Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011, PC)

By Fabius Mayland / September 18, 2012


Deus Ex: Human Revolution (henceforth simply referred to as Human Revolution) is the sequel to Deus Ex: No Subtitle (henceforth simply referred to as Deus Ex), which was released in 2000. Deus Ex is endlessly replayable. To date, I have finished six or seven playthroughs. I have finished Human Revolution twice, and to be frank, I have never since felt the urge to reinstall it. Human Revolution is a good game. Sadly, for the sequel of the towering achievement called Deus Ex, good is not good enough. Where did it go wrong?
   Human Revolution is a façade. Deus Ex embeds freedom and meaningful choice into a mostly linear game in a singular and unprecedented way, all the while remaining playful and unabashed. The game's freedom never seems inauthentic. I hereby refer you to Matt Warner's excellent review of Deus Ex. Go ahead, read it. It is immensely helpful in order to understand what went wrong with Human Revolution. Human Revolution attempts to repeat all the good things Deus Ex does. But here, they only work on the surface level.
   So here is my thesis: The developers of Human Revolution were too self-conscious. They were incredibly afraid to disappoint, frantically jotting down a list of things they needed to include in order to make Human Revolution a true Deus Ex game. In the process, Human Revolution has been robbed of the original's sincerity and playfulness. Deus Ex has tons of quests, paths, and characters which I did not know about in my first or even second playthrough. The developers of Human Revolution, by contrast, feel the need to show you everything as soon as possible. You can feel their anxiousness to deliver. This claim may sound somewhat esoteric, but in the next few pages I shall endeavor to substantiate it.
    Now first off, Human Revolution is not a particularly hard game to beat. If the artificial intelligence wasn't as simple-minded, then maybe gunfights would be more challenging. Sadly, simple-minded describes the artificial intelligence all too well; nearly every fight plays out in more or less the same fashion. I shoot one or two of the adversaries in the head before I am spotted, then hide behind cover and get rid of everyone else during the moments they are busy reloading. Few enemies ever attempt to storm my cover. Instead, they simply opt to wait for obscene amounts of time, maybe in the hope that I will die of starvation. (They do shout mean things at me from time to time, though.) This wouldn't be a problem if the game didn't feature regenerating health, but, well, it does. Only seldomly do enemies try to force me into the open with grenades. And by "into the open" I really just mean "behind the next piece of cover", because the game is littered with it.


The cover system
                                                                              
The result of the opponents' passivity combined with regenerating health: Many firefights can simply be won by wearing the enemy down. An upgrade for the assault rifle only aggravates this problem by enabling a guiding system for bullets, in consequence allowing the player to abuse the blind-fire mechanic whenever he feels like not putting effort into a combat situation. (The blind-fire mechanic allows firing directly from cover at the expense of accuracy.) Of course I can't do this all the time, since the method wastes quite some ammunition, but the option shouldn't exist in the first place.
   The laser rifle is another weapon which completely fucks with the blind-fire mechanic, as it still sports perfect accuracy when using it; i.e., there is no downside to blind-firing the laser rifle. It does take up a lot of inventory space, one might argue, but that's precisely the problem. Managing which weapons I want in my inventory is not a very interesting decision. The tactical decisions should come within the fight, not at the weapons merchant. If all the weapons had more clearly cut-out downsides and advantages, then I could carry all (or at least more) weapons without becoming overpowered. Instead, there are weapons which are very clearly useful, and then there are weapons which are very clearly useless. The rocket launcher, for example, is not nearly useful enough in any situation to warrant the inventory space it takes up. The rocket launcher NEVER merits being picked up. This is what scientists often refer to as "stupid".

Punching people in the face in the most immersion-breaking way
                          
The shooting mechanics are very obviously designed with the cover system in mind. I've completed certain portions of the game without using it (the Derelict gang district in Detroit, multiple fights against Belltower soldiers in Hengsha) just to see if it's doable, and it definitely is. It's not even particularly hard, but it's not nearly as satisfying. Aiming down the sights feels a bit dodgy. Enemies can sometimes hit my head when I'm sitting behind cover without using the cover mechanic — despite the fact that I can't peak above the cover by a large margin. 
   Stealth, too, is largely implemented via the cover mechanic. Sadly, this makes stealthy playthroughs pretty damn easy. Since the game switches into third person while using the cover mechanic, it's not difficult to time your movement. Couple that with a powerful radar and you don't even need the numerous stealth augmentations to make a quiet playthrough relatively unchallenging, except for a few rooms. Those few rooms (a handful in the Picus Studios are the ones I remember most vividly) are very fun and very rewarding to stealth through.
   Hacking is no more difficult. But even if you somehow (perhaps due to a lack of two functioning hands) feel like it isn't, no worries. There is enough randomness involved in hacking to make it a matter of quicksaving/quickloading if you feel like it. And since hacking is a major source of experience points, you better damn well feel exactly like that. This also ruins any kind of incentive for finding passwords or keycodes, because entering either of those doesn't give you bonus experience, whilst hacking does. The sad thing is that this is probably only the second most retarded design decision in Human Revolution.
   Anyway, hacking in Human Revolution has replaced hacking, keypads and locks from the original game, and then some. So yeah, hacking is really fricking important, which makes its lack of challenge even more painful. Listen, I know that hacking was even worse in Deus Ex. But consider this: At least multitools and lockpicks were a limited resource which you had to SPEND. That's an incentive to find keys and codes. In Human Revolution, you can pick up certain bonuses within the hacking minigame, such as experience points or credits. Oh, and worms. That is, tools to help you hack. That's right, having the neccessary motor skills to win the hacking minigame gives you additional tools to make the next hack even simpler. Ingenious!

What you will be staring at for roughly one-fifth of the entire game
                 
And then there are the persuasion checks, which require no effort at all. With a grand total of nine different speech paths and immediate feedback about whether you failed or not (you either get the bonus experience points or you don't), Saint Quicksavius makes these utterly pointless. This is not challenging. You are wasting my time!
   So let's recap, shall we? The game fails to be challenging, with the sole exception of attempting so save Malik by non-lethal means. Whether you solve problems guns-ablazing or stealthily, by hacking or by dialogueing, the game is very rarely difficult. Now this doesn't automatically make Human Revolution a bad game; the original Deus Ex wasn't particularly challenging either. But then the original usually had more interesting routes to go about your goals. In Human Revolution, going for stealth will always mean the same two things: Hide behind cover, and enter every single ventilation shaft you can find. It is never interesting! Deus Ex features intricate, and most of all, elegant map design. Evading enemies always is a nice feeling. In Human Revolution, by contrast, the game just sticks a ventilation shaft your way and considers its job done. (Yeah, Deus Ex has those too. No, they don't look all so completely alike in that game.) Nothing in Human Revolution feels rewarding to me.

My sentiment exactly
       
Lastly, the augmentation system. Sigh. Remember when I talked about something else only being the second-most retarded design decision?
   Deus Ex separates skills into learnable skills and augmentations. Learnable skills: aiming your shootah, exploding your grenades, lockpicking locks, multitooling codepads, hacking hackables, and other silly verbs followed by equally silly nouns. You know, the human stuff. Augmentations: jumping real high, walking real fast, carrying real hard, turning invisble, looking through walls. SUPERhuman stuff. This does not only make sense from a story point of view, it is also good game design. It allows for numerous interesting combinations, all of which are equally overpowered.
   There are so many different ways of playing Deus Ex, all valid, all fascinating. The developers didn't think of half of them, they just designed interesting augmentations and let the player have a field day with them. There are only few boundaries so to speak. In Human Revolution, everything is so very clearly labelled. The augmentation PUNCH THROUGH WALLS serves exactly one function, it lets you PUNCH THROUGH WALLS. That's it.
   Oh, and it also makes no goddamn sense lore-wise. If Deus Ex is a sequel to Human Revolution, then why is Adam Jensen so much more advanced? This is patently STUPID. My sanity would not be half as much shaken if this game did not carry the title Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If it was just called Human Revolution, then I wouldn't have to put up with all these stupid retcons.

Contractual Deus Ex obligation number 45: The game needs an AI that becomes self-aware. Nevermind that it is way more advanced than Morpheus in Deus Ex, of which Eliza would be the precursor. (A post-credits scene explains this, but it still doesn't make an awful lot of sense.)

Large, flashy neon-signs are above every alley and side-path. Accepting their cordial invites is assured to release dopamins, since every side-path triggers experience rewards. If it doesn't, chances are it's a dead-end. This is bad. It's a cheap trick. The whole game is cluttered with secret things that are not really secret. In Deus Ex, there is an augmentation canister hidden behind a crypt plaque. I didn't find it in my first three playthroughs. Embarking on my fourth one, confident that there were still things in the game I did not know about, I found it. Lo and behold, my joy was great!
   This is because Deus Ex didn't have the flashy neon-signs. There's tons of content you very well might miss out on the first time through. And that is precisely a good thing. Human Revolution, by contrast, is less confident than a fifteen-year-old boy asking out his crush. Human Revolution is so pent up about not living up to the original's standards that it can't wait to show you all it has in store.
   Take a look at these four screens: (1), (2), (3), (4). Hengsha, where you spend a few hours of the game, features numerous small stores with these doors. Inside every single of these doors is a small room. Inside every single room is either nothing, or ammunition, or credits. And every single room gives you 100 experience points for "discovering" them. Those four pictures I took? They were produced within 15 cubic metres of each other. I'm not kidding. Hengsha is cramped with these "secret" areas which are not secret. The entire game is filled with shit like that. In Human Revolution, exploring means looking at the secret totally-not-secret areas and collecting experience points for them. Exploring, in other words, is oftentimes nothing if not tedious, a part of the game I only feel obligated to go through with because of the reward. Experience points should be the means to initially goad the player into exploring the surroundings until he learns to appreciate this without the need of them. In Human Revolution, the exact opposite happens. The only reason to explore IS the experience points, because you can't possibly be interested in 16 identical rooms behind 16 identical doors; the means and the ends are flipped.
    I've spent the last 2000 words belittling Human Revolution, so let me laud a few things here as well. One, I really like the visuals of this game. It features just the right amount of color (especially gold) sprinkled into a large chunk of GREYDARK. It's appropriate for the setting. Not dystopian, but a hell of a lot closer to it than to a utopia. Game is really good looking. Two, the soundtrack is very well produced. However, it doesn't always fit perfectly. The Deus Ex soundtrack by contrast is not as much of a musical achievement, but it fits its game better. The Human Revolution soundtrack usually sets the right mood, but not as consistently. Still: visuals and soundtrack are muy bien and worthy of praise.
   Alright, end of public service announcement. 

 

Oh yeah, wanna know something about the final level, the Panchaea? It's filled to the brim with zombies? Why? Because fuck you, that's why. I can't even fathom this one. Again, Deus Ex time: Area 51 is a great level. By that point in the game, you are already a nearly invincible killing machine, and the level is designed accordingly: Above the surface, it is populated with commandos, men in black and robots. As you descend into the depths, human enemies gradually diminish while mutated horrors begin to appear, usually attempting to bite off your leg. Aforementioned mutated horrors will perpetually respawn at certain sections of the level unless you lock up their spawn points. Rooms are intensely radiated. Two turrets protecting Bob Page are indestructible. Your sole potential help are a few small robots (watching those fight against endlessly respawning Karkians is quite amusing, by the way). In other words, Area 51 is, from top to bottom, a hostile environment. Every fibre of it wants to fucking murder you, or poison you, or drown you. It feels appropriate.
   Meanwhile, in Human Revolution: Zombies. And then: Zombies, zombies, zombies. One of the few levels whose design reminds me at least somewhat of the freewheeling nature of the great locations of Deus Ex (think Vandenberg) is completely ruined because it is FILLED WITH ZOMBIES. Yes, I am aware of how many times I used the word zombie in this paragraph. The sheer lunacy of filling an entire level with hordes and hordes of insane melee combatants without any variation whatsoever just baffles me. The Panchaea doesn't feel menacing, it just feels... stupid.
    Moving on, watch this short clip for a sec: [ > ]. Now let me tell you why it could be twice as good. The energy system is another one of these "one step forward, two steps backward" things. Yeah, there were too many bioenergy cells available in Deus Ex. Human Revolution reacts to this by limiting you to two (upgradable to four) energy units, only the first one of which will regenerate. In theory, this should force you to conserve your resources. In practice, it makes cool combinations completely impractical. Since the takedown system requires a full energy unit — and is your only option of melee combat —, combining it with anything requires the usage of a Mars Corporation™ Energybar. What I really wanted to do in that video was immediately take the two enemies down. Instead, I had to linger for a few seconds, waiting for the energy that silent landing used up to recharge. This creates a disconnect. It breaks the flow of my movement.
   There are actually five more enemies adjacent to the two in the video. That could have made for one awesome firefight, initiated by me punching down the first two, then jumping behind cover and using grenades and a rifle to dispose of the rest. But due to the stupid energy allocation system, I feel strongly disincentivized to do this. Even worse: Remember that takedowns give 50 experience points, shooting enemies in the head only 20. The game, in other words, wants me to use the takedown system on as many opponents as possible. But there are a lot more enemies than there are Mars Corporation™ Energybars. Which means that the game features a whole lot of waiting for your energy to regenerate in order to maximize experience gain. And every time I wait for that, I feel like eating a pudding in real life, because the game is punching the flow of my movement in the face so hard.
   Really, the experience allocation is probably the single worst thing about the game — I referenced it in regards to hacking and stealth already. Now there is nothing wrong with giving the player different amounts of rewards for different actions. Freedom of choice doesn't mean every choice is equally good (compare perspectivism vs. relativism, if you will). But Human Revolution does this to an unhealthily large extent. The entire game is based around choosing your own path, except there is always a very certain path which the game really wants you to choose. Go through every ventilation shaft, use takedowns as often as possible, hack as much as you can.
   It pains me to give Human Revolution a three-star rating. The maddening part is not that it's not a great game. No, what infuriates me is that the game casts a shadow greater than itself. The truly sad thing is how close Human Revolution is to greatness. It could have been so much better with some adjustments. Instead, it is a heap of wasted potential. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is caught between the two worlds of Deus Ex and modern dumbed-down shooters. The dumbed-down mechanics, the obvious side-paths... The developers of Human Revolution did not design this game with intelligent players in mind, they wanted it to appeal to everyone to at least some extent. As a result, it also fails everyone to at least some extent.
   And I didn't even mention the stupid bossfights. Sigh.

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