Deus Ex Human Revolution: Lessons learned (spoilers)
In spite of publishers like EA and Activision insisting that a game must have multiplayer in today’s market to succeed, 2011 had several titles that proved them wrong, with Skyrim being the most prominent example. Others include L.A. Noire, Batman: Arkham City, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and the title of today’s topic: Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Developed by Eidos Montreal and published by Square Enix, a lot of hopes were riding on this reboot/sequel for fans of the original Deus Ex from 2000 (like myself) since Deus Ex 2: Invisible War had been met with largely universal disappointment.
The original Deus Ex had been an ugly game set in a cyberpunk future where dark trenchcoats meant you were a badass, and conspiracies were a dime a dozen. While on the surface it might look like a first-person shooter, anyone who actually tried it quickly found out that it also boasted a robust levelling system, expansive levels with multiple routes to the objective, inventory tetris (meaning different items have different sizes and you need to think about how to stack them) and a fairly interesting story.
Invisible War was not exactly terrible, but first off it made much the same mistake as Bioshock 2 and latching onto a story that was already complete, trying to insert more mystery where everything had already been revealed. And because of being adapted to fit onto the XBox as well as just the PC, the levels were vastly smaller, and the mechanics, inventory and levelling system were all radically dumbed down, which offended most of the fans they’d made with the first game.
So Human Revolution had some big shoes to fill, and did it succeed? Well, let’s have a look. And there will be SPOILERS after the break.
Well, first off I think they made a wise decision with setting HR some time (25 years, give or take) before the original Deus Ex and divorcing the entire story from the original one. There are some small references here and there, but on the whole the events of HR are not connected to the ones of Deus Ex, nor are the characters. I personally believe this is the way to go when doing sequels or prequels. Unless the story is already planned out to have several chapters, trying to tack itself onto an already complete story tends to lead to catastrophe. So they’re getting points for that one.
It is also kinda amusing how the world of HR looks more futuristic than the original Deus Ex did, despite being set a quarter of a century earlier. No points awarded or taken away from that, just an amusing observation. The world of HR does look really pretty though, I will say that much. It really helps bring the setting to life, though it also imposes certain restrictions.
The sound design is good. The voice-acting is mostly good, the weapons sound okay, the music is atmospheric and has some nice callbacks to the first game and ambient sounds help complete the experience.
When it comes to main protagonists, I would say that Adam Jensen is a more defined character than JC Denton was, though not by a huge amount. But just being able to see his apartment does add a lot to Jensen, so even though you have a fair deal of choice in how to approach your missions, it feels more like variations on Jensen rather than playing vastly different characters. The biggest weak point is his relationship with Megan. Since this is never really expanded upon to such a degree that we truly see that this is what drives Adam, his motivations are a bit unclear. We are occasionally told that he cares about Megan and wants to get her back, but we are never really shown this, and when he does find her, it’s such a weird moment that is over so fast because the plot suddenly decides to take a right at the intersection of hare-brained and bollocks. We gain a lot more appreciation for the relationship between Jensen and Malik. But aside from that minor point, I quite enjoyed Adam and his interactions with the others around him, especially Pritchard and Malik.
As for the world itself, the levels are yet again large and full of routes requiring different skillsets to traverse. Not as large as the original made them, but considering today’s need for pretty graphics in AAA games that probably wouldn’t have been feasible. Even so there’s plenty to explore and discover for those with an eye out for such things, and several upgrades to enhance your exploration. I also think Eidos Montreal did a good job populating the world with NPCs that were just there to make the place feel more lived in, and while they weren’t the most sophisticated I’ve seen, they did help make the world seem like a future that could actually be.
They also made a pretty good upgrade system to go with the game, but… they didn’t really balance it well. A few upgrades were even mostly or entirely unnecessary, as if the people developing the upgrades and the ones developing the gameplay weren’t always on the same page. Also, not taking the hacking upgrades as soon as possible was pretty much stupid, since hacking gave XP, money, and hacking tools to make future hacks easier. Even if you had the keycode or password, it was still often better to hack than not because of the rewards. And by the end of the game you’d usually have gotten enough praxis (upgrade) points to get pretty much every upgrade. Halfway through the game I was already having trouble with where to put praxis points because I had pretty much everything I wanted. The rest was just fluff. And since you didn’t need to upgrade weapon skills to use any of the weapons in the game, you could argue the upgrade system isn’t strictly necessary at all. It is still a nice addition though, and if they make another game they’ll hopefully tighten it up a bit.
The inventory system I quite liked, I will admit. I’m not sure I’ve seen this type of inventory tetris in AAA games since… maybe not since the first Deus Ex, I’m not entirely sure. Heck, the different weapons even have their own ammunition that can have different sizes as well, not to mention all the utility items. It feels like they put a lot of thought into it, and speaking personally, I appreciate that. It adds some extra strategy to the game (though I know that some people didn’t like the fact that picking up a weapon you already carry just converted it into ammo).
The gameplay then. Is it a cover-based shooter? Technically, yes. It’s probably the most competent one I’ve played, if only for how the cover system is the best I’ve personally encountered (though to be fair I’ve not played a lot of cover-based shooters), but the stealth is also quite solid in this game. While normally moving around you’re in first-person, but going into cover moves you into third-person camera, and it’s such a smooth transition that it doesn’t take long to feel natural. Heck, you can even skip the shooting part if you really want to, and just use cover to be a sneaky bugger and circumvent all the enemies (it’s tricky, but not impossible). You can even choose to be completely non-lethal (there is however the issue how the game seems to encourage that form of gameplay by giving you 3 times the exp for a non-lethal takedown vs lethal), and the game provides you with many tools for such a playstyle. There is however no melee attack, just a melee takedown that for some reason takes away one of your energy bars when performed (and there’s a lethal version of it that seems to have no point beyond being there as an option for people feeling spiteful). And you can just play the game as a regular shooter, since the game provides you with plenty of guns and ammo, and even regenerating health in one of the few circumstances where such a thing actually makes a bit of sense.
The enemies are programmed quite well. They react to noise and things they see, they rush over if they see one of their comrades taken out (and wake them up if they’re not dead), they use cover in combat, and are pretty good shots at that. You will probably learn how to exploit their behaviour pretty fast, but I have to say I never really felt like they were too dumb or like they were cheating. And sometimes it helps to keep in mind that they might not be able to move the heavy stuff you can.
And then we have the conversation system. I loved it. Not just the conversation “boss battles” (which were quite clever), but just conversation in general. It employs a system that is superficially similar to the Bioware conversation wheel, but much better done, since it can not only offer you diverse options, but it will also tell you exactly what you’re going to say. You can also get an upgrade to affect those you talk to with pheromones at crucial junctions to make them more susceptible, but although I got it, I never actually used it because I wanted to actually talk them around to seeing things my way the hard way. And it felt kinda wrong…
I suppose I should address the story now. For the most part it’s not bad. A bit convoluted, as conspiracy stuff tends to get, but the writing is solid for the most of the game and it refreshingly dodges a few common tropes. Take Frank Pritchard, the antagonistic prick who provides tech support and sometimes mission support for Jensen. I’ve become accustomed to story tropes so I expected him to be revealed as a traitor at some point, but it never happens. He’s a prick because that’s just who he is. Because some people just are. And David Sarif, your boss, strangely never turns out to be one of the evil overlords. Sure he has his own motives, some of which are a bit sketchy, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call him evil. He’s just another person. And relationships actually develop and evolve during the course of the game.
As for problems with the story… it’s mostly the outsourced parts (meaning the boss battles). After sneaking your way through a facility, perhaps not having been spotted a single time, then the cutscene before the boss fight occurs, and Jensen walks out into the open like a schmuck and suddenly he’s not so much taking part of the story as letting stuff happen to him for no good reason. And then follows a ridiculous boss fight that can really screw you up if you’ve decided to go for the sneaky-hacky approach and don’t really carry many weapons. There’s really only one approach to these fights, and that is to shoot them dead. Unless you’ve been clever and gotten the foreknowledge to get the Typhoon upgrade, brought along at least 2-3 ammo packs for it and some candy bars.
And then after you find Megan the plot abruptly goes off the deep end, stuffs you in a plot rocket, and sends you merrily along to la-la land for a “grand finale” that was neither wanted nor needed, with an ending that is rather annoying and a bit insulting. The only positive note I can give the sequence is something Josh Viel of Spoiler Warning showed me. If you take along a laser rifle for the final “boss fight”, you can use that to fire through the see-through barrier the boss puts up, because science. I thought that was a nice touch.
So, all in all, I enjoyed Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Compared to the original it was a shallow experience, but compared to most everything else on the AAA market it was refreshingly deep. The combat and stealth both work well, the story is interesting, the characters are (mostly) well-written and acted and the world was a nice place to visit. It had some issues with a few dumb cutscenes, stupid boss battles, unbalanced upgrades, weird exp bonuses, a subpar ending and minor gameplay issues like punching people costing energy, but on the whole I thought they did a good job, and with the Missing Link DLC they released this year I’d say they seem to have learned some lessons, so if they are allowed to make a new one, I feel pretty confident they’ll iron out the problems Human Revolution had (and probably create new ones in the process). I will just state, as usual, that I hope they set up a new story with new characters and just keep the aesthetic and themes, rather than trying to continue Jensen’s story (they really should have skipped the multi-choice ending).
I could have said a lot more, but that’s probably enough. If I missed anything significant, feel free to let me know.