35: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

It’s hard to analyse this game on its own. Deus Ex, twelve years on, is a landmark of game design, a strange fusion of story and interaction and worldbuilding that, despite each individual component being a hoary old cliché, created something remarkably fresh and interesting. Personally, it was one of the first games I played that showed me the potential of the PC. I’ve finished it several times, I’ve seen it be possible to kill everybody, or nobody, or to carry the corpse of your boss through the whole game. I’ve played it all in one twelve hour burst. My vision is rose-tinted, as JC should have said.

Which meant the sequel, Invisible War, was a punch to the gut. Objectively a fine, playable game with some niggles, the effect of the label Deus Ex, and the way that so many aspects of the game were different clouded that all with an uneasy feeling that Warren Spector was spinning in his grave despite him being a) alive and b) a lead guy for Invisible War. The passage of time has eased the sense of attachment somewhat but some will judge Human Revolution as a game, and some as a Deus Ex game, and they might well reach different conclusions on the exact same aspect as a result. Maybe even more so than with Invisible War, as it’s a prequel and thus people already know the ending. However, it succeeds as a prequel by not being too heavily reliant on what comes next. You don’t meet people who will star in Deus Ex, but if you do a bit of digging then you get a flavour of what they’re up to. You see how they rose to power in the background, stuff mentioned offhand, but they don’t have much impact on your actual quest. I think it’s a tricky task to create something where the plausible ending is Deus Ex’s comparatively less technological, more repressed world, but it was handled with care.

But what makes Human Revolution special, what makes it an important game to play is that it is based on a concept. It doesn’t start with the idea that it’d be cool if you could punch people right in the face, it starts with the idea of how humanity would be changed should augmentation technology become widespread. Every sidequest, even, is based off that central idea and the conflicts it provokes, and that’s the hallmark of an excellent overall vision. There’s no point where you’re being told to wander off and kill somebody just because this guy wants you to, it’s because they’re involved with anti-rejection drugs or they’re trying to force their employees to get augmented or a dozen other things.

So if I was purely judging a game on highness of concept then, HR would be a winner. The whole world is constructed not necessarily to be realistic, but to be consistent to the tale they’re trying to tell. Aug companies hold all the power and the pace of progress is so great that those left behind can’t cope. Countries are beginning to destabilise, fracturing into regional zones and city states, an increasing gulf is opening up between the have and have-nots. You join as a head of security for one of the augmentation companies, outfitted with the cream of their technology after nearly being killed in an attack on your corporation’s HQ. You are the future, a superman in sunglasses.

Except you’re not that powerful. Most of the augmentations you can unlock are to do with stealth and movement and hacking systems. In open combat, you die quickly, it’s very hard to rush a group of (also augmented) soldiers and win. Not only that, but your power supply is I assume one of those little nodding birds or possibly one of the competing brand bunnies from a Duracell advert. You have a few bars of power but only the first one recharges naturally, the others require you to down chocolate bars. Why is this? Well partly it’s because of the existence of the takedown, Human Revolution’s attempt at a melee system. Get close to an enemy and press Q and you’ll take them out dramatically. It uses a bar of energy, and presumably they didn’t want you just effortlessly takedowning your way through crowds of enemies, so they hobbled the whole augmentation power system rather than designing a more skill-based melee system. There’s few manually-activated augs as a result, nearly everything is just small passive boons to your mobility, durability and detectability, and I think it’s the first sign that the game hasn’t been thought about quite as much as the world.

So you’re mobile, you’re stealthy and you’re smart, but you aren’t strong and you don’t have staying power. There’s two ways that you can deal with this. You can more or less forsake augmentations in favour of firepower as DX contains a competent version of a cover shooter. Load up on guns of varying types, upgrade them to increase damage and reload, add in the stability and recoil augs, plus the typhoon system which allows you to destroy everything within a few metres for one bar of power. Run, gun, simple fun, but it’s not why I play Deus Ex. You’re an ex-cop, not a killing machine and there’s plenty of cover shooters out there which do this better.

So I initially went with the second option: Takedown the lone enemies, hide them from patrols, break the security system and slowly, methodically clear a building. On the plus side, the game wants you to do this. Dealing with situations non-lethally or stealthily nets big old experience bonuses, as does finding alternate routes. The areas you proceed through are clearly set out to allow this approach, with copious air vents, security computers and so forth. Downside, well, you spend a lot of time hiding behind a box, waiting for your batteries to recharge, and you’re now essentially playing Splinter Cell.

There is a middle way though, one better than both, and you occasionally spontaneously break into it before the game stomps you down. The fun augmentations, the ones that let you improvise. You can jump down from any height, you can juggle dumpsters or chuck them at people, you can punch people through certain walls, you can carry turrets around like pets once you get them onside…those are the moments that I’m going to remember from actually playing the game, but it the game only acknowledged them grudgingly, they weren’t integral to the level design and the one bar of power prevented their overuse. Stop enjoying yourself Jim, this is serious business.

Another thing that stands out about Human Revolution is that it doesn’t want to keep its secrets, the massive tattletale. Every sidequest has an associated steam achievement so you’ll know if you missed one, every vent has a massive box in front of it, every civilian is having some conversation that happens to relate to your situation. Throughout the game, guards will gather in front of you, blocking your progress, and start discussing things of interest. Sometimes this is plot-related, sometimes it’s a bit of character development, and I can appreciate that as a way of giving you exposition in a seemingly natural way. But then sometimes it’s one of them complaining that he’s lost his set of passwords again, and any guy listening in should sure not look for them. You come across hundreds (not an exaggeration) of computers in the game and they’re all locked up, so the design response is to place an unseemly number of datapads about, brimming with passwords and various poor excuses for why they’d be communicated. And, most of the time, accessing the computer is just not worth it, doesn’t actually add much to your story. There’s exceptions, pleasant vignettes, indications of what future characters are doing, but more commonly it’s just an excuse to get some upgrade juice.

Because upgrade juice (sorry, Praxis points) tend to be your absolute base motivator, not story or discovery. As mentioned, the weakness of the augmentations means that you want to get them as high as possible, and as some methods of play are rewarded more than others, there’s a subtle pressure to do them. I broke into every office in my company’s HQ because upgrade juice enticed me to – it’s very rewarding in XP so no matter that you won’t learn much, you’re going to do it. Hacking systems has quite a pleasant minigame attached but there isn’t much skill involved, just get the proper augmentations to win. Being non-lethal gives more reward than being lethal, so again you’re pushed into doing it. This tension between what is fun and what is functional is the problem at the heart of Human Revolution, and it goes back to what I was saying about the world having precedence over the game.

I mean, Eidos should be very proud of the game. There’s no real rough edges, the game’s level of detail remains constantly high and interesting. There’s this consistent cyberpunk look and feel, with crude, obvious and powerful augmentations contrasting with the neglected, despairing commoners. The locations are imaginative, well-realised and full of stuff. The characters of the piece have been carefully thought through to offer competing ideologies, different ways that humanity would react to the augmentation explosion, and the conflicts and tensions that erupt through the game seem to make sense. I just think they should rely on the fact that they have made interesting places and people to entice exploration rather than naked bribery. Rather than forcing you to explore because it’ll give you the best results.

As I’ve said, the setup of Deus Ex is its strength. It creates a world with care and deliberation, setting up your background, letting you explore your company and talk to your boss about his vision. You meet and battle representatives of the anti-aug movement, conduct investigations into their operations and follow leads. The first two thirds of the game is this steadily uncovered world that sucked me in, let me overlook the fact that my bread and butter wasn’t that much fun. And then, in the last few hours, they simply seem to run out of time. It’s a common, sad story for games for whatever reason but the careful teasing out of conspiracy threads makes way for a hurtling conclusion where that’s all trampled on in favour of ridiculous enemies doing ridiculous things.

Oh and speaking of ridiculous enemies, I’ve saved the worst til last: boss battles. Deus Ex had these, of course, but it was always possible to retreat or find another way around if you were that type of character. Human Revolution apparently outsourced their boss battles and it really shows, there’s just these four completely incongruous fight-to-the-deaths that don’t even seem to tie into the story, it’s just “Oh and a BAD GUY suddenly shows up”. They’re hard, yes, but I can live with that, the kicker is that they’re so out of nowhere and held in such novelty arenas against such underdeveloped villains. Going back to Deus Ex one last time, when you fought Gunther Hermann, there was a narrative thread that was being carefully followed. You’d saved him on your first mission, you’d found about his concerns over his impending obsolescence, you’d seen his attachment to Anna Navarre and found out his anger when you defeated her. You’d heard of his silent vigils in the cathedral, his drive and focus to getting you back. He saw your capture as a final chance for redemption, a chance to show the organisation that augmented agents had a future. That was a story with a natural conclusion.

Flash to Human Revolution: a guy nearly kills you in the first mission, then he shows up about a couple hours from the end in a room full of flexing robotic mannequins. I still have no idea who he actually is and who he stands for, but now I must fight him and the game is all “isn’t this cinematic, isn’t this exciting”. No, it’s just something that’s happening. Doesn’t matter how you dress it up, if there’s no progression to that point, then it’s just an immersion killer. The fact that the boss battles are boring, shooty, gamey affairs is just the putrid icing on a stale cake.

I don’t want to be negative, really. Human Revolution has an excellent world underneath it all with a mostly carefully-crafted story that does naturally lead to Deus Ex. It’s really well-made and consistent, it’s generally an interesting challenge. It’s got the potential for great fun, it’s got some great characters in it who make interesting conversation. It’s a really good game. But it isn’t a great game, it’s just an imitation of one. And there’s no shame in that.

4 stars, 35 hours played (finished once)

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