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Deus Ex: Human Revolution

(Square Enix; US: 23 Aug 2011)

So, I should begin by saying that I never played Deus Ex: Invisible War and that I haven’t played the original Deus Ex since its release in 2000.  As a result, I am unaware of any direct relationships between the plots of the various games, and my feelings about the way that the gameplay compares to the original are related only to distant memories of that original foray into Deus Ex‘s world of science-fiction-themed espionage.  I do recall, of course, that Deus Ex was (and still is) a game much celebrated for its innovations in allowing players a wide variety of choices in approaching and solving problems in a game world, and I do remember that I loved the game when I played it over a decade ago.  However, I only have the vaguest sense of the story and gameplay that I remember thinking was so unique at the time.


That being said, the more that I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the more the original title and its style came back to me.  It was familiar little bits that I recognized: collecting passwords and passcodes that might be useful later, finding fixed pads containing information on the world, “cybering up” to jump higher, hack more effectively, and the like, and just generally really stopping to consider my options every time that I approached a new room full of enemies that wanted nothing more than to seek me out and annihilate me.


However, the game doesn’t begin this way.  The opening set piece that establishes the motivation for the player’s avatar, Adam Jensen, serves as a tutorial that didn’t do much to reaffirm my faith in my fond memories of Deus Ex.  Playing through the opening scene, I feared that I was playing some sort of mediocre shooter and maybe that the years had not been kind to Deus Ex‘s mechanics.  The game is a bit of a slow starter.


The first main story mission then sort of re-introduced what I felt to be the core of Deus Ex-style gameplay.  Deus Ex is a game of infiltration whether you decide to perform that infiltration as a sneaky and silent killer, a hacker extraordinaire that uses an installation’s electronic defenses against it, or whether your form of “infiltration” is to muscle through with heavy firepower.  This first extended mission, though, felt too straightforward, too by-the-numbers, as “alternate routes” seemed like the only real paths through the level and, thus, that Deus Ex‘s much vaunted “choices” were only being served up as an illusion of choice, a nod to the original’s innovation. 


Yeah, yeah, of course I would be crawling through the ventilation system to circumvent that room.  I have nowhere near the firepower or sneaking skills to make my way past a room full of five heavily armed opponents.  No real choice there, I thought.


However, this “slowness” in re-introducing the idea of building a character your way and then approaching various situations in the way that seems most expedient to you was just that: a slow build up.  The game’s developers seem to have been wise enough to recognize that if you are going to build a slow leveling-up system into a game like Human Revolution that you don’t just throw the most difficult scenarios at the player outright; they need to gain some skills first (through the obvious RPG-style character building), but also some experience in approaching the game’s problems by just dealing with some simple problems initially.  The nice thing about the gameplay in this iteration of Deus Ex is that it builds up alongside your own character’s development.  As you “cyber up” by spending points to augment Adam, the game ramps up in complexity alongside you and grows in its capacity to serve up satisfying situations to resolve.


This, I believe, was the the great strength of the original game—the idea that a video game with action doesn’t have to be about having tremendous reflexes or a really long health bar.  Instead, Deus Ex and this sequel really do place the emphasis in combat on strategy, with each room in an installation causing the player to pause to consider the “puzzle” of combat before attempting to execute a reasonable solution to the problem at hand.  This emphasis allows for “skills” that are not normally required for most modern shooters, like, say, a Call of Duty game.  Exploration, for example, is not only handy, it is vital to survive and may lead to unheard of solutions, like *gasp* avoiding killing everyone in a room for the sake of practicality, expediency, and the mission.  Human Revolution, like its predecessor, is still the thinking man’s combat simulation.


That being said, there is a real trial-and-error quality of play that is reminiscent of PC games of a previous generation.  You can save anywhere in the 360 version (which is the version that I played) of Human Revolution, which is kind of a required component of play, since you are going to run into some situations very much half cocked and get yourself summarily dispatched as a result.  I longed for a quick save feature coupled with a less arduous reload of save files, as making mistakes is definitely part of the process in playing the game.  I suspect that had I played on a PC, I would be scoring this game higher just for that very reason (and since I am recommending the game one way or the other because it really is very, very good, I guess what I am trying to say is that you probably want to play the PC version if you have the option). 


On a console, you will probably be spending more time than you want to watching load screens that are just long enough to aggravate (and aggravate even moreso if you reload after failing to execute a plan and then your reload leads to you blundering it again almost immediately, which will, again, probably happen a lot).  With quick saves and shorter reloads, this process becomes just a part of play, but with teeth gratingly slow loads, it just becomes unnecessarily tedious.


Nevertheless, my impatience with loading times does not trump the sheer joy of traversing a room that you thought would be impossible to get through because you discovered some fiendishly clever way to take advantage of a hacked turret or just the right time to engage your cloaking field or just pulled off a wicked tranquilizer takedown of three guards.  In this regard, I feel pretty sure that the mid to late game of Human Revolution is a real clear successor to the strengths of the original title.  The deeper you get into the game, the more rewarding the play becomes.


Beyond clearly being indebted to that predecessor’s game design, Human Revolution also wears its narrative inspirations on its sleeve.  The plot (especially initially) has a very similar structure to the original game: get introduced to the folks you’re working for, get a sense of the world and its politics and how some of those politics might not mesh with the position of those you work for, get a sense that there isn’t something quite right about who you are working for, oh, and then go overseas for some reason.  It does diverge in some ways from that kind of set up, but the “don’t trust anyone in authority” vibe of its cyberpunk forebears is definitely still at play here.  The other very specific influence that one can’t avoid seeing in the game’s themes and aesthetics is Blade Runner


The “augs” transitioning from flesh and blood to transhuman cyborgs, which Adam shares much in common with himself but that he is also facing off against, have some striking similarities to the replicants in Ridley Scott’s film.  While Adam is a rather stoic and efficient operative (stuck with a stock faux Clint Eastwood mumble/growl whenever he opens his mouth), he, nevertheless, is clearly having a bit of an existential crisis of sorts a la Harrison Ford‘s Deckard.  Like that character, he is questioning his own humanity in relation to “things,” the other augs, (and maybe himself, too) that resemble the human but might also be becoming something much more.  Oh, and, man, does Adam’s apartment resemble Deckard’s apartment, including even the slanting of electric light through its windows, barely illuminating his darkened living space.  The game is dark like Blade Runner, moodily musically scored like Blade Runner, and its characters brood like the characters of Blade Runner


However, this is all good because the major themes of Human Revolution absolutely relate to the dialogue created by the work of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson and also Scott’s movie about what it means to be human in a world where man is capable of redefining humanity through technologies that enhance strangth, speed, and perception beyond what might be deemed “natural.”  Despite some uneven voice acting, the main plot is both a good thriller and good sci-fi, engaging with questions that still haven’t been fully resolved, despite the wave of cyberpunk of the 1980s and 1990s that attempted to eke out some answers about humans’ relationship to (and especially integration with) technology. 


Matching the gameplay itself, while the world is fairly open, as it offers the opportunity to locate some side missions by engaging with NPCs in several cities that serve as transition points between the main infiltration missions, these missions do add less toHuman Revolution, though, as they tend to trot out some rather tired video game cliches and stock characters. 


Yes, you can run a mission or two out of a brothel for a working girl concerned about the safety of one of her fellow hookers.  Ho hum.  And, yes, one of your allies at Sarif industries has an old friend’s murder that she wants you to look into because “something doesn’t feel right about it.”  Mmm hmmm.  These aren’t the game’s best moments and serve to distract from the much more tightly plotted and definitely more interesting central storyline. 


And it is a storyline worth pursuing through its multi-pathed endings partly because it is good and largely because that pursuit grows increasingly more challenging and more worthwhile through truly interesting gameplay.  Traditionally, the release of a Madden title marks the beginning of the holiday game season, but with Human Revolution‘s release coming a week earlier than Madden, it feels like the arrival of strong triple-A releases for the holiday season are maybe already being indicated by this release.  If the quality of Deus Ex is an indicator of this year’s crop, it could be a very good season for gamers this year.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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