When he said the tram would take a few minutes to arrive, he didn’t need to add that I should to get ready for a fight. Once I pushed that button to bring the tram up to my floor, every guard in the whole building would know right where I was and would come running. I had taken out a few already on my way in, but there were many more I’d passed by as I crawled through the air ducts and crawled behind desks. Having them all show up at once while I waited for the tram to make its way to my floor was not an encouraging prospect.
I had the turret on my side, at least. I was able to hack into the security console in the nearby office and rewire it so it fired on the guards instead of me. It had taken out the two who were already in the room, but I didn’t think it would last too long when all of their buddies began pouring in. To make things worse, I’d been running low on pistol ammo when the mission started. Things hadn’t improved. I’d spent the past few missions upgrading my pistol with all sorts of useful attachments – a quick reloader, armor piercing rounds, a laser sight. The trouble is that the enemies I’d been facing lately had long since upgraded their weapons, so pistol ammo was in short supply.
There were a few places to hide, but that was, at best, a short term solution, so I needed to find a way to hold the enemies off long enough to get out of there. There were two ways into the room. The door in the corner opened into the room. Off to my right was a large opening into the hallway beyond. The turret could cover one of the entrances but not both. First, I decided to block the small door in the corner. My strength augmentation helped me lift things that were otherwise far too heavy to carry, and I was hoping the massive crates I’d piled up against that door would keep the guards from getting in. Just in case, I made mines from a pair of concussion grenades and laid them near the base of the door. If nothing else, it would buy me a bit of time. The large open door on the other wall was more of a problem. I couldn’t block it off, so I headed out into the hall to lay my last mine.
That’s when I saw the vending machines. Why bother defending this route, I thought, if I can just wall it off? Just a short way down the hall was a short set of stairs the enemies would have to come down to get to the tram. The hall here was just wide enough for two vending machines to stand side-by-side, so I picked them each up and wedged in at the top of the stairs. I dropped a mine on my side of this barricade and went back and pressed the button for the tram.
The alarm sounded immediately as I raced to find some cover near the back of the room. I heard noise just on the either side of the closed door and, thanks to a recent cerebral augmentation, I could even see the enemies on my radar gathering on the other side of the door. They jostled a bit, no doubt trying to push aside the crates I’d piled up as they opened the door. I took another look at the turret, to reassure myself that I’d have a fighting chance once they broke through. A minute or more passed before my contact radioed me to say that the tram was halfway to my level. I stood up and peeked around the corner to see my two vending machines still standing at the top of the short set of stairs. So far, so good.
Another minute passed before the tram arrived. I stepped in as the doors slid apart, pressed the button and was on my way, all without firing a single shot.
That’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution. When I started the game, I was very aware of the distinctions between combat and stealth gameplay, or between the social and technological upgrades you can get. Eventually I found the real fun of the game lies in those moments waiting for the tram when you stop thinking about shooting or sneaking and just start improvising because it’s the only thing keeping you alive. Granted, this specific sequence is a bit elaborate, but the same sorts of emergent gameplay happen even in the game’s smaller encounters.
In this prequel to 2000’s Deus Ex, you play as Adam Jensen, a security specialist working for a company specializing in radical, artificial augmentation of humans. Naturally, there’s a sizable percentage of the population that doesn’t think this is such a good idea, and the game begins as these tensions explode. The player is caught up in a vast conspiracy of shady corporate interests and social justice when the line between idealism and terrorism is as thin as a razor. When Jensen is catastrophically injured in a raid on his company, doctors save his life using the very augmentations that sparked the controversy to begin with. Now, armed with superhuman powers, he has to sort out the details, finding out not only who’s behind the attack, but also whether or not his employers can be trusted to do the right thing.
The augmentations help you define what you want to be good at, but if you’re like me, what you thought you wanted to be when you started isn’t what you’ll end up playing. I had thought initially that I would play it like the first Deus Ex, where combat was primary, hacking was a nice back up, and stealth was a last resort. But after I made my initial decisions on augmentations, I found that hacking was much more useful than I had originally thought, and that some of the combat powers I had chosen had opened up interesting mobility options. Since I liked those, I got off the combat track and invested heavily in movement and hacking powers. Still later, I found more directions to grow in. The great thing about Human Revolution is that it gives you enough time and opportunity to try out different things without feeling like you regret the augmentations you already purchased.
If there are issues with the gameplay, they have to do with the sometimes inattentive AI and the game’s tendency to drift towards combat over the other play styles. On the AI front, you can sometimes fling a refrigerator right in the middle of a group of guards only to hear them ask each other, “Did you hear that?” Other times, you can take a loud step and immediately have three guys rush out of a nearby room to investigate. Personally, I don’t mind the emphasis on combat because that’s the way I tend to play; even when I’m trying to sneak around, it often ends in a messy firefight. Players who really like to dig into stealth may be disappointed to discover the few moments where this game forces you into direct combat, particularly in the boss encounters.
I was pleased to find that flexibility extended to my involvement in the overall direction of the story. In the very first mission, I actually let one of the terrorists go. In the world of Deus Ex, it’s not always easy to tell the victims from the villains, and since I had just been victimized myself, I decided to spare the guy. He popped back into the story quite a bit later in a very significant role and it really made me wonder, what would have happened if I had killed him right at the start? How would the story have played out then? There’s another sequence where one of my most trusted allies got killed, and I’m pretty sure it was because of a mistake I made. That lingering doubt that I might have been able to do something to save that person was powerful. I was tempted to reload to see if I could change the outcome, but I didn’t. The idea that my character had to live with that guilt and doubt was compelling and it wasn’t something I wanted to give up for the sake of unlocking extra content or getting an extra achievement.
These moments of moral decision were much more compelling to me than the confusing global conspiracy ever could hope to be. When the game’s story focuses on motivations rather than machinations, it becomes relatable on a scale that the conspiracy stuff just can’t match. You learn in most cases that the villains are really just victims of circumstance. Jensen, himself a victim of circumstance, gets to choose how, and even whether, he helps people whose lives are being driven more by their situations than their own willpower. It gets especially tricky when bad choices, like the theft of a drug or hiding a character’s background or even murder, are being made for good reasons. At that point, who cares about the murky cabal that’s supposed to be behind it all?
A lot of this gameplay works because of the conversation system. Deus Ex isn’t limited to the binary definitions often found in games like Fable or Mass Effect. Here the focus is on presenting a complicated situation and giving the player a number of responses based on attitudes. You have to decide whether or not it’ll help to be more empathetic or confrontational, to deny a lie or merely redirect the conversation. The stakes are usually pretty high as well. In one sequence, you have to debate the leader of an anti-augmentation movement during a big public speech and convince him to help you. It’s very satisfying to try to figure out what motivates him and then use that to manipulate him into giving you what you want. Even better, there’s a sequence where a character is about to commit suicide and it’s up to you to decide if you want to try to talk him out of it. It’s almost like a dialogue-based boss fight, and it makes the game feel so much more substantial than the sometimes strained cutscenes ever could.
The environments also reinforce the reality of the game. Sure, that means you’ll hack into computers only to read about the mundane details of life, like concert tickets or AA meetings, but the game feels like a real place inhabited by real people with real problems, not least of which is that they can’t ever seem to have more than four emails in their inboxes at a time. The settings themselves are the greatest success in the “show, don’t tell” department. Walking into Jensen’s apartment in Detroit, you don’t have to be told that his life has become a mess since the tragedy that kicks off the game. Likewise, the sudden departure of the office workers in Montreal is told less by the emails and radio communications you’re getting than through the overturned coffee cups, ringing phones and unlocked computers scattered around the offices.
For all that it gets right, Deus Ex isn’t perfect. Some of the problems, like the confusing story and ridiculous Illuminati references, are just the nature the beast. There are other problems, however, that ought to have been addressed. The game’s few boss fights feel outdated and inappropriate next to the rest of the gameplay. To move from open-ended, environmental problem solving to circle strafing super soldiers with rocket launchers is a huge step backwards. Additionally, the game’s economy is almost entirely unnecessary. I had tons of cash and loot in the game, but no consistent place to buy or sell equipment.
By far the biggest problems are the moments where control of my character’s reactions was taken away for the sake of a story point. There’s one betrayal halfway through the game that’s so obvious, it’s hard to imagine Jensen ever falling for it. The game had done such a great job of letting me decide who is and isn’t to be trusted, that it felt wrong to force Jensen to be so obviously duped just for the sake of moving the plot along and cramming in one more big firefight. Even so, those are minor problems that never got in the way of me enjoying everything else that this game does.
For those who care, the game was reviewed on an Intel Quad Core2 2.67GHz CPU with 4GB RAM and a GeForce 9800 GTX+. With all the details set on high at 1600×1200, it ran beautifully with framerates never really dropping under 30. The resolution and graphics options were reduced to get a smoother image for our video review.
Bottom Line: A worthy sequel to one of the most celebrated PC games of all time. Aside from a few, easily overlooked missteps, this is easily one of the most enjoyable games of the year.
Recommendation: Play it.[rating=4.5]
Steve Butts would be happy to sacrifice a bit of humanity to be able to punch through walls.
This review is based on the PC version of the game.