Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a hefty weight on its shoulders: the expectations and apprehensions of thousands of fans of the original Deus Ex released in 2000, a highly acclaimed RPG whose levels of complexity in both gameplay and narrative are a force to be reckoned with. But in another respect, it’s almost a new franchise that needs to win over a new generation that doesn’t necessarily remember PC games of a bygone era. Either way, half-baked isn’t going to cut it. Fortunately, the game has spent at least four years in development, showing Eidos is committed to giving the franchise a prequel it deserves.
You play as Adam Jensen, a former cop who works as a security specialist for a bio-mechanical augmentation company known as Sarif Industries in 2027. These augmentations are the powerfully divisive preoccupation of the age, raising tensions in society and exposing the disparity between the have’s and have-not’s. The corporations bill them as the next stage of human evolution and a chance to better ourselves, while anti-augment groups are concerned over both philosophical issues, such as playing god, and inequity problems.
When Sarif Industries headquarters is attacked by a group of heavily augmented soldiers just prior to the announcement of the company’s next breakthrough, Adam Jensen is left for dead. In order to save him, the company see fit to install military-grade augments (complete with a ‘we can rebuild him’ scene) and he awakes 6 months later, considerably more metallic than before. What then ensues is a complex globe-trotting story of conspiracy and corporate espionage.
The game is primarily played in first person, and you do indeed shoot; but make no mistake, this is not a first person shooter, nor a fully fledged RPG where you might be able to talk your way through the entire game. But it strikes a fine balance between the two, allowing you to choose how you approach any given situation. You might avoid contact with guards whenever you possibly can, sneaking through vents and hiding bodies, or you could strut in, all guns blazing, a mixture of the two or simply hack the turrets and sit back as the bloodbath commences.
But should you choose a less conspicuous method, you’ll need to use cover and tactics and know your exits. In this respect the game shares similarities with Metal Gear Solid, even in the style of AI which is either on hostile, alerted, suspicious or oblivious. Guards will go down with a bullet to the head in most cases, no problem. But equally, if you manage to agitate a whole garrison, you’ll really know about it.
And like MGS, the AI can be somewhat lacking from time to time. They might catch you, give it 10 seconds without seeing you, then chalk it up to ‘hearing things’. You’ll also have to get used to the 3rd person cover system. It may seem unnatural at first, but it’s actually fairly robust once you get used to it, though the blind-fire accuracy is the worst of any game I’ve seen yet and you can’t upgrade it.
There’s a decent selection of weapons, through the mechanic of upgrades and size of inventory mean you’ll probably start to cosy up to one weapon in particular. Plus, you’ve always got takedowns which are a single button melee moves that use some energy, allowing for a quiet knock out or a more elaborate blood infused kill (involving elbow blades!) depending on whether you press or hold down; the animations for which are all exquisitely satisfying and impressively varied.
Ammunition and energy (to power your augments) are relatively sparse, which is again indicative of a game that requires planning and strategy, especially if you are inclined to paint the room with lead. Hacking is also a central mechanic, which involves capturing nodes, some of which may yield credits and XP or make captures faster, in order to get to one or more green ‘end goal’ nodes. However there is a chance that the system will recognise you, in which case you have a limited time before it sounds the alarm.
Certain viruses you pick up along the way act as hacking power-ups to slow the systems recognition of you. It’s all fairly basic, but it does the job and varies gameplay. Not only does hacking allow you access to routes of advancement, but also safes, laser security, emails and access to cameras, turrets and robots. As an aside, people in 2027 seem to have a very hard time remembering things, as every computer seems to have an email from a frustrated boss telling them the password ‘for the last time!’. Anyway, needless to say it’s fairly central and means you’ll likely regret not investing points in hacking skills.
The character building side of things works through upgrades to your augments with Praxis points which you’ll earn through XP and will also be able to buy and find in certain places in the world. It’s worth clarifying that the augment tree of skills is nowhere near as complex as the original, it’s a straightforward two points to unlock a tree then a further few points to upgrade it several times. And by the end of the game you’ll probably have acquired most skills, things like hacking, armour, stealth abilities, social enhancers, sprinting and inventory upgrades. However, it’s more about when you get the skills. I found that there’s a nice relationship between when you feel you’d benefit from a particular skill, given your play-style, and what you’ll be put up against in subsequent missions – there’s a responsiveness there that really feels like progression.
For example, about half way through the game I felt like if I was able to descend more easily (as there’s a certain verticality to most of the world), I’d be able to find quicker, more stealthy (and less hazardous) routes, considering the environments I’d already passed. So I invested in a ‘landing system’ that allowed me to jump from any height, and my play-style was rewarded as routes opened up to me, meaning I could go down massive air vents, and stun my enemies from above. It also goes to show how many different pathways exist in the game, and perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that you can mix and match methods of approach without being locked in – you can always adapt to the situation fairly seamlessly, without fear of repercussions.
Alongside the main story you’ll also be given the chance to sniff out sidequests in some of the hubs, where you’ll also find arms dealers and clinics. Thankfully Eidos haven’t strayed over the line of triviality when it comes to the extra missions, as they’re often meaningful additions, for instance, helping a former friend bust a prostitution ring or foiling an terrorist bomb plot, or something straight-up tied into the main story. The idea is that the information and back story is out there if you wish get caught up in it and it may even help you piece things together, foreshadowing future events or keeping you informed as to the best way to handle a conversation. And that’s the crux of it, because the Deus Ex universe is a fantastically rich cyberpunk dystopia that you’ll want to explore. And as indicated by some of the excellent pre-launch trailers, it genuinely deals with some very interesting and contentious issues that are likely to become very relevant one day.
To that effect, the world of Human Revolution has been lavishly fleshed out with an astute attention to detail. NPC’s are all given a sense of life, cleaning windows, rooting through trash, smoking and even bored guards can often be seen dawdling about. And you’ll be able to overhear plenty of conversations between NPCs, from the banal to heated arguments; people complaining they’ve been laid-off on account of their refusal to be augmented and snarky comments concerning your getup. You may hear the odd repeat, but it can be forgiven. For those so inclined, there’s also plenty of referential material on the original Deus Ex in posters and emails and a generous helping of dry humour. Though those sorts of emails have a nasty habit of being on computers you’ve frantically hacked in the hopes that they’ll control the turrets!
Though some may bemoan a lack of objects you can interact with (don’t worry you can still flush toilets and turn on taps!), you’ll only really need to move or stack crates and things to get through windows and vents, and throw the odd fire extinguisher to distract a guard – anymore would have frankly been unnecessary. Especially given that the environments are so well populated with (static) objects and detail. It only takes a quick glance to notice that lamps are actually plugged into walls and desks, shops and closets are cluttered with an astounding array of objects. And I’d like to the think that those interested in the relatively complex themes of the game, are the sorts of people who appreciate that level of detail and care anyway.
Where Human Revolution truly pushes the envelope is in the art direction and world design. There aren’t a whole boatload of triple-A games that can really claim to have a distinctive and original art style that fits in with the vision of the world its portraying (Mirror’s Edge is one of the few). But the prevalent gold and black palette that we see here is used in conjunction with Deus Ex’s future. Some may see it as just a yellow tinge, but it’s a theme which pervades the entire game (even in sections that are set during the day in completely different places) without invading it. This means an overtone can be sustained while still allowing sections to be varied. And as such the HUD and UI also share this unifying theme.
The term the development team chose to describe some of the world style was ‘baroque’ – a rich and opulent aesthetic indicating a penchant for historical era, which in turn runs with the underlying themes of naturalism and critiques on society. Some of the offices of the more wealthy characters you’ll meet are incredible pieces of art in themselves, and even fashion has clearly been given a lot of thought. Sure – the lower streets of some of the more seedy areas have girls in latex and such, like many visions of the future; but the high fashion, exclusive to the rich and powerful, has strong triangular shapes incorporated and even 17th century-style collars for women, once again referencing their aspirations to the age of enlightenment.
The voice acting is of a generally decent level, though Jensen’s gruff ex-cop thing is a little dull, but the main disappointment is the lip syncing which has a tendency to make people like they’re trying to do an impression of a horse. Such a shame as well, when they’ve made a concerted effort to make your fellow conversationalists feel animated as you stroll about, maybe fiddle with something, while they chat to you.
In terms of the difference between platforms, the consoles suffer from having to manually type in passwords on an onscreen keyboard, and cutscenes lack the quality in compression that the PC offers. Of course, if you want visual clarity the PC will always win out, but the consoles still look great, as the art style is bold and embellished enough to carry itself. Upon launch, loading times were quite an issue but a quick patch has solved the issue convincingly.
There’s so much to praise about this game, but I’ve left my biggest grievance for last. It boggles my mind that in this day and age we’re still seeing the inclusion of the archaic convention of boss fights. They were a thing of time in older games, and they fitted, but they simply seem incongruous here – almost like an irritating and unnecessary tribute to MGS (a game which gets away with it for other reasons). The three or four that are sprinkled throughout the game defy everything the rest of the game stands for. They’re essentially devoid of choice – just a very persistent enemy with too much health following you around a small room.
But even arbitrary boss fights can’t overwhelm my admiration for this game. It’s such a tricky feat to balance a game in the ways they have. And it’s not an open world game like Fallout, neither is it a linear shooter: but the hubs feel sprawling and dense and the specific mission areas lend themselves to multiple plans of attack. The production values really are staggering and it’s rare to get systems with so much player choice that have perceivable effects (though often not that far reaching), which feel polished at the same time.
What Deus Ex: Human Revolution really is, is a very competent stealth action RPG, plunged into the middle of a thought provoking and well realised world, wrapped in the genuinely unique packaging of its visual style. And it all comes together perfectly focused. Then throw in a very good story that refreshingly deals in moral ambiguities (as opposed to Mother Theresa vs. Devil incarnate choices) and takes the player through a number of good old conspiratorial twists.
Though it has some stiff competition this winter, it assuredly stands up there with the great games of the last few years, and in my mind is a certain game of the year when it comes to art direction and design. If you have any interest in futuristic dystopias, the original Deus Ex, great design and/or games that deal with slightly higher-brow themes, then at an average play time of 30+ hours, you could do much worse than Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
A very impressive 9.5 out of 10.
Reviewed on PC & Xbox 360 platforms.