“There is no right or wrong. Just the consequences of your actions.”
The story is centered around an ongoing civil rights battle between the haves and have-nots, with human naturalists opposing augmentation enhancement that eerily echoes the anti-science conservative movement present in America today. However, unlike current day tea partiers, Eidos have given a sense of legitimacy to the Humanity Front. From Neuropozyne dependency to government control, not everything is better on the side of technology in the world of Deus Ex, and it’s this balancing act that’s at the heart of the game’s story. Who is good and who is bad? Both sides fight for a reasonable cause that’s easy to sympathize with, situated in a moral gray area where neither answer is entirely right or wrong.
It’s in this world you find yourself. As Adam Jensen, you’re tasked with 2 primary goals: investigating the aforementioned conflict resulting in the death of your beloved and protecting the company you work for. The former taking a backseat to the latter until it suits Sarif’s interests. As Sarif’s lapdog, you’re often given questionable tasks throughout the game. Like, say, prioritizing the safety of a weapon prototype instead of the lives of several hostages. Despite being your employer, the game rarely gives you a feeling of security around him. You’re often fed misinformation or half-truths, leading you to feel uneasy about your own actions.
And Sarif’s not the only one looking out for his own interests. From rival augmentation manufacturers and humanitarian groups to news corporations and government organizations, it seems everyone has an angle to play in Deus Ex, and you’re simply one of their pawns. It frames the game’s neo-noir aesthetic perfectly, really making you question every action you take and motivating you to investigate further.
Thankfully, Jensen has the means to do so. While he definitely has his own personality, there’s enough player choice for you to impose your will on him throughout the game on one of it’s many key issues, and what wonderful choices they are. No matter how you’ve decided to play the game, none of them are too far out of character. All your options feel very natural and appropriate for Jensen’s personality, despite the vast differences between your choices. Likewise, it’s often difficult to discern the “right” choice in many circumstances, once again playing to the game’s strength of moral ambiguity. It’s an interesting dynamic that works well, and is a wonderful change of pace from the clear-cut “good vs bad” karma systems present in so many games today. You choose what you want to, not what the game tells you is an inherently good or bad option.
That same choice can also be applied to much of your interactions in the game. Deus Ex does a wonderful job at creating the illusion that you can truly do whatever you please. I can clearly remember the moment that hit me. The first mission in the game after you receive your augments, an officer wouldn’t talk to me with my weapon pulled out. Annoyed, I pointed the gun at his temple and pulled the trigger. Much to my surprise, blood splattered across the wall and he fell to the ground. “Holy shit!”, I thought. “I can actually kill the good guys!”, before his fellow police members proceeded to fill me with hot lead. And you can! Nearly every entity that you come across in the game, good or bad, can be killed; much to my delight, as I left a breadcrumb trail of corpses around town so that I could find my way back to certain areas. No one respawns. Death is absolute, sending the player a really strong message about the consequences of his or her actions. This illusion, however, is shattered during the few moments of the game when you encounter the half-dozen or so individuals who can’t be killed for the sake of story progression. Still, they’re few and far between, and you’ll likely be astounded at the freedom you’re given and how vulnerable even the most important characters in the game are.
Among those who’re invincible are the game’s supporting cast that propel the story forward. Much like Jensen, these characters are fleshed out and well realized, once again adding to the genuine tone of the game, making you feel like you’re in a world that really exists. From your begrudging coworker, Francis Pritchard, to your antagonistic relationship with your boss, David Sarif, and his orders, the game surrounds you with believable characters from the onset and continues to develop them throughout the course of the game. William Taggart goes from being your primary antagonist to a sympathetic, albeit misguided, individual who fights for a reasonable cause. Meanwhile, Pritchard evolves from being a prick, to a reluctant friend willing to help you out. And it’s your relationship with Faridah Malik that’s particularly warming. What starts as nothing more than idle chitchat between missions slowly transforms into a close relationship between two people who’ve been through a lot together.
It’s regrettable, then, that some of the believability of this cast is marred not by poor writing or development, but the game’s presentation. Voice acting ranges anywhere from decent to God awful–especially any character with an accent–while the animations are jittery, almost as though the entire cast has Parkinson’s. To top it off, the character models dive right into the uncanny valley with soulless eyes and botoxed faces. While it’s not enough to take away from what the writing has accomplished, it certainly presents the story in an awkward manner that makes it more difficult to appreciate.
Nevertheless, it gets the job done, and it’s decent enough to keep the game’s story progressing, developing even more emotional conflicts and delving even deeper into a number of complex issues with real world analogs. One particular level is incredibly striking in this respect. It has you navigate through the offices of an abandoned news station, unaware of what’s happened. As you explore, you’ll uncover a number of documents and emails detailing the vast corruption within the company, being paid off to alter the news, and employees emotionally torn between their job requirements and their own moral code, further establishing this dichotomy present throughout the game. It’s fantastic, and you’ll continue to experience it throughout most of the game.
Roughly two-thirds the way through, this balance starts to fall apart. There’s a noticeable change as the game becomes less of a detective story and more of a “man on a mission” as Adam Jensen’s primary concern shifts to saving the princess rather than the goals he’d previously been working towards. It’s a gradual transformation, and one that’s tied to the story thus far, but despite establishing a motive, it’s still a poor direction to go in. It’s also around this time that the game’s very plausible story that’s strongly grounded to reality, turns more towards fantasy conspiracy nonsense standard in your typical videogame script. It’s incredibly disheartening to say the least; to have what started as one of gaming’s strongest stories fall into bed with an assortment of clichés and tropes. And it’s even worse when you realize that much of this nonsense is strictly there to tie the story together with the original Deus Ex. It sounds like such a blasphemous statement to make: To blame one of the most acclaimed PC games of all times for being the primary downfall of it’s successor, but I can think of no other reason why an otherwise superb story suddenly shifts to nonsense explanations as a means to tie the story together, other than the fact that such absurdity was a quintessential staple of previous entries in the series.
Sadly, the game’s story continues to nosedive after this point, spiraling out of control and unraveling nearly everything the earlier half of the story worked so hard to establish, before finally hitting rock bottom by the end of the game. The moral gray area is demolished when the game makes it quite clear which side it agrees with, completely alienating everyone who has a different point of view. Ambiguity is also off the table when the bad guy not only becomes clearly defined, but is an absolutely ridiculous evil genius caricature. It makes you question why they even tried so hard to establish these traits so early in the game when they serve no purpose in the game’s finale.
Never before have I seen such an otherwise phenomenal game completely drop the ball in the last act. Again, it’s not that the last part of the game particularly terrible, objectively speaking. If you’re familiar with most videogame stories, this sort of ridiculousness is par for the course. But I cannot stress enough just how damn good the initial two-thirds of this game is. So when it suddenly shifts from a transcendent gaming experience to something befitting of a Call of Duty title, you can’t help but wonder what happened.
“For the first time in history, we have a chance to steal fire from the gods.”
Choice is the name of the game with Human Revolution, and it’s sure to offer you plenty of it. From the wide, sweeping locales to intricate personal conversations, the game has crafted scenarios that truly let you play to your liking. The game is centered around two primary hub cities–Detroit and Hengsha–as well as a handful of one-time areas for specific missions. While you’ll find it incredibly easy to get lost in these locales, it’s surely not a bad thing. From sewers to back alleys and rooftops, the game’s locations are absolutely littered with multiple paths to your objectives and hidden secrets to uncover; often leading you to a region you’ve never been, causing you to question your own whereabouts. While the areas aren’t particularly large (comparatively speaking to other sandbox games), it’s these layers and depth for you to explore that add a real sense of legitimacy to the world.
Such design compliments the gameplay nicely, allowing you to undertake missions in a variety of different ways. From straightforward firefights to sneaking through the backdoor, every area has been designed to supplement your preferred approach, right down to itemization. Blasting your way through the main entrance will net you plenty of ammo off the guards, whereas tranquilizer rounds and energy bars are more commonly found hidden away in storage closets, and hacking will supply you with a healthy amount of nuke and stop software. It’s cleverly itemized to give you just enough to continue, but never so much that your task becomes easy. Some would call this being stingy. I call it smart design.
In addition, the game is quick to reward those with a keen eye or walk off the beaten path. Exploration is rewarded in droves and not just in the way of new approaches: From silly easter eggs to weapon caches to data pads and pocket secretaries with loads of useful information, the game has a lot to offer for those who stop and look around rather than rushing straight to the next objective. Want a rocket launcher your second mission into the game? Well, if you know where to look, it’s certainly a possibility. Not since Oblivion have I seen a game reward gratuitous exploration with such enthusiasm.
The combat itself is broken down into a few key components–namely lethal and non-lethal combat, stealth, and hacking. And while some would boil it down to action vs stealth, I feel that’s an unfair simplification. What makes Deus Ex’s combat so immensely satisfying is that it’s a grab bag of everything. A stealthy player is not confined to the shadows, nor is a brawler barred from hacking his way through a terminal. While you might opt to adhere strictly to one play style or the other, nothing is stopping you from taking a different approach. Each play style flows together like water and you can easily go from hiding behind a stack of boxes to an all out firefight in the snap of a finger. It’s incredibly satisfying and works amazingly well. And while the difference between lethal and non-lethal combat is much more subtle than the action and stealth dynamics– mostly due to similarities in the mechanics–it definitely has a profound impact on how you play. It’s a difficult concept to articulate in terms of gameplay, but it will certainly effect the choices and decisions you make as a player.
To complement the combat, Jensen has numerous upgrades at his disposal; both in the form of weapon upgrades to strengthen his firepower and augments to enhance his functionality. Gun upgrades are your standard affair: Reload speed, ammo capacity, and what have you. While not groundbreaking, it does reward you for staying true to certain guns since no weapon proficiencies have made their way into the game from the original Deus Ex. To give you further incentive to stick to certain pieces, you’ll also get a few extra bonuses in the way of silencers, red dot lasers, enemy tracking, and some other knick knacks to personalize your preferred weapons. The limited inventory system also lends itself to this structure, punishing those who carry around a large arsenal with a lack of space to carry their other necessities.
Meanwhile, augments are true to their namesake, acting as talent points, allowing you to greatly enhance your various capabilities. For instance, while no augments are required to successfully stealth, it’s certainly a lot easier when you can move silently and cloak yourself from prying eyes. Unfortunately, much of their individuality is lost when they’re all within your gasp. While you might start the game as a super sleuth who’s vulnerable to confrontation, by the second half you’ll be overflowing with Praxis Points. Who needs to decide between recoil reduction and hacking capabilities when you can do it all? Why, by the end of the game, Adam Jensen is a veritable superhero of sorts, leaping 20 feet into the air, punching through walls, going invisible, and turning into a human grenade to destroy all those in his vicinity. It feels a bit like all roads lead to Rome, making earlier augment choices in the game seem redundant.
Speaking of redundant functions, one has to wonder, with the majority of combat taking place from a third person perspective, and the stealth gameplay’s obvious cues from Metal Gear Solid, why the first person point of view is even required. While it’s not a hindrance, it does feel rather arbitrary in that it adds so little to the game. Taking cover shifts perspectives to an intuitive third person angle, clearly acknowledging–and thankfully addressing–the shortcomings of a first person perspective. Meanwhile, most of the dynamic actions available take place in the form of a micro-cutscene. While it adds a small cinematic touch, it grows tiresome when you have to break the flow of the game to waste 10 seconds watching Jensen float down from a long fall for the hundredth time. One has to wonder if the first person camera is nothing more than a legacy feature due to the franchise’s history as a FPS, when everything else is trying so hard to be a third person stealth/action game.
Caveats with the camera aside, there’s still a few complaints to be had. Namely, how cumbersome the energy system is. Only your initial energy cell refills while the second through fifth (provided you upgrade them) must all be refilled manually through the consumption of an energy bar. Unlike limiting your ammo, however, this doesn’t work in the game’s favor. It leaves you in one of two situations where you either have little to no energy and can’t take action, or you have infinite energy so long as you have items to refill it. Neither is favorable and could be avoided if they all refilled.
Likewise, your opponents could benefit from a bit of tweaking as well. Enemies in the game boil down into 3 main groups: light, medium, and heavy. While there are multiple varieties within these groups, ranging from robots to cloaked soldiers, the lack of any higher tiers to combat with make them feel like nothing more than cannon fodder by the end of the game (thanks in no small part to being Superman, as mentioned earlier). You’re sure to encounter a fair amount of diversity, but it matters little when even the strongest bad guys go down in a single headshot.
Lastly, when discussing the game’s weaknesses, we cannot leave out the boss fights. Though they make up only a small fraction of the game, they are above and beyond the most disappointing aspect in respects to the gameplay. Deus Ex is a game whose biggest strength is diversity and player choice, but the boss fights completely strip away those elements that makes the game so amazing. What you’re left with is a straightforward firefight that requires little to no skill and absolutely no alternative means to approach the battles. It’s a shame, really. The boss battles could have been the crown jewel of the gameplay, really pushing the player’s creativity to it’s limits in a difficult and exhaustive one on one battles between wits. Instead, we’re left with battles so unremarkable they blemish an otherwise superb game.
Still, even with it’s problems, Deus Ex plays amazingly well, blending together stealth, action, and exploration better than any game before it. Every action is rewarded and punished accordingly, and the flaws–aside from the boss fights–are easy to gloss over when you’re lost in the gameplay. With the game clocking in around 20 to 60 hours (depending on whether or not you adhere strictly to the primary missions or try to 100% the game), there’s certainly a lot of content to make your way through, and the gameplay is more than engaging enough to keep you coming back without getting bored.
It would seem Deus Ex: Human Revolution has more in common with Icarus than it realizes. It’s an ambitious game, but one that flew too close to the sun. The story is one of the strongest this generation, until it becomes overly ambitious and instead becomes ridiculous. The gameplay is superb, but marred by a numerous small issues. It’s a shame, really. In most cases, when you sense that a game could have been much better than it was, it’s a mediocre game that had many promising features that were broken or not fully realized. That’s not the case here though. Deus Ex is undoubtedly, even with it’s problems, a fantastic game. It’s just a shame that it had the potential to be one of the best this generation, but didn’t quite reach it. Just as it started to ascend to greatness, it’s wings melted and it fell back to earth.