GM Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Picture a brick suspended by 3 threads, each capable of supporting the brick’s weight by itself. Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution is that brick suspended by its legacy, influences and of course the problem of choice. A legacy spanning over a decade that started with the release of Ion Storm’s Deus Ex – that one game considered best ever by majority of the people who spent significant time playing it. The influences which essentially mean that most game design is derivative. The choice which gives the player a free will within an organised structure. The question is how well do the threads hold this brick?

More than the critics, Eidos Montreal have to answer a legion of fans eagerly awaiting a worthy successor to their favourite game. Back in the year 2000, when Ion Storm released Deus Ex, it wasn’t the prettiest of games, nor was it an example of technical mastery but it offered an idea of approaching a situation in multiple ways; something never seen before. Every game offers a choice. Most of the time they are menial such as use any one of 2 different weapons to kill an enemy. Deus Ex gave more options – sneak away from the enemy, hack into a computer and open an alternate door to your destination or simply smooth talk your way in. There is a situation and you have plenty of options to get past it, one of them will definitely work. When it applies to the core level design, Human Revolution does that. The point is, while Ion Storm’s Deus Ex did this it was rightly considered revolutionary – hence the legacy – when Human Revolution does that it’s derivative.

This is a level designer’s game. Each level or area is designed in such a way that the player can basically adapt different styles to accomplish his goals. At this point I do have to mention that while a completely lethal approach is welcome the game does force you to value the stealth aspect – you’re not a tank, not in the first half of the game at least. It also may sound less complimentary to the original Deus Ex but Human Revolution has better combat.

It starts off brilliantly, I spent a hideous amount of time replaying the first mission, reloading parts of it, trying out both stealth and a John Rambo approach and it did feel fresh even after several tries. But what starts of brilliantly becomes a chore in the latter half. I stuck with a non-lethal first playthrough and during the second hub I was actively repeating the same logic with each level. Analyse patrolling patterns, sneak behind a guard, take him down when he’s not looking, hide the body, repeat the same for other guards. Not that it’s not fun but most of the levels appear fragmented. Clear an area, move on to the next; it’s not coherent and often becomes a series of meaningless tasks to reach the next objective marker. The predictability kills any form of immersion. For instance, if a path is blocked by a hostile or a camera my next task simply involves finding a vent and going past it to the other end. Most of the times it never proves difficult because alternate routes are so conveniently placed around the level. While your approach to a situation is challenging, choosing an approach is not. There is no wrong route, no inextricable situation that actually requires you to really think out of the box.

On the other hand, navigating through the hubs often gets interesting. These hubs are open sections in a city. They basically connect multiple areas together. At times the simplest of all tasks such as locating an entrance to a building can itself be challenging and fun. This time around there are no vents that one is looking for while staying out of a guard’s line of sight. There’s an open area with a locked gate that you can probably hack but there’s also a fire escape – which is unreachable at the moment; hang on a second – how about climbing on the nearby building and jumping over? These hubs are scattered with secret areas and there are side quests which make you explore it. The question is are they actually needed? They could have been easily integrated in the main plot and some of them should have because they are actually relevant to it.

Side quests can be skipped but they earn precious experience points which, when collected enough, earn you Praxis points which can be used to upgrade Adam Jensen’s body and unlock new abilities like jumping over long distances or breaking walls to get to the other side. The Praxis points can also be used to allow you to control turrets and robots – disable them or turn them against your enemies. It’s a simple reward system, you perform a task you get experience points. The more efficient you are, more points you’ll get. Points are available aplenty by spending enough time exploring levels and hacking everything available.

There are things which Human Revolution does right but there are things which made me question the thought behind some design decisions. A common problem with most games is a lack of immersion which stems from their inherent failure to create a cohesive experience by combining both story and gameplay. The story is simply the narrative and its progression independent of the player’s actions in the game. Gameplay on the other hand is simply the interaction of the player with the said game’s mechanics. When these two entities operate in unison, it’s beautiful, without this harmony a player will simply neglect both – causing a ludo-narrative dissonance. Imagine that you killed Alyx in Half Life 2 and the plot continued the same way as it would if she was alive, would that make any sense?

What is the point of choice that the game offers? While the apparent answer is to offer replayability, an inconspicuous reason could be that the developers want the player to be comfortable with his own style. After clearing the first level, the billionth time, I knew my niche. My Adam Jensen, the part-human part-machine beast was a stealthy, pacifist warrior. No killings, just silently taking down enemies. Machino Erectus with a heart, a soulful android. This pretty much dictated my style of play for a while. I was having fun, I was in love with this game – until the first boss fight. A cutscene showed Adam walking down a large room, a warehouse of sorts, confronting the enemy like some cocky badass. I regained the control soon and there I was, face to face with the first boss who was ready to blast hot pieces of lead inside me. I tried to hide, running away from him, wondering if there is a way of avoiding this fight, if there is a vent behind some vending machine that would take me to safety. Nope, there wasn’t. I died thrice. Fourth time I threw all the grenades I had in my possession and the son of a bitch was dead.

During the last act, after facing more boss battles, I was beginning to think that this could be symbolic. A part of a larger message the game was trying to deliver. There is no emergent narrative. Everything will happen the way it is supposed to and you can do nothing about it. It works as a thought, but not when you sit down and play. It’s more evident by the end because you are again given a choice which the game nullifies by throwing a post credits scene that does not depend on what you choose. Here, the writer is not the most important part of the gameplay. He has taken a backseat breaking the immersion. It is disappointing and baffling at times because there are so many things which make the world of Human Revolution a good game.

The art direction in the game is fantastic. It does a pretty good job of depicting the cyber-renaissance. There is plenty of symbolism – the sepia tinted palette gets the analogies going the moment game starts. The world of Human Revolution is a mosaic of cyberpunk, which has been done till death, and renaissance, an era of pessimism. It oozes Philip K Dick’s work and does that respectfully. It makes a statement, not just through the architecture but also through fashion. From ruff collars to trench coats, modeled after capes, with long trains, it’s a beautiful revolution. The attention to detail is amazing and it tells so much about what has happened in the past. Adam’s Apartment, for instance, tells a lot about the character and the world. Scattered within the game are numerous e-books, emails and other things that can be read and they do take a good care of telling unknown stories, this world has a past and it’s not forgotten.

But that’s where it ends. There is a pattern with this game. The concepts and theories are amazing, the delivery is not. The world is rich with all the symbolism but it appears dead when you interact with it. Common areas such as apartment complexes are pretty much carbon copies of each other. Bystanders around hubs will indulge in conversations with each other but most of the time it doesn’t make any sense because the subject of these conversations does not sync with their actions. It’s great to overhear them because they keep dropping clues around but after the conversation is over they simply stare into each others eyes probably because they are waiting for the other to say something or they are simply enjoying the delicious cybernoir score by Michael McCann which can be best described as electronic, ambient, pulsating (at times) and symphonic. The closest comparison will be a cross between Laurel Halo and Oneohtrix Point Never.

I want to avoid comparing each and every mechanic and element from the original Deus Ex with Human Revolution. For the sake of it, it’s like listening to an Alice in Chains album without Layne Staley. The flavour is similar but it does not feel the same. The three threads that I talked about manage to hold the brick pretty well, with some additional support.