awards it will almost certainly receive.
Can Eidos and Square Enix breathe life back into this much loved gaming series?