The Games of 2011 – ‘Deus Ex: Human Revolution’

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The Deus Ex series has always been about freedom. The original Deus Ex placed the player in a near-future world shaped by rampant human enhancement, cyber and bio-terrorism, and the far-reaching hands of powerful secret societies. Though employing a linear, mission-based story, the game gave players given free rein to approach it in their own way. This went far further than the age-old question of ‘will I use the sniper rifle or the assault rifle?’, with the option open for vastly different ways of playing through the game. Maps were sprawling, open-ended affairs, combat could be avoided in favour of hacking and stealth, and the player’s actions caused both the minute-to-minute experience and the overarching narrative to branch in interesting and intelligent ways.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the third game in the Deus Ex series, and since it was made by an entirely new development team there was justifiable fear that it would be a cheap cash-in that failed to understand what made Deus Ex special. Those fears should be laid to rest – Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a phenomenal game, one with freedom at its very heart.

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Set a quarter of a century before the events of the rest of the series, Human Revolution takes place at a time where human augmentation is just starting to become a viable technology. As such, countless billions of dollars are being poured into research in the field, and society is still unsure exactly how all this should be managed. It’s very much a legal, economic, and ethical wild west. Implants and mechanical prosthetics allow the wheelchair-bound to walk, the blind to see, and the improvement of the human body in countless ways. And corporations all over the world are competing for dominance of an emerging and highly-lucrative market. Taking on the role of Adam Jensen, a newly-augmented head of security for a powerful U.S. biotechnology company, the player is tasked with finding evidence about various attacks on the company.

As Adam Jensen, you’re sent to various locations throughout the world – Detroit, Shanghai, Montreal, and so on – and tasked with completing various objectives in order to learn more about the situation. While many of these locations are visited once and then left behind, you’ll return to several of them (Detroit and Shanghai specifically) throughout the game. There you can pursue your current assignment or wander off and tackle the available side-quests at your leisure. Many of these side-quests do a little to explore some question surrounding human enhancement, and nearly all are fleshed-out and involving.

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It’s more than a little disappointing, however, that Human Revolution as a whole does remarkably little to explore the topic of human enhancement. While the game (and its marketing)  seems to want to convince onlookers that it explores the goals and consequences of transhumanism in some kind of real depth, the topic serves as little more than a backdrop for the game’s action. The game as a whole seems simply uninterested in actually exploring these issues, which is a real shame considering the obvious potential in the game’s setting.

Not only does the game fail to talk about it in any depth, but it’s hard not to notice how little of what you actually do in the game has any relevance to the purported theme of human enhancement. As I said, the game’s setting and the ideas that come with that are really just a backdrop for the action within. It’s fantastic, intelligent action, but I really would love someone to make a game about human enhancement where the mechanics of the game actually feed into the topic in some way. At least the mechanics of what you do in the game never outright conflict with this background theme – they just coexist without ever interacting. So it’s less ludonarrative dissonance and more ludonarrative indifference, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

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With the disclaimer that this is never really a game about human augmentation, merely one that mentions and uses it to frame its story and mechanics, we can get back to that fantastic, intelligent action I mentioned above. So, in terms of how you interact with the game, it’s nominally a first-person shooter. But to describe any Deus Ex game as a shooter would be to misunderstand it entirely. It’s played from a first-person perspective (though it pops into third-person at certain points) and you can shoot enemies. But you also have the freedom to approach any one situation in many different ways. Say you need to get into a restricted area: you can simply shoot your way in, you can search out hiding spots and secret passageways to sneak through, you can hack computers and doorways to open a locked entrance, or you can smooth-talk your way past the security clerk. It’s a collection of so many possibilities and mechanics that it should be a mess, but the game is polished enough that everything just works perfectly.

Since Jensen sports military-grade implants, you’re given the option of upgrading different implant to fit your style of play. The choices you make here really do alter the way you play the game significantly. Get stealth implants and you can slip through levels completely unseen if you’re smart and skilful. Get combat-oriented implants and you can plough through any resistance with ease. You can even get social implants that allows you to track people’s heart rate and stress levels during conversation, enabling you to release powerful synthetic pheremones to sway them towards your line of thinking.

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The combat and stealth is fluid, and both work impressively. But Human Revolution also does what few games do successfully – it makes talking to people something quite special. There’s a great number of opportunities to converse with NPCs throughout the game, and unlike the dialogue in many games these aren’t just there to act as exposition dumps, or to offer the player new quests. Conversations may be friendly exchanges, terse inquiries, or near-violent interrogations.

Each exchange of words can get you valuable information and back-story, and many can go in vastly different directions depending on how you choose to act. While the game’s overarching narrative doesn’t change – as far as I’m aware you’ll always go to location A, then B, then C in the same order regardless of your choices – your experience will shift significantly. You can side with one person over another, let a person live or kill them, and choose to stay and defend someone or run to save yourself.

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Now, I tend towards the ‘graphical fidelity is not so important’ camp when it comes to games – god knows the most technically proficient, photo-realistic game can look bland and uninspired if it lacks a decent, coherent artistic style. So in praising the way Human Revolution looks (and sounds) I’m not just saying that the technology behind it is impressive – which it undoubtedly is. Instead, I want to draw attention to the game’s art direction. Its sterile, clean look, and the evident thought and detail put into everything from the look of prosthetics to the way street-side billboards loop colourful advertisements, helps to paint a hugely convincing picture of a near-future society entering a new technological age.

There is the occasional misstep – some bland body and face models, occasionally poor voice acting, and the like. But it’s overwhelmingly clear that this is a game where all the money poured into art and sound design has benefited hugely from an accomplished artistic vision. And it’s also clear that the technically accomplished work on both these fronts helps a great deal to build up Human Revolution‘s compelling fictional world.

Put simply, this is the videogame experience that we were promised, that we once experienced in titles like Deus Ex and other immersive sims, and that then largely disappeared for a good long time. The freedom of play, the branching of the experience, and the weight of choice and consequence all elevate Human Revolution to great heights. Playing a game that nails all this so confidently is almost frustrating at times, since it reminded me just how few experiences of this calibre, depth, and intelligence we actually get to see. But while we could stop there, and while it does indeed consistently reach great heights, Human Revolution sometimes falls a great deal. And not because its lofty ambitions cause it to fly too close to the sun, but rather for far more mundane reasons.

First, and most frustratingly, there are several boss fights scattered throughout the game. Not only are these annoyingly, arbitrarily hard, but they do nothing except undermine the freedom the rest of the game so generously offers players. There’s no way to avoid these fights, unlike in the original Deus Ex, and there is also no way to approach them without getting into full-on combat. Anyone who hasn’t focused on straight-up fighting throughout the game will be simply unprepared for each of these, since they’ll lack the appropriate implants and weaponry. And they are sometimes incredibly hard, meaning lots of frustrating deaths and reloading of saved games. They also tended to sink into absolute farce. Throughout the game I used exclusively non-lethal means to subdue enemies, and this approach is perfectly viable. But at the end of each boss fight (where I continued to use only non-lethal stun and tranquilliser weapons) I was greeted by a cutscene showing my opponent collapse into a pool of blood, bullet holes magically riddling their body, and I was forced to watch them bleed to death. So not only does the game rob you of the ability to avoiding these fights, but it actively ignores the choices you make during them for no other reason than the narrative demands it. This is entirely unnecessary, and frankly kind of inexcusable.

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And speaking of that narrative: while the world is impressively realised, and characters are mostly fleshed-out and interesting to talk to, the plot itself is nothing special at all. It’s concerned with nothing other than conspiracy and double-crossing, and it never really gives you reason to care. The original Deus Ex had this kind of intrigue at its heart, and it seems like the writers of Human Revolution wanted to do nothing more than ape this approach, which it does competently at best. Nor did I ever particularly care for Adam. It’s odd – Adam isn’t just a cipher for the player’s decisions, nor is he entirely his own character, which makes for awkward going at times.  The game also sometimes relies on cut-scene in to advance the story. Not only do these sometimes arbitrarily and annoyingly taking control away from the player at inopportune times, but they don’t really add anything to the experience. Every single thing done in one of the cut-scenes could be done just as compellingly through having the player actually play the game rather than watch it, and I really don’t know why the developers didn’t just remove them entirely.

So, Deus Ex: Human Revolution has its fair share of problems. But the weakness of the narrative tends to sink into the background, leaving you to focus instead on the endlessly interesting world the game offers up. And yes, the boss fights are just stupid, but they’re rare enough that they don’t overshadow the compelling, perfectly polished action and the interesting decisions that characterise the vast majority of the experience. Yes, it’d be unfair to let these problems colour one’s view of the game. It’s hardly perfect, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a smart, confident game that feels like a true successor to Deus Ex. It’s a game with freedom at its very heart, and that is really a rare and valuable thing.

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