Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
It’s been a long time coming, but a solid follow-up to Ion Storm’s 2001 original hybrid shooter-RPG is finally here with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. While the game isn’t without its problems, the whole of the experience is strong enough to buoy the negatives sufficiently to make for a satisfying adventure.
The world of 2027 is one of chaos as humans divide into two camps: those who are for augmenting themselves with mechanical implants and those who are against it. Factions have formed on each side, and powerful forces are at play behind the scenes, surreptitiously guiding the people to either abandon what is being seen as a threat to man’s true being (and their power), or to embrace a manmade evolution. It’s in this world where Adam Jensen, a former member of the Detroit Police SWAT, finds himself after being hired by David Sarif to serve as the head of security for Sarif Industries. As one of the world’s leading firms for augmentation research and development, Sarif Industries is under siege by competitors, politicians, and an increasingly worried public. After a brutal attack on the Sarif facilities nearly kills him, Jensen must travel the world in search of the truth behind the assault.
Jensen’s journey will take him from the streets of Detroit to Shanghai, Montreal, and Singapore. However, only two of the locations are navigable in a pseudo-open-world type of format: Detroit, where he also has an apartment, and Shanghai. Both locations serve as hubs for gaining sidequests, talking with characters, and purchasing items, including weapons, ammo, and Praxis kits. The latter (also rarely found in the wilds) provide Jensen with Praxis points, which serve as the game’s version of attribute points; these are typically earned by leveling up through experience points gained by downing enemies, exploring, and completing quests. These points can be used to purchase and upgrade augments, body modifications that infuse technology with flesh and bone.
The augments are based around four concepts: combat, hacking, social, and stealth. Combat-oriented augments center around making Jensen stronger and more effective with weapons (less recoil when firing, able to pick up heavy objects, additional health); hacking augments decrease the likelihood of triggering a trace and increasing defenses if caught; social opens up extra conversation routes, making it easier to win arguments and persuade others; and stealth opens up greater explorative possibilities (invisible to lasers, able to breathe poisonous gas). Because the abilities are concept based, though the augments themselves are based around the body (torso, cranium, legs, etc.), there is significant overlap between them: for instance, the Icarus ability, a more explorative-based ability that allows Jensen to harmlessly float down from great heights, can also be upgraded to knock nearby enemies unconscious. Not all augments can be purchased in a single playthrough, however, with the first in each category running two points and subsequent upgrades one. There is also a further limit in that many rely on a Jensen’s internal energy reserve that is slow to refill and requires upgrades to lengthen, and which is also shared by Jensen’s lethal and non-lethal physical takedowns (played out in short cutscenes). While he might have amazing abilities, Jensen also has all too human limitations.
The upgrades really open up the game, but it’s also because of them that Human Revolution is a slow burn. What initially seems like a straightforward action game with a touch of stealth eventually becomes much more as the augments slowly turn you into a superhuman. These have wide-reaching effects, aside from being a stronger combatant. An unreachable ledge becomes navigable with an upgrade to your legs, and in turn reveals a hitherto unseen vent offering safe passage into a barricaded building. Not only do you get to experience the thrill of discovery, but you also receive an experience bonus for exploring the environment. As these possibilities come into light, it can be difficult to decide just what to upgrade. On the one hand, you’ll want enough health to last through a firefight—it’s easy to die in the beginning—but on the other, the ability to hack into terminals and turn turrets and patrol robot against the enemy sounds too good to pass up.
The excessive backtracking, especially in Shanghai, becomes much more bearable once you realize just how convenient it is to simply leap down from a rooftop instead of descending the same ladder for the tenth time. But that’s only the beginning. There are all sorts of side passages and hidden areas filled with loot and lore, whether they are behind a weak portion of a wall that can be smashed through or in a locked room that can be hacked into. Exploring becomes a significant part of the game, and I was amazed at how I kept uncovering new routes and hideaways.
The feeling that you’re the stealthiest badass around, sneaking about and dropping anyone that gets in your way, is diminished somewhat by the realization that the AI isn’t terribly bright. I beat the game on the medium setting, to get the proper mix of action and story, and found that characters could be amazingly obtuse. While there was definitely a nice mixture of action and story, there were also some bewildering moments when characters would acknowledge a crime and then quickly forget about it: knock someone out, and a minute later the cowering bystanders will be back to chatting amongst one another. After killing eight or nine guards in a night club after an accident—thanks to a coworker who asked me to hack a console right by a bouncer—and realizing no one on the other floors cared, I decided to run an extreme experiment. After a quick save, I murdered every single person in the club to see what the consequences would be in the game world—after all, this is one of the hottest clubs in the area. Aside from getting to see some of the hilarious contorted poses of the bodies courtesy of ragdoll physics, I got to experience a rather surprising reaction. I stepped outside, ready to unholster my pistol and go down like a maniac, but then…nothing. No one noticed a thing. I even talked to the bouncer before walking back inside. I thought it odd that no one cared when I lifted credits and items from a shop’s back room, but this was on a whole other level.
Alpha Protocol, a similar but more contemporary consequence-drive action-RPG from Obsidian, came to mind during such moments. While Human Revolution is a more polished and cohesive package, Alpha Protocol does a much better job at acknowledging your character’s place in a wider world. Aside from a few snippets here and there about your actions, particularly in the beginning whenever your mission performance is mentioned (though this doesn’t occur again for some reason), Jensen can—and does—get away with murder. I understand there being a limit on manhunts and increased alertness, lest one slipup turn the entire game into a desperate break for freedom, but the use of just a few cursory statements seems like a missed opportunity for a game so big on choice and consequence.
And although the world is based around shadowy organizations and eccentric characters, I found both to be fairly uninteresting. It doesn’t help that the voice acting leaves a lot to be desired, largely due to stilted delivery by many of the secondary characters and Jensen’s often-grating Neo impersonation, much like in the original, but the problems begin before a line is even spoken. Most people, even the lowliest non-playable character, are immediately noticeable as a caricature of their ‘type’—the slim, snooty technophile, the slick snake-oil salesman CEO—and in some cases, they are a cringe-inducing stereotype. From their look and general demeanor, it’s clear who the characters are and what they are supposed to be. That wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t clash so much with what’s supposed to be a dystopian future. Despite looking somewhat futuristic in their getup, most of the people sound as they do today. The question seemed to be “What does a gang member sound like?” instead of “What would a gang member sound like in 2027?” which leads to some rather odd colloquialisms that come across as out of date. Then there are the random encounters with characters that are so ridiculous that they border on embarrassing. Seriously, have someone walk in the room while the transvestite Letitia is on the screen speaking in her ‘unique’ dialect and see if you don’t scramble for the mute button like you’re trying to disarm a bomb.
The story, filled as it is with the various boogeymen of the day, whether it be the Illuminati or Bilderberg Group, is far less enthralling now than the original was at the time of its release. This is something that is largely out of the hands of the developers, not only because of Human Revolution‘s status as a prequel, but also because of the strange shift that popular culture has seen over the course of the game’s development. A decade-plus ago, such clandestine organizations were exotic and spooky, relegated as they were to fodder for AM radio call-in shows and the random History Channel special, but now they seem almost blasé. Years of having delusional pseudo-intellectuals link every person and every group in some way—rendering a surprisingly sizable portion of the population guilty of trying to control the world—has taken away a lot of the mystique of secret societies. Now, instead of wondering about just what nefarious deeds these puppet masters are up to, I’m only left thinking of people who use the word “sheeple.” While it might not be the fault of the writers that many in the media have cranked it up to full-on crazy in recent years, the fact remains that it’s hard to find the bigger players all that intriguing.
What are interesting are the little conflicts that take place within the larger story arc, and the shift that occurs in the game world during Jensen’s journey. Some much-needed life is breathed into the world by the problems experienced by people living in a dystopian world filled with rampant corporate greed and dramatic cultural shifts. Granted, helping a prostitute to save a friend from being forcibly augmented wouldn’t be an everyday occurrence in most people’s lives, but it does fit in well with Jensen’s status as an agent of change in a futuristic noir. The tone was also interesting, changing from an us-versus-them between the augmented humans and non-augmented humans to one of self-determination versus coercion—or to go even further, just how much control is necessary in a world increasingly filled with superhumans. Although Jensen is never given the type of response range to fully deal with these issues, save for the mini-game-style confrontations, they are explored further in the literature and personal emails scattered throughout the world. And to the game’s credit, no viewpoint is forced on you, as each party seems increasingly stuck in a world advancing beyond their control. A certain viewpoint is subtly favored, but it can only be ascertained by viewing all of the endings and paying close attention, which I found to be a fair trade.
That said, there is definitely a sense that the game is encouraging a particular style of play. As open as the world is, there are various cues that serve to guide you to a particular approach. Consider the contrast in being an all-out clip-emptying killer to being a stealthy saboteur. Killing an enemy earns you 10 experience points while a headshot earns you another 10, making 20 the maximum amount of experience earned for the lethal approach. Now take a non-lethal takedown, whether it’s from a tranquilizer dart or a chop to the throat, and you get 30 points. As an added bonus, non-lethal takedowns draw less attention. While headshots aren’t uncommon, they are not the norm, which means you will often find there to be a 20-point difference in how you take care of an opponent. Multiply that by the hundreds of enemies you have to deal with, and the stealthy have a significant advantage.
However, just when it seems as though the hacking, stealth, and recon augments are the way to go, the game hits you in the face with a brick: the boss battles. If you were like me and sussed out early on that non-lethal was the path to more glorious augments, then the strength- and combat-focused upgrades took a backseat. To compensate for my Jensen’s shortcomings, I simply upgraded my weapons with as many damage, quick reload, and magazine capacity mods as possible, so that I was able to more than handle myself in any situation that had devolved into a firefight. This plan was working out splendidly, and then I ran into the first boss. I found myself stuck in a corridor, the doors having magically shut and sealed behind me, in this open world that encouraged ridiculous amounts of backtracking, facing a grenade-throwing beast with a machine gun. A dozen or so attempts later, which was especially trying given the game’s load times, I was finally able to overcome him by cunning and skill; that is, I ran around like a rookie and shot him with anything and everything that was (conveniently) lying around. Not only did that fight test my patience, it also struck me as a reversal of the open design, in terms of both the world and in character progression. While there might be precedence for boss battles in a Deus Ex game, that doesn’t mean that there had to be boss battles in this particular Deus Ex game.
Quick aside: Get the Typhoon augment as soon as possible. The bosses are quickly checked by its explosive radial damage.
That schizophrenic approach is further juxtaposed by the fact that the cover-based mechanics are actually good. Really, really good. Jensen can blind fire and aim from behind cover, slide against walls, round corners while leaning against cover, leap from cover to cover, and he’ll also duck below windows and staircase rails. About the only time he won’t go for cover is when inside of an elevator. This might all sound like standard fare for a modern action game, but after having played so many others where similar systems have failed or were barely passable, the effortlessness of Human Revolution‘s goes a long way. But while you’re given one of the best systems of any first- or third-person shooter, you’re also being told to hold back. The mechanics serve the stealthy player equally well, but those wanting to blast their way through will find a tantalizing if slightly uninviting setup.
Unfortunately, it can feel as though a solid system is being wasted on an uneven AI that can manage to screw up even the simplest of tasks, such as, say, opening a door. I found that I could avoid pursuing enemies by simply going into another room, closing the door behind me, and hiding. Sometimes the enemies would open the door, not bother to go in, just make a visual scan of the room, assume the person who just assailed their coworker somehow managed to get out of the building, and go back on patrol. Other times, they wouldn’t bother to open the door, instead just scream for me to come outside a few times before returning to their duties. There are some decent firefights to be had, for sure, with enemies ducking for cover and taking potshots, and in a cool twist, enemies will wake up unconscious allies to get them back into the fight. Still, Jensen’s takedown moves and ability to duck are more than a match for them.
Another limitation to being a cyberpunk Rambo is the lack of ammunition. Despite packing my inventory with nearly every gun in the game, I was chronically short of rounds. The general scarcity led to some strange situations, such as guards carrying seemingly unfired assault rifles with only one or two bullets in the clip. A slightly limited inventory system also makes maintaining a decent ammo count a pain. Items can only be used after they are picked up and placed in your inventory, meaning that the bottle of painkillers, box of protein bars, and extra rounds sitting around cannot being loaded or ingested off the shelf. This necessitates a ridiculous amount of item juggling, which often led to me dropping my sniper rifle so that I could grab ammo for another gun, only to load it into that gun and then pick up the rifle again.
Fortunately for those that prefer hacking their way into areas, worm and virus software packages are plentiful. The hacking mini-game seems somewhat confusing at first, but it quickly became one of my favorite ways to score some extra experience and items. Each network has several nodes that are connected by pathways, most of which run in both directions. Depending on your hacking skill, you will be able to hack consoles and interfaces of different security levels, and how well you hack depends on which of the hacking-related augments you have. Nodes can be captured to provide bonuses or to simply pass through; they can also be fortified in order to stall a trace. Each action carries with it a chance of being caught, expressed as a percentage, with the goal being to reach one specific node either before the computer traces the signal back to the entry node, or without tripping the alarm. There are basic nodes that open routes to surrounding nodes, API nodes that affect other nodes or weaken the system’s attempt to backtrace the hack, and datastore nodes that award additional experience, credits, or helpful software. The real treasure is the system node, which isn’t always accessible but confers the bonuses from all datastore nodes. A handy, though slightly awkward, menu system allows for nodes to be captured or software used to capture a node undetected (nuke virus) or stop the countdown once noticed (stop! worm).
Planning how to best hack a system and then managing to pull it off without tripping the alarm somehow manages to remain both addictive and satisfying. It also helps to have the appropriate augments for it, but even then, the sudden alarm trips and subsequent scurrying to nail down nodes before being kicked off (the penalty is only a thirty-second lockout, but those add up) make for some small thrills. For those who prefer to just get a hack over with, snooping around nearby computers and reading pocket secretaries (PDAs) will sometimes reveal passwords, which are handily displayed on-screen for the appropriate terminal. And of course, many of the hacks are optional, revealing little more than spam emails, though they are a great source for background info on characters, additional passwords, shortcuts, and extra items.
As hacking augments can save time when breaking into systems, so too can the social augments save time when wearing down and persuading other characters. There are times in a conversation when a debate will initiate a mini-game. Depending on whether the proper augment has been purchased, you will be able to see a small bio about the person, a meter gauging how persuaded they are to your viewpoint, and another set of meters indicating their personality type. If the conversation doesn’t seem to be going well or isn’t one you wish to put much effort into, then an augment can be initiated to select a more poignant response by personality type. If you read them correctly, paying close attention to the shifting meters, and answer with the proper response, then conversations can be drastically shortened. However, taking the shortcut isn’t always the best option as it might lead to an unforeseen, less diplomatic response and resulting in ill feelings. Sometimes it pays to let a debate play out.
What Human Revolution does exceedingly well is take its disparate elements of varying qualities and put them together into a whole that manages to elevate each in turn. The strengths of one mechanic often offset the deficiencies of another. The oddness of being able to blatantly steal someone’s credit or the endless amounts of spam are made more tolerable by the excitement of possibly being discovered by the more astute patrols, terminal security systems, or uncovering some passwords or info about loot. Conversations filled with stilted dialog can lead to some interesting encounters hours later, or offer a roundabout solution to a vexing problem. Then there are the random possibilities that make themselves available after a few augments have been purchased. Turrets go from being deadly obstacles to helpful tools after you’ve learned how to hack them and gained enough strength to lift heavy objects, as they can then be turned into mobile chokepoints, firing at any enemy that enters their range. It’s not just the combination of elements that is so compelling but the discovery of just what can be combined and how.
Once the game gets its hooks into you, it becomes an incredibly engrossing experience. There’s enough to do and interconnected elements that, coupled with the multi-path level design and excellent cover-based shooter mechanics, hours can be sunk into each session. It might not be perfect, but a solid cyberpunk noir is like little else.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s individual parts attempt to mesh the design sensibilities from its origins to today, with varying degrees of success. The open-world design manages to be open and confining at the same time, with nooks, crannies, and paths dotted all over the place to reward the explorer, while the absentminded AI’s tendency to forget mass murder, ignore petty theft, and be dumbfounded by closed doors takes away from the sense of making your way through a living world. The lack of long-lasting consequences for many actions also makes many of the seemingly profound moments seem as if they occurred in a bubble. But for all of its shortcomings, the game’s many elements manage to lift one another up to make for something far more interesting. While Jensen’s actions might not impact the entire world, they do resonate with the handful of actors that are most important, and the interplay between the various skills, characters, and world connect in such a way that its shortfalls largely fade away into the background. In a work whose whole is superior to its parts, Human Revolution manages to be an entertaining and engrossing, if flawed, experience.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)