Deus Ex: Human Revolution is due for release this week, the first big title of Q3 and a sure sign (along with the ‘book your xmas party here! sign I saw last week) that the pre-Christmas games release stampede is starting. Developers at Eidos Montreal have been talking the game up a storm over the last two years since it was first announced, promising us everything from the ability to play lots of different ways and overhauled action sequences to tons of replayability. So is it a serious regime-threatening uprising or merely the equivalent of a few unenthusiastic protestors standing in the rain with badly spelled signs?
It’s a genre-defying title that’s probably best described as a sci-fi first-person shooter with stealth and RPG elements (or an action RPG with first person shooter and stealth, if you prefer). The game is set in 2027 and recent breakthroughs in science have led to the ability to augment the human body in various ways. Opinion on augmentation has divided people, much like that of stem-cell research today. While some see it as amazing that they can now transcend the limits of our frail human forms and become improved ‘models’, others are suspicious or openly hostile of the new technology. Some believe that we shouldn’t try to ‘play God’ and mess around in these matters. Even if you’re all for it, the technology is still in its infancy – the main problem is that the body eventually rejects the augmentations and those that choose to have them are dependent on a drug called Neuropozine to prevent this from happening. There’s also the question of money – augmentation doesn’t come cheap, meaning only the rich can afford augmentations that improve their abilities at work and give them the edge over their poorer counterparts. The divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ has never been wider.
To augment or to not augment, that is the question
There’s been a massive increase in terrorism, with new groups like anti augmentation extremists Purity First springing up worldwide in protest against the new technology and the world seems as if it on the verge of anarchy. People also seem to enjoy wearing strange neckwear.
The third game in the Deus Ex series, Human Revolution is actually a prequel to the first two games, Deus Ex (2000) and Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003). It’s set some 25 years before the events of the first Deus Ex. You play as Adam Jensen, the head of security at experimental biotech company Sarif Industries. In the prologue of the game, you are escorting one of the company’s top scientists, Dr Megan Reed (also, coincidentally your ex) to a conference in Washington. As you’re finalizing the security detail for the trip, the lab is attacked by unknown assailants. You put up a valiant fight, but in the end, the labs are utterly destroyed and everyone inside is killed. You should have died too, but you survive – your employers at Sarif kindly decide to use you as a guinea pig for extreme augmentation. Six months later, another Sarif lab has been infiltrated, so you’re off sick leave and duly dispatched to sort it out.
The interesting, thought-provoking story in the game is a big bonus and everything is well-written and avoids clichés, from the cut scenes to the numerous books filled with background info you can pick up and read, the emails you can hack into people’s computers and read and the conversations you have with other characters through your brain implant.
What does it mean to be human?
The game raises many questions that will stay with you for a long time after you set down your controller – what does it mean to be human? If we were able to augment our bodies to give ourselves super-human abilities, would we lose our humanity? Is human knowledge of science and technology just like ‘an axe in the hands of a psychopath’? Is change always good or is there ever a time to backtrack and stop progress in a certain field?
The characters are also never black and white – you can find something to like and something to despise in them all, whether it’s the irritating IT guy, Frank Pritchard, who keeps eavesdropping on your conversations and making whiny requests, or the fearless helicopter pilot Faridah Malik who extracts you from your missions, but is somewhat unhealthily fixated upon revenge. The game is very good at showing you the good and bad in all the characters and rather than cut-out cardboard heroes, you very much get the impression that the characters are really human, flawed but likeable nonetheless.
The game does a good job of balancing action and cut scenes/non-action sequences like dialogue. It feels like there’s a satisfying amount of both and the changes in pace seem to come at just the right time. Once you start feeling tired of having to look round every corner and sneak about, there’s a boss battle. Once you’re bored of exploring virtual cities and longing to shoot something again, you have the option to continue with your next mission. It’s the kind of game Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots should have been, if it hadn’t become so self-indulgent and instead foisted upon gamers literally hours of cut-scenes and very little actual gameplay inbetween. Unlike Guns of the Patriots, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is finely balanced with short cut scenes and very little time where you’re not actually in control. Even if you’re having a conversation with a character, you need to direct the conversation by following it closely and working out the best response to get them to do what you want, so it definitely feels like you’re playing a game rather than watching a movie.
Run amok in two very different cities
There are two main ‘base’ playgrounds to explore in the game – Detroit, which is home to Sarif Industries’ HQ and Shanghai, where you follow a lead and go deeper down the rabbit-hole. Both civilian cities are a decent size, but also rendered in a nice amount of detail, so they don’t sacrifice a bigger play area with ‘cookie cutter’ style buildings that really add nothing to the gameplay other than greater distance between two places you can actually go inside. If you stop to chat with NPCs, they all have something different to say or their own opinion on whatever’s going on, even if it’s only one sentence.
While you’re in the city as opposed to off on a mission, you can either blitz through the game by just finishing the main mission and jumping in your helicopter, or you can take your time and take on side missions to flesh out the story. Once again, in Deus Ex you won’t find a mind-boggling array of extra quests to take on, but the few you do find are proper quests, not arbitrary fetch tasks or the like. Whether it’s tracking down a private detective to find out what dirt he’s got on you or sneaking in to an organised crime boss’s apartment and chucking him off his balcony to make it look like suicide, there’s no repetition here. Everything feels fresh and reveals interesting info and has consequences. When I socially engineered my way into the Detroit police station by blackmailing an old colleague, I reassured him that no one would ever find out. Unfortunately, they did, and he lost his job as a result, so he came to my apartment to kill me. I failed to rescue hostages and had to break the news that her husband had been killed to his heartbroken widow.
Newsrooms, gang hangouts and offices are your battlegrounds
Once you’re done in the city, you’ll be airlifted to a ‘battleground’ area where your main objective is generally to find something or someone – a missing scientist, perhaps, or a newsreader who seems to know more about events than she’s letting on. The place will be crawling with enemies, and one of the big promises the developers have made about this game is that there will generally be more than one way to achieve your objectives. There are what they call four gameplay ‘pillars’ (let’s call them elements instead) – combat, stealth, social and hacking. For example, you can hack a computer and turn the gun turrets and robots on your enemies, search around for a way to your destination through the air vents, watch the patrol patterns of the guards and make your way undetected to your destination or go in with all guns blazing. In reality, it’s not so much that you can always choose, but that you’ll have to become proficient at all of them to progress in the game.
As a gamer, I’m more of a shooter than someone who really enjoys sneaking around, but some areas were just so riddled with enemies and had no other access routes that being stealthy is the only option. I enjoy having long conversations with characters and prefer socially engineering my way to my goal rather than infiltrating it and having to hide from view the whole time, but there’s not the option to say, tap a strategically-placed guard on the shoulder and slip him some credits for him to look the other way, so I have to sometimes fight or creep my way through certain areas. If you don’t like fighting, you’re stuffed, because there are some tough boss battles to get through, and these can’t be skipped.
I loved the hacking minigame and exploring every nook and cranny of the environments through the various vents and ladders, but this compulsive hacking of every terminal I came across and completionist exploration is not necessary to the game – it’s stealth and combat that are really what you need. Likewise, you can’t avoid conversations or hacking entirely even if that kind of thing’s not your bag and you want to get straight to the action, so the promise of being able to play the game the way you want is slightly shallow. Rather, it’s a well-rounded game that will keep you interested as it doesn’t just focus on one core gameplay mechanic – like fighting — but mixes things up and lets you play a bit of everything.
The gameplay has been tweaked in a number of ways from the two previous games in the series – this time round, as in many first-person shooters, your health automatically regenerates over time if you can manage to not get shot for a while. However, there are still a number of consumables you can pick up and stash in your inventory – particularly recommended for boss fights – like painkillers and whisky, which instantly regenerate health for you when you’re in a fix. This caused furore when it was announced, but after getting hands-on I definitely think this way of playing is an improvement, as it means there’s rarely a point where you can’t retreat and rethink things if you’re overwhelmed and that you don’t have to be constantly using and stashing healing items. Items you can interact with are also now highlighted, making it easier to figure out once you’ve ‘done’ a room and allows you to sweep it quickly and can move on.
When they rebuilt Adam, they went over the top with augmentations, adding the options for him to tap into a wide variety of special abilities. However, the scientists turned most of these off when they brought him out of the coma, as it was believed that allowing him access to them all on at once would be dangerous to his psyche. This is where the role-playing elements come in. Throughout the game, there are a finite amount of Praxis points that you can get your grubby mitts on – there’s a limited number for sale from Limb clinics, some characters will give them to you in reward for helping them out and you also get one automatically every time you level up.
The abilities you choose really count
You can use these points to unlock all kinds of abilities – for example, falling any distance without being hurt, expanding your inventory capacity, improving your radar and giving yourself less chance of being caught whilst hacking. Although it’s tempting to spend them buying new goodies as soon as you get them, I learned that it’s better to let them stack up and then analyse difficult situations and decide what will best help you out. During one boss fight, I kept almost winning until the assassin electrocuted the floor and I’d die instantly every time, the little cheat. Luckily I had some Praxis points left over, so I bought the ability that makes me immune to electrical attacks and then finished her off.
While many games have some kind of ‘skill tree’ this one is very well done, and a limited number of Praxis points mean that you have to sacrifice some of your abilities in order to use others. These abilities aren’t inconsequential add-ons but have real consequences for gameplay. For example, if you don’t have the appropriate hacking skill, you won’t be able to hack certain terminals. If you do, you can control the robots and turrets and turn them on their enemies, making your life a lot easier. If you can’t do that, you’re going to have to find some other way of dealing with them, as they are more or less indestructible and pack some serious firepower.
The game uses a heavily modified version of the Tomb Raider: Underworld engine (although the games are really nothing alike), moving away from the Unreal engines that powered the first two titles. The graphics are stellar – Shanghai and Detroit are both refreshingly different locales to wander around. Shanghai is full of market stalls, small noodle shops and winding backstreets, while Detroit is a dystopian future version of the current city, featuring apartments with bars on the windows and doors, black market shops in burned out petrol stations and the imposing Sarif Industries edifice. Just taking some time out and exploring various locations is extremely rewarding – each office is different and tells you something about its owner, and each apartment that you can visit is unique. The soundtrack is also worthy of a pat on the back, created by veteran composer Michael McCann, who also worked on Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent. It really makes the mood – for example, when I first entered the final level at the communications tower, it became so menacing that I felt genuinely afraid of what would be round the next corner. The voice acting is also top notch.
It’s no surprise that Deus Ex: Revolution is a top quality game that will certainly be a serious contender for game of the year. It’s good to see that it’s maintained the standards set by the previous two games – which admittedly, set the bar quite high. It has everything a gamer could want – a fascinating back-story, realistic characters, great graphics and sound, adrenalin-pumping action alongside more slow-paced, thoughtful stealth options, side quests if you want them, a satisfyingly amount of hours in a playthrough and replayability. It’s hard to find anything but minor quibbles with it. Really the only bad thing about the game was that it had to end.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is out on August 26 in the UK for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC platforms.