Review by Matt “Steerpike” Sakey
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Developer Eidos Montreal
Publisher Square Enix
Released August 23, 2011
Available for PC (version reviewed), PS3, 360
Time Played Finished; 20-ish hours
Verdict: 4/5 Thumb Up
“Human Revolution is a thoughtful shooter, and a great example of that rare but wonderful breed. Other games could learn from this one.“
First, the Video
Okay! I’m trying to teach myself Adobe Premiere (my company’s switching from Sony Vegas to Premiere as our editing platform), and I thought a nice video review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution might be a good learning platform. Check out the video, but don’t let that keep you from the wordy review. It’s totally awesome.
A moment in 2003’s Deus Ex: Invisible War has always stayed with me, despite the game’s overall comparative forgetability.
At about the halfway mark, I’d discovered that the bad guys weren’t all that bad – but weren’t great. I’d discovered that the good guys were far from good – but weren’t evil. And I’d discovered to my horror that they were the right and left hands of the same entity, and that to some degree, their respective leaderships were aware of this fact. I had no idea who to trust any more. No one was who they seemed to be, and everyone had an agenda. I hadn’t a clue what was right, what was wrong, or where I fit in. I remember quite clearly playing one Saturday and just… kind of wandering the streets of Cairo in a daze, trying to reconcile the fact that my entire worldview lay in tatters.
I felt an overwhelming need to talk it out. In the game, I mean. I needed to talk to someone who would listen, someone I could at least trust a little. And there was nobody. Deus Ex: Invisible War did something that’s outlandishly rare: it made me think like my character, even feel like my character. I wasn’t stuck – a number of paths were open to me. I just had no idea which one to take, because each felt like pure deception.
No such moments exist in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but don’t take their absence as a shortcoming. The developers at Eidos Montreal took a well-loved franchise and did a lot of really good work with it, producing a thoughtful game of rich moral quandary, solid mechanics, and surprising prescience about the future of our species.
Deus ex Machina: “God out of the machine,” a narrative mechanism whereby a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Straight out of Wikipedia. Bam. That’s not really what the Deus Ex series is about, though. It’s the same words, reconfigured:
What if the machines could make us gods?
A prequel to the two previous installments, Human Revolution plants you smack in the middle of what might just become reality one day. By 2027, advances in human-machine interface have led to remarkable medical breakthroughs – “human augmentation” means amputees get new limbs, the blind can be made to see, the deaf to hear. Unlike today’s clumsy prostheses, these are controlled by the brain. They feel, they operate as though they were natural.
And of course three predictable things happen: first, augmentation starts to become elective, so though your vision is perfect, you get your eyes augmented to see like an eagle rather than just a person. Or maybe you want a chip that helps you read other people’s personalities, and control your pheromones to have an edge in social situations. Or maybe you want to crush a car with your hands, who knows.
Second, the military gets involved. Companies begin developing augmentations that have no possible application beyond killing.
Third, some people decide it’s unnatural to augment yourself, and a sort of purity movement begins. With varying degrees of militancy, these individuals and groups fight against the affront of augmentation, like people today fight against stem cells. There’s talk of UN regulation, and some are calling outright for a ban on augs. As Director of Security for Sarif Industries, one of the largest augmentation producers in the world, Adam Jensen has some skin in the game. Not literally, though: Adam’s happily un-augmented.
And then a building falls on him and he dies.
Sarif is funding its commercial business with research into military augmentation, and it’s on the verge of releasing Typhoon, an aug that… well, it can kill a lot of people in a short time, let’s put it that way. On the eve of a major UN hearing at which both David Sarif himself and Jensen’s girlfriend, augmentologist Megan Reed, are to testify, terrorists invade Sarif’s Detroit-based world headquarters. Are they after Typhoon? Are they just anti-aug loonies? Who cares? They’re here, they’re killing remorselessly, and they just set the building on fire. Go deal with it.
That’s the opening sequence, which introduces the controls and cover system. Former SWAT officer Jensen knows his way around ass-kicking, and he’s doing okay until some monstrously augmented knuckle-dragger throws him through a concrete wall, snaps Megan’s neck, and drops the building on them. And Adam Jensen dies.
But maybe he didn’t read his contract thoroughly. When you work for David Sarif, you die when he tells you to. If you die at an inconvenient moment, he reserves the right to rebuild you. Jensen wakes in the hospital six months later to find that practically his entire body has been replaced by advanced augmentations, from toes to nose. What little they could they salvaged, so Jensen retains his absurd triangular facial stubble, his spikadelic hairdo, and his grinding “do you feel lucky, punk?” voice.
The meta-story of Human Revolution is tied to the conflict between anti-augmentation activists and pro-augmentation corporations, and is a very effective callout to the problems of today’s society. They do it well. News clips, books, overheard conversations; the debate is heating up and growing more violent every day. You’ll hear about augmentation doctors getting shot outside augmentation clinics. You’ll see the poor suffer massive rejection because they can’t afford the drug that makes their bodies accept the machines they’ve had installed. You’ll watch picketers outside your office building and listen to interviews with luminaries on either side. Billboards proclaim the wonders of LIMB clinics, all sexy models with cybernetic arms. Private military corporations (Belltower Associates is a thin veil for Blackwater USA) are contracted for law enforcement and some companies maintain entire private armies, loaded with proprietary augs. Street gangs clash for no other reason than Gang A is augmented and Gang B hates augmentation. “Get outta here, you fuckin’ Aug,” people snarl, though Jensen’s only crime was getting squished by a building.
The story is told with a keen eye for drama, which never overtakes the gameplay but is nonetheless prevalent at all times. The writers knew what they were doing and they toy with you. At one point a riot breaks out in Detroit because the leader of Humanity First is giving a speech and protesters lose control. The harried cops unleash gigantic robots with flashing lights and gatling guns for crowd control even as many on the force are disgusted by the idea of augmented humans. Later on a massive global recall of faulty bio-interface chips sparks a worldwide panic as lines around clinics stretch for blocks.
Human Revolution makes you feel that there’s something bigger than you going on, all the time. The oppressive weight of the game’s narrative environment just doesn’t let up, as Jensen trots from the slums of Detroit to a bi-level city in China, then off to Montreal and finally to the North Pole, where a very different kind of jolly old elf has erected a science project of billionaire proportions, one that’ll save the world, or maybe wreck it, or maybe do nothing, because global warming isn’t real.
The story is, in many ways, impersonal; Human Revolution is not about the stuff I describe above, it’s simply set in a world where those things are a reality. The direct storyline is much more videogamey, and in a way this hurts the experience. Deus Ex – the original, conceived by game design genius Warren Spector – was intended as a what-if scenario: essentially, “what if every single conspiracy theory were true, from the faked moon landing to the Skull & Bones club?” Human augmentation is a major factor in all the Deus Ex games, and Spector touched on augmentation controversy in the original, but never was it center stage like in Human Revolution, and, honestly, never was it so deftly handled.
Thus when the Illuminati and all that conspiracy-theory stuff turns up, it feels completely unnecessary in Human Revolution. They put it in out of respect for the foundations of the Deus Ex franchise, which I applaud, but it’s kinda too bad because it also takes some focus from Eidos Montreal’s own contributions.
Working from a much-tweaked version of the Crystal Tools engine that powered Final Fantasy XIII, Eidos Montreal does some pretty excellent visual work with Human Revolution, taking a chance on a heavily stylized, gold-tinted presentation that worked for me but can already be turned off with a mod. At 1680×1050 and fully frosted, Human Revolution ran better than could be expected on my midrange PC, with near-perfect stability. If the graphics in the video don’t impress you, take them with salt; I captured the gameplay footage at 840×524 to reduce file size.
Now, that said, neither the technology nor the developer’s attention to detail always live up to what I’d have loved to see. The aforementioned Detroit riot, for example, is heard rather than seen. The Detroit hub is suddenly full of cops and police bots; they tossed on a few burning cars; and there’s sound effects of rioting, but no press of thousands fighting and looting. I’m not docking points or anything, I know how hard that would have been – I’m just saying sound effects only go so far. I’d also add that Eidos Montreal went with a glance-at-a-map approach to research rather than making any actual effort. I’m a Detroiter, and they got so much stuff wrong I don’t know where to start. I do applaud the use of Detroit as a hub. I applaud that the game makes a point to note that Jensen’s employer Sarif Industries chose Detroit as a headquarters as a way to help get the city back on its feet. Knowing his company was huge, David Sarif selected a down-on-its-luck metropolis as his base of operations. That’s kind of decent. But I didn’t like the occasional sample of a woman’s scream as part of the Detroit hub soundtrack, and I wasn’t impressed by the fact that Michigan geography and Detroit lore alike felt as though the developers did a five-minute Wikipedia search rather than making a few field trips.
Beyond minor setting mishaps, though, the technology of Human Revolution cannot be faulted. It may not be astronomically innovative, but it’s solid and reliable, and it looks like a this-generation game, no question.
The Deus Ex series has always walked the line between stealth shooters and action shooters. The addition of okay-once-you-get-used-to-them-but-far-from-perfect cover mechanics in Human Revolution mean that this installment errs much more on the side of stealth. While it’s not impossible to play the game as a pure action shooter, it would certainly be very hard. You upgrade and enhance your augmentations as you proceed, earning experience that translates into “Praxis,” the currency by which you improve existing augs and install new ones. A portion of the sizable augmentation tree is devoted to making Jensen a better straight-on fighter, but the game is not meant to be played that way and you probably won’t have a good time if you insist on treating it like Quake.
There are plenty of ways to play even if you stick to the obviously stealth-centric mechanic. Most foes can be avoided altogether, and if you elect to engage them, you’ve got an array of options. Jensen’s potential arsenal runs the gamut. Many effective, nonlethal weapons are available, and at times his fists are his best weapon. Just because you’re not killing a person doesn’t mean the fights aren’t brutal – Jensen breaks arms like it’s going out of style. And you can go the bloodthirsty route if you so desire. As in Invisible War, I’d been playing this game mercifully until… until something happened that made me snap a little, and I started using bullets rather than tranquilizer darts out of pure in-character rage. I managed fine with a nicely upgraded 10mm pistol, but some of the heavy weaponry (much of which doesn’t turn up until the very end) is damned impressive, provided you’re willing to sacrifice the inventory space required for personal cannons and their giant ammo boxes.
Here, too, Human Revolution demonstrates a canny knowledge of how to manipulate people. There’s a scene where Belltower paramilitaries invade an apartment complex in Hengsha, China – literally dropping in guns blazing, killing everyone without thought, simply to accomplish their business objective. The scene is gripping because it demonstrates a completely unnecessary loss of life, at the hands of people who are in no way competent to make life-taking decisions. As Blackwater did in Iraq, Belltower does in Human Revolution, and that’s really just one of many such savvy narrative efforts.
While I wouldn’t call the experience subtle, it’s definitely more subtle than most games. Remember how I said I got pissed off and started shooting? Something happened that made me realize none of these people were concerned with my life, so why should I go to lengths to preserve theirs? Then, of course, shortly thereafter the game put me in a position where the people who threatened me actually were innocent. Killing them is the easy path, to be sure, but Deus Ex has never lauded rampant violence. You have to choose. And sometimes, the choices you make in Human Revolution tell you things about yourself you may find a little shameful.
Meanwhile, there’s one choice the developers of Human Revolution made that’s pretty shameful. For reasons entirely inexplicable, they outsourced the boss fights to GRIP Entertainment, a third party AI and NPC toolset developer. And they’re pretty crap.
Well, now, let’s be fair. As boss fights go they’re okay. As Deus Ex encounters go, they transcend unacceptable. You see, in all three Deus Ex games, there are always choices. Many paths, many solutions, to every challenge. None are explicitly right or wrong. If a door is locked you can bash through, or find a key, or creep through the HVAC system. If a person is recalcitrant you can beat the shit out of them, or turn on the charm, or sleep with their sister. If a robot has you in its sights, you can blow it to smithereens, or hack its control terminal, or distract it with something. If a… you get it.
In most games a boss encounter means a conflict with a more challenging foe. Not in Deus Ex. Boss encounters need multiple solution paths, including nonviolent ones. Who can forget the clash with Anna Navarre from the original Deus Ex? Insane, brutal, blood-drenched, hard as hell – unless it wasn’t (“Have it your way, flatlander woman”). In Human Revolution, GRIP produced lackadaisical ordnance contests with no alternatives save bullets. I can’t believe that Eidos Montreal, which so clearly understands the universe of Deus Ex despite being new to the property itself, allowed them. This was one of those situations when the lead developer should have said “you guys aren’t doing it right,” and either made sure they did do it right, or taken the job away.
I kind of pity the fools at GRIP, because they’ve been buried with negative coverage. And again, if this were, you know, a straight up action shooter, the boss fights would’ve been okay. But the vendor chose not to familiarize itself at all with the universe (in an interview, GRIP’s CEO says flat out he knew nothing about the Deus Ex franchise), and the work they turned in wasn’t acceptable for this kind of game. Truly, though, I blame Eidos Montreal for allowing it more than I blame GRIP for doing it.
Fortunately, there are only four such encounters in the game, and if you give it some time you will fight your way through. The boss situation is a major misstep in Human Revolution, a game that otherwise bears marks of really solid design.
Human Revolution is a thoughtful shooter, and a great example of that rare but wonderful breed. Other games could learn from this one. Minigames like computer hacking are clever, well-conceived, and thoroughly entertaining. Challenges like inventory management are teeth-grinding because they’re realistic. Dialogue is witty and well-done, even if the voice actors don’t at all live up to the general level of quality seen elsewhere in this game. The action is fun, the moments of pondering are fun, indeed, almost everything about it is fun.
So I give it a Thumb Up. Why not the coveted Gold Star? Why not that ultimate seal of glory for which all developers slaver, that glimmering torch of perfection reserved for only the most tumescently exemplary of works? Why not promote it to the hallowed heights of approval of which millions speak – in hushed tones – but that so few ever dream of realizing?
Because though I enjoyed the bejeezus out of Human Revolution, I’ll also forget it in about a month and a half. It is in every way, shape, and form a better game than its predecessor, Invisible War. And if someone were to sneak in and change my score, I’d be okay with that. But it remains that Invisible War – which also would not get a Gold Star, or even a Thumb Up – had at least one moment that’s stayed with me for years. Human Revolution does not.
I recommend it. In fact, I’ll even say that you shouldn’t wait for a Steam sale. This is a good game that’s worth its price. It tries to be intelligent and mostly succeeds. It tries to be rich in theme and mostly succeeds. It tries to be a solid stealth/action shooter and mostly succeeds. There is almost nothing flatly wrong with this game… and there’s no “but,” either. There’s almost nothing flatly wrong with this game. You’d be doing yourself a disservice not to grab it immediately, on whatever platform seems best.
In a way it’s unfair, because Human Revolution’s treatment of this thorny issue – human augmentation – is prophetic. We may well see exactly this story play out, possibly in our own lifetimes. They do every aspect of it well. Perhaps in its strong-thewed workhorsedness it also becomes forgettable. The reliable are never adored, and Human Revolution is completely, totally reliable.
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Minimum System Requirements (PC): Windows XP/7/Vista; 2GHz dual core; 2 GB RAM; GeForce 8000 or Radeon 2000 or above; 8.5 GB hard drive space
Reviewer’s System: Windows 7 x64 SP1; 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q9450; 8GB RAM; GeForce GTX 460 1GB; installed via Steam