I have the same goal whether I’m playing a game, watching a movie, or reading a book. I want to forget I’m doing any of them. All three of those mediums have different ways of doing so, but in the end they’re all forms of escapism. I believe video games are the hardest of the three to be able to truly pull you into an experience, because YOU as the player controls it. A film is just something you follow, every scene and bit of dialogue is planned out from the start. Reading works the same in that the only possible line you can follow is what words are on the page in front of you. Gaming though, gaming is tough. A developer might construct a brilliant level that is all about timing, but if the player decides to spend twenty minutes exploring an office there goes the carefully constructed pacing. The term “sandbox” game has been popular because players like the idea of a truly open world in which they are free to do whatever they want; developing one while maintaining an effective story is tricky. Deus Ex: Human Revolution manages to skirt this line in a fantastic way by having a carefully constructed illusion. And that isn’t a criticism. No game in recent memory, save maybe Red Dead Redemption, has engrossed me in the world it created like Deus Ex has. The cracks in the armor do show at points, sometimes glaringly, but it’s a game that sets itself apart for both its lofty goals and it’s ability to almost achieve them. Eidos Montreal shoots for the moon, doesn’t quite get there, but deserves credit for trying and getting remarkably close.
Deus Ex is the story of Adam Jensen. Jensen is the head of security for a human augmentation company called Sarif Industries. Human augmentation is fusing the mechanical with the biological, resulting in “Augs” as the game calls them. Things like the ability to slow fall from any height to avoid injury, punch through walls, or as a much quieter alternative, see through them instead, are all available from Sarif. Jensen starts the game with no augs at all, but that quickly changes. The game opens with an attack on Sarif Industries, in which they’re elite team of research scientists is killed and Jensen is critically injured. The only way to save his life is to make his body almost all augmentations, resulting in Jensen becoming an almost super solider, though he had no choice in the matter. Before he can even properly get used to his new-found abilities and body, a second attack on a Sarif facility brings Jensen out of his medical leave and back into action. His mission is to discover who is targeting Sarif and why, and to stop them by any means necessary.
While the game very much looks like a FPS, it feels RPG like. Exploring office buildings, finding random items, ammo, and money, talking to people, this is actually the first part of the game, no combat involved. In fact, especially in the early stages of the game, any gunfight usually resulted in my quick and painful death. The original Deus Ex supposedly (I’ve never played it) let you approach any situation via combat, stealth, or social engineering. Human Revolution delivers the first two in spades, while just talking your way through a situation only happens at set points in the game. The choice between combat and stealth is definitely there though. I chose the stealth approach and thus went augmentations that supported it, such as being able to see through walls, cones of vision from enemies on my radar, and the ability to cloak for small time periods. Those seeking combat have access to things such as eliminating recoil, increased armor, being able to fire accurately on the move, or making themselves immune to the effects of most grenades. A non lethal route is also available in deciding what weapons to use, as tranquilizer rifles and stun guns will only knock enemies out, not kill. In what was a brilliant move, leaving an enemy alive will actually result in more experience being earned than killing. The balance of the approaches is maintained as well, as the non-lethal more stealthy approach will result in fewer enemies to fight, so the experience points should about end up even.
As experience is gained Jensen will gain Praxis Points, which let you choose an aug to upgrade or unlock. Be forewarned: There is no ability to refund points to try something else, short of saving and reloading the game. Whatever the approach you choose is, commit to it. It’s very possible to make a character with skills you hardly ever use. This becomes less of an issue by the end of the game because I found myself spending praxis on stuff that would be situational at best due to already having all the other augmentations I wanted. Regardless of your choices, there are definitely some augmentations that you should always pick up. The Icarus Landing System (fall from high places, don’t get hurt!) is a must as there are numerous areas in the game only reachable by falling from dangerous heights, it also makes travel much less annoying. Super strength to let you move heavy objects, such as dumpsters or fridges, also lets you get to places you otherwise wouldn’t be able to go. Finally, in keeping with the same theme, the aug that will enable you to jump three meters in the air will also open up new areas. The game can be completed without any of the above, but you’ll miss out on a ton of extra items and experience by doing so.
Visually, Deus Ex is impressive. The game has been accused of being “too brown”, which makes no sense. The color pallet is definitely brown and gold and it’s consistent throughout the game, resulting in a cohesive world that pulled me into the experience. It’s a very cyber punk vision of the future, which reminded me much how the color green was used in the Matrix films. The game takes place in various locations, but prepare to be spending time in Detroit and Heng-Sha for most of it. The cities are not huge and are actually much smaller than they first appear, but there’s enough there for you to feel overwhelmed when entering a new area. Each location feels real and lived in as opposed to sterile areas created specifically for you to walk around in. Random NPC’s will be having conversations with each other and almost all of them offer at least a small bit of interesting back story. More than a few times they were even discussing events that just took place in the game, which gave me a cool feeling that the world was noticing the things that were happening in the main story Deus Ex very much encourages exploration and talking to NPC’s, as experience rewards and side quests can result from both. One visual element I really enjoyed were the weapons. Impressive animations, especially for reloading, and each sounded exactly how I imagined it would, from normal pistols to futuristic AOE stun guns (which btw, were freaking AWESOME).
My biggest criticism of the game can be boiled down to one statement: Sometimes you remember you’re playing a video game. These moments stand out only because they’re rare. At one point I was tasked with “dealing with” two drug dealers who were harassing someone. So, as I was choosing to RP as a vigilante, I decided that as drug dealers they were scum, so I murdered them, quest completed! I wondered how the quest would play out if I didn’t kill them, seeing as how I saw no alternative. It turns out that knocking them out results in the quest complete as well….which makes no sense considering they would wake up and basically just be angrier drug dealers that some random asshole on the street came up to with a stun gun. Chalk it up to video game logic/weirdness yes, but I was hoping Deus Ex would be free of any of that. The most glaring of these situations is something that every single review I have read on this game already mentions. I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon, but it turns out, EVERYBODY IS RIGHT. The boss fights, oh the boss fights. These are old school, pattern recognition fights. If Megaman was in 3d, and Woodman was an augmented mercenary, this is how the fight would look. For one, you’re forced to kill the bosses, even though the game makes a big deal of lethal vs. non lethal means. Second, there’s no choice, no stealth option, it’s combat. The combat is boring, trial and error stuff. Oh ok this attack happens three times, then there will be an opening to strike. The game contains four of these kinds of fights, and only one of them seemed to be an appropriate level of difficulty. Two were insanely hard and the other standout was insanely easy. I can’t help but think there would have been a way to make the confrontations with these characters more meaningful, like almost the entire rest of the game is. The best thing I can say about the boss fights is that they were short, so I never kept the feeling of being out of the game world for long.
So why is Human Revolution such an engrossing experience? The writing plays a huge role, as almost every character I encountered, from main ones to one-off side quest npc’s, was interesting. Jensen to me was actually the weak link here, not because he was bad, but merely most of the game is him reacting to other characters predicaments and not his own. Being almost killed then waking up to find out that you are now a cyborg should be a traumatic event, but we only ever get hints of it. The only time I really identified with Jensen was when I was choosing his responses in the “social boss battles” as the developer called them. In these it’s up to you to talk someone into doing what you want, be it letting a hostage go or giving you information. There are not many of these situations in the game, but I thoroughly enjoyed each one. I appreciated the choice present here too, as you can have Jensen react very differently in conversation, changing the entire course of it. Choice is also key. One of my favorite of the social battles was entirely optional, as instead I could have stealthed into an office, hacked a computer, and obtained the information I needed from it. It’s rare I’ve felt that kind of freedom in a game, where I didn’t feel like there was one “set” way to get from point A to point B.
The world itself is also an interesting place to spend time in. Society is only just starting to try to come to terms with the whole idea of augmented humans. The central issue of the game is whether these augmentations should be government regulated or not. Compelling characters like Jensen’s own boss David Sarif (who, as the head of an Aug making company, obviously wants the government out of his business) are brilliantly realized and not only have opinions, but give thoughtful reasons to back them up. I chose to roleplay Jensen as a man who has embraced his new-found augmentations and agrees with Sarif that they are the future of humanity, but I’m interested to replay the game and have a hardline against it and even have Jensen resent what he has become. It wouldn’t a totally different experience, but with the high quality writing, I’d be interested to see how NPC’s reacted to the opposite conversation options.
Deus Ex is more than the sum of its parts. Something about this game just CLICKS. Sneaking unnoticed past guards. A perfectly timed silent take down. A well placed EMP grenade destroying the security bots chasing you. It’s a compelling world that I wanted to spend time in and explore every nook and cranny. Did I mention experience bonuses are earned for just finding hidden areas? It’s a game that encourages you to look in every nook and cranny because there is almost always something there worth finding. A rich back story is there, buried in emails and ebooks strewn about. Rushing through the game will get you a well written tale of corporate conspiracy. Taking the time to immerse yourself in the game world will get you a whole planet struggling with the question of what it means to be human. Throw in the freedom to play the game completely different ways and it’s a game that not only deserves to be played, but to be played through more than once. Game of the year contender.