Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

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Cutting to the chase: this game is better than the original.

While this review is mostly geared for those that have no idea what Deus Ex is beyond “It looks like a shooter where you play a guy with sunglasses glued onto his face,” I recognize that there are a great many readers that played the original and are wondering how this game stacks up.  Some may even have loved the original so much that they gave this game a pass, said “Whatever,” and moved on to other games.  Having such an attitude would be a mistake.

Released in 2000, Ion Storm developed what many lauded as the best game of that year.  Driven by Warren Spector, a legendary game designer who worked on PC classic hits like Ultima Underworld and Thief: The Dark Project, the original Deus Ex is one of the first games that implemented immersion in games at a high level while maintaining the action of a regular ol’ first-person shooter.  Games like Half Life and Metal Gear Solid may have increased the narrative and presentation in action games beyond the traditional walk-down-corridor-and-shoot model, but Deus Ex is one of the first games that very effectively combined an immersive role-playing game with a first-person shooter.  This is a game where the main character had a progression of ability as he fought enemies and achieved goals, and could make choices in the outcome of the story in a world that was more than just switches, keys, and enemies to blast.  Few games in the past decade have reached this level of polish and granted the player with so much freedom while still being an enjoyable game.  If you haven’t played it, you should check it out — but you don’t need to have played the old game to enjoy the new one.

So, given the above history lesson, it’s clear that there are exceedingly high expectations for this modern day game.  The marketing message “This is the next Deus Ex game,” is guaranteed to focus industry and enthusiast attention.  Which can be a bad thing when the game is of average quality like the maligned sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, having the stellar original as an immediate reference point calling attention to its averageness.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution hits many of the same high water marks that were established in 2000.  When compared to the earlier title, Human Revolution is a far more accessible title than the ground breaking original.  If you could only play one, and you don’t care about video game history, this is the one to play.  While it is not a perfect game, it will be a strong contender for game of the year.

Set as a prequel to the first game, Human Revolution takes place in the fake year 2027, twenty five years before the events of Deus Ex.  It can be ascertained fairly early on in the game that this 2027 is not the same world that ours could be, as there are descriptions of technological breakthroughs happening in the 1990s that, straight up, did not happen.  But that does not impact the believability too much.  The world in (fake) 2027 is a plausible one.  Oil has become less prevalent as a fuel source due to limited supply, robotics have radically advanced, and bigger television screens packed with advertisements and corporate media spin are all over the place.  The governments of the world still exist, but only nominally.  Most people work for major, world-spanning corporations and consider themselves more beholden to their employers than to any nation.  The biggest corporations have resources at their disposal and standing security forces that dwarf the budgets and armies of smaller countries.

You play the role of Adam Jensen, an ex-cop who is hired to be the head of security for a relatively small company of only about 1,500 employees known as Sarif Industries.  This company is one of the leading developers and manufacturers of augmentations, cybernetic implants that either enhance or replace human body parts.  These augmentations are all the rage and while prohibitively expensive for most people, consumers from all walks of life demand to be made better than human.  There are drawbacks — many of these so called “augs” have to take an artificial drug, neuropozyne, to avoid implant rejection and get addicted in the process.  There are criminal organizations that kill people to harvest their expensive tech.  And passionate religious folk spread the message that augmentations are tampering with God’s work and that each time something is made artificial, something human is lost.  On the other hand, fellas with robotic arms can crush bricks with their bare hands. 

In the first fifteen minutes after you press start, the regular human Jensen bears witness to an attack on Sarif industries where his love interest, a leading cybernetic researcher, apparently dies.  If that were not bad enough, Jensen is horribly injured in the attack and is left for dead.  The protagonist is saved/cursed with an almost unprecedented level of augmentations such that he becomes a walking weapon.  While the evidence of this transformation is usually covered up by a trench coat, there are scars on his face that show people that he is not normal.  You’ll spend over twenty hours completing missions in hub cities and mission specific areas to get to the bottom of who attacked Sarif and why.

It is a very interesting and strangely real world where cyborgs coexist with vending machines and other minutia of our everyday life.  There are some buildings which are clearly new and futuristic, but they are built up right next to brick, elevator-less apartment buildings of old Detroit.  It shows that humanity has come quite far and there is much hope for what is to come, but the twentieth century was really just yesterday.  Cell phones and robotic arms were not always around.  The world is created with such a realistic brush that it is difficult to say whether the developer was going for a dystopian setting.  It could just as easily be said that there is such a wide difference between the corporate haves and the unemployed, augmentation-lacking have-nots.  But things in the game seem more like a dose of reality as to what happens when business controls everything.  Here it is not evil, it just is.

The color themes of the box art are used a lot in the game.  The developers maintain that they wanted to use black and gold to represent that hope of technology and the reality of humanity’s implantation of it. I think it’s just a color scheme that works.  My high school’s colors were black and gold, but our pep rallies were, strangely, not full of metaphysical interpretations of our having spirit — indeed we did — while putting query to others about whether they possessed spirit as well.  The environment looks believable, if a bit gold/black tinged, and is populated by plenty of people and things one would expect to see in a modern city street or office building.  Robots and cybernetic limbs look very complicated and elegant all at the same time.  Jensen can bend his arms, stick out blades and twist his hands in a way that reminds everyone that those are not his real arms — he traded those in for cold, black arms of death.  Other human beings Jensen interacts with and shoots at look dated. Some of them have cool looking metal hands, but their faces in the game look like they were rendered in 2007.  Jensen is one of the better looking character models, but it’s probably because he looks like he is wearing sunglasses and is otherwise covered in a beard and augmentations.  Which is a good thing because you’ll be seeing him a lot.

At some point, however, you might want to actually play the game and not just read about the cyber-punk setting and look at the black and goldness of everything.  In this fashion the game will not disappoint, depending on what kind of game you want it to be.  At its most basic level, Human Revolution is a shooter.  The basic shooting mechanic is competent and there are an assortment of the usual machine guns, grenades and mines that can be used to take out opponents.  Even the few laser guns that can eventually be acquired are not particularly inventive in their application.  Various upgrades can be found throughout the world or purchased to increase damage or silence shots, but even with this level of customization, this game is not going to be competing with the Insomniac sense of weapon design any time soon.  In addition to run and gun, Jensen can look down the iron sights of his equipped gun and can push a button to get behind cover like someone out of Gears of War.  Like in that game, some cover can be destroyed if it is used too long.  Do not expect cardboard boxes to block much more than line of sight.

What equipment Jensen can carry in his limited inventory space is certainly one aspect of customization, and many players will find that how Jensen himself is customized will control what kind of play experience they will have.  When Jensen is horribly injured, is outfitted with a Darth Vader level of artificial limbs, and has his internal organs augmented, he gains better than human abilities.  These mechanical parts allow him to jump higher, break walls with his bare hands, even directly link into computer systems.  But since he has them from the start of the game, in theory, Jensen should have every single special ability from the word GO.  As a convenient deus ex machina to explain why he can’t use anything at the start, we’re told that since so much of his body was replaced after the attack all at once, he is not used to fully controlling his new body and his implants’ software are not fully used to interpreting the signals from his brain, so he has to ease into it.  The artificial representation of this development are PRAXIS points that determine whether or not a given ability can be used.  While in very rare circumstances these points can be purchased or found in the world, largely these points are awarded after a certain number of experience points are gained.  In any other RPG, these points are called levels or skill points.  Most augmentations take one point to activate, but some of the more powerful ones take two.  As there is no automatic upgrade feature, it may be possible to accumulate these points and complete the game without ever actually spending any.  It may be possible, but it wouldn’t be fun.

There are a wide host of augmentations that points can be put into.  Some make Jensen run faster, take more bullets before going down or even take no damage from falling.  Some make him immune to the effects of flash grenades or better at hacking into computer systems.  If there is any major complaint about the game that I could see people having, and indeed this seems to be a major complaint on the interwebs, it is that it is possible to spend points on the “wrong” things.  There is nothing in the game that explains where points should be spent, just a description about what they do and how many points they costs.  So, some people may encounter situations where their gear and abilities are not up to snuff.  If, for example, one were to make a character that was only equipped with a small hand gun but could totally crack into any security system, that Adam Jensen might have problems with scenarios that require direct conflict skills (i.e. the ability to kill enemy cyborgs) than a more diversified Jensen.  Some people might say that this is bad game design, but I think that freedom to do whatever you want means having the freedom to fail. 

(Tip 1 to avoid frustration: DO NOT overemphasize hacking or stealth early on.  Tip 2: Shotguns hurt things and don’t take up a ton of inventory slots.)

The vast majority of the augmentations are either contextual or provide a passive bonus to certain skills, but some are manually activated.  Many augmentations cost energy to use which regenerates at a painfully slow default rate or can be instantly regained by eating robot candy bars.  (I’m sure they are supposed to be hyper-advanced nutrient delivery systems for the cyborg on the go, but they look like Paydays.)  There are four main augmentation powers that will consume substantial amounts of energy, and if no points are put into them, not all players will see them their first play through.  A universally useful power is essentially x-ray vision, but keeping in the plausible-esque future, it’s not x-ray specs, it’s a Wall-Penetrating Imager that uses thermographics and t-wave capabilities to provide limited-range image penetration of low density objects and obstacles, which results in a visual display of detectable objects overlaid on the visible spectrum giving the impression that the user can see through solid matter.  This augmentation mutes all the colors in the environment and highlights any person, computer or robot that is within range in gold, regardless of whether they are behind solid objects.  If you want to see which way a guard is facing before running down a corridor or want to know if there is a turret set up on the other side of a door, waiting to set off an alarm and spray bullets all over the place, this is a good power to have.  Another is optical camouflage that basically renders the user invisible.  Think Predator invisible.  Later in the game some enemies will have this ability and the x-ray vision will point them out.  But without the x-ray power, they are very difficult to spot.  Another power makes movement silent so Jensen can run behind guards instead of moving at a crawling pace, and the final one, called the Typhoon system, destroys anything nearby the cyborg when he activates it.  The Typhoon system takes energy and special ammunition that is hard to find, but I rarely needed to use this power.  As most lethal fights occur at a distance in this game, I did not find it particularly useful in my experience.

One small complaint about the manually activated powers I have is that on the Xbox 360 controller, these powers are activated with the D-pad.  Unfortunately, the 360 D-pad is kind of floaty and it is possible to accidentally hit one power when you mean to hit another.  So, for example, Jensen is sneakily going across a corridor and hears a guard footsteps and want to look through the wall with his x-ray vision to confirm this guy’s location, but for some reason, instead, activates his very loud, very alarm triggering Typhoon centralized explosion that brings every enemy in the map running at him, guns first.  That can be frustrating.  But this should only be an issue on the Xbox, and for me it only happened a couple of times.

While it is certainly possible to play this game like a shooter from the late nineties, filling every single thing that moves with enough lead to line Lex Luthor’s secret lab, it is clear that this is not what the designers want you to do.  Completing objectives or killing any hostile opponent will grant a certain amount of experience points — a few more when killing with a headshot — but knocking opponents out will grant roughly twice as many as killing the same guy.  The trade off is that if another guard finds the knocked out enemy, he will wake that man out of his slumber and there will then be two men with guns on alert for intruders.  Similarly, completing a mission without alerting anyone or without setting off any alarms will grant a substantial XP bonus.  The fact that there are achievements for completing the game without killing anyone or setting off any alarms makes it clear stealth is the developer’s preferred method of problem solving.

While the game is a well presented, fairly good action/stealth game in its own right, that is not what makes it extraordinary.  In keeping with the original, it is the ability to choose multiple ways to accomplish a goal that increases replay value and makes the world seem more immersive, that makes the game great.  The world is designed in such a way that there are three basic ways to solve a given problem.  For example, one mission requires that you go into a building to collect something.  The most obvious solution is to move in with guns and frag grenades and brute force your way to the goal.  There is also, typically, a stealthy path that perhaps does not involve the front door, but instead finding a sewer access point or a fire escape to enter and sneak one’s way to the goal.  Another path might involve walking up to the guard at the front desk, easy as you please, talking your way into the front door and then hacking into a computer terminal inside the building to get what you need.  Typically, the hacking/stealth options will go hand in hand, but it is possible to just be pure stealth as, in the future, architects have designed every building with a healthy amount of man-sized air vents.  HVAC standards apparently change quite a bit in ten years, to the point where a six foot tall man must be able to go from room to room via vents without fear of getting stuck.  These seem kind of contrived, but to be fair guards will pick up on vents that are opened. 

The hacking aspect of the game is a mini-game.  Security terminals, alarm panels, digital locks, and email-filled personal computers can all be hacked.  While not really made clear, it seems that guards can tell that something has been hacked and people will get upset when you do it, so there must be some interaction between Jensen and the computer that is not shown to the player, but is visible to everyone else. 

Each system to be hacked is presented as a series of nodes.  The goal is start from the home base and to get the red terminal node that is sending out a tracing signal or to access however many green nodes are in the system.  Each node to be accessed is only connected to a few others like the intersections on a tree limb are connected by branches.  The nodes all have a number which indicate approximately how long it will take to access them so that you can move on to the next one.  The higher the number, the more likely it is that a trace will be triggered.  Once a trace is started, a clock at the top of the screen starts ticking.  If time runs out, the system shuts down and an alarm is sounded.  As some of the nodes have either extra XP for money in them, there is a risk/reward system to hitting all of the areas of the computer world map.  Throw in multiple paths to completing the hack, special one-use viruses that can stop a trace or instantly take over a node, and a system that is infecting other nodes making them harder to take over, and you’ve got a pretty intense hacking mini-game.  I found myself hacking systems and panels I didn’t need just to play this mini-game, and of course to get XP in the system and the small amount awarded for successfully completing a hack.

While not very innovative, Jensen will have prolonged conversations with some people wherein he asks them questions about certain topics and they respond.  What is a little different is a pheromone augmentation system that can allow certain people to be influenced to do things they might not normally do.  Once purchased, this system will display flashing lights on a scale indicating whether a person is acting with an Alpha, Beta or Omega personality.  If you pay attention, Jensen may say something at certain points to influence that personality type.  Getting it wrong will have consequences, but it is an option to get what you want.  Some key dialogues will have a status bar showing how persuaded a person is to doing what you want.  In these situations both Jensen and the other person will move around.  There might be a hostage situation where a terrorist grabs a civilian and points a gun at her head and the level represents how close he is to shooting her.  If he plays his cards right, Jensen might be able to talk him down, or get close enough to take more definitive action.  How the story progresses seems to be based largely on what choices are made in these dialogues. 

The voice acting ranges from fair to great.  Jensen sounds like he had his voice box replaced with the gravely, low-pitched Dark Knight Batman voice.  He does convey a lot of emotion, just not a lot of range.  There’s no Mickey Mouse augmentation, so the main character is always going to sound like he needs a cough drop.  Without giving too much away, the game does go to China and the game’s worse offense is found.  The ‘Havah Badah Aahsiahn aaCEnt’ would even make George Lucas’ Neimoidians cringe, and the streets are full of people yelling Mandarin-sounding gibberish whenever they are unhappy.  Sure, everyone does that in TV, movies and video games, but that is no real excuse.  But all of the native English voice acting is well done.  Mad props to the person that made the decision to cast Stephen Shellen as the voice of David Sarif.  Jensen’s boss sounds exactly like every upper level manager I’ve ever encountered.  So full of themselves that it’s amazing they had enough room to stuff in all that hogwash and used car salesmanship.  He makes it clear that your mission in the game, as he sees it, is to further the interests of the corporation – that’s what he pays your experimental ass to do – and that he does not care what you have to do to accomplish the corporation’s goals.  You can choose not to do what he wants, but bad things may happen.

Small annoyances aside, this is a great game.  Most of the times that the game frustrated me came as a direct result of how I chose to play.  Some of the missions are very difficult to clear without setting off alarms or killing anyone, and at times like these it would have been very easy to put down the tranquilizer rifle, stop knocking guys out, pull out the assault rifle, and murder everything in sight.  But I was frustrated that I was having a hard time meeting the goal I had set, not what Human Revolution set.  The game rarely gives requirements on how a task is to be done, and that is its greatest strength.  Very few games put this many tools in your chest.  It is a fantastic feeling to do something in a game and think that that was what you wanted to do, not what the game developer wanted you to do.  Granted, the developer here probably thought of and thoroughly tested four or five basic solutions, but it is a rare game that grants so many options without pointing them out.

This freedom might frustrate some players, but everyone else will be thinking “How else could I have done that?”  Not to accomplish a goal to get a better score, but to accomplish it in a different way, maybe in a way you hadn’t though of at first.  Combine this gameplay with an intriguing story, and there is something special.  I just hope it will not be another decade until there is another good Deus Ex.

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Pros:
+ Engrossing story where choices matter
+ Multiple ways to complete objectives
+ Great amount of character customization

Cons:
– Actual shooting gameplay is nothing to write home about
– Visual range of alarm raising guards is inconsistent
– Game does have a few bugs (as of 10/5/11, these might get ironed out)

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Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360; also available for PC and PS3
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Release Date: 8/23/2011
Genre: RPG / FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Game copy purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.