The Way You’re Wired
The announcement of a new entry into a series whose original game tends to inspire fresh installs every time it’s mentioned is a big undertaking. Warren Spector’s original Deus Ex is widely considered to be a classic PC game, so many fans have waited with bated breath to see if Eidos Montreal’s prequel is worthy of the name (especially after the second entry in the series, Invisible War, was poorly received).
Deus Ex: Human Revolution puts you into the biomechanically-augmented body of Adam Jensen, a security agent for Sarif Industries. While investigating an anti-augmentation group’s attacks on the company, Adam gets drawn into a much larger conflict. The most spoiler-free I can get regarding the story is that it’s pretty excellent, with plenty of intrigue and twists.
The game is a hybrid first-person shooter and action-RPG (as was the original). While you’ll spend a considerable amount of time in combat, the sheer amount of non-combat stuff to do is impressive. There’s plenty to explore, and exploration yields rewards in several forms: you can pick up extra quests, find new items and even gain a few XP with a little bit of footwork. While you can just follow the arrow to your next objective, it’s a lot more fun to get lost in Detroit or one of the other locations in the game. You can learn a lot about the environment and the world of 2027 just by asking around, and even more by rooting around. You can read other people’s email, pick up eBooks, and eavesdrop on conversations. Heck, you can even pick up a basketball and shoot some hoops.
The combat system is interesting. While shooting is a major part of the gameplay, it isn’t all there is to do. Combat often requires a tactical approach, using cover and the element of surprise as a major advantage. You’re given the choice of both lethal and nonlethal weapons, in addition to grenades that can knock out machinery or daze opponents. The cover system, which switches you to a third-person viewpoint, is well-implemented. However, my favorite parts of the combat repertoire are the ones that require a little subterfuge. Find the right computer terminal and you can turn gun turrets and patrol bots on their masters (which also, helpfully, means they won’t attack you). You also have a variety of Arkham Asylum-style takedowns at your disposal, both deadly and nonlethal. It’s fun to sneak up on someone and stick a couple of knives in his back; however, sometimes it’s just as satisfying to knock someone out cold after a particularly aggravating conversation.
(With the exception of the cover and takedowns of course, most of this is true for the original Deus Ex as well. This is NOT a bad thing.)
You’re also capable of hacking computers and keypads to open doors, safes, and terminals; thankfully, the minigame is fun. You have a limited number of attempts on any object and each node takes a certain amount of time to capture and has a certain percentage chance of detection. If your hacking is detected, then you’re given a time limit and have to finish the hack before the timer hits zero. You also have a few tools at your disposal – you can fortify a node to make it take longer for a trace to get through, you can use software to stop the timer briefly or capture a node silently. As opposed to, say, BioShock or Mass Effect, where hacking is an annoyance, these can actually be quite fun in their own right.
This brings me to another part of the gameplay that enhances the others – your augments. The augmentations, which grant you special abilities, are what makes it a Deus Ex game after all. When you level up (or pick up a Praxis kit), you’re given a Praxis point, which can be used to unlock your abilities. These all serve to enhance your abilities in one way or another, and there are quite a few choices. You can take points that make you jump higher, let you survive falls from the tops of buildings, perform takedowns on multiple opponents, and chuck a cardboard box with enough force to kill the poor bastard hiding in it. You can also use them to enhance your radar so you can see enemies from further away, or to see through walls (and there is a weapon that exploits this). You can also level up various aspects of your hacking skills, and of course, bend light around you to become invisible. Temporarily, of course, because most of these powers sap some of your Bioelectric energy, which must be restored by scarfing energy bars or (presumably) snorting protein powder.
The setting is really cool. Set in a Golden Age of scientific discovery (with undertones of discontent, paranoia and fear of the new technologies), the look is both traditionally Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk and Renaissance-inspired. And it really, really works. You’ll see a wide variety of places – from Adam’s noirish apartment, to Sarif’s ultramodern offices, to a TV station that looks like it was designed by Apple employees, in addition to places I don’t want to spoil. The storyline and setting also have the perhaps dubious honor of being one of the most plausible futures I’ve seen depicted in a videogame.
The one sticking point I find in the game are the boss battles. Seriously, whose idea was it to put forced combat situations in a game that otherwise allows you to play however you like? If I’m playing Adam as a hacker or stealth specialist, how am I supposed to deal with a big bullet sponge who doesn’t even respond to me trying to shoot the weapon out of his hand? In the original Deus Ex there were two forced confrontations, but each had a go-around that allowed you (if you did enough poking around) to take them out without so much as drawing your gun. The game is not optimized for head-on combat, yet that’s pretty much what the bosses force you into. I can only assume that the boss fights were designed by a separate team who weren’t informed that the combat in other parts of the game assumes you can avoid direct exposure to enemy fire. The fights just seem shoehorned in by someone who assumes that all games need boss battles. It doesn’t mesh well with the style of gameplay or the “play it how you want” spirit of the game.
A more minor complaint (and this may be a PC or even Steam-exclusive issue) is that the prerendered cutscenes all seem to be heavily compressed, and as a result look kind of rough. It doesn’t affect the gameplay at all, but it’s definitely a letdown when the prerendered scenes look less crisp than what my video card can render.
Those complaints aside, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a superb game. It’s easily one of the best I’ve played all year. It’s an example of what a good team can do with an almost forgotten franchise by not forgetting or discounting what made the original so great in the first place (and yes, that is a jab at 2K’s X-Com reboot/abomination). Eidos Montreal, my mirrorshades are off to you.