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Video Game Review: Deus Ex Human Revolution

Video Games

Video Game Review: Deus Ex Human Revolution

Deus Ex Human Revolution box art
Deus Ex Human Revolution

Release Date: August 26th, 2011
Platform: PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square-Enix
Genre: Streamlined Deus Ex (so, RPG, FPS, Stealth Hybrid)
ESRB: M for Mature

CLR [rating:4.5]

Not Quite Revolutionary or Human, Just Deus Ex-cellent

A bit over a decade ago, Ion Storm and Warren Spector released the original (Deus Ex unto the world. Centered on the modern mythology of the conspiracy theory, the then science fiction of nanotechnology, and an elite super-soldier who confronted both, it was a game with grand concepts and just the right people to execute them. Though it did pretty well, even warranting a direct sequel, it wouldn’t be considered terribly popular by today’s standards, where units sold for a game must now exceed the population of Hong Kong to be considered “mainstream.”

No, the success of Deus Ex was not in its sales figures, but in its influence. It was a genre defying trendsetter for player choice and immersion in gaming, and it’s no small undertaking to follow up anything with such a pedigree, but this is just what Eidos Montreal has attempted with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The fear that it would be overly simplified, or to use the common parlance “streamlined” was all too real, especially since the first game was anything but (i.e. crate smashing). Like following Streisand, it’s not an enviable position to be in, and you need to look no further than the original sequel, Invisible War, to notice how quickly backlash occurred with the series.

For Deus Ex diehards, the bar has been set high, and nostalgia has made it even higher. Since it would be unfair to judge a game on breaking new ground when it’s also trying to fit into the same mold (in order to maintain series consistency), that’s not what we’ll do here. Instead, I’m going to judge this prequel by its own merits and its own flaws. For while Human Revolution is definitely a flawed game, even by these standards, it might also be the best game of the year.

Deus Ex Human Revolution video game

Adam Jenson keeps with tradition and wears his sunglasses at night. Of course, they’re built into his skull, so it’s not like he has much of a choice in the matter . . .

The year is 2027 and humanity is undergoing a technological renaissance as the gap between human and mechanical interfacing has been bridged, allowing cybernetics to flourish. One twentieth of the world’s population has received these so called “augmentations” in one form or another, whether it is a limb lost from accident or war replaced with a mechanical one, or chips inserted into the brain to give an edge in mental dexterity. Society is reeling from these massive changes and people are splintering into factions either for or against augmentation, while poverty and rampant terrorism create desperation and the increased need for privately funded armies of “security firms.” It’s the very definition of the cyberpunk setting, in other words.

Sarif Industries and its CEO, David Sarif, produce some of the highest quality augmentations and his business has practically saved the beleaguered city of Detroit from abject poverty. However, such success does not come without danger from rival corporations, and so Adam Jensen, a former SWAT Team Leader, has been hired to head their security detail. Fears of attack prove well founded when, on the eve of revealing some groundbreaking research by their head scientist, Dr. Megan Reed, Sarif Industries is viciously assaulted by a black ops mercenary team commanded by three heavily augmented soldiers. The aftermath of the attack leaves the building ruined, researchers dead, and Jensen not far from it.

Adam is saved though, when his boss integrates the very technology he sells into his security chief. With mechanical replacements to every limb, his eyes and many internal organs, Jensen is turned, like Darth Vader, into “more machine than man.” After briefly recovering and re-acclimating to life without his original parts, a brand new corporate crisis calls Jensen back into work, and he soon begins an investigation into the original attack and to find out what happened to Reed and subsequently, himself. One which leads him on a long, twisted road through the heights of corporate excess, the secrets of malevolent governments, and the seedy underbelly of criminals and geniuses alike.

Deus Ex Human Revolution video game

Worse than Jensen’s victimization was the unfortunate lapse in his insurance policy. I’m pretty sure this cost him an arm and a leg! . . . wait a sec . . .

Now before anything else, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is egregiously gorgeous. Though the actual modeling and texture work are nothing to write home about, it’s the art direction itself that deserves acclaim. Mixing cyberpunk and renaissance concepts not only works perfectly with the underlying themes of transhumanism that run rampant but also reinforces the styling of a unique time period. There’s a fascinating blended look to many outfits and items; when you realize that enemy guard uniforms, for all their futuristic tendencies, still resemble classic cuirass and armet designs of the fifteen hundreds, it’s a delightful shock and you wonder why no one has made this visual connection between past and future to create a displaced present before.

More importantly, like Lebowski’s rug, the art design and its overall consistency, is really what ties the entire game together. Though it does occasionally harken to obvious imitation, such as Jensen’s apartment which is also Deckard’s from Blade Runner, the style focuses more on invoking an overall mood. A mood that keeps with the primary theme of this series: illuminating the truth hidden in shadows. The striking choice of gold on black, the predominant palette throughout and purposefully reminiscent of Baroque painters (especially Rembrandt who is referenced directly), keeps reminding the player to search for truth, no matter how hidden it first seems to be.

Deus Ex Human Revolution video game

Yeah, this is pretty much Deckard’s pad. All it needs is a piano, and some awkward, only semi consensual robot sex.

The kicker is the soundtrack. The score is moodier than a sixteen year old girl and more synthetic than half the breasts in Hollywood, but in this setting that means it’s like Giorgio Armani: perfectly suited. Seriously, this is music to fight a conspiracy to, or plan one . . . I’m not sure, but it’s definitely “conspiracy-ie.”

So the game passes the artistic intent test on both the visual and aural landscapes, but of course, the real crux of the biscuit is the gameplay. Here, you should be prepared to find, well, Deus Ex. But for the unfortunately uninformed, what does that mean?

Well it’s complicated. Not to get all Game Design Theory 101, but I’ll paraphrase Warren Spector here as it creates the necessary contrast, “Puzzles have only one solution. I prefer ‘problems’ instead. Problems can have many solutions.”

Deus Ex Human Revolution video game

I’m not sure whose idea it was to put forearm blades on him, but at least Jensen never needs to worry about finding a can opener again. Also, he can murder people.

Deus Ex’s gameplay, and thus Human Revolution’s as well, is about solving problems via any method that the player prefers. In every scenario throughout the game, Adam is presented with some overarching goal, such as rescuing hostages or obtaining some key piece of information, and there are many ways of achieving these goals. If you must navigate through an area filled with enemy combatants you have a lot of freedom on how to handle it and are mainly limited by your current augments.

Yes augmentations, as well as a hefty amount of conversation and actual “quests,” form the key RPG portions of the game. Aside from a few that you start with — including unfortunately, health regeneration — you have total freedom of choice with what you upgrade and subsequently rely on.

Do you go in guns blazing with assault rifles and rocket launchers while tossing vending machines at foes with your improved strength? Do you sneak by enemies with an upgrade to your skin that renders you invisible while mental software tracks enemy positions and awareness? Perhaps you hack into the security systems and turn the emplaced turrets and robotic drones against their human masters? Or maybe you simply talk to the guy in charge and convince him to give you entry?

Since there are so many prevailing options to consider, the game can thus be segmented into how it handles each of them overall. Though there are a few that overlap, such as cover (useful both in firefights and hiding), the game’s systems can roughly be broken down into Combat, Stealth, Exploration, Hacking, and Social Interaction.

Deus Ex Human Revolution video game

Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure this picture is an example of “combat.”

In combat, Human Revolution plays as a cross breed of older First Person Shooters and 3rd Person Cover Shooters as it integrates both styles, and so perhaps the best comparison is to Rainbow Six: Vegas. Unless on the easiest difficulty, enemies have deadly accuracy and employ decent tactics like covering fire, grenade flushing, and flanking maneuvers. Though there are a few ways to exploit enemy AI and animations aren’t quite on the current par, you’ll still have to be quick on your situational awareness feet to survive most firefights. As a combat experience Jensen’s battles prove an enjoyable thrill, and so do the key boss encounters, even if the fact that you’re forced to kill them does fly in the face of one of the key factors that makes this series unique: nonviolence.

Or I should say, non-lethal violence, as yes, Deus Ex is the rare series that rewards not murdering everyone along your path to the truth. If you choose to play as a badass Gandhi, stealth and exploration are your friends, and prove top notch. If playing as a “sneaker” you’ll find the dangerous game of hide & seek a tense fun, up there with the best in the business, like Splinter Cell or Metal Gear, but a good explorer can usually find alternate routes through back doors, sewer tunnels, and through the ever present and overly large vent shafts connecting rooms together to avoid encounters altogether. Fundamentally both elements rely on the games excellent, though occasionally obvious level design; by the end you’ll develop a sixth sense for vent shaft locations like Peter Parker: Spider-Man & plumber.

Whether you go into a room like Batman or like John Rambo, one thing you might also consider is how much Hiro Protagonist you want to be, as hacking proves just as fun as combat or stealth. The hacking minigame that pops up whenever you crack into a security terminal is easily one of the best ever designed, providing not only a unique diversion to the main game flow, but just a downright fun game in its own right while a being a simple representation of actual hacking. Considering that much of the game’s errata story is found on people’s PCs, Hacking not only works as a supplement to other methods, but as a great way to learn about the various plots and subplots throughout.

So what’s left? Oh right, the social aspects. Well, unfortunately that’s where we stop praising Human Revolution as the second coming and start getting into the weaker territories of the game. Coincidentally these are actual territories: the “Hub Cities” where the vast majority of these interactions occur.

Deus Ex Human Revolution video game

Just another day, just another chat with an old Chinese bartender, getting ready for robot arm wrestling.

The biggest issues with Jensen’s social interactions are twofold: first, there’s the animation on most NPC’s you can talk to. Not only is lip syncing only paid lip service, and facial emotion relegated to I, Robot status, but for whatever reason, the designers decided to exaggerate “movement” during conversations in the most unnatural ways possible. It’s bad all around, but especially poor on female NPCs, who do this funny little arm dance whenever you engage them for some loquaciousness. It looks utterly ridiculous, and breaks much of the emotion the otherwise solid dialogue and line delivery strive hard to deliver.

This is especially irritating since these problems plague minor NPC conversations, but there are also a series of “arguments” where Jensen engages with more important characters. None of these issues apply here, and these characters move naturally, emote well, and the conversations themselves create unique tension that requires care to navigate through . . . as long as you don’t have the Social Augmentation, which allows Jensen to act like your girlfriend and win pretty much any argument with a release of pheromones. If there’s an obviously over-powered ability, this one is it, and I’d recommend not acquiring it until a second run-through so you can enjoy these moments at their fullest.

Then there’s the scripting. Though I briefly mentioned some occasional wonkiness in combat, it really applies to the AI throughout the game. It’s just not as well thought out as the original, where characters seemed to have some kind of reaction to pretty much any action you could take and commented on them accordingly. In Human Revolution, though there are moments of brilliance, there are also some big oversights: if you go gun crazy in a public space murdering civilians and police and survive the initial reactionary assault, no one comments on it and it’s never brought up. Though I do suppose no one would actively try to antagonize a homicidal maniac, it is definitely a bit odd to have no reaction whatsoever. I suppose they were all the “evil” innocent civilians then?

Deus Ex Human Revolution video game

Wait, did I just complain about the absurdity of uncontested violence on the streets of Detroit?

Of course, flaws like these are what I was trying to avoid at the start, since they’re comparing this prequel too much to the brilliance of the original. Besides, there are still issues native only to Human Revolution, like the supremely odd choice of using low quality pre-rendered cutscenes when the in-game engine looks better by a mile. Or the fact that while it’s a rather lengthy game, could still use a more developed and expanded third act. Or the lackluster endings that feature a fair amount of philosophizing, but very little closure for the actual players involved.

Except, here’s the thing: these issues don’t matter. At the end of the day and the game, the gestalt of Deus Ex: Human Revolution still works. All of the individual parts, while disparate in nature and wildly varying in quality, come together to create an experience far greater than any individual aspect. In fact, I’m going to reveal the biggest reason for this viewpoint: I can’t put this game down. I’m hooked in way I haven’t been since I was “indoctrinated” by Mass Effect.

So if you can get into the mood for some futuristic cyberpunk, and want to follow around a neo-noir detective with a gravelly voice in the near future as he tracks down conspirators in a plot that will constantly keep you glued to your seat, look no further than Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s not as ground breaking, for it does not seek to break ground. But it is definitely in the same mold, and like its originator, executed as well as it could have been by just the right people and just when the gaming audience needs it the most.

Adam Jensen may not have asked to become a cyborg, but Adam Thomas sure did, and I’ve enjoyed his adventures to the fullest possible extent available with current technology. Until I figure out a way to emulate him and merge with a machine, that will have to do.

Deus Ex Human Revolution Trailer

As one of the unfortunate few born with three first names, Adam endured years of taunting on the mean streets of Los Angeles in order to become the cynical malcontent he is today. A gamer since the age of four, he has attempted to remain diverse in his awareness of the arts, and remain active in current theater, film, literary and musical trends when not otherwise writing or acting himself. He now offers his knowledge in these areas up to the "California Literary Review," who still haven't decided what exactly they want to do with him yet. He prefers to be disagreed with in a traditional "Missile Command" high score contest, and can be challenged this way via his Xbox LIVE Gamertag of AtomGone, and if you want to "follow" him on twitter, look for Adam Robert Thomas @TheCromulentMan

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