Let’s get this out of the way immediately: No, Deus Ex: Human Revolution will not blow your mind or rock your world the way the original Deus Ex did so many years ago. But, really, how could it? Deus Ex has become such an icon of groundbreaking videogame design that a choir of angels practically appears every time someone mentions its name. So, no, Human Revolution isn’t going to change your life, but that doesn’t mean it’s not looking incredibly damn good.
Fair warning: Beyond this point lie spoilers, some more major than others. If you want to go into Human Revolution with a completely blank slate, I’d encourage you to go read something else. Before you go, however, know this: Human Revolution feels like Deus Ex. It’s flashier, certainly, and has elements that have become commonplace in gaming (thanks in no small part to the influence of its legendary predecessor), so it’s not quite as breathtaking as the original was, but it’s Deus Ex, alright.
The game begins in 2027 and humanity is at a turning point. A group of scientists from biotech firm Sarif Industries are preparing for a trip to Washington where they are scheduled to testify about their research, which the head of the company, David Sarif, refers to as “unlocking the potential of our own DNA.” You are Adam Jensen, security specialist for Sarif Industries and ex-squeeze of Dr. Meg Reed, whose research led to the big breakthrough that’s causing all the hubbub. After a brief look around her office, during which you can learn about a test subject who seems unusually well-suited to receiving physical augmentations (gee, wonder who that could be), Meg leads you through the halls of Sarif and does her best to convince you (and quite likely herself) that her research will be put to a use other than military offensive might.
Shortly after you part ways, mercenaries break in, bust up the joint, grab Meg and leave you for dead. You’re repaired, Six Million Dollar Man-style, and six months later return to work – coincidentally right before Sarif is due to go back to Washington. (You also seem to have healed awfully quickly. How very interesting.) Your boss wants you to meet him on the helipad, but it’s worth poking around HQ a bit first. A bit of surreptitious email hacking and straight-up eavesdropping reveals that someone’s been stealing drugs, and your nemesis, head nerd Francis Pritchard wants to discredit you by finding the culprit before you do. There are some doors just begging to be opened, too, but you don’t have much time to muck about before Sarif is in your ear bugging you to get to the choppa with all due speed. It turns out that “purists” have raided the Serif factory that’s making the Typhoon (an augment that launches mini explosives in a 360-degree arc), and taken a bunch of employees working overtime as hostages. Sarif wants you to go in and secure the Typhoon before SWAT gets sent in. Why? Interesting question. As for the hostages, if you can save them, so much the better, but if not … it’ll be time for a few more memorials at Sarif Industries.
This is the first true mission of the game, and as might be expected from a Deus Ex title, there are many ways to tackle it. First, you must choose how you’d like to go in: lethal or non-lethal. Then you must decide if you want a short-range or long-range weapon. For my first playthrough, I opted for non-lethal with a long-range tranq gun, which was incredibly difficult, but satisfying. There are ducts to crawl through,computers to hack, turrets to overtake and cameras to switch off. I failed repeatedly, but that allowed me to explore areas in different ways. It got to the point that I would clear a room, then go looking for all of the other options that I could’ve pursued, had I just thought of it or felt like it. I was impressed by the number of options available to me in each area. I could shimmy through a duct and drop down on the far side of a large crate, out of guards’ lines of sight, or I could simply pick them off from between the slats in a vent. Or I could skip the duct entirely and just come in through the door.
Silent takedowns are key to succeeding when trying the stealth route; if you sneak up on an enemy, you can choose to kill him by hitting one button, or simply knock him out by hitting a different button. Either way, you’ll probably have to stash the body, because guards tend to notice when their comrades are lying prone on the floor. I tripped many, many alarms by figuring that the AI was too stupid to notice that that fella across the warehouse was unconscious. Also, you’d think that Sarif would hook me up with more than just one gun and a single clip before sending me in, but perhaps the company’s been going through some rough budget cuts, or something.
The second time through, I went the combat route (again, with a long-range weapon), and it was much easier, though far from simple. For the purposes of the demo, we were given access to a number of different augs, though few of them were actually useful this early in the game. The more advanced an aug is, the more power it consumes, and you just don’t have enough energy in the early hours of the game to make using most augs practical. You have two energy cells at your disposal at that point in the game, though you can upgrade to three once you receive your first Praxis Point – the “currency” you’ll use to purchase upgrades and augs. One energy cell will always recharge, and scarfing down a powerbar will refill cells, making resource management a key consideration.
I sampled several augments through my two playthroughs, and the two that I enjoyed the most were the double take down (reflex booster) and the Typhoon itself. Takedowns are performed the same way as stealth moves, just without the stealth part. A double takedown, as its name implies, lets you layeth the smacketh down on a pair of foes at once. The situation has to be just right – it probably won’t work if you’ve got four mercenaries coming at you, for example – but it never, ever gets old. The Typhoon is the kind of badass, room-decimating weapon that makes you cackle like a would-be supervillain whenever you use it, but it requires its own special ammo, so I only got to set it off once. I have no idea how practical it would be in a full-blown version of the game, but I’m also not sure I care. It’s just too damn much fun not to use, no matter how many energy cells it burns.
Switching up my gameplay styles allowed me to notice that the AI seems geared to know what approach you prefer. When I adopted a stealth approach, enemies behaved in ways that made it easier for me to deal with them non-lethally. In one room, for example, both enemies had their backs to me every time I entered, but when I used lethal tactics, they were both up and facing me as soon as I came in. It might have just been a quirk of the demo, however – it is a preview build, after all.
Another benefit to constantly failing (besides it being character building, I mean) was that I got to try out different options during conversations. I was delighted how dialog options changed depending on the approach you took. Exploring Sarif HQ, I came upon a couple of employees debating whether or not it was too soon for Adam to return to work, given the extent of the injuries he received during the break-in. The first time this played out, I confronted the guy saying my return was a bad idea, demanding that say it to my face. His reaction and tone were appropriately adversarial, though in subtle ways. He told me “normal people don’t heal that fast” which led me to quip that I guess I wasn’t normal. He wasn’t aggressive, but he also clearly wasn’t on my side. The second time, I simply told him I wanted to “set things straight.” His tone in this case was much more sympathetic. I’d been through something horrible, he said, and he just didn’t want any more funerals. He seemed concerned for my wellbeing, as opposed to concerned for his. It was a small change that won’t affect the overall tenor of the game, but rather the role playing experience for me personally.
At the end of the level, you finally confront the leader of the “purists”, Zeke Sanders, who has a hostage, so naturally I expected some kind of shootout or maybe a quick time event, but instead got a conversational boss fight. The idea is that Adam, being an ex-SWAT member, has negotiation experience that can help him talk his way through dangerous encounters. You have plenty of options here, but what you want to say personality-wise might not be the best thing to say in order to get the resolution you want. You need to read the other person and determine what the best approach would be; just hammering away on the “good” or “asshole” option more than likely won’t work. To make it a bit easier to navigate through the conversation, your dialog choices are displayed exactly as you’ll say them, so you won’t have those Mass Effect moments where you think you’re being charming and end up accidentally insulting someone.
The first time, I attempted a gambit of telling him I would let him go, thinking that he’d leave the hostage behind. Yeah, not so much. The second time, I tried a different tack, but there were several layers of conversation to get through in order to get him to leave the hostage. I was pleasantly surprised by how tense it all was. It may have just been a conversation, but it felt as treacherous and risky as any gun-soaked boss fight I’d ever played. I’m not sure if the mechanic will hold up over the course of the entire game – that will depend largely on how often it gets used – but it was an engaging departure from what we’ve come to expect in recent years.
Hacking and social interactions will play important roles in Human Revolution, but given how little they factor into the first few hours of the game, we didn’t see that much of them. The hacking, in particular, sounds like it holds a lot of promise, though the simplified version we got to try was little more than a tutorial. Your attempt to hack something, be it email, a database, or a gun turret, is represented by a series of interconnected icons on the screen. You enter through an IO port, and must activate data nodes by selecting them with your cursor to form a path from the port to your end destination. Every time you activate a node, you run the risk of the main computer detecting you and trying to kick you out. If you’re detected, you have a few seconds to find an alternate path to your goal before all hell breaks loose and the guys with the guns come a-running. According to the tutorial that introduces you to hacking, higher-levels computers will come with a risk/reward aspect; should you choose to stray from the path to your destination, you might discover passwords, money, or experience points. Of course, the longer you fiddle around, the more chance you have of getting caught. We didn’t see that aspect of the game, but it sounds like it could add some depth to the mini-game.
Some aspects of the game are still quite rough. Blind firing from cover was completely useless, balance on the whole was way off, and some of the visuals (particularly Meg’s hair) looked like they were ported from the original Deus Ex, but those are all aspects that can be smoothed out long before the game is released.
After our time with the demo was over, everyone at the event gathered around to compare notes – what we had tried, what’d we’d found, what had worked, what hadn’t, what quests we’d unearthed, and what secrets we thought we knew. We’d played the same pieces of the game over and over and over again, and if we’d been given the chance, we’d have happily kept on playing. Even though we got to spend all day playing the demo, we really only saw hints of everything Human Revolution has to offer. If the game lives up to the promise of its first few hours, we might need a whole new choir to sing its praises.