Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the latest, long awaited installment in the Deus Ex series of games. Set in 2027, this futuristic techno-thriller takes place in a time of social upheaval and technological breakthroughs that will allow individuals to enhance their bodies and minds, for a price. Corporations are vying for rights and control over these new ‘transhumanist’ technologies, and are willing to go to extreme lengths to protect their interests.
It’s been out since the end of August, and I didn’t get round to buying/playing it ’til the end of November, hence the late review. Sorry.
|Adam Jensen, pondering the ethical and sociological ramifications of human augmentation within a free-market economic system yesterday.
You play the role of Adam Jensen, a gravelly voiced, ex-SWAT security consultant working for a biotechnology firm in Detroit. Jensen works for Sarif Industries, a sort of Apple of the biotech world who have brought cybernetic limbs, eyes and body parts to the masses. They develop and sell prosthetic enhancements for the human body known as ‘augmentations’, which improve a person’s physical attributes via implants and replacement limbs. Jensen reports directly to the CEO of Sarif Industries: the gruff, plain talking billionaire David Sarif.
Terrorists attack Sarif Industries’ Detroit laboratory at the beginning of the game, and Jensen is mortally wounded by Jaron Nameir (one of the game’s chief antagonists) and left for dead. Jensen eventually regains consciousness to find that Sarif has arranged for his body to be rebuilt with military-grade augmentations. It’s here that the character development starts: how you/Jensen respond to this revelation is left to you to decide through interactions and conversations with other characters as the game begins and Jensen is charged by his boss to unravel the origin of the attack.
This is where the game hands things over to you. As Jensen your first mission for Sarif is to secure the Sarif Manufacturing Plant where Purity First terrorists have taken Sarif employees hostage. On the way you get to have a chat with your boss and discuss tactics: will you be happy to minimise casualties by using non-lethal methods, or are you prepared to shoot the bad guys? Do you prefer to get up close or fight from a distance?
Your brief one-to-one with Sarif will determine your initial, and rather stingy, weapon inventory. Throughout the game you will find a diverse array of arms both lethal and non-lethal, such as crossbows, shotguns, sniper rifles, stun guns, knockout gas grenades, revolvers and pistols. You will also be able to upgrade your weapons and equipment as the game moves on.
You can also upgrade yourself in a similar way as in most role-playing games. When Jensen was rescued and rebuilt by Sarif he was fitted with a number of augmentation options which can be activated as you go. Clearly there was some kind of management oversight, because the wealthy Sarif only gives you enough cash for initialising one of your augs at the beginning of the game. You’re pretty much on your own when it comes to procurement.
The game’s augmentation system means that for each objective completed in the game, one receives a certain number of ‘experience points’ (XP). When you have gathered enough XP, you will receive a ‘Praxis Point’ which you can use to unlock a certain character ability. There is a wide variety of abilities that you can spend these Praxis Points on, from stronger bulletproof armour, reduction in gun recoil, silent walking, invisibility for brief periods and ability to hack increasingly complex security systems. The number of Praxis Points avaiilable in each game is limited, so you have to choose your augmentations carefully. How do you want to play the game: shoot everyone in sight and turn yourself into a human tank, or stealthily infiltrate enemy bases without them noticing you?
As in the earlier Deus Ex games you can choose to use stealth rather than combat to complete most game objectives. To do this one keeps out of sight of enemies and cameras, and creeps through an area hiding behind boxes and crawling through ventilation ducts whilst enemy agents pace up and down their patrol routes. Bump into something or make too much noise though, and a nearby guard will mutter something and wander round to investigate, and if you get spotted by a guard or a security camera the alarm goes off and all hell will break loose.
If you prefer, you can of course arm yourself to the teeth and shoot anything that moves.
It’s important to remember that ethical choices form a major part of this game. It’s not all guns and violence: one can use non-lethal solutions to achieve objectives. You get more XP for completing objectives without killing anyone (even heavily armed enemies), however guards can awaken fallen comrades from their slumber (and then run off to raise the alarm) so it pays to be a bit sneaky if you choose the pacifist path.
There are subtleties in the gameplay above and beyond this too. I started out using a combination of stealth and non-lethal options for achieving the game objectives. However after being shot at, chased, hunted, bitched about and generally persecuted by the Belltower private security firm I decided I hated them with a rare loathing and so to hell with my scruples: from that point on they deserved everything they got.
Unfortunately, up until that point I’d been spending my Praxis Points on stealth and hacking enhancements, and so I was armed only with a small, underpowered pistol and rather unprepared for the desired full-on military assault on their headquarters. So, in a fit of inspiration I set about hacking their computers and turning their automated security systems against them. I found that there was a certain satisfaction in hacking their machine-gun turrets, dropping them into a room full of Belltower agents and the sprinting into the nearest air vent to watch the resulting mayhem from a safe vantage point.
This ability to use lateral thinking to solve problems is what sets the Deus Ex franchise apart from most other games, and Eidos Montreal have been careful to ensure that many different options will remain open to players regardless of the choices made earlier on in the game. There are, however, some caveats.
Some gamers on forums expressed concern about the switches to a third-person perspective (outside the body) for takedowns and stealth. Whilst using stealth, you are not obliged to use the third person view in any way whatsoever. You can happily ignore the third person option, and go through the entire game without ever using it. With takedowns you have no option, the camera zooms out and you’re treated to an impressive view of Jensen attacking an assailant. Likewise when climbing a ladder the view switches to third person.
|Third-person stealth. Optional.
As a committed third-person-view-hater, I have to admit that these occasional trips out of the body didn’t bother me in the slightest. This surprised me a lot, but I actually found the takedown third-person views gave me a little chance to sit back for a second and think about what was going on. I do believe that EM should have left them as optional though, but then I believe in check-boxes and customisability. I’m Old Skool like that.
The rest of the game is resolutely first-person, so aside from ladders, takedowns and cutscenes you’ll be peering out at the world through Jensen’s shades. So: Third-person views no problem, that just left something I was not expecting at all.
The biggest issue I had with the game were the end of level ‘boss battles’ . For a game that promises to give the player so much choice in approach to baldly slap you round the face and say ‘right! You’re playing a straight shooter now, like it or lump it’ is a bit unfair, to put it mildly.
The boss battles present a painful collection of difficulty spikes that will force many players to drastically change their play style without any warning. You cannot sneak, use stealth, hack or snipe your way through a boss fight, so if you’ve been spending your Praxis Points on stealth augmentations and only have a stun-gun in your inventory, you will suffer. You either have to get the big guns out or dig yourself in for a lengthy session consisting of dying and reloading the game. Mercifully the level designers must have realised this and accordingly ensured that heavier weapons are available nearby, however trying to find them and fit them into your inventory when being fired at by a giant cyborg with a heavy machine gun is very, very difficult indeed.
It was later revealed to the gaming press that the boss battles were coded by a third-party developer and not by Eidos Montreal, and it shows. It’s a bit like listening to a Coldplay album and discovering that tracks 3, 6 and 9 are actually written and performed by Megadeth, but somehow contain important references to the other tracks. And the CD forces you to listen to them.
Sadly the game doesn’t let you skip them, and important plot points and elements of narrative are delivered during these scenes, but in a small concession to those who prefer to use non-lethal solutions to objectives, killing a boss won’t cause you to lose your ‘no kills’ achievement on Steam.
I found myself really getting involved with Jensen’s character and genuinely roleplaying through the game as an angry everyman struggling to maintain the moral high ground after nearly having had his life, woman and humanity taken from him by powerful external forces. I gained a great deal of satisfaction out of doing so. Having committed myself to solving problems in the game with no fatalities I was disappointed to have my hand forced to ‘kill’ in the first boss battle, although it’s a tribute to the way the game is directed that the game encourages this level of identification with the protagonist’s plight.
The ending was a little… odd. Without giving too much away, it felt as if the four different endings one could choose, all of which would change the world in different ways, could be chosen on a completely arbitrary basis regardless of the way I had played the game or the choices I had made throughout. The actual endings themselves would be subtly different depending on how you had played (my ‘kill-everything’ playthrough ending was a bit different to that of my ‘sneak’ playthorugh), but the ending had the effect of saying to the player ‘OK, you’ve played through the game as Adam Jensen, now having done so what do you believe in?’
This disconnect had a slightly disorientating effect ofr breaking the fourth wall, a little like watching a stage production of Hamlet only to have Fortinbras arrive in the final act, approach the audience and pass round a survey on attitudes towards mental illness and suicide. Not bad as such, just a bit strange and mildly jarring in an ‘Oh…Ok…’ sort of way.
The setting is compelling with great attention paid to mis-en-scene. You can’t move pot plants around, but you’ll find posters, emails, eBooks and notes lying about that provide nuggets of back story for different characters, and the game certainly rewards wandering off the more obvious paths and generally exploring. The bathroom mirror in Jensen’s flat is smashed, shards of glass lie amongst the pill bottles. By his table you can find C17th navigational instruments and instructions on building a water clock. There were also some faintly amusing touches, such as the poster adverts for Final Fantasy XXVII dotted about the place.
It’s possible to find important information by eavesdropping on different characters too, and paying careful attention to the conversations you have with other characters is vital. The conversations you have may, if carefully handled, enable you to gain access to different areas, avoid conflict with others (and their henchmen) or persuade others to assist in some way.
The voice acting is excellent. Jensen is voiced by Elias Toufaxis, a US actor who has appeared in such shows as Supernatural, Smallville and Blade: The Series, who delivers the lines with an understated gravitas that carefully avoids slipping into caricature.
The music is dark-ambient electronica in style. Carefully restrained and very subtle in composition it remains memorable and distinctive without ever being overbearing or distracting.
|Not a screenshot.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution uses a very consistent and well-defined visual language in portraying its world. Suffused in a golden glow, Renaissance themes abound in the game: from the Rembrandt painting that adorns the walls of a number of key characters (one of my very favourite paintings: ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolas Tulp’) to the Baroque stylings of the character costumes and the ubiquitous Damask-and-Chandelier combinations found in many locations (remember Habitat on the UK high street? I do…). This is more than just stylistic fluff: the message is that just as in the Renaissance humanity is on the threshold of a huge leap forward in its development with this new augmentation technology.
At the same time the game also reflects many aspects of the zeitgeist. There is civil disorder and unrest directed against the purveyors of the new technology, questions raised as to the ethics of allowing the marketing of augmentations that can give huge benefits to the few that can afford them, anger at the growing disparity between the rapidly-accelerating gap between the haves and have-nots, and issues such as the suppression of dissent and control of the media are also touched upon. I half expected to find an Occupy camp in Detroit and guys in ‘V’ masks outside the LIMB augmentation clinics. It certainly felt uncomfortably close to home in places.
Possibly one of the best games of the last couple of years, mildly let down by a couple of dubious design decisions. Don’t let that put you off though, it’s an inspired and exciting reboot of the Deus Ex series, one of the gaming classics of the last decade. It’s stylish, intelligent and utterly awesome to play.
I found myself playing and enjoying this far more than Skyrim, or any other game I’ve played recently for that matter. Screw the boss-fights, this is my Game of the Year 2011, but I’m going to dock some points for leaving them in there anyway. Don’t do that again, EM, and certainly don’t do that with Thi4f…