Wednesday 1 February 2012

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The Title Screen

Released in 2011, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a first person, RPG by Eidos Montreal. The third game in the Deus Ex franchise, this is a prequel to the 2000 PC game Deus Ex and is available on PC, Xbox and PlayStation. The PC version was handled in house and is a Steampowered game.

Human Revolution features a single player campaign only, with 'The Missing Link' DLC adding further levels. I played through the game on the "Give me a challenge" difficulty.

The First Thing
The first thing I felt was disappointment (don't worry, it didn't last long). The opening few minutes exist purely to introduce the player to gameplay concepts and main characters, but they fall a bit flat and fail to inspire much emotional investment - which diminishes the important events that define the story. However, the excellent title cinematic followed and although my disappointment melted away, it was hard to shake off that first impression.

Adam Jensen, post augmentation

Plot & Devices
Set in the future, the plot is cyberpunk in theme; big biotechnology corporations influence the world more than governments. There is a large wealth divide, and although technological progress is high, many people are victimised and live substandard lives. The central theme of Human Revolution is the invention and ethical implications of augmentations; mechanical additions or replacements to human body parts that grant abilities otherwise unattainable. Adam Jensen (you) is the head of security at Sarif Industries (a big biotech corporation) and is nearly killed during an attack, which also results in the death of his ex-girlfriend. Sarif Industries saves Jensen's life by heavily augmenting him with their latest technology. Returning six months later to help deal with another attack, Jensen is ordered to track down those responsible. His investigation will uncover personal revelations, conspiracies and the substantial influence of the corporations.

Essentially, the plot is the game and it is delivered through almost every aspect of gameplay. Events, social interaction, e-books, emails, overhearing conversation, the news ... all of it is connected to story in some way. Although corporate conspiracy plots can often be a little complicated, Human Revolution centres itself in human drama making it identifiable - even if you've lost track of what is precisely going on, or who someone is. Extra plot detail is hidden throughout the game, giving the player the choice to seek it if they wish.

Multi-choice social interaction

With the plot so firmly rooted in the gameplay, Human Revolution succeeds in convincing the player that they are advancing the game; rather than following a predetermined path. Choices lead to consequences and although Jensen will always arrive at the end of the story, players will experience different journeys.

The Game
Human Revolution is a non-linear, first person RPG; with combat and stealth components. The varied gameplay offers players the choice on how they play. There is no 'morality' system, but actions lead to appropriate consequences. It is not always possible to predict the results of an action and on the first playthrough, players may find themselves using their personal judgement for situations and NPC interactions. It is not a sandbox game, but there is a large amount of freedom. You are not required to 'kill' anyone (except the bosses) and completing the game without killing will reward the "Pacifist" achievement. Within reason, the game allows you to play as you want.

(Important Note : Those attempting Pacifist on their first playthrough, this includes the enemies in the tutorial level!)

The augmentation upgrade menu

Actions, exploration, quests, discovering secrets etc. will reward in XP and accumulating a set amount of XP will reward in a 'Praxis'. Placed in an augmentation of choice, Praxis improve an existing skill, or unlock a new ability. The upgrade options are varied and allows the player to specialise in an aspect of gameplay of their choosing. Praxis can also be found in-game, either as items or rewards. Jensen has an inventory and the world is filled with items to find in drawers, safes and many other locations. Items take up inventory space relative to their size, and players must choose what to carry.

Jensen has regenerating health, but it is not designed for use in a fight. The regeneration takes so long to start and combat is so punishing, that it offers no boost to hostile engagements - a few bullets can kill Jensen. I can not comment on the combat system much as I choose to focus on stealth, but the little I did seemed to be fine. It is subtly different from a straight first person shooter game, but that is to be expected. The standard weapons can be further 'modded' (improved) with items found in the game. Hand-to-hand combat costs energy and is performed with one action, leading to a third person view of the takedown. There are various lethal and non-lethal ways to attack hostile targets; unconscious enemies will be woken up if discovered, but can be looted and dragged elsewhere.

Cover and stealth gameplay

For the stealth component, Enemies will react appropriately to noise and visual clues, so the player has to sneak, cover and hide bodies intelligently. There are many augmentations relevant to a stealth approach including invisibility, seeing through walls and 'silent movement'. To preserve balance and difficulty, these all deplete the same energy source and simply become very interesting tools to plan each scenario; they never feel like a cheap solution. The cover system is used to see around corners, monitor guards patrol paths and pass by unnoticed.

Hacking is a large feature of the game. Computers, locked doors, cameras, turrets and more are challenges that must be overcome and the most common way is to "hack" the device so it becomes friendly and unlocks. Hacking is done via a small mini-puzzle where nodes must be picked in sequence, until the "success" node is reached. Hacking can, and must, be upgraded to continue to be useful. Like anything in Human Revolution, hacking is not needed to progress the story forward, and the couple of times it is required the puzzle will be the easiest setting.

The art style is cyberpunk and the graphics are of a high quality. Specific work was done on the PC version to ensure high fidelity, as well as providing a good user interface. The game does not feel like a port and every aspect has good mouse support. There are no obvious mistakes with the controls, which can all be rebound. The player can run, walk, sprint, jump and crouch. The PC release has 'quicksave/load' (F5/F8) which makes retrying failed attempts easier than on consoles.

Emails and e-books

The game contains a lot of content that has nothing to do with primary story progression, but adds detail to the world. Computers and pocket secretaries contain emails that 'can' have useful information such as door codes, but often are completely trivial or just tell the player about the world. E-books and electronic news readers explore the themes in the game, or display news relevant to the choices the player has been making (e.g. "Hostages all saved" / "Hostages all killed"). There are sidemissions that will not progress the main story, but result in XP and add background information - some are obvious and some hidden, or require a complex chain of events. There are many secrets, XP and items to be found from exploring.

I would not say the music is memorable or frequent, but is atmospheric. All dialogue is voice acted, and given the focus on NPC interaction, professional voice actors have been used; resulting in a high quality. You will encounter the same stock phrases from NPCs irrelevant to the story but there is enough variety that it will not un-immerse the player. There are not many 'arrow in the knee' moments.

Deus Ex's cyberpunk future

Wrap Up & Negatives
Disclaimer:  I do not know how many of these problems would be addressed with the hardest difficulty setting.

There are not many problems with Human Revolution but there are some minor issues that niggled away at me. Because it is a huge game, it has more chance to have a negative but none of them are serious. For art style, I understand that Jensen is looking through sunglasses but the game is a bit too yellow all the time. After a while I felt it diminished some of the impressive aesthetic of the locations, slightly.

Players can result in meta thinking, i.e. "I'll keep searching for another way because this game wants to offer many ways" and it becomes easy to disassociate actions with the plot; solving scenarios because 'that is what you do in this game'. After a while it is a bit dull how there almost always seems to be a sofa, or a large box, or ventilation shaft - and that the AI patrols in a strict pattern. In an effort to provide many options, sometimes solutions can seem a little convenient.

The boss fights are not game breaking, but definitely feel wrong. They were outsourced to another developer, and they don't seem to belong. Those playing a combative playstyle may not notice as much, but anyone who is focusing on stealth will find it a little jarring to suddenly need combat and shooting; as well as having to "kill" someone (it doesn't count against the achievement, but that indicates how are a little out of place).

The main negative for me was reusing levels - even if it made sense to the story. The first two "levels" are giant hubs that you essentially can free roam. There is a lot to explore; houses to break into, offices, sewers, rooftops etc. If you spent time exploring every inch of these hubs (20 hours for me), you might feel a bit weird about coming back to them later. I did not feel like re-exploring to see how much had changed. It is not a big negative, just an "oh...ok" moment.

There is a huge negative surrounding the game, but not actually with it. The game has a lot of content and the publishers sliced it up and selling it in parts. The extra levels DLC was released one month after the main game, for a third of the price. Not developed post launch, these are levels that have been removed from the retail. Also the slightly more expensive version of the launch game allows access to extra weapons. It is very shady and immensely disappointing to have these practices surround this title - especially as any DLC developed post-launch would have been welcome and successful as it is a Steamworks title.

The game is incredible. It has hours of content (although, observing guards and slowly dragging bodies around is not typical 'content'). Approximately 30 hours to play through the entire campaign - doing side missions and a fair amount of exploring as I went. I also know for a fact there is content I missed. I do not feel much urge to play through it again, as there is so much personal choice that to see other content I would deliberately not "be myself" and that is a bit too counter-intuitive for me. But for the completionists, there is a lot to do.

There are few games like this and it is a shame. Easily one of the best games of 2011, and considering the amount of content - great value for money.

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