Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011, PC)

By 47pik / August 31, 2011

Deus Ex. As the saying goes, every time you mention it, someone will reinstall it. Few games have the legacy of this landmark PC title, one which was so far ahead of its time in 2000, that it shames most titles of today in level design, character progression, and player choice. This is one of the few games ever made that is loved by nearly everyone who played it — dissenting opinions are of the utmost rarity and akin to heresy — and yet, it sold only moderately at best. Deus Ex was not destined to become a popular hit, instead it was to be a cult classic, being slowly passed on to new players by old fans as the years went on, its legacy spreading through the hushed whispers of those in the know; the game that should have been a watershed moment, but wasn't. See, for all the innovations and revolutionary new ideas the game presented, broader game development trends continued on as if Deus Ex never happened — even its own sequel ignored it in favour of a more popular approach. After the lukewarm reception to Invisible War in 2003, the series vanished. Yet, here I am, in 2011, with the privilege to be writing a review of Eidos Montreal's Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a revival of the series by a new development team that still hits all the right notes. Truly, the gaming gods have smiled upon us.
   The year, we are told, is 2027. Humanity is at a turning point, and that turning point is the rapidly approaching singularity — the merging of man and machine through the use of human augmentation. Prosthetics have become so advanced that they are superior to the real thing, and it is advantageous to have organic limbs and organs replaced by advanced machines that improve upon the human body. This is the ethical quandary at the centre of Deus Ex: Human Revolution; is augmentation the next step of evolution for the human species, or its destruction? Having now transcended the evolutionary process, humans are becoming gods, in charge of their own destiny. It is a situation of literal deus ex machina — God from the machine. The question, of course, being whether humanity will reach divinity, or fly too close to the sun and crash.

   It is not a lighthearted story. It is not a simple story. It is a complex, intelligent and thought-provoking story played absolutely seriously with appropriate weight, and asks the tough questions — ones to which there are often no answers. You play as Adam Jensen, the chief of security at Sarif Industries, one of the global leaders in human augmentation technology. He is critically injured trying to stop a massacre of Sarif scientists by anti-augmentation terrorists and only saved from his otherwise fatal wounds via augmentation surgery. One of only two survivors, he "never asked for this", be it the augmentations themselves, or a second chance at life, wracked with guilt and regret. But a second incident of terrorism against Sarif employees brings Jensen back to his job, and begins a twisting narrative that leads across the world and to the brink of human existence. "It's not the end of the world", Adam is told in the final moments of the game, "but you can see it from here".
   The strong narrative maintains momentum throughout, never lulling, and never going too far to become ridiculous. Perhaps it is blasphemous to say, but I always felt the original Deus Ex lost a lot of coherence and focus towards the ending in favour of borderline outlandish twists and reveals that didn't necessarily fit with the tone of the game. This is not a criticism I have of Deus Ex: Human Revolution which keeps its central themes as a crucial anchor to the story all the way through. But what is most incredible about the experience is the way in which the narrative unfolds around the player, who influences the story. One's actions have consequence, even if it is not often apparent what that consequence may be, giving actual gravity to the situations faced and actions taken, in a way reminiscent of CD Projekt RED's Witcher series and, of course, the original Deus Ex. Outright choices the player makes are often morally ambiguous and leave you feeling regretful either way, but even more fascinating is that they have a nasty habit of coming back much later, often in unexpected ways. Meanwhile, various player actions from major to minor, such as completion of secondary objectives or a decision to steal an energy bar snack, often have subtle effects on the game as well. While it's true that these cause and effect factors are unevenly distributed throughout the game, and are significantly more common early on, they are indeed present throughout, and bolster the sense of being part of a story, instead of a just being an audience for it.
   Player choice extends to character development also in terms of combat. The "multipath" system of Deus Ex was its claim to fame, and it returns in its full glory in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Level design is complex and layered, containing many possible paths to a single goal, however, these different paths require Adam to have different augmentation abilities. As the player levels up, they receive Praxis points, which can be spent on new augmentations that provide greater functionality. For instance, augmenting Adam's arms allows him to pick up and move heavier objects, which can be used to climb over obstacles, or to clear a path. Thus, as you level up over the course of the game, your options for interacting with the environment are expanded. However, one has to pick and choose what augmentations are upgraded, as Praxis is limited. Meanwhile, obstacles themselves can often be approached in different ways. A locked door can be opened with the correct passcode, the electronic lock could be hacked open, or you can simply blow it off its hinges. The result is progression based on exploration and choice; the player is given an objective, but it is up to them to figure out how to get there, and how to achieve it, using the skillset unique to their own character.

   Augmentation and character customization provide the same freedom to approaching situations with hostile forces. I hesitate to describe Deus Ex: Human Revolution as a stealth game. It unquestionably involves plenty of sneaking, but the degree to which the sneaking is utilized is left up to the player. Stealth can be used to silently pass enemies without conflict, or to take them down one by one. It could also be used to simply flank enemies, before jumping out from behind cover with a hail of bullets. Different augmentations provide different abilities, such as a cloak, or the ability to see threats through walls, but one is never forced to be stealthy; it is entirely possible to play the game like a first-person shooter. Thus, the greatest strength of the stealth and combat is the adaptive nature. In the Metal Gear Solids and Splinter Cells of the gaming world, being identified by an enemy is usually quickly followed by character death, and reloading from the last save. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution being spotted does not result in failure, but in a shift from a stealth oriented approach, to one where those recoil reduction augmentations are much more useful.
   If the game makes one misstep, it is in the handful of times when player freedom is taken away. I refer to scripted boss fights, which are frustrating due to lack of information and overpowered enemies. However, the biggest issue is that there is no way to avoid the conflicts. An odd choice considering that in the first Deus Ex, with clever planning and forethought, one could prevent such battles. A certain highly explosive augmentation makes short work of the bosses; however, one cannot be expected to have the augmentation installed in a game based around a player's freedom of choice, especially given the strong stealth focus. Thankfully, there are but four of these fights in the entire 30+ hour game, and they have relatively little negative effect on the overall experience.
   On the other hand, some of the most successful parts of the game are the hub levels. Hubs are large urban areas that the player is free to traverse while taking on missions of the main and side varieties. Exploration is encouraged as there are useful things to discover, such as hidden items or alternate points of entry into the various buildings, which may be useful for certain missions. However, the biggest strength of the hub sections are the way in which they make the game world come alive. The plentiful NPCs often have things to say about the central philosophical issues of the story, while exploration allows players to really take in the cyberpunk setting, which is less visible when on the big missions in self-contained indoor environments. Getting to experience the grimy alleys and shiny high-rises of the cyberpunk setting first-hand provides an important context for the story, that of a world where evolution threatens to leave the poor behind.

Haters gonna hate

   The presentation plays a key role in the creation and reification of the world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution as well. The art direction perfectly captures the cyberpunk feel; dingy tenements and pristine office buildings clash against each other as they stand side by side, dull neon billboards provide most of the light and smoke rolls out from sewers and ducts, creating an immersive dystopia. It becomes perfectly clear that for all the technological and cultural progress occurring, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has exponentially increased, while private militaries and corporations leave no questions about who's really in charge. It is thus fitting, that in this world, which is going through a neo-renaissance, that the art direction would draw inspiration from the classical Italian Renaissance in costume design, architecture, and of course, the augmentations themselves. The symbolism of this couldn't be more clear; speaking to the rejection of old-world morality and theology in favour of cultural advances through science and technology. The sheer brilliance of the title's art is unfortunately somewhat hampered by poor technical capabilities. Models often have low polygon counts, while some textures are often flat, and in some cases, just downright low quality. Animation too is often sub-par for NPCs, especially on faces. But truly, the worst offenders are the horribly compressed and poorly lit CGI cutscenes. By no means does the game look bad, but the execution really betrays the potential of the style, which is quite unfortunate.
   However, more than anything, what is most amazing about the presentation is the attention to detail. Voice acting is top notch, with great performances by all the lead actors, and even generic characters on the street sound natural as they engage in conversation. But most amazing is the way that accents are nailed, characters from Detroit sound like they are from Detroit, which is all well and good, but upon reaching the Hengsha island of Shanghai, I was impressed to hear characters speaking in fluent Mandarin, or in English with an authentic accent. Given the utterly disastrous voice acting during the Hong Kong section of Deus Ex, it was a pleasant surprise. This attention to detail extends lovingly to the environments and broader fiction of the world. The latter is perhaps one of the most important aspects of how the world of 2027 comes alive; it feels as if it exists beyond just Adam and his journey. Ebooks and news reports for instance serve to provide greater details of the goings-on of the world. Ebooks are scattered throughout the game in various offices and usually contain scientific details regarding the technology present in the game. They solidify Human Revolution as hard science fiction by presenting detailed and plausible explanations for how the science all works. What may appear as made-up technobabble to most players is actually a legitimate scientific statement regarding the fictional technology. Meanwhile, news bulletins report on a variety of global issues current to the year 2027, which, likewise, are plausible results of the global events of today. At one point in the game, a headline scrolled across the bottom of a TV monitor mentioning a riot breaking out in Toronto, and police using tear gas. As a citizen of Toronto myself, it was nice to see the city get some mention, but what amazed me was that the headline specified that it was only the second time in the city's history that such crowd control had been deployed. I, of course, know that the first time, was in July 2010. The bulletin couldn't have been on screen for more than a couple of seconds, yet still had this level of detail. Clearly, this project was a labour of love for the writers on the development team.

   Indeed, in nearly all ways, Deus Ex: Human Revolution succeeds. A large part of that success is attained by following in the footsteps of its legendary predecessor, but an equally large part of that is by also going in its own direction. For instance, a major addition to the game is a cover system, which beautifully integrates with the combat mechanics pioneered by the original Deus Ex, making both combat and stealth much smoother and organic, in contrast to the often very stilted approach in the first game. This, and other numerous additions and refinements make Human Revolution a far more playable game, one which does not rely upon frequent quicksaves. For all the benefits, there are some drawbacks; for instance, there are fewer augmentations available than in Deus Ex, resulting in less specialized characters. Nor is the scope of game design as broad; many doors can't be opened and there aren't nearly as many secrets hidden away in the level design. However, the game still carries the spirit of Deus Ex with it, and these issues feel like minor nitpicking when, overwhelmingly, Human Revolution has got everything right. Most surprising though is that the game really makes an effort to stand on its own. It avoids the prequel trap of shoving in cameo appearances at every opportunity, and tying the story directly to the original. As it turns out, the two games are only tangentially connected. A couple of important characters from Deus Ex are name-dropped and one makes an extremely brief appearance but, otherwise, Human Revolution is telling its own story set in the same universe as the first game. New players aren't missing anything, but old players will pick up the subtle, but effective, foreshadowing of future events and the cruel irony related to the entire conflict.
   Let me make this perfectly clear: Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a masterpiece. It is a work truly worthy of its moniker; most certainly the best game of 2011 and very possibly the pinnacle of this generation in gaming. It is a true successor to the legendary Deus Ex, one which respects the original, but doesn't simply ride the coattails of the now 11-year-old game. It features complex mechanics that challenge the player to think about their actions, and an intelligent story that does the exact same. The incredible flexibility of the level design, narrative, and character progression begs for repeat playthroughs in order to ascertain how the game changes when different choices are made. Against all odds, and through a labour of love, rookie developer Eidos Monteal has done what the original developers of Deus Ex couldn't; create a worthy follow up.
   Adam Jensen says he never asked for this.
   But I did.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is runner-up to Insomnia's 2011 Game of the Year.