Deus Ex: Human Revolution review
Mediocritās ex Machina
The third instalment in a critically-acclaimed series? A unique approach to a neglected genre? Developed by a brand new studio owned by gaming giants Eidos and published by the iconic Square Enix? For a game that really should tick all the boxes, I’m really disappointed to say that I flat-out can’t see what all the fuss is about.
Released for console in August 2011, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is set in 2027 as a prequel to previous Deus Ex instalments. A priori, the game should be excellent, and it’s certainly received accolades from professionals and gamers alike. Players assume the role of ex-cop Adam Jensen who presently works as security chief for major augmentation producer Sarif Industries. What’s an augmentation? This is the future, remember. Recent advances in prosthetic technology have made cyborgs – part man, part machines – an everyday reality. At the game’s outset, a would-be fatal incident forces Adam to become ‘augmented’ against his will. Called back into action six months later, the bulk of the game’s story follows him as he tries to track down the culprits and, in the process, unveils an international conspiracy that will define the future (or rather, the very nature) of mankind. It promises stealth action akin to Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell, combined with RPG elements for which Square Enix is universally renowned.
Adam Jensen. You really, really don’t want to mess with this guy.
The implementation of these ideas sounds equally promising. Fundamentally, Deus Ex is a game of choices. The limited role-playing elements allow you to choose your preferred approach to the game’s challenges, which have been broadly separated into combat, stealth, hacking and social abilities. Throughout the game, accomplishing set tasks (and in particular ways) will award you with experience points, and upon levelling up you’ll obtain ‘Praxis points’ which allow you to upgrade your character through whichever augmentation type you choose. Whether as a Solid Snake-esque expert of infilitration or as an ironclad juggernaut à la the T-2000, each game style will present its own strengths and weaknesses which will largely dictate your Deus Ex experience. By all rights, then, it should be a great game. Right? Well... yes and no. In light of these lofty goals, the reality is far more disappointing. I will begin by admitting that I’ve only played through Human Revolution the once, so there exists the possibility of my having missed particular nuances that aren’t integral to the main story (although I did complete all optional sidequests). But for reasons I hope to make clear, I have no real desire to return to the game.
Regrettably for a Square Enix RPG, the Praxis system only provides the illusion of control. Initially, your choices really will have a profound impact on how you play, but the effect diminishes as the game progresses. For a start, all paths aren’t equal. The bulk of the enjoyable gameplay is weaving your way through a building full of hostile enemies, so even ignoring the drawbacks of the social augmentations (explained later), the opportunity to use them is small. While the hacking system works, it’s repetitive to the point of tedium, and failed hacks can be re-attempted so long as you’re willing to wait a mandatory lockout period. To be honest, it probably would have worked better to lock you out permanently, since then there’d at least be incentive to spec into that path more heavily.
Ok, I gotta break down that gate, beat up those three guards, steal that chopper and rescue Bender.
Thus your choice mostly boils down to stealth versus combat, but even this is more or less dictated by the game’s structure. A pure stealth character will quickly become infuriated by how unforgiving combat will be for them. The stealth-action gameplay is actually quite enjoyable, and as this was my first sojourn into the genre, I’m encouraged to try other takes on it. The challenge comes from plotting your route across a room, learning how to time your actions, which targets to take down first, and so forth. You’ll need to watch patrol routes, isolate guards, decide whether to subdue them in a fatal or non-fatal manner, and then hide the bodies to avoid detection. At the same time, you’ll need to duck and weave between objects – almost all of which you can interact with to use as cover, or hurl at your enemies – as well as dealing with the staple cameras, turrets and locked doors. But, at least in my experience, most of your solutions will come purely from trial and error. You can spec into stealth to see through walls, lift otherwise immoveable objects and even turn yourself temporarily invisible, but you will be detected at some point. A pure stealth character can only survive about a second of sustained fire. Unless you’ve got the patience of a saint, this will force you to take some combat augs to partially alleviate the sheer frustration of retracing your steps from your last save every time you make a single mistake. Thank God the dev.’s decided to make health regenerate, or my copy would be currently residing in a landfill somewhere.
Boss fights in particular don’t fit in with the stealth concept. There’s no two ways about it: you have to kill them to progress, and they always know exactly where you are. The first boss is the prime example. Having progressed through the tutorial and initial couple of hours of the game as a pacifist ninja master, I found that my usual method of cowering behind the nearest crate and then trying to knock him out was the surest path to death. He casually lumbers towards you, pinning you down lest you lose half your health from poking your head out, and he’s literally impervious to melee takedowns. Indeed, passing within two feet of him will cause him to grab you by the scruff of your neck and batter you silly. Thus I was (somewhat embarrassedly) reduced to sprinting from pillar to pillar, chucking a few grenades his way, and ending clip after clip at him until he finally gave in. Oh, and lowering the difficulty probably had a hand in it too. With practice I’m sure I could have figured something out a bit less cowardly, but the fight’s unprecedented and the prologue leaves you woefully unprepared. I don’t mind a challenge, but I don’t particularly enjoy the head-bashed-against-a-brick-wall sensation either.
Sometimes, stealth just doesn’t cut it.
The narrative is also a major letdown. Characterisation is almost non-existent, and unfortunately, the worst culprit is the player’s avatar. Adam Jensen can only be described as one of the least interesting characters in recent gaming history. While I can’t fault the game’s audio or lip synching, Elias Toufexis’ voice acting is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood – maybe even Christian Bale’s Batman? – at his most gruff and least passionate. I get it, he’s a tough guy. The problem is that it becomes exceedingly difficult to empathise with his cold, unfeeling approach to literally every piece of dialogue he’s involved in. Frankly, this completely destroys any potential the social side of the game might have had. While this doesn’t diminish the gameplay in itself, it severely reduces the appeal of speccing into social augmentations. You’ll still have the upperhand in discursive situations, even to the point of receiving unique dialogue options, but it grates when even supposedly sympathetic responses are delivered with all the emotionality of a housebrick. This is particularly disappointing since the somewhat unique premises of the game would really have lent themselves to an in-depth exploration of the identity issues associated with augmentation. Beyond a shattered mirror in Adam’s apartment and the occasional passing hint at his resentment of his circumstances, we aren’t afforded much more insight into the dissonance he’s supposed to be experiencing.
Other characters don’t fare much better. There’s over a dozen of them who make appearances at various points throughout the story, but the player is unable to identify with the vast majority. It speaks volumes that Frank, Sarif Industries’ IT specialist, is easily the game’s most likeable character. The plot, too, is sorely lacking. The game’s somewhat unique premise devolves into a bizarre storyline with confusing twists and turns that are frequently left unexplained save for annoying plot device clichés like the Illuminati (yes, I’m serious). Investigation of the conspiracy seems forced, as if you’re being carried along rather than actually discovering anything for yourself. In addition, the presence of optional quests fails to hide the fact that progression is almost entirely linear. Matters aren’t helped by a poor map system and confusing city layouts. I mean, I know narrative isn’t a big deal for a lot of gamers, but it really isn’t difficult to come up with one that’s even slightly engaging. Instead, it’s difficult to care what happens, and you can skip through cutscenes with little consequence. This would be forgivable so long as the gameplay was exceptional, but ultimately the game is left to rely entirely on it too heavily, and the effect is underwhelming.
This criticism might come off as a bit biased, but that’s only because I believed the hype. I’ll admit it’s a little unfair, however, because the game isn’t without its saving graces. It’s definitely playable. Once you get over the fact that calling it a sandbox or RPG is misleading at best, you come to appreciate some of the finer details. Ultimately you’ll obtain the lion’s share of possible augmentations, so many of the problems you experienced earlier won’t be nearly as challenging later. The blend of stealth and action becomes a lot more enjoyable once you’ve ensured you won’t die from a fly sneezing, and your choice of approach actually becomes more of a choice. The control scheme is quite intuitive – rarely did I find myself accidentally blowing my cover because I tapped a wrong button, or missing my shot because of some dodgy mechanic. The graphics aren’t mind-blowing, but are usually pretty solid, and seem to capture the dystopian world of corporations and technological dependence fairly well. There was a tendency towards an orange filter like in CSI: Miami, but nothing major. The sound is excellent and used to good effect. Scientific explanations of prosthetics and nanotechnology are detailed and paint a believable picture of the direction humanity might take in the terrifyingly near future, and will no doubt delight sci-fi fans. The multiple endings are a nice feature, even if they’re based on a single end-of-game choice rather than being a result of your actions throughout the game. Depending on your choice, you’re treated to a profound – even moving – philosophical insight into Adam’s motivations. It’s just really, really disappointing that this approach wasn’t taken throughout the game, rather than a conclusion that leaves you with mixed feelings. There’s no post-game whatsoever to explore it.
I think this window...*puts on sunglasses* ... got my point. YEEEEEAAH!
Conclusion: The game, like its protagonist and his world, seems to be suffering from a crisis of identity. It doesn’t work as an out-and-out shooter, and RPG elements are only really tokenistic. The stealth elements are the game’s main source of enjoyment, and work well when you’ve had enough experience with them. It’s certainly not a bad game, it just isn’t a great game, and I can’t buy into all of the hype. If you’re a fan of the genre and find it on the cheap, it’s worth a look. Just don’t raise your expectations, and you won’t be disappointed.
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