Deus Ex regularly tops gaming lists as one of the most innovative titles ever made and one of designer Warren Spector's best. Its own sequel couldn't top it, so there was great concern when an untested team at Eidos Montreal made waves over four years ago in saying that it was taking on the challenge. Fans like me viewed the news with some interest, though we also couldn't help but feel a sense of foreboding.
All that worrying was for naught. The first Deus Ex is written into every byte of Deus Ex: Human Revolution's code. It's a teetering techno-paradise that is the kind of vacation spot found in works like William Gibson's Neuromancer.
It's also a prequel, so previous experience isn't required. This is Deus Ex's world about 20 years before things really went downhill, though longtime fans may pick up on many of the subtle cues to the previous titles in the gameplay and the world. This is where it all started setting the stage for the dystopian world of titanic corporate empires, interlocking conspiracies, and transhumanist technology. Stepping into this game felt a lot like coming back to the first as soon as I found myself staring at the first scene's cluttered office.
You play as Adam Jensen, and he isn't some punk off the street. He's the head of security for Sarif Industries, a scrappy corporation that provides augmentations to anyone with the money. Organs, limbs, skin — nearly anything can be augmented with a cybernetic replacement. It's also the source for a lot of friction between those who believe that they have the right to do so and those who think that giving up a part of your humanity is the worst thing to happen since being expelled from Paradise.
At the end of the quick tutorial, Adam is nearly killed, but he's rebuilt by his boss. It wasn't exactly his choice, but it's not as if he could argue while on the operating table. After six months in recovery, you're relatively free to explore Sarif's spacious lobby, take the vocal tour of the company's history, get called on the carpet by the resident hacker for walking into the wrong restroom, and try to find your own office before hacking the locks on anyone else's. That's only if you want to ignore your boss, who has a new job for you. Bad things can happen if you linger too long, and that welcomes players to Deus Ex's tradition of choice and consequences.
Human Revolution's visual aesthetics trump their markedly less-than-stellar fidelity, aided by solid voice work and Michael McCann's epic soundtrack. This isn't a game rippling with Crysis-like detail, but here, light bloom and crispy textures don't matter as much when everything else easily sells the dystopian world. Even in the near future, the poor huddle in alleyways and over burning barrels on the streets of Detroit while glowering towers of capitalist success pierce the skies. Offices are infested with clutter, people have conversations as you pass by (complete with subtitled Chinese when you eventually make it over the ocean), and NPCs go about their routines, whether it's filling out paperwork or making some stir-fry.
Hengsha, a two-level metropolis off the coast of China, takes cues from Neuromancer'sChiba City and Blade Runner's Los Angeles by mixing in clean, technological nooks with the old and left behind. Claustrophobic alleys and storefronts with flashy facades allow cramped alleyways and pillbox sleeping pods to coexist alongside PMC grunts spoiling for a fight. City hubs like Hengsha also have long memories. Bodies won't disappear, and neither will dropped weapons or things you move around. It simply remembers everything.
It often felt as if Team Eidos had also hired a team of architects to make every space feel functional, right down to the latrines. Human Revolution's world feels lived in, realized with a level of incredible minutiae with which few other games bother. It's a huge gamble, but few other worlds even come close to being this expressive. It all tempts you to explore it for any side-quests that might feed your wallet and experience. This game is tailor-made for the curious.
Likewise, Human Revolution's dialogue takes on the task of being more than window dressing for the next quest, often resonating against the real world when it confronts topics such as discrimination and uncomfortable extremism. It gives players enough information to make their own decisions when the situation calls for them to negotiate a minigame where dialogue choices play out as a mental boss battle against key players. It isn't so much what Jensen thinks — it's all about you.
Missions take place in city "hubs," with side-quests for extra work unless you want to charge ahead with the main game. Though you can't freely travel between hubs because of the story, each one is crammed to the gills with things to do or get into. Each area is also generous on warnings when you're about to move on, ensuring that you have an opportunity to turn back in case you missed something.
Nuances in decision-making are layered into these hubs. Opportunities to either help or hinder certain NPCs can result in small changes in Adam Jensen's pursuit of the truth, paying homage to the first Deus Ex in several ways. More than a few results are only seen after many hours of weighing on decisions and making use of the generous save system to probe each path.
That's what the gameplay loads up the player with: choices. Though most of the choices won't dramatically change any of the major endings, Human Revolution focuses on the journey by punching plenty of holes into which the player can jump to experience many of its missions in different ways. Small, localized instances of interaction are made greater by this kind of uncertainty on what might follow if I decide to not do certain things. There really is no "good" or "evil" here, only consequences and how you feel about them as a player, or experience bonuses for finding alternative approaches to certain objectives.
As soon as I could hit the streets of Detroit, I went exploring. I wasn't too worried about the punks hanging out in alleys, though death doesn't care about which augments Jensen has. He isn't a cyber-juggernaut, and this isn't a game that will hold your hand. If you want to take out a street filled with gangbangers, you can do just that; I did this, only to later find out that they were part of a mission. Human Revolution keeps moving along despite any missteps — though you might regret some of the missed opportunities if you're a little too aggressive or passive.
PC controls had plenty of custom options. The cover system can be set to either the right mouse button, or as a toggled choice, and it works exceptionally well. Shooting is pretty basic, and triggering your augmentations and setting up hotkeys made it easy to focus more on playing the game rather than in fiddling with a dodgy setup.
Approaching objectives can often be a matter of whether you decide to go in guns blazing, sneak through one of game's many air vents, or even talking your way through a tough situation. There's an augment to help earn that silver tongue, too, though a careful ear and listening to what is being said and watching their reaction can also work just as well. Human Revolution never left me without options, though there were moments where it wasn't perfect.
Instead of following the popular trend in simplifying things, Team Eidos loads up the gameplay with details. Weapons can be modded through kits, and Jensen's cyber abilities can also undergo upgrades via Praxis points, which are earned whenever enough experience is gathered. Even the in-game fiction takes time to explain them as a method used to "accelerate" the otherwise natural progression of his augmentations. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that they will improve if you just sit around.
Eventually, you'll need to hack through systems to pick through e-mails or locks. A few key passwords are left lying around, especially if you're not the hacking type, but there are plenty of opportunities for those who want to flex their script-kiddie skills. Networks are represented by linked icons, and clicking on each to work your way across it becomes a gamble on how stealthy your hacking skills are. Getting "found out" by the system turns it into a race to reach the end as it tries to trace your link and end the session. It then locks the system for a limited amount of time. It works, though the use of percentage rolls can take away a little of the control as opposed to, say, BioShock's method of keeping as much of it in the player's hands as possible.
There are a number of special augmentations that can be activated and improved — provided you have enough Praxis points — and their scarcity forces players to focus on what works best for them. Not all of them are useful, but the game feels designed to accommodate. One augmentation can allow Jensen to see through walls, though being stealthy and patient is also a fine substitute if you want to invest in something else.
That's where Human Revolution begins to stumble a bit, along with one part of the story where it forces Jensen into a corner in an unexpected display of forced storytelling. You can't do simple melee attacks — no Dragon's Tooth Sword equivalent here — without draining your internal energy supply. It's not quite the jack of all trades.
Players expecting to run this as Crysis 2 with hacking or Modern Warfare with dialogue are going to be disappointed. For one thing, you won't get as many experience points perforating bad guys as opposed to sneaking up and taking them out unawares. Getting through entire areas as an unseen cyberninja also delivers a nice XP bonus.
Human Revolution also brings in boss battles, which were around in the first Deus Ex. If you've gone "all stealth" like I did, they can also be amazingly tough when you're left without decent firepower. It gives the player some options to work with, at least early on. In one fight, I didn't have anything that could hurt the guy, but the room had a few convenient gas bottles and explosive barrels available as makeshift projectiles. Later fights were a little tougher, especially one that left me stranded if I hadn't brought along some weapons. As with the first game, these battles didn't feel as evenly balanced as they could have been.
Moving things around won't alert the AI to any strangeness unless you're obvious with it, so if you shove a giant vending machine into the hallway to hide behind when it's not looking, it won't care as one of the concessions made to keep the game fun. This isn't meant as an exacting stealth simulator, but despite some of the weirdness throughout Human Revolution's urban sandbox, it still retains the sense of fun and awe.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution took a little over four years to create, and waiting for a follow-up is the worst thing about the game. I finished it after 50+ hours — much of it spent simply exploring and trying out things. Is it better than the original? In certain ways, yes it is. More than anything, it's a brilliantly realized chapter to the world of Deus Ex. It has its rough edges and may not be as polished as it could've been. If you're a gung-ho shooter fanatic, it might not be as intense as you had hoped it might be. But I was too busy crawling through vents, picking through networks, and slipping unseen against the background to notice.
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