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Every once and a while a video game comes that has me do more than just play it. It introduces gaming concepts or a story that inspires thinking. It's not just the story in Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DE:HR) that draws me into philosophical tirades with myself though. It's also the gameplay and the technology employed in its making that inevitably has me ponder about what it means to be an RPG video game; where we are and where we ought to be.
DE:HR pays a true tribute to the cyberpunk setting. It's a noir game centered around a detective story in a dystopian world dominated by corporate affairs and facing a profound moral crossroads. It no doubt draws much inspiration from novels of the same kind. It doesn't go unnoticed, for instance, the game characters seemingly antiquated dressing style in contrast with the post-modern setting. A mixture of old and new (which we can also see in other elements outside the characters wardrobe, such as building or furniture) produces a highly romanticized setting that is among my favorite. It throws me back to movies like Blade Runner necessarily. But also Dark City (not exactly cyberpunk, but it's impossible not to remember it) or Gattaca. In fact DE:HR pays a tribute to about every cyberpunk (or biopunk) movie that mattered. The rioted Detroit, for instance, had me remember some scenes in Strange Days.
Unfortunately the cyberpunk theme isn't something we see often, both in games and the movie industry, despite a prolific and often very good book author base. Let's hope games like DE:HR inspire a bit more interest in the setting. I must say it's one of my favorites, if not the most. The post-apocalyptic trend we seem to be suffering now, while very interesting in games like Fallout 3 and movies like The Road, sure needs alternatives.
Let's start by the end. Before going to the review proper, I'm giving you my verdict of the game and let that sink in as you read the rest. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is my favorite game of the past 2 years. There. But it isn't without faults. There's a touch of brilliance in as many areas of this game as there are clear displays of clumsiness in others. It's clearly one of those games that could have been much more, had it been in development for more time. The market pressures for early releases and an industry entirely dependent on results are the most probable contributors that made sure DE:HR would never become one of the best games ever made. Its cult predecessor achieved that status, not because it was better, but because it successfully married the then player highest expectations with the easier to achieve production values of the time. But, regardless of its flaws, I consider HR to be a better game than the original in many ways. What it couldn't achieve was the same status today as Deus Ex achieved in its own time of release.
About this review
I'm going to center most of my review of technical aspects of the game. I'm not going to bother giving a background to many of the game references I'll be making. This review is not meant to introduce the game to its readers. So in fact I'm expecting you have already played the game (or be in the process of playing it), or to be a diligent reader that can focus more on the ideas being presented than caring for who his Barret or what exactly does it mean to augment hacking. If you haven't played the game yet however be mindful that this review will almost certainly contain spoilers.
There's few things better than a game that plays like a charm, when controls are intuitive enough that soon after they become second nature to the player. Add to that a responsive character and we are in player character control heaven. Such is DE:HR. There's probably very little control customization one will want to do (I just switch crouch to C) and the way the designers thought about Adam Jensen manipulation has we play the game on a relatively small number of keys. HR is easy to pick up and to play. Soon enough we forget all about our keyboard and concentrate on being Adam Jensen. There's a little getting used to the cover/stealth system. Took me maybe half an hour to master this game mechanism. But once you do, you topped the game learning curve.
The game's Cover System (it's actuallty a cover/stealth hybrid system) is absolutely the best I've ever played with. DE:HR really brings cover to a whole new level, motivating players to play the stealth game for the entire duration of the game. The switch between 1st and 3rd person when going into cover/stealth mode is seamless and in no way obtrusive. The camera control during 3rd person mode allows the player to see their surroundings past their cover and better judge what to do next. Some may argue this isn't realistic. I certainly concede. But it's a mechanism that works; that makes the cover system playable throughout the entire game. Not seeing beyond cover would have not allowed us to move from cover to cover, to wait for the right moment to attack, or to abort. DE:HR cover/stealth system got me thinking what wonders will we see on Thief 4, when Square Enix finally releases it.
In contrast, the game's FPS element isn't fully developed. DE:HR game world is brutal to the player that wishes to play this game as an FPS. Without investing in dermal plating augmentation, a couple of shots from an enemy will kill the player character in normal difficulty, while one shot is usually all it takes in the hard difficulty setting. Because dermal plating will only soak up 45% of the damage in its highest setting, because enemies are rarely alone, because enemies rate of fire is very intense, because ammo is a rare commodity, and because the game doesn't implement any aim aiding mechanism (aka, "That's close enough aiming to score a hit" of most modern FPSs), it's really not advisable to play this game as a shooter, despite what one may hear about freedom of playstyle in DE:HR. To further this point, the game developers have chosen to give the player character the ability to knockout or kill enemies in one-hit melee moves that require coming up close and personal with the victim. A task that can only be acomplished through stealth. So, using traditional FPS tactics will get you killed more often, consume all your ammo, and and actually make it harder to dispose of enemies, than the alternative of employing cover and stealth techniques. And do not mistake this for a challenge to overcome. It's a simple matter of fact that many portions of the game are simply impossible to handle with firearms... unless perhaps you like to quicksave/quickload your whole way through it. That's not my cup of tea...
The augmentation system takes the turn of skill trees of more traditional RPGs. It's a marvel of player character engineering. The whole augmentation "skill" set available to your character can in fact be entirely ignored. You can play and finish the game without investing one single praxis point. The decision to augment or not is entirely orthogonal to the game progress. The game simply doesn't depend on your augmentations. With the exception of hacking, the interactive elements of the game don't scale as you accumulate experience points as is the case with most RPGs. The difficulty ramp is instead entirely situational, defined mostly by enemies numbers and arrangment on the map. You don't need to acquire Jump, to finish the game because a certain part cannot be passed without it. My only doubt is Hacking, but I'm currently doing my second playthrough and carefully mapping devices and the codes you find around the world. It's my guess this augmentation too is not required to complete the game.
So what this tells us is that it is absolutely great to finally see a game that employs a "skill" system that doesn't impose itself on the player, but also a game that doesn't force the player hand into picking a certain subset of skills without which they won't be able to complete the game. This is where, in my view, the often cited freedom of playstyle in DE:HR comes. Because augmentations are irrelevant to the game, the player really can choose freely without that having any impact on the game whatsoever. Only on their playstyle.
But there's a problem. DE:HR fails to give this freedom of choice right at the end of things. It's frustrating because it gets very close to achieve this most sought out feature, right before commiting two cardinal sins. The first is the aforementioned lack of an FPS proper. The game pushes you into a playstyle that you can't really escape. There are bound to be exceptions here and there. Those should count for something. But even when taking all of those exceptions, at the end of the game you will still characterize your character as a stealth specialist and can't really play the grunt type. Not to the same level of satisfation, for sure. The second deal breaker is the excess of XP in the game. By the time the player reaches the endgame, and if they are the curious and industrious type that likes to explore all little corners the game has to offer, the amount of XP gained is almost enough to purchase all augmentations (and possibly it can purchase them all if you have played even more diligently than I did on my first playthrough). So, while augmentations can be a great contribution to how a player wishes to approach their playstyle for the reasons I mentioned above, this advantage is lost the moment the game makes sure you will can be all things at once.
I understand this can be controversial. A player can simply choose not to augment certain parts or simply not to take advantage of certain augmentations. This is particularly true if we consider that the game doesn't really depend on augmentations to be played. Problem solved? No. That's not a real solution. Freedom of choice shouldn't be gained by purposely limiting character progress or otherwise introducing artificiality into the game. It shouldn't because it runs contrary to the objective. That was a decision forced on the player, not a game design feature. It's certainly great we can actually do that because augments aren't necessary for keep playing the game. So that's a good thing there. But it's still about imposing metagame limitations on players, instead of allowing them to take full advantage of the game while still choosing their playstyle.
Another aspect to freedom of choice in DE:HR is the fact you can approach each situation in the game from diferent angles. It's certainly true the game can be summarized as moving from one "room challenge" to the next room challenge (although certainly not all of it). But the player has always different options available to them. Hidden paths, computer hacks that facilitate moving through a crowded area by disabling cameras, turrets or bots (or turning them against your enemy), and plenty of map props that allow you to develop different tactical approaches to how you move through an enemy infested area without being noticed. Some easier, some harder, some rewarding, others walking you right into a trap. This is the strongest point of Deus Ex: Human Revolution that never ceases to amaze me. There's certainly been countless hours poured into the game design, to make sure every single instance of it branches out into multiple alternatives. DE:HR is a prime on unconventional map walking and it never falls prey to catch-22 situations or otherwise forces you into a pre-determined path the developers wish you to take. Absolutely brilliant.
There's however a few things that should have been the subject of a little more care.
Perhaps the most annoying to me is... err, neck-snapping-wall-breach. In an attempt to make Jensen look cute, developers chose to automatically have him snap the neck of an enemy right after breaking through a wall, should said enemy stand right before it. Why aren't we given a choice between breaking his neck or take him down by more pacifist means is just something I can't understand at all. It certainly is the one situation in the game that -- and surely developers noticed it a mile away! -- doesn't offer the player any choice into how to dispose of an enemy. Makes no sense and plays contrary to everything else the game gives you. Thankfully these are exceedingly rare situations in the game. And because you can always choose another path instead of breaking that wall, we are good to go. Still, me no like.
Sneaking also shows one offense to gameplayers. Friendly and neutral NPCs don't react if you suddenly magically pop in a room from a vent as long as they didn't actually see you coming through it. It's a bit unerving that I can just spring to life inside a room, clearly not having come through the front door and everyone seems quite ok with it. Similarly, if you aren't seen hacking the door controls, it's all good if you are seen entering a restricted access area. Me no like.
Likewise, stealing simply hasn't been coded into the game. Why? I have no idea. I can take anything and everything from under an NPC nose. Credit chips, weapons, ammo, pocket secretaries, anything I can carry can be stolen without NPCs ever reacting to it. It's always a pleasure talking with you mr. policemanofficersir. On my way out I'm going to grab that shotgun on the table there and this credit chip in your desk and will do it without even sneaking in on you! Me no like.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a marvel of cyberpunk fiction. The world the game artists created for us is a rich environment like few others before it. It really brings forth a packed, claustrophobic and oppressive cityscape, complete with a dark skyline and littered, dirtied, graffiti covered and heavily populated streets. I don't recall the last time I saw a city in a game bursting of so much life as in DE:HR. Of all the game aspects one can discuss, none like Art Direction shows such a tremendous labor of love. DE:HR game environment alone is the biggest contributor to the psychological impact the game has on the player. It succeeds like no other game feature in hooking the player to the game and forgetting all about the time to go to bed. Getting off Sarif building for the first time had pretty much the same impact on me as when I first left the sewers(?) in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. At that point, as I was first deflowering Detroit streets, I remember thinking "this game can't just go wrong. Please don't make it go wrong. This is too good to be true. Let it be as good as this."
Of the various city hubs you visit, I think Hengsha (Heng Sha, in real life) tops the charts as the most elaborate of all. Maybe I'm biased by both my westerner eyes and my unconditional love for oriental culture, but Hengsha is the most memorable. It will be impossible not to retain in my mind its packed and exotic streets and people. Some parts of the city have even become iconic to me, like the entrace to Alice Garden Pods hostel right before reaching the lobby, the Alice Garden Pods itself (particularly the floor level) or the packed Hive nightclub. The fact most denizes will speak in Chinese and you can overhear entire conversations, not just one-liners, is yet another part of Hengsha that just makes it a true masterpiece in conveying ambience. And last but not least, the fact that those that speak English to you do it in a more common and realistic accent, avoiding entirely this already old and slightly offensive steryotype.
And because this game includes people playing true mahjong, it gets my personal You Guys Rock seal of approval.
There's nothing but praise to give here. I think that one of the things that struck me was DE:HR score that goes entirely unnoticed during your street walking, contributing absolutely nothing to the emotional impact of the game. And yet, the cities still resonate on the player. That is, the whole of the city stimulates the player merely on its visuals and how lifelike it looks. There's no need to resort to music score emotional tricks. It's a brilliant world Square Enix gifted us with.
On the second part I'll discuss Art. The third and final part will discuss Story and Bugs. See you soon.