REVIEW: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Wait, it’s been how long since I updated? What the hell have I been doing? Well, I guess I’d better get on it and post something about Deus Ex then, huh?

First off, I’d like to bring something out into the open that may tarnish (or further tarnish) my reputation: I still haven’t beat the original Deus Ex. I have it, it’s been installed on Steam for a while now, and I’ve gotten through the first couple missions about to make my way into Hong Kong (which as I understand is possibly the best part), but I haven’t actually beaten it yet. I took a stab at it in an attempt to prepare for Human Revolution, but launch day came too soon and I couldn’t hold back from popping in the disk and launching into the new before I had completed the old. I hereby extend my formal apologies and vow to complete the original soon enough, but in the meantime bear with this poor soul with only an initial grasp of the source material for this game.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the long-awaited third entry in the Deus Ex series of games that started back in 2000 with the original Deus Ex from the now-defunct Ion Storm Entertainment. It was followed by Deus Ex: Invisible War, which I have also never played; which is apparently for the better if you listen to most fans. So coming 11 years after what has been described by many as the best PC game in history, Human Revolution has a lot to live up to. And while I’m perhaps not supremely qualified to make that particular judgment just yet, I can say with absolute certainty that this game is truly great of its own accord.

Human Revolution serves as a prequel taking place in the year 2027, approximately 25 years before the events of the original, which gives you a bit of technological dissonance, since everything seems to look significantly better and more advanced in the past than it does in the future. That’s what a decade of graphical improvements do for you, I suppose. You’ll see a lot of interesting technology just within the first few minutes as you get acquainted with the world through a Half-Life style scripted walk through a scientific research laboratory in Detroit, a city which has undergone a bit of a resurgence in industry after the so far (mostly) fictional collapse of the US automotive industry but is still… well, Detroit.

You play as Adam Jensen, the head of security for Sarif Industries, one of the world leaders in human augmentation technology. While you have control over some of Jensen’s dialogue that allows you to shape some of his more specific opinions and actions based on your own judgments, all of Jensen’s mannerisms and dialogue that are outside of your control still hit all the right notes. Jensen himself serves as a near perfect embodiment of the central issues of the plot (that we’ll get into in a minute) and gives the player a personal connection to those issues. His voice actor can sometimes come a little close to Solid Snake gruffness, but it never gets too ridiculous or too distracting. More importantly, the voice acting isn’t so damned flat like it was in Deus Ex. A great game it may be, but voice acting in those days wasn’t exactly held up to the same standards it is today. This much improved presentation quite frankly makes Jensen a much more likable character than JC Denton, who not only had a stiff voice actor but was just stiff in general. Some of the stuff that happened to that guy and he doesn’t even bat an eyelash? Sorry, JC, but Jensen has my vote as the better protagonist.

After you’ve been introduced to Mr. Jensen and take your initial tour of the facility, the story kicks into gear. The lab gets attacked, some stuff and some people get broken, and you get beaten to the brink of death and left in the wreckage. To save your life, you are extensively augmented with advanced prosthetics that end up replacing your arms, legs, most of your chest, and even your eyes. Of course, you were kinda busy dying to have much of a say in this procedure so it’s all done without your express permission or input. Your views on human augmentation suddenly become a lot more potent and for many people a lot more polarized after this. After a six month time gap in which you’re busy recovering and adapting to the fact that your body is now something like 75% machine, you go back to work for Sarif Industries and what follows is a tale of corporate espionage, crime, and conspiracy that will take you from Detroit to Shanghai and other cities and locales in between. The story is on the whole well-written and engaging, but I simply can’t talk about too much of it here because it’d spoil major plot points.

Of course, if you wanted a techno thriller you’d just rewatch Blade Runner. This is Deus Ex, and the gameplay is just as important as the story. I’m happy to say that fans of the original will have to try pretty hard to be disappointed in the gameplay here, as far as I’m concerned. For nearly every mission objective there are at least two to three paths that you can take to get to it. Don’t be fooled by the first-person façade, this need not be your standard shooter game. Yes, you can approach every objective with guns blazing, and as a shooter it plays well enough: you can pop into and out of cover and switch between cover spots with the press of a button, and guns feel responsive and suitably powerful for the job. But sometimes you don’t want to alert the whole place that there’s a guy with an assault rifle coming in the front door.

For my particular playthrough, I went with the stealth approach, which plays in a similar manner to Splinter Cell: Conviction. Holding the left trigger keeps you glued to cover spots, and you can jump between adjacent cover easily enough, which keeps you out of enemy sightlines until you reach your objective. If somebody does get in your way, then a suppressor attached to your pistol should work nicely (or a tranquilizer rifle if you’re like me and attempted a non-lethal playthrough), though make sure you hide the body lest another guard find it and raise all sorts of undue fuss over finding his buddy Frank with a 10mm slug through his head. And if you don’t want to deal with guards at all, then finding an air vent that you can sneak through John McClane-style or hacking the electronic lock to a back door can get you to where you need to be just as easily.

Hacking can also benefit you in other ways, such as when you come across a security terminal and decide that you want the camera in the warehouse building deactivated, or the gun turret in the courtyard to turn on your enemies instead of you. Hacking can also be used for tasks as simple as getting into somebody’s email, which can provide mission-critical information, useful keycodes and login information for other terminals, or just provide you a fun bit of backstory or easter eggs such as a login name of R Deckard or a prosthetics company named Kusanagi. Some incredibly interesting plot details or character information can be found through these non-essential messages and really do a lot to flesh out the game world. One even managed to completely and irrevocably alter my opinion of a major character. And this was just on some otherwise innocuous computer tucked into a corner of a back room in a hallway that you didn’t have any need to be in. I love it when games reward you with details like this for exploration, and Deus Ex does so better than any other game I know of. Fully exploring the world you’re in adds even more flavor to an already rich game.

Hacking itself is a simple little mini-game that involves you connecting various nodes together before having your entry point located and locked out by security. Different locks and computers will have different difficulty levels that are generally tied into the value of whatever is behind them. A level five lock on a door labeled “armory” will probably net you some pretty rich rewards… if you manage to get inside.

The other mini-game involves your interactions with other characters. When you meet up with certain important NPCs that have something you want or need of them, you engage them in conversation that attempts to convince them to help you out; this can range from something as simple as getting a corporate spy to tell you exactly what kind of data she’s trying to recover from some thugs, to getting a terrorist into letting a hostage go free. The reason I call these conversations mini-games and not just standard RPG dialogue fare is that they really do play out as a kind of battle of wits. In a BioWare RPG, most of your dialogue consists of questions; asking people who they are, what they do, what the political climate of the region is, where exactly you can find that +1 sword of kickassery, that sort of thing. When it comes time to make decisions, it’ll often come right down to you stating what you want the outcome to be. How often have your major decisions in the Mass Effect games involved just selecting the result that you want? It’s great that you can make these decisions, sure, but simply selecting “kill the Rachni Queen” from the dialogue wheel makes you feel like you’re just shaping the world to your whim. In Deus Ex, the people you talk with are active participants in the world. You have to convince them through a sometimes intense discourse into doing things that may be against their best interests. That terrorist doesn’t want to let the hostage go because he knows she’s likely the only thing keeping him alive. The desk clerk at the local Police Department doesn’t want to give you access to evidence because he knows he could lose his job over it. It’s up to you to choose what you think are the most appropriate options in any given situation. Appeal to their sense of honor, tear apart their argument with reason, or just threaten to bash their face in with your robo-fists. Each person will react differently to each of these options depending upon their own personality. These aren’t choose your own adventure stories, and you’re not a world-shaping superman: you’re an active participant in a living world and things will unfold around you in accordance with the established rules thereof.

All of these gameplay mechanics can be enhanced further via the use of upgrades to your extensive augmentations. A lot of these are what you’d expect: your arms can support strength augments that allow you to lift heavier items and punch through weak spots in walls, upgrading your legs will let you run faster and jump higher, and upgrading your artificial eyes lets you see through walls and ignore the effects of flashbang grenades. But mixed in with these are some less-expected augments that can be a lot of fun to toy around with. One special augment allows you to jump from any height and land safely on the ground without damage. Another lets you go invisible for a short time to help you sneak right past enemies and even walk right through laser tripwires. And a very unique augment acts as a so-called “social enhancer”. No, it won’t help you get a date to the prom, but it will display useful personality dossiers on the person you’re talking to, along with the ability to release certain pheromones into the air (yeah, seriously) that aid you in convincing certain personality types with relative ease. All of these upgrades can be purchased in the menu screen via “Praxis Points” which you amass by gaining experience or by purchasing them at medical clinics for an admittedly costly price. Each upgrade you buy makes you more adept at matching the situations you encounter.

But at what cost?

Without a doubt the central theme of this game is the issue of transhumanism. As technology advances, these augmentations become more and more common, and for more than just medical applications as extreme as those Jensen required. Where today an individual with a limp would likely just adopt the use of a cane, the availability of advanced prosthetics in this future world allows that same individual to just have the whole leg replaced. Even people with perfectly healthy limbs often put in to get a shiny new set of prosthetics. While that seems odd to us, the key thing to keep in mind when assessing this scenario is that this level of prosthesis is far beyond what we have now. While prosthetic arms of today are undoubtedly getting more advanced, they are still less optimal than a real arm. Not so in the world of Deus Ex. These prosthetics are advanced sufficiently so that they actually perform far better than a human limb; it’s even mentioned in-game that the new 100 meter world record setter has a pair of prosthetic legs. A number of in-game characters and indeed many actual followers of the transhumanist philosophy see this embrace of technology as the next step in human advancement: increasing physical and mental capabilities while simultaneously decreasing susceptibility to aging and disease through the implementation of technology is how transhumanists suggest humankind furthers itself into the future and perhaps ultimately transcend our current state of existence.

Of course, it’s no wonder that the game additionally presents some strong opposition to these ideas, just as there is in the real world. A large portion of society, known as human purists, speak out against this widespread augmentation, extremists even take militant action in their opposition to the practice. They argue that by replacing flesh and blood with metal and plastic, people risk losing their humanity. One of the leaders of the movement purports that such extensive augmentation is not a means to advance humanity, but is a rejection of it; an embrace of enhanced ability at the sacrifice of the human body, its flaws, and the human condition itself. By this assessment, mankind’s reach has extended beyond its grasp.

The game does an excellent job of not really pushing you towards any one ideology as “right”. It presents you with both sides and has you interact with both of them extensively, showing the benefits and flaws of both. As I said earlier, Jensen is the perfect character to connect these issues to: a man who is extensively augmented, but who was made so while unable to voice his opinions about it. You can play him as pro-aug, anti-aug, or of a divided mind, wrestling with his state and how he feels about it. Similarly, he has elements of both man and machine in his personality. He can be passionate about things and people, but his mannerisms are often cold and… well, robotic. He’s a man of two worlds, and as he struggles with these questions of humanity, so too does the player.

Deus Ex raises questions about a great many things, and without breaking the fourth wall it asks them of you. What’s your opinion of human augmentation? Is it really a way forward for humans? Is it really harmful to our humanity? What does it even mean to be human? This for me is why the game is great and not just good. I like games that make you think, and Deus Ex does that. Sure, it may be nothing but science fiction now, but the game has an aura of plausibility around it. Even if people getting robot arms never becomes an issue, it’s not hard to imagine the same kind of debates happening in our future. Technology is becoming more and more central to all of our lives; supposing that we don’t see half-human half-robot individuals spring up in the coming years, we can still wonder what impact technology is having on us, and whether we’re using it for good or ill. The issue of “what is a human” is pretty apparent today in the ongoing abortion debate, and I think we’re all pretty well acquainted with what extremism can do to any otherwise good ideology. Even some of the behind-the-scenes themes of the game such as national identity fading as the strength of international corporations continue to grow can be easily applicable to us today. Even the characters in-game react with the same attitudes and actions that we can easily attach to any major controversial issue in real life. Deus Ex is making one heck of an effort to hook you in and connect to you. Remember that people engage in entertainment media to relate not just to escape. This is the formula for games that you remember.

But enough of me waxing philosophical, let’s move on to how the game looks. Graphically, it’s actually nothing too special. I played the Xbox 360 version because my laptop can’t handle the system requirements, though a halfway decent PC can run it maxed out with few problems (hope that gives you an idea of how weak my laptop is). Pretty much everything looks solid from a technical perspective, just not outstanding. Some textures, namely those on faces and body models, look a little bland, some movement animations can look a little stiff on NPCs, and lip-syncing seems to have a lot of trouble matching up with dialogue, though it’s possible that I’ve just been spoiled by L.A. Noire. The framerate can also stutter a bit here and there and load times can seem to last longer than Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, which can be irritating during particularly difficult sections of gameplay (and to save-scummers like me), but all in all the game performs well.

What’s really important here however is not graphical capability, but rather art design. This game is just bursting with style. While you’ll certainly run into a few places where you’re just sneaking around another warehouse or office building, the unique touches the art team put into this game are really phenomenal. While most any other game would design some corporate office as not much more than a desk and a computer, Deus Ex will have that desk covered in books and sticky notes reminding them of daily tasks (or a computer login password if you’re lucky). There might be a couch with a credit chip stuck in the cushions, or a small table with a bottle of whisky absent-mindedly left on it. The whole place will just be loaded with small, inconsequential stuff all of which adds a certain richness to the setting that many games overlook while they’re busing making another concrete corridor with chest-high walls scattered through it.

The objects themselves even have a unique character to them. In a style that is meant to evoke the feeling of a period of scientific innovation, many pieces of clothing, furniture, and architecture are designed to be reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance. Even the overall color palette of the game is evocative of chiaroscuro paintings of that era, using contrasting tones of black and gold to emphasize light (or lack thereof). It’s still a game that doesn’t have a tremendous variety of colors, but here it feels more like it’s done for an artistic reason as opposed to the “brown shooter with bloom effects” market.

Of course as much as I’ve sung this game’s praises up until now you just know that I can’t let it off the hook that easy. Nothing is perfect, and so somewhere in here there have to be a few things wrong with this game, right?

Well, sadly, there are. Sadder still is that it’s not at all hard to identify them. In fact, they’re right up in your face calling embarrassing attention to themselves like your uncle Bobby who found the booze at a family reunion.

First of all, there are the boss fights. The freakin’ boss fights, man. Whoever determined that this game should include mandatory, arena-style bossfights should be punched in a vital organ: one for each fight. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad for a player who based their character on a “shoot everything in sight” kind of mentality, but for a weak little stealth player like me, I got stomped. I had next to no weapons that had any sort of power to them, having had relied on my little 10mm pistol and a tranquilizer rifle for all the so called “fights” I’d been in up until then, and those were few and far between, I having only fired my weapon a handful of times up until this point. Then suddenly I’m tossed into a large rectangular room with a 7-foot-tall southern behemoth with a gatling gun for an arm and a penchant for throwing grenades that made me wonder if his AI had been designed by the people behind Call of Duty. (Also, I should point out that this machine-gun man is named Barrett. And this game is published by Square Enix. Yeah.) I’m left to defend myself with my aforementioned pitiful armory and nearly no combat-centric augmentations whatsoever. The fight ultimately boiled down to me hiding in a corner like a scared little girl until Yosemite Sam eventually killed himself with his own grenades.

This was a thing that actually happened.

While it may sound awesome that you can take out an enemy using their own ordnance, it didn’t feel like I had succeeded against anything, only that I had gotten lucky and achieved victory through an exploit in my enemy’s AI. The subsequent boss fights are no better, and while they do take place in more interesting arenas, arenas they still are. In a game that goes to such great lengths to provide you with as many options as possible for reaching your goal, these combat-only boss fights feel incredibly ham-fisted and punishing to the player, and had no business being in the game apart from assuaging the publisher’s fears that people wouldn’t accept a game without some mandatory combat.

And then there’s the finale. I’m hesitant to bash the development team for the final mission since it seems far more likely that they just ran out of time and didn’t get the opportunity to include everything they wanted to in the final product. While the setting is actually very interesting, everything within it is most decidedly not. One of the major twists works okay from a plot perspective, but it presents you with some very out-of-place enemies to fight and just seems not to fit with the overall atmosphere the game had otherwise worked so hard to create. And then to wrap up the entire game with another clumsy boss fight and a really, really anticlimactic ending (that I won’t spoil for you, chill out) is very depressing after playing through an otherwise magnificent game. Again, I felt like the team felt pressured to create a more conventional, big-scale ending for their AAA market game. None of it fit, and it left me feeling embittered towards the way my 40 hours were wrapped up. It was an ending that would have been far more at home in a Metal Gear Solid game, complete with mysterious audio-only scenes after the credits. Of course the playing of the original Deus Ex theme before the transition back to the main menu was enough to bring a smile to my face even in the midst of everything else.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution has been called an ambitious game by many. I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment. Rather, Human Revolution is not ambitious in an avant-garde sort of way, but is probably more akin to the fulfillment of a promise that the original Deus Ex made 11 years ago: it is a game that entrusts its players with the power of choice. It is a callback to the so-called “thinking man’s shooter” that was embodied in games like Deus Ex and System Shock, but modified and updated to the high production values of the modern game industry. It combines fun, fluid gameplay with real, engaging storytelling and philosophy. It’s got enough meat to the main story to provide you with a solid experience, but the elaborate backstories and fun references you find stuffed away in the corners and back alleys make it so much deeper, and the potential for so many different approaches to any situation ensures that the game has massive replay potential. Despite its flaws, this game truly resonated with me. It might not have struck me emotionally as something like Dragon Age was able to, but it struck me intellectually, if you’ll forgive the pretension in that statement. At the end of the day, I suppose the best praise I can give this game is to explain that I’m a man who organizes his game shelf not alphabetically, but by awesome value. And Deus Ex: Human Revolution has earned a spot near the front.

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