Deus Ex: Human Revolution E3 Live Demo Impression

In the closing hours of E3, Roku and I got a close look at a live demo of the mythical Deus Ex: Human Revolution. For this ardent Deus Ex fan, what followed would answer a lot – and I do mean a lot – of questions, and raise almost as many. Fair warning: for a pre-alpha version, the game looked remarkably intact, so this impression may spoil some of the full game.

The demo was broken down into two segments, with the first focusing on exploration and social interaction. In pursuit of a fugitive hacker, protagonist Adam Jensen touched down in the futuristic Heng Sha, a multi-layered island city near Shanghai; picture Midgar from Final Fantasy 7 and you’ll have a rough idea of how the city-above-a-city thing looks. Anyway, the presenters explored the streets for a few minutes, showing off Heng Sha’s mazelike balconies and catwalks. The player showed some NPC interaction by shoving a gun in a pedestrian’s face. Startled, the NPC raised his hands and held still until the player moved on. A later encounter with a nightclub bouncer showed some of the dialog system, and when given the option the player agreed to pay the cover to get in. This called to mind a similar situation from the original Deus Ex, and lead writer Mary DeMarle stated there were multiple entrances to the club; a sewer was mentioned but not demonstrated.

Inside the Hive club, Adam began searching for a local crime boss named Tong. This led to a lengthy dialog session with an older bartender, who rebuffed the agent by claiming Jensen wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. Various dialog options showed up throughout the conversation, borrowing elements of Mass Effect‘s dialog wheel; various options displayed as overall impressions, with the added feature that the full text of the option was displayed as the player panned over it. DeMarle noted that here the social path had failed, and the player had to resort to other means to see Tong.

The player then explored the club, overhearing a conversation from a pair of guards about a dropped datapad with a certain keycode on it. Sure enough, a quick search netted the player access to a back door by finding the datapad. The proper code was displayed off to one side as the player entered it; Human Revolution seems to have dropped the auto-entry system from Invisible War in favor of manual code entry as in the first game. The back door led, conveniently enough, to a lightly guarded ventilation system. Here the player hid himself against a wall, and the camera shifted to third person to allow him to peer around a corner. One non-lethal takedown later, Adam worked his way into an air duct leading to Tong’s office.

As luck would have it, Tong was none other than the bartender he had been talking to earlier, and Adam wasn’t the only one looking to see him. A conversation between Tong and an unidentified man in heavy armor revealed the location of the hacker; interesting side note, the conversation was done as a cutscene, still in engine but with no chance for the player to move or interrupt.

The presenters then shifted to the second video, showing stealth and combat in a rather large dockyard warehouse. Again, it was shown how Adam could stick to walls and rapidly move from cover to cover, a break from typical FPS design that nonetheless seemed useful here. Various context-sensitive takedowns were displayed, and DeMarle added that the player would be able to select lethal and non-lethal ones at will. The player repeatedly demonstrated multi-opponent takedowns, and one particularly dramatic entrance involved breaking through a skylight and scattering explosives to dispatch four enemies. The computer interface was shown briefly as Adam took out a dockworker who was using the system, and since it was in use no password or hack attempt was needed to access it. Various augmentations were also displayed, particularly cloaking and through-wall detection of hostiles; players can indeed smash through walls to grab an enemy hiding behind one, though it’s unclear to what extent players can wreck buildings and such. A loading screen also mentioned a “targeting assistance” augmentation, though this was not shown in the game.

After picking up some explosives – it’s noteworthy that they were supplied by a Triad outfit, given the Triads have shown up in Deus Ex before – Jensen fought his way into a warehouse and clashed with a giant air-dropped robot. Small arms did little damage to the thing, so the player had to scramble in search of a rocket launcher, dodging machine gun and rocket fire. A single rocket did the trick, and the player was free to set explosives in the warehouse office. The intent was to cause a distraction, allowing Adam to extract the hacker from Tong’s clutches. However, the provided explosives had a minor, likely intentional, defect: the timer was set to seconds instead of minutes. Adam barely managed to smash his way through a fairly durable window (in cutscene, he needed the help of a chair to weaken it before jumping through) and escape before the bomb went off.

The demo ended with a confrontation between Adam and a much larger mechanically-augmented enemy; you may recall the guy from the trailer who unfolded a small minigun from his arm. Following the abrupt cut-to-black, the presenters showed the trailer once more, and with that the session was concluded without time for questions.

It’s extremely difficult for me to maintain objectivity when it comes to Deus Ex, so I won’t make a huge effort here. Suffice it to say there is no question that the design team knows what they’re doing. While not so large as the first game, zones at least appeared large enough to permit a variety of play styles, and the dialog system seemed a healthy mix of series staples and welcome updates; it looked to give both players and characters room to maneuver in conversation. Though the AI didn’t display any particularly clever behavior, combat and the cover system worked well enough, though cover mechanics still seem out of place in a first-person shooter; time will tell if they feel that way for the player. What few plot threads were dangled before us did inspire curiosity, especially the apparent betrayal in the closing seconds of the demo.

The only real strike I can give the game so far is that Adam sounds like he’s trying too hard to be Christian Bale as Batman. While JC Denton from the first game was hardly an emotive actor (A BOMB!), he did manage to lighten up and joke around a bit with friends and enemies alike, and that sense of humor seems absent from Adam. That said, the rest of the game’s actors did a respectable job, and what sounded like authentic Chinese added a dash of atmosphere to the streets of Heng Sha. Contrast that with the exaggerated accents that dotted the original and there is reason for hope in this aspect.

Here’s the bottom line: I had many doubts after Invisible War, but the demo has made me cautiously optimistic. Take from that what you will.

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