‘Did you manage to smooth talk your way past the Detroit PD desk sergeant?’ ‘Who? I went in through the roof.’
‘How did you take out the Tai Young Medical forces at the Alice Garden Pods?’ ‘Oh, I didn’t; I snuck past and out through an air vent.’
‘Did you deactivate the laser grid or use invisibility to slip through undetected?’ ‘Nope. I hacked a turret, used augmented strength to carry it, and let it blast any guards who were stupid enough to get in my way.’
And so it goes. Although all conversations lead to the same conclusion – Human Revolution’s narrative is largely set in stone – your discussions with fellow players will inevitably expose the extent to which Eidos Montreal has empowered the player within the context of gameplay. Strategies you never thought of will reveal themselves, tales of proximity mines placed under alarm panels or the stacking of crates to discover a concealed vent enlightening you to the possibilities that exist beyond the one way you chose to play the game.
The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree – Deus Ex: Human Revolution has inherited the best qualities from its forebear, engendering the same kind of discussions we had on the playground following our experiences with the genre-defying hybrid of game types that was the original Deus Ex. Human Revolution hasn’t been neutered or simplified for a less patient audience, and it remains a game through which the path is defined by the player, not the developer. It’s the game that Alpha Protocol wanted to be, but with the budget and manpower to pull off the trickier elements of design.
You’re Adam Jensen, the gruff-voiced Sarif Industries security chief with a chip on his shoulder, having been augmented up to the eyeballs (and pretty much every other body part) following a terrorist attack on his employer’s headquarters. It’s this attack that sets the narrative in action, Jensen searching for the perpetrators in an investigation that takes him to Detroit, Shanghai and later in the game, on a short sojourn to Montreal.
Human Revolution’s world is at once impressive and hollow. The sodium yellow-soaked hubs of Detroit and Shanghai are well designed and easy on the eye, feeling like slightly larger and more lavishly detailed versions of Mass Effect 2’s Elysium and Omega hubs. These are more than city blocks, they’re sprawling and explorable in an unhurried way, but like Deus Ex’s inferior sequel Invisible War the feeling is one of moving around a sound stage – it’s a world without real life or animation.
More attention has been poured over the aesthetic than the ambience, with Human Revolution’s muffled golds, browns and yellows draped over architecture that utilitarian in some places, opulent and baroque in others. The characters that inhabit this world are similarly contradictory, animated with all the authenticity of the CG characters in Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing video, but dressed like they’ve walked out of a Matrix meets The Merchant Of Venice crossover universe. The style is all collars and ruffles that for the most part stray just the right side of cool, the exception being David Sarif, who appears to have fashioned his jerkin out of origami.
And as we’ve all suspected for some time it’s impossible to deny that Blade Runner has had something of an impact on Deus Ex’s fashion and atmosphere. Jensen’s apartment is pure Deckard, and the reflected ripples of water on the walls of Picus’s news station are as unexplainable here as they are in Eldon Tyrell’s shadowy office. It’s in this world that Eidos weaves a story of biotech corporations, terrorist groups and government agencies; one where information has become a weapon of mass destruction, and augmented humans are a new and terrifying frontier. Think X-Men with the mutants replaced by cyborgs.
The main story fails to find an interesting foothold in this world, which is partly the fault of Adam Jensen, a protagonist with all the character of a discarded packet of soy food. It’s the fringes of the story that are more interesting, with eBooks and computer monitors fleshing out a world that’s more interesting than the narrative occurring within it. The central theme of transhumanism is filtered through everything from domestic arguments heard behind closed doors (how can sex be pleasurable when your partner’s half-robot?) all they way up to geopolitics (how can humans live in peace when some are ‘better’ than others?) but it doesn’t bleed through into the main story, which busies itself mostly with tired conspiracies. The themes feel underplayed and the story contrived, the story Eidos moulds out of its world passing by without leaving much of a lasting impression. What does stick with you is the gameplay and the encounters you take with you to the water cooler.
This isn’t BioShock. Combat is much more straightforward than 2K’s game – you can shoot, use explosives, or employ vicious takedown moves to remove human obstacles, but Eidos doesn’t imbue its weapon set with the same kind of experimental playfulness found in titles like BioShock 2. You can toy with combining proximity mines and grenades, or hack turrets to focus their fire on enemies if you have the right augmentation, but by and large the combat experience here is about that which you have in your hand rather than what you can exploit in the world around you.
Choice in Human Revolution is based around navigation and proximity – provoking a fight or doing your best to avoid one and the means by which you do so. Eidos Montreal clearly favours the second option over the first. Attempt to play Human Revolution like a standard FPS and you’ll find enemies that command pinpoint accuracy, bullets that make quick work of your health bar, and environments that offer up only meagre portions of ammunition. As such all-out combat feels less like a viable alternative and more of a Plan B that should only be resorted to only once stealth has failed.
Human Revolution’s predilection for stealth is evident in the computers that quietly wait to be hacked, the cover-to-cover system that mimics the predatory stealth of Splinter Cell: Conviction, and the abundant ventilation ducts that challenge even Batman: Arkham Asylum in their numbers. You could waste bullets and the upper hand by blasting everything in sight, but why bother when there’s so much more offered in sticking to the shadows?
The central conceit of Deus Ex, its augmentations, dictate your capabilities and angles of approach, and they certainly seem to be weighted towards a more reserved style of play. There are subdermal implants that increase your resilience to damage, strength augs that reduce weapon recoil or heighten accuracy, and the 360-degree takedown Typhoon Explosive System, but these feel less useful within Human Revolution’s framework than those augmentations that keep you one step ahead of the game rather than with two feet planted within it.
The strength aug that enables you to carry objects larger and heavier than Jenson is far more useful than one that reduces recoil, in that you often find new passageways or vents hidden behind vending machines and refrigerators throughout the game. Similarly, the ability to blast through walls is less effective as a method of taking out enemies than it is a way of opening up new angles of approach.
The ability to cloak for very brief periods of time; to mark targets Crysis-style or view them through walls; to dampen the sound you make while running; to hack computers faster and more efficiently; to land without receiving damage or jump several feet higher – all these augmentations open up the world rather than narrowing it to focus solely on combat.
The more augmentations you purchase using Praxis Points – and we should point out, it’s impossible to upgrade everything no matter how much XP you gain via missions and side quests, so what and how you upgrade are significant choices – the more impressive Human Revolution becomes. Environments become playgrounds, each room a new puzzle. How can you get from this stairwell to that one without arousing any suspicion? How can you remove that guard without announcing your presence to the others? Deus Ex becomes a game of gut instinct, observation, timing and patience, all given an extra edge by the variables your chosen clutch of augmentations bring to the equation.
Eidos Montreal does something very clever with these special abilities, in that it limits them quite ruthlessly. When you start the game you have but two battery slots that will deplete when augmentations or even one-hit takedowns are put into action. Praxis Points can be used to increase this number to five, but only the first will recharge. The others must be refilled by eating nutrient bars or larger tubs of what looks like bodybuilding protein, which aren’t liberally placed around levels.
What this does, along with the scarcity of ammunition, is prevent you from turning into a human bomb, skewering men or punching through walls on a whim. It forces you to be inventive with your movement and violence, to thinking around situations rather than leap into the fray. You won’t hack computers or read every pocket secretary just because you can, but because deactivating security cameras or unlocking doors conserves energy in the long run. Enemies are taken out efficiently and silently because an open firefight could see you quickly running out of ammunition. Routes are devised around enemies rather than through them because every item in your inventory feels precious. It’s a game about improvising with a limited toolset, and it’s this core piece of design that makes Deus Ex feel like Deus Ex.
The details of Human Revolution may be different than the game that inspired it, but the fundamentals are not. The world, the systems of play, and yes, even the clunky dialogue and caricatured characters are all reminiscent of the game we played 11 years ago. Naturally, none of it feels as fresh or as inventive as it did back at the turn of the millennium, and developers like Ken Levine and Todd Howard have taken the concepts introduced in the original Deus Ex into far more inventive and exciting territory than showcased here in Human Revolution. There are significant issues with Eidos Montréal’s approach to boss fights too – several are encountered in the game and they’re easily the low points. The difficulty spikes therein, the poorly telegraphed one-hit kills they deliver, and the fact that overcoming them feels like breaking the game rather than working within it are all traits that have no place in a Deus Ex title.
But looking at the larger picture Eidos Montreal has still proven itself more than capable of making an old template feel workable in a new generation. It’s made an homage to if not an evolution of Deus Ex – a slicker and better-looking game that stays true to the spirit of the original’s freeform play without pandering to a new and less attentive audience.
It may not be as revelatory an experience, and in today’s age feels as derivative as it does inventive, but it still has us excitingly discussing tactics and angles of approach with fellow players long after we’ve finished playing. Surely there’s no greater testament to Eidos Montreal’s success than that.