Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Staff Review

Longtime fans could be forgiven for being wary of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s a prequel to a series that ended rather decisively, the last outing proved somewhat disappointing, and the original’s complexity might not sell in today’s market. Normally that’s a free space and a commercial set to rock music away from bad sequel Bingo. Let’s not kid ourselves, the real issue surrounding Human Revolution has nothing to do with transhumanism or the nature of man. Instead the question is how it holds up after years of anticipation, and more than that how well it stands on its own. Is it a great game in a rich world packed with meaningful choices? Absolutely. Does it surpass Deus Ex? Almost.

The year is 2027, decades before the first game begins.  Augmentation technology has hit the world in a big way, replacing crude artificial limbs and organs with enhanced mechanical substitutes. Sarif Industries, a biotech firm specializing in this new field, is on the eve of a major scientific breakthrough when it is attacked by unidentified mercenaries. In a brief intro you play the final human moments of security chief Adam Jensen, who is mortally wounded as he tries to repel the attackers. Most of the science team is killed or captured, while Jensen survives just long enough for a life-saving Six Million Dollar Man operation. Six months later, he’s fresh off the assembly line and ready for duty again, just in time to deal with a daring strike against a factory owned by Sarif. Someone clearly wants to eliminate the competition, and it’s on Adam to shoot, stab, sneak, charm, and chokeslam his way to some answers.

Human Revolution sports some of the FPS basics and neatly integrates aspects from other action games. It might seem strange to run and gun in first person only to jump to third person when you take cover, but the controls make the transition easy to manage. Jensen is surprisingly mobile in cover, able to shift position, round corners, take blind shots, and dart across gaps to minimize exposure. Enemies will track where they saw or heard you last, and patrolling guards sometimes turn their heads or look around as they walk; a simple but smart twist that adds a dash of risk. Aided by a built-in, upgradeable radar system, Human Revolution delivers a stealth action game set in a bigger world than the genre usually allows.  There are issues of course, such as ponderously slow health regeneration and AI that still couldn’t search an air vent to save its life. Still, stealth and gunplay are almost always viable options, even before you bring out the augmented bag of tricks.

$10 for parking?!  We don't even HAVE dollars in this game!  Screw you too, buddy!
$10 for parking?! We don’t even HAVE dollars in this game! Screw you too, buddy!

Navigation shouldn’t be too troublesome and you can turn features on or off at will, or even adjust the difficulty in mid-game.  You’re helpfully prompted when you find something actionable, from items to doors to breakable walls. Objective markers do well to keep you on track, though maps sometimes have problems with multiple floors. Any emails and PDAs you pick up are stored automatically, and any codes you find will be displayed if you find the associated door or computer.  A hacking minigame lets you bypass those without passwords, granting experience and other rewards for succeeding. In stark contrast to the original game’s ‘push button, hack system’ mechanic, here you’ll have to navigate a series of nodes to the access point. Each node carries a risk of setting off the security system, which will sound an alarm and trace you to your starting node. Certain augmentations and items can make it easier to stay hidden, slow down the trace, adjust node difficulty, and so on. Hacks rarely take longer than a minute, so the system has a decent balance of depth and simplicity, though hackable obstacles can be a bit too commonplace.

The aug system is an interesting twist on that of the original game.  You acquire Praxis kits to buy upgrades, though you have access to every upgrade right from the start. These can sometimes be bought and found, but are mostly earned through experience: completing quests, subduing targets, exploring your environment, and so on. At a rate of one point per 5000 XP, you’ll upgrade at a reasonable pace, and no augs are mutually exclusive. The augs themselves range from simple damage protection and extra carrying space to more exotic and flashy abilities. Jensen is effectively a human toolbox you can customize to get around obstacles, whether that means safely dropping from heights, launching a hail of micro-bombs, or one followed by the other. A strength aug lets you lift large objects like vending machines, which offer cover and make great platforms or thrown weapons in a pinch. For some reason your punch-through-walls upgrade doesn’t work to force doors open, although throwing a fridge at one is a quick and dirty alternative.

Of course your standard FPS tools of conflict resolution abound, from pistols and rifles to lasers and a Minority Report-style kinetic gun. Many can be kitted with upgrades: recoil stabilizers, expanded magazines, silencers, laser sights, even unique upgrades like targeting assistance or exploding bullets. Multiple flavors of grenade can be attached to mine templates so they’ll stick to walls, though you can disarm enough active mines that you’ll almost never need to do this. Jensen is a bit frail in combat even with fully upgraded ballistic shielding, but as gunplay-with-cover-systems goes it’s implemented well enough here. Push-button lethal and nonlethal takedowns seem out of place at first, but they quickly become a welcome addition. It may be a tad silly to see time effectively stop while you sucker-punch or stab someone, but it’s also useful and ridiculously entertaining. The upgraded double takedowns are naturally twice the fun, from reenacting your favorite Three Stooges skit to tricking one guy into punching out the other.

Human Revolution‘s art style draws from the cyberpunk dystopia well with both hands, Blade Runner being one obvious source. Technology meant to uplift humanity has instead further stratified it. The ‘haves’ are able to afford augmentation, while the ‘have-nots’ live with the same crushing poverty and gang violence they have for decades. People debate the merits of augmentation in the wake of protests both civil and violent. Detroit’s impressive skyline is surrounded by urban decay, with centers of modern industry and research mere blocks away from derelict factories. The Chinese island-city Hengsha forces locals and expats alike to live in claustrophobic pod hotels, with a massive superstructure literally dividing the upper city from the working public below. Human Revolution commits itself to its vision of the future, confidently letting context explain much of the world. It’s not necessary to notice that Adam has taken to clock maintenance to gain fine control of his mechanical hands, but that and other cool little details are there for the curious.

It’s not just eye candy, either. Larger levels often encourage multiple approaches, and inside single rooms you still usually have a few ways to get from A to B. Breaching a secure medical lab can involve finding a lost access badge, knocking out the guard, searching for one of the ubiquitous air vents, or moving a vending machine to climb a balcony. Even scripted encounters in the game’s more linear sections aren’t usually just gamespace, and the various streets, labs, and offices don’t feel like they’ve had chest-high walls artificially inserted to accommodate a firefight. The smaller details work well too, like desktop clutter that capably disguises a PDA, credit chit, or other useful gadget. About the only consistent blemish is NPC animation, as characters will repeat several canned gestures in normal conversation. Lip syncing is lacking for the most part, and some people twitch in ways that suggest they should seek medical attention. Specific animations are fluid, but transitioning between them and general activity is less than convincing.

The ability to use words instead of weapons is one of the game's high points...
The ability to use words instead of weapons is one of the game’s high points…

Michael McCann has composed a great score to match the visual themes, hitting the ground running with the intro (and a brief but brilliantly-timed nod to the first game). Sometimes content to stay quietly in the background, the music matches the environment at every step and comfortably fits the cyberpunk motif; downbeat electronic strains for the desolate streets of Detroit, for instance.  Voice work is likewise a quality production, with only a few disappointments that owe more to plot problems than bad acting. Jensen’s voice has been likened to Christian Bale’s Batman, but Elias Toufexis gives enough emotional subtleties for Jensen to stand as his own character. Our augmented hero has excellent back-and-forth with his mission control team, primarily the egotistical hacker Pritchard and the calm, amiable pilot Malik. Pritchard in particular is an entertaining foil, with he and Jensen sniping at each other even as they grudgingly admit the other’s competence. All told it’s the villains that get the short shrift this time, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment.

Dialogue presents some of the game’s best moments, starting with a hostage situation in your debut mission where you talk down a terrorist. You can skip the conversation and just attack, but engaging him with words has its own long-term consequences. Well written and scripted, these ‘conversation battles’ are semi-randomized so that picking the same options won’t always result in a win, and failure isn’t a game over if you can live with the result. Both acting and animation skillfully convey whether your target is considering or dismissing you. From running into an old, bitter associate with the Detroit police to confronting an anti-aug speaker in front of a crowd, these sections give both Adam and his opponents time to show their depth as characters. You can even get a social enhancement aug to get a better read on your target, with special options to further sway someone. It’s a shame you can’t interrupt them to just shoot or punch somebody – although you can sometimes rectify that after the fact – but overall you’ll wish there were more of them.

The actual boss battles are far less interesting.  While you have several ways to take them down, they’re often resilient bullet sponges who can steamroll an unprepared player. This wouldn’t be quite so annoying if the bosses weren’t zero-dimensional pop-up targets. You literally learn the name of one seconds before you fight him, another is completely silent for unexplained reasons, and a third has no distinguishing qualities beyond having a vaguely Russian accent and dying last. In general villainy, Zhao Yun Ru, CEO of rival megacorp Tai Yong Medical, is theoretically a major antagonist but hard to take seriously. Apart from being absent for most of the game, she makes Bob Page from Deus Ex look like a paragon of restraint and subtlety, conveying “I AM EVILLL!!!!!11” with basically every recorded word. What really hurts is the game never gets any closer to establishing a consistent threat. There are certainly other participants in the token conspiracy, but it’s hard to enjoy fighting enemies so woefully underdeveloped.

Unfortunately the plot also makes a few key stumbles, suffering from unsurprising twists, ludicrous cutscene incompetence, and poorly connected events. You’ll discover several major, world-changing pieces of information whose only function is to ferry you to your next destination, where they never get mentioned again. Searching a news studio reveals propaganda efforts so blatant that they could have been authored by Cobra Commander. The finale throws caution to the wind and awkwardly evokes Left 4 Dead, of all things, culminating in a bizarre, unsatisfying boss fight. Human Revolution is partly constrained by canon, but a lot of the supporting material, not to mention the post-credits scene, will only make sense in the greater context of Deus Ex. Endings are handled clumsily by what can only be described as the Decisionmotron 4000: a big console with four buttons explained in detail by a disembodied and dispassionate voice. Considering Jensen never gets much opportunity to weigh in on global issues, leaving the decision to him feels forced and artificial.

Back to gameplay for a second. Too many obstacles require that you hack or break a door, which gets old after a while. Guards take issue if they catch you hacking something but pay no mind if you crawl into a vent or steal stuff right in front of them. The Typhoon explosive aug is ludicruously overpowered to the point where it’s an instant win button, and you’ll have more than enough ammo to use it liberally. Adam recharges his batteries by eating nutritional power bars, and only the last cell will regenerate after being depleted. Takedowns require this power, meaning Adam can’t so much as punch a guy if his batteries are drained. This only makes the complete omission of melee combat more puzzling. Don’t misunderstand, it works in a gameplay sense – as mentioned the takedowns, especially involving two people, are always a blast to pull off – it’s just obviously a nonsensical concession to balance.

...but a guy only has so many hours in the day, know what I mean?
…but a guy only has so many hours in the day, know what I mean?

These and more make the question of “is it better than Deus Ex?” hard to answer. Yes, the gameplay has improved significantly, but no, the game itself is not as well rounded. Bosses in Deus Ex could be evaded, to an extent, and they established themselves as characters before they became enemies. Biocells and repair bots provided simpler but less patently absurd means of restoring energy. The plot kept you along certain lines, to be sure, but never forced you to let someone stall long enough to hit an alarm button. Worlds weren’t as detailed and seem anachronistic given the timeline, but they were also significantly larger and didn’t depend on you hacking everything in sight to get around. Deus Ex‘s finale had no real boss, relying instead on a series of different obstacles to navigate depending on who you sided with. And for all its flaws and imbalances, the skill and aug system of the first game still forced you to make significant choices with character development, whereas here you’ll eventually get enough Praxis kits to upgrade everything worth having.

I know that sounds like a lot of criticism, but these problems shouldn’t be excuses to write the game off. Fact is, Human Revolution does a lot of things that the genre hasn’t done since the original game. People notice your actions, and not just the options you pick in dialogue. If you take your time getting to the helipad when lives are at stake, expect someone to chew you out later. If you favor a nonlethal or stealthy approach, someone will pick up on it. If you wander into a women’s restroom, don’t be too surprised if that comes up later. Objectives can accommodate a wealth of creative solutions: a Triad shakedown mission can end by mugging the target, talking them into handing over the money, paying off the Triads, or paying off the Triads and then punching out the quest giver to get your money back. There’s plenty of ground to cover and crazy things to try, and an amazing number of problems can be solved by throwing a fridge at them. It lacks the sheer size of Deus Ex, true, but there’s plenty of meat to this game.  Doing everything you can will run the clock somewhere in the 30-35 hour range.

So many words to answer two simple questions. Hack a turret and carry it into a room full of bad guys. Get drunk and pick fights with random people in the street. Listen in on people as they discuss the finer points of “dogmentation.” Bypass high security by crawling through conveniently man-sized vents. Smash through walls ala Kool-Aid Man not to snap a guy’s neck, but because you want the experience for checking alternate routes. Upgrade your legs and clear obstacles in one jump. Take time out of your busy schedule to shoot hoops for the achievement. Learn about Pritchard’s TV pitch for Nucl3arSnake: Hacker Extraordinaire. Read your exploits in the newspaper. Force your way into a nightclub by beating up the bouncer. Stack crates to block one door, set mines on another, and then get someone’s attention.

Human Revolution is a fun, intelligent adventure in a well-crafted world that pays attention to what you do, and it’s one of the best games this year. This is Deus Ex.

This game was played to completion with a digital download copy purchased through Steam.

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