Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

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In the year 2027, mankind is about to enter a new era of self-propagated evolution. Technology that blends man and machine has allowed “augmented” humans to run faster, think quicker, grow stronger, and rise above their genetics to be the person they want to be — provided they have a lot of money and don’t mind requiring lifelong medication to ensure their bodies don’t reject the enhancements.

Oh, and they’ll have to endure contempt from everybody who isn’t like them, fear growing civil unrest, and live in a world rife with unchecked corporate power and corrupt political machinations.  

Yes, the world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a miserable one. However, you won’t want it to end.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
To be released: August 23, 2011
MSRP: $59.99 (PS3, 360) / $49.99 (PC)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution tells the story of Adam Jensen, head of security at Sarif Industries, an American corporation making huge strides in augmentation technology. However, not all of humanity is appreciative of Sarif’s dabbling in human progress, and after a group of mercenaries attacks the company headquarters, Jensen is mortally wounded. He doesn’t quite die, however, becoming both the beneficiary and victim of his own company’s latest step forward in human modification. He returns to the world of the living better than he ever was, but that doesn’t mean he has to be happy about it. After all, he never asked for this.

Thus the scene is set for a game that travels around the world, weaving social commentary and philosophy on the nature of transhumanism throughout a tale that touches on corporate espionage, global conspiracy, and well-intentioned extremism. As well as living up to the sacred legacy kickstarted by the original Deus Ex, Human Revolution‘s narrative takes the very best of Metal Gear Solid, merrily pinches elements from Blade Runner, and adds its own unique blend of fascinating characters and satisfying plot twists. It is, in short, one of the most intriguingly written, thematically ambitious games I have ever played.

In no small part does Human Revolution owe its narrative success to an absorbing atmosphere. This crapsack world, driven by stunning advances in technology but stifled by class conflict and growing social resentment, is an absolute joy to navigate despite being so utterly depressing. From the tightly designed action stages to the overwhelming hub maps, there’s a consistency to the game’s world that one only rarely sees, and everything from interactive newspapers, hacked emails and conversations between non-player characters creates a compelling ambiance for a world that is hard to want to leave. It’s most certainly a world nobody in their right mind would ever want to live in, but it’s an intoxicating place to visit.

Human Revolution is mindful of the huge weight that the Deus Ex name carries, and I am thrilled to report that it lives up to the daunting demands that such a pedigree entails. As with the original classic, this is a game designed to let you play it your way, with a variety of upgradable augmentations to create an Adam Jensen that suits your personal idiom. Whether you want to be stealthy or aggressive, lethal or merciful, you have the tools to do the job. The game breaks itself into four very distinct play styles, all designed to bleed into each other and provide players with a variety of options and backup plans. The styles are combat, hacking, stealth, and social, with each one deserving of its own review.

Combat is a unique blend of first-person and third-person gameplay, where forward-thinking and pragmatic actions are rewarded. While there is a run-and-gun option in the first-person perspective, such activity would be suicide. Even when one fully upgrades their ability to absorb damage, Jensen is far from immortal and will drop in seconds when exposed to gunfire. With a right-click (or shoulder button press), however, Jensen will stick to a wall and the camera will shift to a third-person perspective. This is not only crucial for stealthy play, it also gives a great vantage point in what can become a very intense cover-based shooter. Success in combat isn’t just determined by picking a bit of cover and opening fire, however — the enemy A.I. is some of the most aggressive and adaptive I’ve seen, with opponents more than happy to flank, initiate pincer attackers, and even retreat to their own cover when needed.

Success in combat is determined by careful planning. Securing an exit should things go wrong, choosing (and changing) advantageous positions, and identifying which target to fire upon first, as well as which weapons to use, are crucial. This is not a game that just lets you open fire and trust in your reflexes; this is a game in which strategy is just as important as skill. Adam Jensen may be an augmented human, but he is still a human, and the game never lets you forget it.

Stealth is simply superb, and players who wish to remain subtle will find that the game is perfectly tailored to their secret-agent fantasies. The third-person viewpoint in cover gives players an excellent view of the surrounding area and allows them to memorize enemy movement patterns without becoming exposed. Even with this benefit, however, stealth is no cakewalk. Enemies don’t just march along patrol routes, oblivious to their surroundings. They love to intermittently walk backwards, or stop at crossroads in corridors to check all available directions. Sometimes players only get a brief window of opportunity in which they can act, and failure can mean a swift death unless there’s a good place to hide.

This said, the enemy A.I. isn’t at a genius level, and can be broken. While opposing soldiers are formidable foes in battle, they can be exploited in ways that sometimes take the sting out of the immersion. For instance, they can very happily stand in front of air vents while you’re crouched inside and allow themselves to be shot to death. Sometimes they’ll stand back and fire into the vent, or toss grenades in there, but other times they’ll be sitting ducks. For the most part, stealth and combat can be tense, but there are those moments where the game can be twisted in unscrupulous ways.

Whether players choose to be stealthy or violent, they will find that the “Takedown” ability is a lifesaver. When Adam gets close to an enemy, he can instantly neutralize him with a single keystroke. The camera will switch to third-person and Jensen will take down an opponent with a beautiful, empowering combat animation. Simply pressing the “Q” key will see Adam knock an enemy unconscious, whereas keeping it held will cause him to extend some vicious blades from his arm and put the poor victim away permanently. Do not think that this skill is a game-breaker, however. Adam can only perform takedowns if he has at least one full energy bar, and only the first bar ever recharges automatically (others need to be refilled by consumable items). Furthermore, takedowns always make noise (with lethal ones being louder) and will alert nearby enemies. Unless Adam can drag the body to a hiding place and make a daring escape, alarm bells will ring pretty quickly.

Hacking is by far one of the most essential elements of the game, and it’s highly recommended that hack augmentations are equipped early. Not only does hacking net significant amounts of XP (used to obtain “Praxis” kits, which buy new augmentations) and cash, it also unlocks doors to vital equipment and plot-sensitive areas, rewards players with heaps of cool information and Easter eggs, and eliminates various security measures such as lasers, alarms, cameras and turrets.

The hacking system is a surprisingly enjoyable minigame in which you capture various nodes on a map, with the goal being to reach a green sphere that cracks the network. Along the way, there are special nodes that bestow extra benefits such as XP and cash bonuses, or make the network easier to complete. However, each node captured has a chance to alert the network, which will begin a countdown that ends with the hacker getting booted. Hackers can also fortify nodes to slow down network traces, and use collectible software to bolster their efforts — notably the “Stop” worm that temporarily halts network tracing and the “Nuke” virus that instantly captures a node without the threat of detection. Despite the initial sense of intimidation that the hacking system can radiate, it’s a deceptively simple game that rewards forward thinking, careful planning, and useful augmentations.

The only downside to the hacking is that various cool skills, such as the ability to control enemy turrets and robots, aren’t all that useful. Their applicable uses in the game are minimal due to the limited number of computers that actually control such items, and the sheer effort it takes to reach them (chances are good that if you got to a security computer that controls robots, you’ve either already neutralized the enemies that the robot could have attacked, or have no need to re-enter the area it patrols). One can safely save their Praxis kits and ignore the turret/robot augments, but other hacking upgrades are damn near vital.

Finally, we have the social gameplay. This aspect is presented as a variety of “Social Boss Battles” in which Jensen must verbally outwit an opponent in a debate. This represents one of the game’s most accomplished innovations, and also its biggest missed opportunity. In short, these conversational fights are incredibly well done, with the player needing to anticipate which responses will work best against characters, using whatever they’ve learned about their personalities and how they react to Jensen’s words. While the facial animations aren’t quite on par with L.A. Noire, there’s still a lot to be gleaned from seeing how a character’s expression changes throughout a conversation, and how stressed or angry they become with provocative statements. Each of these sequences is engaging and unique, just as accomplished as anything found in RPGs like Mass Effect.

Unfortunately, these moments are also quite easy. The game’s one social augmentation, which allows players to better read opponents and release pheromones to influence their reactions, is simply not needed. I was able to win every social boss battle in the game without using the ability; it’s not difficult at all to see which responses will work against the strongly designed personalities Jensen encounters. In fact, while replaying the game’s first debate, I tried to fail and still ended up succeeding. Furthermore, these boss fights are simply too rare. While I appreciate that Eidos Montreal probably didn’t want to bog the game down with too much conversation, I felt they really could have added a few more of these sequences and lost nothing.

As previously stated, all of these gameplay types are enhanced with a variety of augmentations. Over the course of the game, it’s possible to obtain almost all of them, although the order in which they are claimed is entirely up to the player, and they vary in usefulness from essential to practically pointless. With well-chosen augments, Jensen will be able to sprint longer, take extra damage, hack more efficiently, jump from tall buildings without dying, and punch through walls. There are some really cool powers, but there are duff ones as well. The Typhoon, for example, sends out a 360-degree shockwave that kills anything caught in its radius. However, due to it being suicidal to get surrounded by enemies, the practical application of such an ability is negligible at best. You’d have to go out of your way to set up a situation where it’d be needed, and there’s always a better strategy on offer. Same goes for the ability to perform takedowns on two enemies at once. While it sounds great in theory — and I should note, the animations are awesome — it’s very rare to have two enemies close enough together for it to work, and even rarer for such a takedown to be a sensible tactic.

I would rather have had several of these worthless augmentations nixed in order for deeper enhancements to others. The cloaking system, the ability to see through walls, and the social abilities could have had a lot more done with them, and Eidos could have come up with additional practical uses for the more alluring powers. As it stands, the game very clearly favors players with certain abilities — chiefly, hacking skills, high jumps, extra lifting strength and the power to fall from great heights. With these skills unlocked as soon as possible, there is nowhere that Adam cannot explore, whereas specializing in other augmentations early on will cause the player to miss out on several worthwhile areas.

One cannot be too upset by this, however, considering the excellent uses of the truly worthwhile powers. As explained earlier, it should never be forgotten that Jensen is a human, one who can die very easily when handled without care, but players will still feel like a cut above their human inferiors when they can smash through a wall and break the neck of the poor goon standing on the other side. It’s just one of those things that never gets old.

There’s no question about Human Revolution‘s sheer volume of content. There’s lots to see, even more to do, and multiple ways of enjoying both. While one could theoretically blast through Human Revolution in eight or ten hours, there’s much, much more to be getting on with. City-based hub areas contain side quests that are as lengthy and intricate as any of the mandatory tasks. I managed to spend a whole five hours simply wandering around the Detroit hub, soaking in the sights, exploring every square inch, listening to enthralling NPC conversations, and beating all the quests.

What truly impresses isn’t so much the scale of the game, but its staggering consistency of quality. Every quest is a compelling story; every level is beautifully, ingeniously designed; and not once does the game ever become dull or lose its pacing. The only notable issues are small and forgettable — sometimes an NPC’s dialog won’t sync with its mouth properly, and on the Xbox 360, earning Achievements causes the game to stutter temporarily. The PC version’s biggest issue is that cutscenes are very badly compressed; otherwise it’s a gorgeous game with mouse and keyboard controls that feel intuitive and surprisingly well-adapted to stealth-based gameplay. Of course, hacking’s also a lot easier when one doesn’t use a gamepad.

Whether you go for console or PC, however, you will be impressed with the visuals. The art direction, with its heavy focus on shades of gold and contrasting black, makes for a game that looks like none other, and the impressive animations, finely detailed environments, and stylish augmentation effects only seal the deal. This is a beautiful videogame, and that beauty is carried over into the sound. Voice acting is solid (though one or two black characters seem alarmingly close to caricatures), explosions and weapon effects feel heavy and impactful, and the musical score is sublime. If you’re looking for a game with production values, then Eidos Montreal has delivered more than you could have bargained for.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like its augmented hero, is a step above its mundane peers. With its flowing, open approach to mission structure, thoroughly engrossing story and gorgeous visuals, this is the kind of game that all others should strive to be. While there are some elements that don’t feel quite as developed as they should have been, and augmentation is more Hobson’s choice than true choice, Human Revolution provides a level of quality that only the most adamant cynic could fail to be impressed by. More importantly, it is everything a fan of Deus Ex could want in a game, and it effortlessly embraces the arduous task of living up to the legacy, standing next to its 2000 predecessor and holding its head up in pride.

This game is truly deserving of the name Deus Ex. In fact, there’s no other name it could have had.

A hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage.

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