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Deus Ex: Human Revolution

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One year since I last covered Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I still remember its importance to me. It was the first game to be reviewed on the site I had previously worked at, and it was my first chance to flex my critical muscles. Thinking back, I believe that a change in reviewing strategy is in order, but what to do? Should I repeat what I said so long ago? Should I borrow from the words of others? Or is there room for new and more creative thought? So many choices…

Seeing as that is a fair enough segue into Human Revolution‘s key design philosophy, let’s get this show on the road. Can the third instalment in the once-innovative action-RPG franchise possibly regain the glory of the original, while whitewashing the damage done by Invisible War? Or is Deus Ex‘s legacy doomed to suffer once more?

Story is key to the Deus Ex experience, and Human Revolution makes its first impression no different. The player is introduced to Earth, circa 2027, when technology has reached a level great enough to be used to augment and enhance human abilities. The focus shifts to our protagonist, Adam Jensen, who acts as Head of Security for Sarif Industries, a manufacturer of such augmenation technology. Adam is kind of a neutral party in this world, neither directly supporting his employer’s ideals nor joining the gathering nay-sayers in bashing the practice of altering human physiology.

All that changes when, on the night before a conference in D.C., Sarif HQ is attacked by terrorists, who proceed to destroy the company’s laboratories, kill the scientists involved (including Adam’s ex-girlfriend, Megan Reed), and even leave Adam himself critically wounded in the wreckage. With no other options, company head David Sarif orders his remaining staff to augment and rebuild Adam.

Torn by his losses, Adam is sent around the world to investigate the cause of the attack, only to find that the conspiracy is laden with ties to not only criminal and mercenary factions, but also to government and corporate bodies behind the scenes. Quite quickly, this tale of rebirth (a la Robocop) turns into a story of corporate espionage, conflicting ideologies and mass conspiracy the likes of which not even Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan could imagine in their most drug-addled states.

Luckily, these admittedly convoluted and emotionally divisive series of events tie together into an engaging and ultimately sensible narrative for a number of reasons. The greatest thing the story has going for it is that it runs with its high science-fiction concept of human augmentation, utilizing characters and scenarios to get across the sheer divisiveness of the issue. Everyone in this world has something to say about augmentation, and most of the time it works well – even when it’s heavy-handed, the player can always understand that point of view and even agree with some of them.

It’s also important that such a story be well-paced, and Eidos Interactive took this to heart. There’s a sense of dread and tension early on that leaves the player guessing what will happen next, which makes the greater number of action sequences and mind-bending reveals near the end all the more satisfying because it was set up and prepared so well.

Not to say that everything about the story works, mind you – there are a few nagging issues that will bug those more inquisitive gamers. The script, first off, is not perfect, as indicated by the previously-mentioned heavy-handedness of some moments, a lack of development for the antagonists and some questionable dialogue from time to time.

Thank goodness these moments and flaws are mainly limited to one-note characters. The way Eidos chose to portray Adam Jensen – as a down-on-his-luck man fighting without a cause, but carrying heavy morals – was brilliantly done, as were other supporting characters, most notably the enigmatic David Sarif and the mysteriously aloof news anchor Eliza Cassan.

Probably most eyebrow-raising of all is the conclusion, which is difficult to describe in terms of quality. While it does answer some questions, ties into the overall themes, and even sets up aspects of the original Deux Ex‘s story, the way that everything plays out feels…odd. Some plot devices, and even a new antagonist, come into play, thereby throwing the player’s expectations out the window, and the pseudo-choices that are ultimately presented to the player feel a bit shallow and disconnected from the franchise’s continuity, even if they have a thought-provoking message (which they all do).

Discussing anything Deux Ex-related inevitably leads to questions about its gameplay: Is it non-linear like the original? Does the player have a noticeable impact on the world? How much freedom is offered? In answer to these questions: Yes. Kind of. A lot.

Yes, Human Revolution continues the trend of structuring linear areas as non-linear playgrounds for the player (as Adam Jensen) to do as they wish – within mission parameters, of course. Jensen is sent from location to location in his investigation, carried and dropped off by a specialized pilot. His goal is to go from Point A (the landing area) to Point B (the plot-centric person, place or thing), though that is as much guidance as the player receives.

Taking a page from its own predecessor and modern RPGs in general, Human Revolution marks both main and secondary objectives with map indicators and a journal, allowing players to focus more on how to do the objectives than on which objectives to do, though there is leg-room for optional objectives to be ignored.

The game also takes its narrative themes to heart with its key mechanic: augmentation. Adam, through defeating enemies and completing objectives, gains experience points, with which he can buy upgrades called Praxis Kits. Each Kit serves as one upgrade point that can be spent on a variety of enhancements, such as cloaking technology, enhanced hacking abilities, improved aiming, and strength-boosting technology.

Upgrading augments is the key to everything here. With certain abilities unlocked, the player will have many options available to them on these missions, besides utilizing the solid variety of firearms, experimental weapons and explosives. In most given scenarios, Adam could easily use his arm blades to kill off enemies, use cloaking and sound dampening to sneak past unnoticed, go in guns-blazing, or climb through the ventilation systems – and that’s not even talking about non-lethal melee, the ability to fall from great heights and Cool-Aid Man-like wall destruction.

Choice is essential here, though consequence is also present and accounted for. Every purchase the player makes, every upgrade with Praxis Kits, every reconfiguring of the limited inventory – anything and everything the player does in this world does have an impact, a positive and negative effect that may not be initially clear. To be quite frank…this is amazing!

It’s also worth noting that not every area in the game is strictly linear. At a few times throughout the story, Jensen will either return to Detroit or make his way to Hengsha, an island near Shanghai, and will be able to explore an area of the city to take on smaller assignments and story-oriented tasks. There is a good range of jobs available here, from simple house-calls for rescued employees to uncovering portions of Jensen’s own history, and it all adds to the immersion of the world, although having plentifully populated streets and buildings with engaging people to occasionally chat with certainly helps.

Speaking of which, the dialogue and decision system is quite unique in that it doesn’t succumb to typical morality decisions. Each moment in which Jensen speaks with a key character allows for the player to choose from a number of stances – ranging from aggressive to professional – that toe the line between black-and-white morals, giving every conversation and narrative choice more of a personal weight.

Combat does require another mention, as an interesting decision was made during development: while walking/running, the player controls Jensen from a first-person perspective, complete with a sights option; when taking cover, the camera changes to the third-person, allowing Jensen to fire at enemies in a manner akin to Nathan Drake. It’s not certain who came up with this idea, but this person deserves a prize for turning what could have been a clunky, unnecessary experience into an engaging, well-implemented mechanic that deserves to be copied by other games of this calibre.

Not much more can be said about the gameplay, though it is worth mentioning one of its only notable flaws: the boss battles. It’s not that they’re bad, but they lack creativity, they are extremely frustrating in difficulty and they force the player to use only lethal methods of combat, only feeling rewarding when the boss finally dies. It could also be said that the artificial intelligence of enemies is generally questionable, but this could be explained by the use of pattern-based tactics in their programming instead of making room for dynamic strategies.

Last on the checklist is the game’s presentation, which honours the original game’s legacy – for better or worse. Graphically, the character models and environments in-game are befitting of a gritty near-future tale, but the pre-rendered visuals seem more unreal and plastic-like. What prevents me from harping on the visuals too much, though, is the art design, which draws inspiration from Blade Runner for its locales – particularly the brightly gritty Hengsha – and from Victorian fashion for some of its characters’ appearances.

As usual, sound is integral to getting the tense atmosphere right, and for lack of a better analogy, they nailed it. The tracks present in Human Revolution serve a wide range of purposes and provide a variety of different moods to the proceedings, though special mention should go to “Icarus”, the main theme which appeared in the early trailers and which is used sparingly to supplement the feeling of a world in crisis.

The individual locales feel alive with background chatter and noise, and every effect in combat and on missions sounds impressive. Most notably, the voice cast is quite well-rounded and serves their purposes well, though special mention should go to Elias Toufexis (for his low-toned, depression-meets-high-morality portrayal of Adam Jensen) and Stephen Shellen (for the charismatic and likeable, if withdrawn, David Sarif).

As a return to fame, or on its own merits, Human Revolution always has been, and always shall be, perfectly wonderful. Its heavy sense of style merges well with its no-nonsense, boundary-breaking narrative to create an experience as beautiful as it is intelligent. Despite some missteps, it still more than matches its original source in terms of depth and overall appeal, and anyone would be proud to experience this revolution.

Score: 9/10

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