Released in 2000, the original Deus Ex is still considered by many to be one of the best video games of all time. A so called “thinking man’s” shooter, it combined an interesting, well told story, open ended gameplay, rpg elements, and a variety of solutions to every problem to provide a completely unique gaming experience. Unfortunately, other than a handful of games, other developers decided that making a game as good as Deus Ex was too much work, and so we got shooter after shooter full of straight corridor after straight corridor. After a disastrous sequel that removed most of the interesting ideas from the original, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the first game in the series in 8 years. Does it live up to the original?
In short, yes and no. While it never reaches the dizzying heights of the first Deus Ex and has some major problems, Deus Ex: Human Revolution still stands head and shoulders above most shooters. It manages to make many approaches, from guns blazing to stealth to hacking, a valid choice in most situations, providing an incredibly unique experience. Human Revolution is a prequel to the first Deus Ex, set in 2027, in a future where mechanical limbs and other body augmentations are starting to become common. You play as Adam Jensen, the security manager for Sarif Industries, a company on the cutting edge of mechanical augmentations. When an attack on Sarif leave our hero almost dead, he is saved by a series of augmentations and the story picks up 6 months later, with Jensen following a web of conspiracies to find out who attacked Sarif and why.
While the plot itself is not quite as interesting as the first Deus Ex, it is a solid story. Where Human Revolution excels is in its atmosphere. The two hub worlds, Detroit and Shanghai, feel close enough to modern day to be familiar, but dystopian and dreary enough to feel like a future one hope never happens. One of the main themes of the game is if mechanical augmentations are good overall for humanity, and you’ll hear plenty of conflicting viewpoints from major characters and random people arguing with each other on the street. The Shanghai hub in particular is one of the most confusing, claustrophobic, and alien levels I’ve seen in gaming, but it really works because it still feels close enough to reality to unnerve gamers.
As for gameplay, Human Revolution will play very differently depending on what kind of style gamers want to use. The styles can be broken down into 5 main types, straight-up gunplay, stealth, hacking computers and security systems, using conversation skills to bring other characters to your side, and using various augmentations to explore and find alternate paths. For example, to accomplish a mission objective of entering a nightclub, you can 1.) steal a membership card, 2.) bribe the bouncer, 3.) kill the bouncer, 4.) listen to two guys having a conversation on the street and find out about a air vent leading into the club via an alley, or 5.) use a breathing augmentation to get through a cloud of toxic gas in the sewers and find a ladder leading into the club. By having a wide variety of ways to accomplish a mission, the game encourage different ways of tackling situations and makes sure you can play each playthrough differently. During one extended session of playing, I made significant progress in a variety of sidequests and main quests without firing a single bullet. The fact that you can a game that most people would classify as a shooter and play it without guns while still being engaging and interesting is a quality that very few games can boast of.
One of the most impressive feats that Human Revolution pulls off is balancing the different approaches. All this talk of different ways to approach each problem and specialization may scare off some people, but I played as a Jack-of-all-trades character my first time through and was able to get through the game without too much trouble, while still seeing how stealth or combat-focused characters could attack each situation. Even the simplest actions have multiple ways of attacking them, a locked door’s code might be held in a hackable computer, a guards corpse, or be bypassed by a handy air shaft. The player is never locked into any one path, or stuck on any part, because you can always try a new there are always multiple methods of getting through a section.
Human Revolution also includes rpg elements in the form of upgrading your character. Experience points are acquired from accomplishing objectives, secondary objectives like not being seen, and almost every action doable in the game, killing enemies, hacking computers, exploring, etc. A wide variety of augmentations can be bought from these points: cloaking, breaking weak walls, negating fall damage, increasing weapon accuracy, better hacking skills, and much more. There are skills for every style of playthrough, and while some are more useful than others (“exploration” style skills, like jumping higher and picking up heavy objects let Adam access a lot of alternate paths and goodies cannot be gotten without them), most are useful in at least some situations. There are also weapon augmentations than can be attached to weapons, making them fire faster, hold larger clips, have laser sights or silencers, or unique, weapon specific modifications like the armor-piercing pistol rounds or homing combat rifle bullets. Most of the augmentations and weapons can be upgraded fully by the end of the game, which paradoxically makes the game slightly more shallow, why bother agonizing over which aug to get if a player can just almost all of them by the end anyway?
In a few places, Adam Jensen can engage in what I like to call conversational boss battles. In these, he argues about something with a character, and there a variety of choices for how he can respond to each point made by his adversary. Using responses tailored to the personality of who you’re arguing against will convince them that you are right and net extra experience points and other goodies. While these encounters are usually quite easy to figure out, I really enjoyed them just because they are such a unique experience and really show off the games creativity. Similarly, the hacking minigame is a very interesting one, where the player is presented with a series of nodes on a computer network, and must strategically attack certain nodes and use special programs to being discovered by security systems.
While the two main hubs of Detroit and Shanghai are very interesting and well-designed, it feels like there should be more hubs. Hubs allow players to really branch out and explore, accomplishing side missions, finding nooks filled with goodies or interesting information, or just screwing around with the general population. There are other cities in the game, but they are more straightforward and “dungeon”-esque as compared to the openness of the hub levels. While I can understand that the hub worlds are a lot more complicated to plan and program, and the fact that the game itself clocks it at somewhere between 25 and 30 hours on a normal playthough, it still feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity to have less hubs.
While Deus Ex’s competitor’s didn’t take any pointers from it, it definitely has been paying attention to recent games. Cover factors prominently in the game, in both firefights and stealthily bypassing enemies. In addition, everything has less health than you might be used to. Jensen will die after being hit with a couple of shots, but a single well placed machine gun headshot will take out normal enemies as well. It takes a little getting used to, but it rewards cautious, smart play, even with gun-heavy playthroughs, instead of running around firing randomly. It definitely feels like a combination of the unique ideas of Deus Ex with the natural enhancements of shooters in the 11 years since its release.
Unfortunately, not everything works out well, there are a couple of problems that severely drag down the game. First and most obvious are the boss battles. Where the rest of the game equally encourages a variety of approaches, bosses are combat heavy affairs, and not good fights at that. I get the impression that they were going for Metal Gear Solid style bosses, however, they just do not work within the Deus Ex framework. The bosses in the first game were great because players really understood who they were and where they were coming from by the time they fought them, Human Revolution’s bosses just appear out of nowhere and have absolutely no personality. Boss battles can be either pathetically easy or incredibly hard, depending on weapon and augmentation loadout, and there’s no real way to know what is the best loadout to fight each boss until you encounter themr. Most maddeningly, the boss arenas are filled to the brim with weapons and ammo, which shows that they understood that certain playstyles would not have the necessary equipment to kill each boss, but just threw a bunch of weapons at the player instead of creating bosses that could be killed in different ways. This was explained somewhat when developers Ion Storm revealed that the boss encountered were outsourced to another company, but it still doesn’t excuse these battles that go against everything the rest of the game pulls off so well.
Another major problem is the endgame. While I won’t talk about specifics about the different endings, I will discuss how they are set up, so If you want to remain completely spoiler free, skip this paragraph. The last section, while somewhat interesting, seems to be a step back as far as providing interesting enemies, and doesn’t give a whole lot of choices to use an array of weapons and augmentations accumulated over the game. There are multiple endings, but they are large step back from the first game’s. While it’s true that you could save a half hour before the end of Deus Ex and go from there to get each ending, you were at least accomplishing a different goal for each ending, and each ending felt different. In Human Revolution, they try to do a similar thing, with each ending being the equivalent of throwing your cards in with a different faction. However, the way the ending is set up is Adam literally stands in front of computer and can push 3 different buttons for 3 different endings, or walk down a hallway and push a different button for a 4th ending. When you can accomplish a different ending within a few seconds of loading up a save, it seems to defeat the whole purpose of different endings. Even worse, every ending is a Metal Gear Solid-esque “Philosophical bullshit speech over most unrelated stock footage”, and doesn’t even give you an idea of how characters and the world was affected by your decision. After a game raising so many interesting conundrums, to fizzle out so terribly is a real shame.
Overall, while the bosses and endgame drag it down, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a game that I can recommend to everyone. It does things so differently, and when it hit’s its marks, it hits them so well that it’s easy to overlook its flaws. It is a shining example of what video games can be, a game that makes you think and encourages you to try something different every time you boot it up. Whether you want to kill everyone you come across, be the stealthiest shadow ever, or read the emails of every single person in the game, Human Revolution has you covered. It’s a game that will give you an interesting story every time you play, as long as you have the interest and creativity to push outside the boundaries of the traditional shooter.