Some Kind of Wonderful Mechanical Man
review for Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Xbox 360, PC), 1 player FPS/RPG, out now
Choice. Choice is an illusion in games. A game may offer you different paths, different weapons, different encounters; it may even let you do these things at your own pace. But everything you're offered as a "choice," has been pre-planned, pre-programmed, pre-made. Everything in the game, has already been chosen. You may be able to choose to either save the little sisters or harvest them, but that choice isn't yours - someone has already made the choices for you. You're just choosing A or B - and that isn't choice, that's a goddamn pop quiz.
But Deus Ex - the original? That game had real choice. Mostly because, for the most part, nothing was an illusion. Sure, there were mission objectives, and hidden paths, and weapons to select, but the majority of the time, Deus Ex dumped the player into their world and said, "go ahead". The choices the player made weren't so much big ones like "good or bad?" - rather, tiny ones, seemingly inconsequential, like "do I go in the back or front door?", or, "do I hack the panel or look around for the password?" The game was still linear, but by having the choices be small things that frequently compounded, it made sure choice wasn't an illusion - it was as real to life as game can possibly be.
It is this dynamic of making your own choices that Eidos Montreal has decided was the most important factor of the original Deus Ex, choosing to make it the very core of Human Revolution. It's all there. Some people may say "oh, it's more linear," but I don't buy it. Walking into a building, for example, will always be as linear as walking into a building. Choosing to go through the vent up the top floor, or bust in through the back, that doesn't change that you'll end up inside the building. And walking up the stairs will always be as linear as walking up the stairs. It's the ability to choose not to go up those stairs, and instead bust through the wall, that makes Human Revolution "non-linear," even though objectives often remain the same.
The core gameplay of Human Revolution is that of a stealth-FPS. The game's stealth leans on line-of-sight, so the cover system is prominent - you hit the cover button and you're glued to the nearest chest-high wall. It's actually rather neat, and since cover is important in both sneaking and shooting, the prominence of the cover system isn't a bugbear in the slightest. Essentially, Human Revolution lets you play how you want - from a stealthy rat crawling around in air vents, to a human tank unloading barrels of lead into hapless foes, and everything in between. The melee system is a context-sensitive affair, more of a "takedown" feature really, where you can silently eliminate up to two enemies at a time, either non-lethally, or lethally (and brutally). They do trigger lengthy canned animations, but they're not that intrusive and, in all honesty, they're pretty damn awesome. All this is enhanced by a hacking ability that actually affects how the game plays - you can hack pretty much every computer, door, and security terminal you can find, and do everything from turn deadly robots against their handlers to open locked safes - the core experience of Human Revolution is tight and satisfying, like a perfectly timed sexual metaphor.
But what is the cake, they say, without the frosting, if not an over-glorified loaf of bread. And indeed, what is a videogame nowadays without a fascinating story and art design? What, indeed. Deus Ex: Human Revolution's gameplay may be good, but it's the world, the art, and the story which really pushes the game into great territory. The story centers around security chief Adam Jensen, who - in the intro of the game - was beaten to death by a gang of ruthless mercenaries. Six million dollar man-style (or, perhaps, Robocob-style?), Adam is rebuilt using fancy future technology, augmenting his body into something far beyond human - and perhaps too, his soul.
It's just as well, then, that in the shiny, golden future-noir world of 2027, there are philosophical debates on a grand scale about what makes us human - and if it should be federally mandated. On the one side, the Humanity Front are arguing that we should have no hand in so-called "human controlled evolution" - on the other, pro-augmentation groups and augmentation laboratories like Sarif Industries (whom our protagonist Jensen works for) would have the whole world be half-robot in an instant. Should cyborgs be outlawed? Would our humanity itself be compromised if we all became - or had the ability to become - gods? Do we, as a species, have a right to choose? ...these are the questions the game asks, but skillfully calls upon the player to answer. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Human Revolution's narrative is the way it actually does make you think about the very adult, very compromising issues presented to you. It makes you consider your stance on the issue - well, would you be less human if you could lift a vending machine with one terrifyingly powerful robot hand? ...would you even give a damn? Even if you don't care about this kind of issue, it questions that too - maybe you should care? After all, it's already happening now, isn't it.
What took me off guard though, is that even after all the trailers for this game shouting that Adam Jensen "didn't ask for this" (referring to his transformation from boring old human to deadly, efficient killing machine), you can, in fact, role-play to a significant degree, to the point where you can decide if Jensen chose for it or not. An early-game conversation had a character ask, "how do you feel about your Augments?", and you can choose either to hate them and feel dirty, or love them and want more. It really spoke to me how powerful the "role-playing" bit of is "role-playing game," that even in what plays like a typical shooter, you are always playing, and choosing, your role. Jensen is always Jensen, but you are Adam Jensen, and every detail of his life is defined by your actions. It's neat.
It would be moot not to mention that, like the original, there are a menagerie of interesting people to meet (and punch), a plethora of cities and locations to visit, and, of course, conspiracies and twists to uncover. Of course, with the emphasis on choice, it's often up to the player if they meet the interest people - it's unfortunate, then, that you have no choice in going to the cities or not. The cities act as "hubs" for the main and side-quest missions, and there are three in total - one in Detroit (Robocop vibe... rising), one in Hong Kong (devastatingly beautiful, despite the lime-green), and one I shan't spoil. Though speaking of not spoiling things, the whole ending is actually rather weak. Hardly a point against the game, the ending is still really damn good, it just doesn't measure up to the front part of the game and is disappointingly brief. The story is one of the game's strongest points - if not the strongest - with so much to see and do, and so many people to talk to. The level of detail and polish is astounding
So, how do Adam Jensen's magical robot powers factor in to the choice-laden core sneaking/shooting gameplay? I'm glad you asked! (I wasn't going to ask. I already know the answer.) Again, just like in Deus Ex, you are able to upgrade a number Augmentations. Unlike a Deus Ex, you no longer upgrade skills, though - after all, assigning numbers to "skills" makes no sense compared to switching on and off mechanical enhancements. Instead, what were once skills in Deus Ex (hacking, stealth awareness, swimming if you're so inclined and stupid) are tied to Augmentations. To tie in with the "play how you want" paradigm the game so skillfully handles, you only have a limited amount of Piraxis kits (skill points) throughout the whole game, and so you must choose carefully which Augs you want to sink points into.
If you want to go stealth, you'd sink points into stealth upgrades like seeing through walls. If you want to be Rambo, you'd sink points into dermal armour and punching through walls. Perhaps the only disappointing things about the Augments are that hacking is always good. Always good. Whether you want to be action man or sneaky bullocks, lethal or non-lethal, hacking is infinitely useful. It kind of goes against the "all choices are equal, all choices are important" design principle when all of a sudden you're given an Augment which helps all the time, no matter how you're role-playing. Good or bad, shooty or sneaky, hacking is always good, and that's poor, I think.
But the worst part of the whole experience - the thing that sours the whole experience - is the inclusion of painfully old-school, unavoidable boss fights. The recoil from the sheer stench of the first boss fight knocked my opinion of the game back several pegs. There are only three in the whole game, but they're all won by killing the boss lethally - so if you've decided to be a non-lethal Solid Snake-like figure, you'll find yourself having to pull of Sam Fisher "this is stealth, leave no survivors" bullshit while running and gunning with guns you don't have. Locked in a room with an infinitely stronger bad guy (who is bad only because, um, grrr they're bad guys look they have guns for arms), forced to circle-strafe and shoot if you've gone for the combat approach, or run and squeal like a little girl if you've chosen the stealth approach, is just confusingly backwards. It punishes choice, even more so than pre-rendered cutscenes (which aren't bad at all, they're infrequent, even if they are ugly), and it damages the game's reputation with player. ...slightly.
It's probably a testament to how well the "choice" works elsewhere - how well the choice isn't just about personal, instant gratification, but also impacts the gameplay and story in meaningful, memorable ways - that the boss fights equate to little more than a tiny stain on a supremely comfortable pair of trousers. That the stain is there at all is the biggest blight, an unfortunate and painful blight that sullies the whole game. But it's actual impact is tiny, and overshadowed by so many other great moments, great design decisions, great acting, great everything, that all it does is push the game that far past being perfect. That's right, I'll say it - if Human Revolution didn't have boss fights, it would be perfect. Inconceivably perfect, the kind of perfect that only comes around once a generation. That's a recommendation right there - this game is amazing, in every aspect except the goddamn boss fights. It's depressing. The game comes so close to being the best game of the decade, and falls flat only because some dick - probably at Square Enix - thought the game needed combat-only boss fights.
Perhaps what leaves the biggest impact on the game overall, though, is the art style. You've seen the screenshots, you know how this game looks - it is hauntingly beautiful. The colour palette, the character and world design, everything visual in this game is jaw-droppingly awe-inspiring. The world of Human Revolution is the most intriguing and powerful element of all. It doesn't matter that the stealth to combat and in-between works a treat. It doesn't matter, even, that the choices you make are real choices - no illusions here. It doesn't matter than it's an FPS/RPG in which the "role-playing" doesn't just equate to picking options off a slider, it actually comes across in how you role-play. It doesn't matter that the game has a fully-fledged inventory, so unlike its contemporary "action-RPG" counterparts. It doesn't matter that this game truly is a worthy predecessor to the venerable original Deus Ex. The game is beautiful, in every facet of its design, enough so that it warrants a "must-buy" label resting on those laurels alone. That, I think, wraps up Deus Ex: Human Revolution perfectly.
A few silly, downright horrific blemishes hold this game only marginally back from being possibly the best game of the decade. If you are at all into science-fiction, RPGs, shooters - and especially if you're into all three - this game is one you must own and play. Twice.
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