Systemic Control

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Screenshot

HIGH The game is a stealth throwback in the best way possible.

LOW The decidedly dated-looking character models.

WTF I want to punch narrative NPCs!

A few hours into Deus Ex: Human Revolution, cybernetically augmented protagonist Adam Jensen returns home to his sullen apartment in the middle of downtown Detroit for the first time in the game.

"Welcome home, Mr. Jensen," a female AI voice greets him when he enters.

Slats of gritty, filtered light stream in from the windows as layered pane coverings are electronically lifted and folded, illuminating the room's bleak, ornate interior design. Outside, the golden-hued haze of a dismal cityscape floats in the distance.

The scene itself is incidental, as players will come to learn when the same song and dance is repeated whenever Jensen finds himself (however briefly) in the confines of his own home—and yet the moment, owing much of its moodiness and aesthetic to Blade Runner, is striking. This is what we expect from popularized cyberpunk: the foreboding clash of high-rise geometry and dingy slums most famously visualized by Ridley Scott is echoed in details like the hobos huddled around oil drum fires in Detroit's alleys and sewers, or in Jensen's smashed bathroom mirror that hangs unfixed, reminiscent of Rick Deckard's unkempt hovel itself.

This is the future, and it's not necessarily a pretty one. Social unrest is on the rise as rival ideologies debate whether augmentation lets science play God, and how the technology's existence serves to drive a wedge between two increasingly disparate classes. Should enhancing one's natural-born abilities through biotechnology be subject to government regulation? Is it morally right to promote a technology causing disparity between the augmentation—qualified rich and the "pure" lower classes? Perhaps augmentation shouldn't exist at all?

These are some of the questions and concepts Human Revolution brings to the forefront after Jensen is left for dead after the attack of a terrorist cell. Incurring near-lethal injuries, he hangs on, barely, and is given augments to save his life; the tragedy is that the then-dying Jensen had no choice in undergoing augmentation, but the irony is that in a world of seemingly unyielding outside influence, Human Revolution has been built from the ground up for Jensen alone.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Screenshot

The legacy of the original Deus Ex can be blamed for this. Its open-ended design was far ahead of its time, and allowed players to approach almost any situation in a variety ways. This kind of player agency is taken for granted in modern times but in 2000 it was unheard of, and interestingly, the architectural and AI-based fabrics woven into Human Revolution's structural tapestry wouldn't exist without Jensen's presence. If a player can hack into someone's apartment, there's a sidequest that will eventually take them there. If one chooses to speak with a random NPC, the inane babble is just enough to give texture and detail to the scene. If there's an object to interact with, its purpose is to provide quest progression (or the illusion of it).

I would imagine that one of the biggest hurdles for Deus Ex newcomers would be to continually re-train themselves to accept that this isn't an open world experience, nor is it supposed to be. Human Revolution only gives a small cross-section of its universe's fiction, allowing free reign for players to do what they will within the limitations of Eidos Montreal's programming reach. This is not an infinitely dynamic sandbox, and the developers never promised anything to that effect. However, if breaking into people's storage spaces, reading meaningless personal emails and punching random civilians in the middle of a conversation is desired, it can be done.

Human Revolution is comfortable in the skin of its forerunners; in many ways, it's a style of game that isn't made anymore. This means there are some elements to take with a grain of salt.

The AI is often aggressively, offensively inept. Similarly, the same rules that give players the option to storm a room (and perhaps die trying) or swiftly move out of sight from behind cover means that Eidos Montreal often leaves the game's computational innards exposed as the series of basic, in-tandem gameplay systems they are.

Furthermore, aside from traditional combat elements (guards with steadfast patrol routes, cooldown timers for enemy alerts, etc.,) the game's social system, which theoretically allows you to talk your way out of some situations, is a little downplayed and  any current expectations of Bioware-esque social depth should be thrown out the window. Choice is still integral to the Human Revolution experience, but it's more like the difference between having involved conversations with every NPC or listening to one-off responses.

The game's moral choices more often than not boil down to a yes or no decision that will (or won't) net experience. The consequence of not helping someone is a disappointed canned reaction from whoever sought your assistance and a penalty of less credits or Praxis points for upgrades to Jensen's various augmentations. For a generation used to the (admittedly still binary) social system in, say, Mass Effect, conversation as solely a means to an end will definitely feel as though it's pushing up against the furthest boundaries Human Revolution allows within this gameplay style; compared to one's ability to choose play styles in other areas of the game, this almost feels like a misstep.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Screenshot

The exceptions to these simplistic encounters are essentially "social boss battles"—isolated revelatory scenarios which task Jensen with attempting to convince an adversary to give up important information or otherwise change their opinions on the topic at hand. These all-too-rare argumentative confrontations are some of the most fascinating moments of the game, and Jensen's only weapons are a somewhat vague personal bio/trait list of the "boss", and, if upgraded, an analysis augmentation that allows the release of pheromones that can convince characters to reveal their secrets. Unfortunately these "battles" are usually optional; the use of Jensen's augmented silver tongue is rarely the only solution, which means that conversational tactics are left near the bottom of Human Revolution's menu of options to choose from.

Social elements aside, the game's true test is satisfying different player types. I spent my hard-earned Praxis points on streamlined stealth and covert ops augmentations, providing me with vastly improved hacking abilities, stealth camo, the ability to see through walls and other real-time recon skills. Watching a friend play was almost like watching a different game—he repeatedly burst into crowded rooms with nothing but a handful of shotgun shells and some bravado and was often able to merc everyone without much more than a scratch. The difference was like comparing the plodding movement of a glacier to a high-speed tank charging into the fray.

The triumph of this system is that players can only pick one approach or the other (or be somewhere in the middle with both) since there won't be enough experience to completely max out character skills by the end of the game. Fortunately, if a player is without certain skills in the waning hours of Human Revolution's campaign, Eidos Montreal has been careful to avoid creating any scenarios where the player can't progress.

For example, if a player finds themselves in, say, a maximum security facility without the necessary high level hacking skills to reprogram turrets or open locked doors, there's always a different way to go. It may be a much longer and more difficult route, but the consequences of personal choices made must be accepted. On the other hand, the actual combat-oriented boss fights are a bit unbalanced in this context; stealth players will need to be very quick on their feet to survive. In addition, the game's final area overflows with erratic enemies that act differently than anything encountered previously, a move that feels lazy and controller-throwingly cheap. Nevertheless, these are minor missteps.

On the whole, Deus Ex: Human Revolution expects the player to handle their own progression appropriately and hand-holding is kept to a minimum. Given the often-commonplace mentality that many modern games should lead players around by the nose to one degree or another, having the guts to return to a philosophy of personal responsibility and choice isn't just smart—it's appreciated. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained by the publisher and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 30 hours of play were devoted to the single-player campaign, which was completed.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: blood, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol. Human Revolution carries a Mature rating; there are non-sexual encounters with prostitutes and sexual themes are occasionally discussed, although nothing especially graphic; the script has also has a fair amount of strong language and intense violence; the latter is mostly reserved for blood in the absence of graphic displays of gore. Finally, protagonist Adam Jensen can consume alcohol. This is by no means the most offensive M-rated game, but parents are still encouraged to use discretion.

Deaf and hard of hearing: Nearly the entire game supports subtitles, though oddly not in any of the game's somewhat rare rendered cut-scenes. However, noise can be an issue when dealing with stealth scenarios. Additionally, any information missed in in cut-scenes is recapped in a summary when continuing a game from the title screen.

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Mike Doolittle
Mike Doolittle
11 years ago

This game is a weird mix of old and new, dated in some ways but forward-thinking in others. I completely agree with the AI issues; it’s pretty atrocious. But my biggest gripe was that there are major balance issues with the augmentations. Several of them are highly useful while several others are practically useless regardless of the path you choose. Cloaking in particular is a complete wash, sprinting doesn’t add much of anything to the game, and adding extra power cells isn’t practical either since you have to scavenge for food to keep them full. Conversely, maxing out the stealth… Read more »