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Deus Ex: Human Revolution – review

Before we get into the meat of this game, I’d like to start with the lesson I most sincerely hope every other studio takes away from Deus Ex:  Human Revolution.  How to handle morality systems.  Straight, DX:HR has the best morality system ever implemented in a game.  It handles player choices in a way that is meaningful, powerful, and allows you to genuinely effect the way the game plays out.  How does it do that?

Simple.  By not having a fucking morality system.

Yes, it’s that fucking easy.  No “good” and “bad” ratings, no little chart giving you a measure of your current state of holiness or lack thereof, no “nice guy”, “boring” and “total asswipe” conversation options.  The game simply allows you the opportunity, and control, to make your own moral choices.  It presents you with complex scenarios, and difficult decisions, and doesn’t undercut those decisions with some bullshit scoring system.  Yes, I’m fucking looking at you, Mass Effect.

In the end, it’s all about choice.  Everything in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, is about choice.  That’s what makes it such a great game; and yes, it truly is a great game.  Probably one of the best ever made.  We’re talking Portal good, Half Life good, Marathon good; we’re talking Deus Ex good.  It’s every bit the worth successor to its namesake.

The work that has gone into every inch of this game is obvious.  The menus are beautiful.  The control scheme is perfection.  The gameplay is so very, very tight.  This is a better stealth game than Splinter Cell, a better cover shooter than Gears of War, a better FPS than Battlefield or Call of Duty, and a better roleplaying game than Mass Effect.  It redefines polish, and exemplifies brilliant design.

The levels are open and sprawling, and for every way you find around a problem, you’ll go back and see five others that you’d missed.  The aesthetics are gorgeous, everything suffused with a cohesive artistic direction that expresses itself in the largest and smallest of things.  The attention to detail is mind-boggling, and even when it fails, it’s only because the attraction to peer ever closer at this incredibly well realised world must eventually lead you to the seams.

There’s a huge amount of customisation on offer as well.  The large weapon selection, huge range of mods, and massive chart of unlockable augmentations all allow you to adapt your build to suit, and evolve with, your play-style.  Best of all, the game is big enough, and the options wide enough, that you can change directions mid-stream and not be penalised for it.  At the same time, the right choices never take away the challenge.  I’m enough of an old-school roleplayer that I can destroy most levelling systems in about five minutes, and I’ve seen far too many games turn into a cakewalk after just a cursory examination of the optimal upgrades.  In DX:HR, instead of simply buffing stats, the augmentations typically serve to open up new options, rather than make the existing ones easier.  This keeps the game balanced, but rewards the choices you make.

Best of all, the combination of augs, weapons, and gameplay mechanics, all serve to maintain a punishing difficulty, whilst affording you constant opportunities to feel like a god-damned bad-ass.  Even with all the combat upgrades tweaked out, open firefights are brutal, and takes only a few hits to put you down.  But catch your enemies in a cross-fire, draw them into a trap, or drop from a hidden perch to a unleash a take-down, and you’re treated to some absolutely brutal displays of Jensen’s super-human prowess.

So where does it falter?  Well, there are some criticisms, yes.

First of all, the boss fights.  These have been repeatedly raised as a mark against the game, and I’ll add my voice to the chorus.  They just feel… out of place.  We really are talking old school Quake style boss fights here; small arenas with carefully placed cover, and bosses with attack patterns, huge numbers of hit points, and telegraphing animations.  In the second boss fight, you even get helpful advice on designated weak spots from a friendly character.  It’s a step back in time.  The only thing missing is a big red health-bar at the top of the screen.

Now my problem here isn’t actually the inclusion of the fights, in and of themselves; whilst some reviewers have bemoaned being forced into a combat situation when they really wanted to sneak their way through the entire game, I disagree.  Sooner or later, in a story like Adam Jensen’s, there will be situations where someone just wants to fucking kill you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  You want to play the entire game as a sneaky pacifist who talks his way out of problems?  That’s great.  Please feel free to explain that to the very angry and heavily augmented mercenary who is currently trying to shove a machine gun down your throat.

As a caveat to this position, let me say that there is definitely some more nuance needed on this side of things; that the fights resolve with your enemy beaten to a bloody pulp, even when the only weapon you used was a tranquiliser rifle, does break the suspension of disbelief somewhat.  For me, it wasn’t an issue, because despite going soft on most of the enemies in the game, in the boss fights I took the view that these sons of bitches killed my girlfriend, and damned if I’ll play nice with them.  Still, it takes away a choice, and that rankles in a game so fundamentally predicated on choices.

And that leads me to my real problem with the boss fights; a lack of choices.  Whilst I agree that you don’t always get to have things your way in a situation like Jensen’s, I really did feel like there simply weren’t enough ways for our hero to turn the situation to his advantage some how.  Combat focused players get everything they want in these scenes, but for the sneak, or the hacker?  Nothing.  Whilst it might be “convenient” for there to be a hackable turret in the room, or some shadows in which to conceal yourself with a sniper rifle, whilst your enemy tries to pin you down, I can’t help but feel those options would have made for much more exciting scenes.  Instead of tiny, almost purpose built arenas, and obvious attack patterns, why couldn’t we have had sprawling show-downs where a physically superior enemy tracks you through an entire complex, whilst you scramble from cover to cover, duck into shadows only to be shown up by a skilfully thrown concussion grenade or revealed by your enemies vision-augs, all the while scanning your environment for anything that might turn the tables.  Imagine the pulse pounding thrill of trying to hack a turret before the seven foot augmented killing machine bursts into the room behind you, your heart racing as the timer on each node ticks down.  Imagine hugging the walls, rolling from pillar to pillar, trying to keep out of your enemy’s sight-lines as you search for that perfect vantage from which to line up a shot.

But no.  You get to circle strafe around some pillars firing an assault rifle.  And it sucks, not because it exemplifies anything bad about the game, but rather because it strips away everything that the game does so very well.

Frankly, every other complaint feels largely like nit-picking; The voice acting is generally excellent in the main cast, but there are more than a few minor characters that feel phoned in (including several that had me thinking “Oh, hello, I remember you from Oblivion”).  The same can be said for the visuals, which are mostly top-notch, until you look a little too closely at the hideously low-res skyboxes.  And dear god, can we please stop using whatever godawful video encoder it is that every studio is using these days?  Yes, fine, you need your pre-rendered sequences to look like absolute fucking ass for the Xbox, I get that.  Can’t you just start with a fucking gorgeous hi-def .264 encode for the PC, and then re-encode it down to “dear sweet mother of god how is it possible for modern hardware to have this many artifacts, what the shit happened to the resolution, oh god my eyes?!” for the Xbox release? [Ed Note: after watching a couple of cutscenes on the 360 version, I didn’t notice much artifacting at all outside of some bad aliasing on some edges, and I sit WAY too close to my 46″ TV – doug]

What else?  The use of invisible walls rankles some, though it’s sort of understandable given the sprawling, experimental, go anywhere nature of the game.  Honestly, expecting the designers to account for and close off every possible avenue of exploration with some kind of physical deterrent would have just been silly.  Sooner or later, the game just has to say “OK, you got me, we don’t have any more map here.”

Enemy AI is mostly excellent, but only mostly.  Patrolling guards barely seem to notice if a friend fails to come back from his route, allowing you to pick off patrols one by one with hilarious ease.  Enemies react to sound with disturbing alacrity, but don’t really pay much attention to things like “Last time I looked, that door was closed, then it was open, then it was closed again… huh.”  Also, whilst I appreciate the idea of “He must be long gone by now,” the inclusion of some kind of three strike rule on alerted enemies, so that after the third incident, they just go into “someone is fucking with us here” mode would have made things a little more convincing.  Oh, and whoever designed the police station level, what the fuck was with setting all the cops to the same guard AI that everyone else uses?  When I wander into the wrong part of a police station, I expect an officer to politely but firmly show my ass to the door, not yell “There he is, get him!” and proceed to riddle my body with bullets the first time they lay eyes on me.

Whatever, it’s all just stuff to fix for the next game, whatever that might be.  Gods help me, I’ll be paying close attention to anything coming out of Eidos Montreal now; They could announce My Little Pony Horse Adventures: Equine Revolution, and I’d be all over it.  But I still haven’t even touched on my favourite part of the game, and that’s what I’d like to go out on.

The conversations.  Sweet merciful heaven the conversations are amazing.  This is the first game that has ever made me feel like I’m actually talking to somebody.  There’s no “good choice, evil choice, neutral choice” bullshit here.  Even the relatively nuanced approach of Alpha Protocol’s “choose your flavour of asshole” conversation system seems pathetic in comparison to this.

It seems simple enough; person talks, you get presented with three possible responses.  All there is to it.  Except that the responses don’t strain to fall into predefined paths; they offer genuinely nuanced approaches to a debate, argument, or negotiation.  The right choices are never obvious, and what you say carries real consequences.  In one of the earliest sequences in the game, you’re actually offered a chance to talk a hostage taker into letting his hostage go.  Success depends on both an understanding of background, drawn from intel gathering before and during the operation, and what you can tease out of him as you talk, and in reading his emotional state and body language, as he responds to your arguments.  His responses are complex, and emotionally driven, and you have to find the key to pushing him into the right way of thinking.

Me, I fucked it up.  He got away.  The hostage died.  Part of me wanted to reload, and try again, but then I thought “No.  I like this.  Let’s play on, and see Jensen carry the weight of this mistake.”  That’s perhaps what I love most about this game; it rewards success, but it also allows failure to be meaningful.  This is a game about real choices, and real consequences, and the most beautiful part is that it gives you the chance to live with them.

I’m still going over that negotiation in my head.  I’m still wondering what I could have said differently.  I’ve saved and destroyed worlds, loved and betrayed, and been betrayed, and I’ve committed, and prevented, unspeakable acts of violence and destruction in these fantasy worlds that we immerse ourselves in.  But that woman’s death, and how I might have prevented it?  That haunts me.

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