Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (video game)

Platform: Playstation 3
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Genre: Action, Role-Playing, First Person Shooter, Stealth
Release Date: August 23rd, 2011

I'm often surprised at how little cyberpunk is used in video games. With current struggles and the power corporations wield in current US politics, the genre is more relevant than ever. Yet somehow it remains something of a niche genre. Sure, you can name some really good ones - including this games forebearer - but how many big budget games focus on it, or even partially utilize it*?

Here comes Deus Ex: Human Revolution to help fill the gap. It has one hell of a legacy to live up to. Does it?

You are Adam Jensen, chief of security for a top biotech firm. You have a... complicated relationship with your ex, who got you the job, and are set to escort her to Washington to reveal her revolutionary findings that could change everything in the field of human augmentation. That's when everything goes to hell. The building is attacked and after fighting valiantly, you end up mutilated. You may as well change your status from "it's complicated" as well, since she apparently died in the attack despite your best efforts.

Six months later, you return to work, newly augmented and struggling to understand what happened and why. Your quest to find the truth will bring you neck deep into a conspiracy that spans the globe. Welcome to 2027 Detroit. It's only going to get worse from here.

If you're familiar with the original Deus Ex, you can already tell this one is a prequel. We're twenty five years into that games past, on the cusp of a technological revolution. At first glance, that sounds like a bad idea, but the change in time period allows the game to carve out a look and identity of it's own. It's a different period, with problems both new and as old as time.

It allows the developers to explore what it might look like to live in a time period where such things might be a reality. It starts to resemble the racial issues we as a species have always struggled with; the fear of the unknown and those different from ourselves. The politics, the discussions, all of it feels realistic, as though it were a natural progression from the conflicts of today. E-Books scattered around the maps also help to add detail. The effect is a world that feels as though it's fully realized and lived-in.

Sound is a bit more mixed a bag. Not so much the soundtrack, mind you - which is excellent - but the voice acting. It can and will range from very good to just okay. Since he's the protagonist, Adam Jensens voice acting sticks out the most; there are some great moments of subtle emotion in the voice - an argument early in the game where he slowly loses his cool, depending on which responses you go with, is a nice example - but other times monotone is the default. Sadly, the age old video game problem of "characters with accents they should not have" is also present.

Gameplay is always important and Human Revolution hasn't strayed too far from its predecessor. Choice is again the word of the day, with your decisions on how to proceed seeming to change the world around you. At times, this will affect even the most minor of things, such as NPC dialogue; your actions in the first mission, for example, will alter the reaction and dialogue you receive from the SWAT members at the end, as well as the civilians working at Sarif Headquarters. The little touches add to the experience.

That choice also extends to how you deal with enemies. You can play it like John Rambo if you want, shooting up everything in sight, or you could do like Solid Snake and deal with problems silently. That said, it's pretty clear there's a "right" way to play the game; you'll find you gain more experience in the long run through stealth takedowns and bonuses for remaining undetected. Same goes for non-lethal weapons. You can do what you want, but it ends up making a hell of a lot more sense to deal with problems in the most efficient way possible.

There's so much about Human Revolution that I love. But - and you had to know a but was coming - it's not perfect. There are two issues in particular that nag at me and must be addressed.

The first issue is the boss battles. Simply put, they do not play fair with the player. You may recall that Deus Ex allowed you to play a pacifist throughout the entire game, including boss battles. If you didn't want to kill anyone, you weren't forced to. Almost all of Human Revolution is structured the same way; if anything, non-lethal action is practically encouraged as noted earlier.

All except the boss battles. You are left with no non-lethal options here. You must kill the bosses. From a story perspective, it makes sense; the bosses are all members of the team that seemingly killed your kinda-sorta-not-really girlfriend and mutilated you in the opening - the latter of which leaving Jensen with no choice but to be augmented or die - so Jensen has a pretty legit reason to want to shoot them in the face. From a gameplay perspective, it's a nightmare on your first playthrough unless someone warned you it was coming.

If you're anything like me, you realized early that stealth and takedowns are the methods with the most reward. This is even worse if you played Deus Ex and the rest of Human Revolution tricked you into thinking you could do the whole "mercy" thing for the the entirety of this game too. Which means, ten to one, you dumped most of your early praxis points into stealth and hacking upgrades, eschewing the ones pertaining to gunplay. You probably sold any lethal weapons and upgrades you may have picked up as well. Bad move.

The first boss is a wake-up call you just don't see coming. It's likely you have no armor upgrades at that point - if you're playing a proper stealth run you likely figured you wouldn't need it - meaning he'll shred you in seconds. Worse still, he's essentially a walking tank that will no-sell your weapons. Then, the capper; if you had no intention of killing anyone, you probably sold all your lethal weapons for cash and space. The boss room anticipates this possibility and does provide you with weapons, but you're still walking in unprepared.

In this situation, abuse of the cover system is necessary to get past him. Even that's not a guarantee; he's frequently moving toward you and moving around your cover, because it's not like he needs to duck behind something to avoid gunfire or anything.

The second problem I had pertained to the endings. Put bluntly, they're a complete letdown. You have four options, but no matter which one you choose you get a voiceover narration of Adam musing on what he's done, his choices and whether humanity will move in the right direction. It wraps nothing but the main plot thread. Anything pertaining to Jensen, his friends, unfinished business and where the characters would go from here receives exactly zero closure. While I realize it leaves quite a bit to be dealt with should a sequel be made in this time period - and the fact that it bothers me at all can be seen as a triumph, since it means I care about the characters - it makes for an unsatisfactory conclusion to the twenty to thirty hour game you just finished.

Niether problem is enough to sink it, but they are a pair of black marks on an otherwise great game.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

It isn't perfect and isn't quite on the level of the original Deus Ex, but Human Revolution is a worthy successor to the franchise. I'm kind of hoping for a sequel set in this time period, but I'll be there for a sequel regardless of when it takes place. Well worth your time and money.

* Final Fantasy VII - one of my favorite RPG's - is guilty of this. The first quarter of the game is heavy on the cyberpunk influence. The dystopic cityscape, the corporation that rules over everything and does what it wants, the conspiracies, the cover-ups for the ill deeds of said corporation; right up until the last few scenes in Midgar, where the game shifts to a bit more typical "save the world" plot, the game is dripping in it. There's still strands of it in the games DNA, but once you leave Midgar in the dust it's mostly abandoned. It's interesting to think about what could have been had the game stuck to it. It likely would have made for a tighter story; as great as Final Fantasy VII is and as much as I love it, the game was all over the map at times.


  1. Finally picked this up today. I loved the original Deus Ex (and System Shock before that) but kept putting off buying this, even at only $15. Not really sure why.

    I guess what I'm saying is if I hate it, I'm going to blame you.

  2. The original System Shock is one of my all time favorite games. The sequel is not far behind. I finally got to play the original a while ago and I was astounded; the Doom games got all the glory, but System Shock was where all the innovation was at. Plus SHODAN remains a very frightening villain; the game just isn't the same without the audio version, where you can hear her mock your every advance.

    I can, of course, never guarantee that anyone will like a game I do, I think it's well worth the playthrough. As noted, it's not quite as great as the original, but it's one hell of a step in the right direction. It feels more in the spirit of the original than its actual sequel did.