Here is something heartwarming: even though most of the people involved in the original Deus Ex have gone on to lesser achievements (Invisible War, Epic Mickey, Deadly Shadows, and the unplayable Blacksite: Area 51), the Deus Ex idea is so powerful, that a completely new team was able to step in and substantially grasp what made Deus Ex good and put it together even under the increasingly ridiculous constraints (simultaneous multi-platform development, subcontracting, consolization) of modern videogame development. Human Revolution is the cure to the Fallout 3 fake-sequel disease.
The player is Adam Jensen, a mercenary in the service of a multinational augmentation manufacturing company called Sarif, and he’s put together basically from scratch after a mysterious raid at a company facility leaves him near death and without the use of his limbs. Over the course of the game, which takes him to hubs in Detroit and Hengsha, China, with detours to a few other one-off levels elsewhere, he upgrades himself with points that can either be bought for credits (which are everywhere) or earned by completing objectives (practically everything – from making a convincing argument in a conversation to popping open the door to a utility closet – has an experience-point value). In these levels there are a variety of tasks, some of which are completed to advance the plot and others which are optional but give you more loot, more insight into the game’s world, or just more experience points.
Tasks vary. One side quest in Detroit has you helping out a former police buddy of yours gather dirt on a corrupt cop. You run all over the city, breaking into apartments to collect data from computers, sneaking into gang territory to investigate weapons stashes, and posing as a hit man while talking to the cop himself, trying to get him to tell you what he’s trying to do (he’s trying to start a gang war to make it easier for him to run things in his precinct). At the end of the mission, depending on how thorough (and how stealthy) you’re been in collecting dirt, the case your buddy is able to make can be strong or weak. If you’ve got motive, a bunch of murder weapons, communications between the cop and his criminal pals, and packages of drugs with his fingerprints all over them, then he’s done. If you missed a few things, then he might not be.
Plot-critical quests tend to be different. Some of them may resemble sidequests in that you’ll be sent all over one of the hubs (large cityscapes with multiple areas) collecting things, talking to people, killing people, etc., or you may find yourself in smaller, more linear levels which are areas unto themselves. When you first leave Detroit, for example, you break into a FEMA facility: this is a more straightforward level, with a point-to-point structure, alarm systems, basically no friendly NPCs, no side objectives, and a boss battle at the end. The game alternates between set-piece levels with loads of enemies and large hubs with few enemies. It even mixes them up (as the original Deus Ex did with the second Hell’s Kitchen level), as when you return to Hengsha there will be a large contingent of guards walking the streets looking for you, and if you’re not careful (or if you neglect to make use of Hengsha’s extensive rooftop and alleyway system) you might have a firefight in the open street, which of course is bad news, because even with full augmentations and excellent equipment you’re highly vulnerable.
Within levels your options are also varied. From the very first mission you’re presented with at least two ways of completing any given task set in front of you. Each room has a straight path directly through it, a couple of those famous air ducts, a set of girders near the ceiling, and if you’re far enough along in your augmentation progress you can make use of invisibility, strength (to move heavy boxes and reveal new routes), or a high-jump ability to open up new avenues of approach. Dealing with enemies along those routes can be done in a variety of ways also: you can’t really talk your way out of a gunfight, but you can avoid it completely (with invisibility or hiding behind boxes and timing patrol patterns), or you can hack turrets so they kill everyone for you, or you can just shoot everyone with your pistol (the starting pistol remains viable, with upgrades, late into the game) or blow them up with a grenade. There are, of course, a full suite of non-lethal weapons such as the awe-inspiring stun gun (which eliminates people silently, instantly, from close range and is even useful against bosses), the tranquilizer dart rifle, and the P.E.P.S. energy weapon. The bird’s-eye view of this game’s structure is great.
"In addition to the broad outlines, many of the small details in Human Revolution are done right as well."
In addition to the broad outlines, many of the small details in Human Revolution are done right as well. There’s a lot of reading material (and if you read often enough you get an XP bonus and a Pizza Hut voucher) including emails on hacked computers, pocket secretaries with notes to co-workers, newspapers (complete with news reports of your previous missions, like “Hostages Rescued at Sarif Plant”), transcripts of speeches, chapters from books, etc. NPCs hum tunes from the original game, crazy conspiracy theories are everywhere (and turn out to be substantially true), and there are many engrossing conversations (which are now boss battles in their own right). There’s nothing like Jacob’s Shadow in this game, but it’s all right.
Now to the problems: The boss battles, as everyone knows, are terrible (but they were apparently outsourced, probably to save development time) and run completely counter to the atmosphere of the rest of the game. The quality of the story and of the levels degrades sharply in the last quarter or so of the game, to the point where the last level is pretty but basically pointless (which might be another product of a rushed job). The game hands out augmentations, credits, and ammo like candy even on the hardest difficulty, and privileges stealth far above all other approaches (both in terms of experience – there are bonuses for not being seen – and in terms of difficulty: stealth is easier). The levels are also not terribly intuitive and lack the radical openness of Deus Ex levels, which were built overall like real places and less like videogame ones. The warehouse in the first level of the game is an example; the first game would have plopped a single large building down in the middle of a large lot and given the player numerous points of entry, but Human Revolution offers multiple paths through a more linear progression of isolated rooms. It’s still fun, and it still rewards different play styles, but it doesn’t compare to the spirit of Liberty Island – just stepping off a boat with a pistol, a rough map, and a million ways to beat the mission. In addition, there are no plans for a mod tool release. The data seem open enough (people are already discovering hidden levels, and many mechanics like regenerating health can be turned completely off), but without real tools the only recourse we’ll have to new content is DLC, which works out great for Eidos and sucks for everyone else.
So where does all that leave us? It’s not anywhere near a trend yet, and it probably won’t have any effect on the terrible sequels (there’s no hope for the current crop of idiots), but it at least opens a door (or maybe an air duct) to a new way forward. Human Revolution, which given the way sequels are made these days should have been a disaster, instead makes the Deus Ex name even more illustrious.