I completely missed the original Deus Ex back when it came out. In preparation for Human Revolutions I caught up and played the first few levels. And the impression that I came away from it with was that they just don’t make them like this any more. The opening Liberty Island level deserves its iconic status and then some. There’s something about just being dropped in a level, and given a goal, and then having the game trust me to figure it out from there. Even if there are really only two physical routes into the Statue (the ground level at the front and the entrance high at the back) there is such a density of side-pockets to explore, and different tools to try. It never feels like the game is preferencing one approach over another, like it’s a puzzle to be solved. But at the same time, the game has its characters comment on the player’s decisions, which makes the choices feel consequential in a way they wouldn’t otherwise.
So, a decade later, we come to Human Revolutions. And while it doesn’t quite stand up to the standards of its illustrious predecessor, it is still an almost shockingly great game. There are some obvious missteps (the boss fights are not merely terrible, they feel like they belong in an altogether different game, so much so that I’m going to sequester them in a separate entry) but on the whole, I was very pleased with my time with the game, which is really saying something, since I don’t tend to enjoy stealth games.
Firstly, the game should be credited for creating such a compelling, complete, consistent-feeling vision of the future. I snickered a little when Square Enix was centering the game’s marketing campaign around its “Black and Gold” aesthetic, but I have to apologize and take it back. It works immensely well, giving the world a cohesive feeling, so much so that the handful of rooms that didn’t adhere to this choice feel out of place (particularly a white room the felt like the Architect’s room in The Matrix). I also love the weird touch of detail, like how women’s fashion in the future apparently trends towards incorporating Elizabethan elements.
I was also hooked by the story to a greater extent than usual. Jensen himself is an adequate player-surrogate in the blank-slate mode. But the jobs he’s tasked with are generally well-defined and comprehensible. Jensen’s boss, Sarif, is a very strong study in ambiguity. I really like that the game chooses not to have him implicated in the villainous conspiracy, instead leaving it up to the player to decide just how dangerous Sarif’s idealism is. The actual conspiracy itself I didn’t find very compelling, and I’m tired of saving the world. I sort of with the game had confined itself to the tale of corporate espionage that it seems to be telling for its first two-thirds. I’m also not thrilled by the ending, where it presents this weird, false-dichotomy between unfettered corporatism and control of the world by a shadowy elite.
I also love the way the game does side-quests. Instead of the Bioware’s recent tendency towards inconsequential smorgasbords, Deus Ex presents a small number of important, substantial tasks. They flesh out the world and its characters. They tend to involve interesting snippets of gameplay, sometimes encouraging approaches and tools that the player hasn’t been using in the main game. They’re placed in such a way that they’re hard to miss. They never distract from the main story. I’m hard-pressed to think of an RPG that does side-quests better.
So now, after all that, I suppose I should finally spend some time talking about the gameplay. I felt like the game did a good job of encouraging a stealthy approach. Even when fully upgraded, Jensen felt fragile in a straight-up fight. As a result, I didn’t shoot a lot, but what I did felt fine. There’s no cross-hair when using a scoped weapon from out of cover, which felt odd. I would have appreciated a rough-guide so I could scope in more effectively.
There were enough non-lethal weapons that, with only a few instances, I never felt pressured to kill anyone, even though, unlike in the original, there’s no one to comment on or reward the player for that approach (an odd absence). There isn’t a good mid-range weapon – the stun gun is functionally equivalent to the pistol; the tranquilizer rifle to the sniper rifle – that would fill the role of the assault rifle.
The stealth felt fine. The game did a good job of calling attention to alternate routes that I could use to avoid crowded areas. The invisibility power, especially when fully upgraded, makes it fairly easy to get through most tight spots. The guard AI’s never felt all that great, and their patrol patterns felt too conspicuously designed. There are so many times where they approach but just barely don’t reach or look at the obvious hiding spot.
The level design had some ups and down. Several of the dungeon instances felt very constrained. It felt like a sequence of lobbies each with three locked doors which all lead to the next lobby. Each door could be opened via a particular skill the player may or may not have. If Jensen is good at hacking he can use the door on the left. If he can lift heavy objects he can use the door on the left. Otherwise, he goes through the door in the centre (which has the highest concentration of guards). It’s all very binary – either you can go down this side-way or you can’t, and if you can then you obviously should. In these cases it didn’t feel like there was much of a place for exploration or experimentation. Having three paths is obviously better than just having one in a game like this, but it’s not a lot better.
On the other hand, there are two or three dungeons that aren’t structured this way. These tended to be large complexes in which Jensen is tasked with multiple objectives that can be completed in any order. I found these levels to be much more engaging. I had to examine the layout of the space, and figure out how I wanted to get where I needed to go. I felt like I had to probe the defenses of the level, searching for a way to bypass a particularly dangerous open area. It was like the game was finally trusting me to figure things out on my own, rather than holding my hand. These levels were most successful in capturing the spirit of the gameplay of the original, I think.
There were also a couple of really great encounters where, instead of Jensen infiltrating a facility filled with guards who don’t know he’s there, as in most of the game, mercenaries are encroaching upon a space that Jensen already knows, and are actively searching for him. The increased difficulty of being hunted is offset by the fact that Jensen (and the player) is already familiar with the area in question. I like that the game gave the opportunity to apply knowledge that I’d accumulated in the course of playing the game normally and let me apply it in a high-pressure context.
A few miscellaneous comments. The second city-hub had a lot of verticality that made it cumbersome to navigate, even after I’d purchased all the mobility upgrades. There are some pacing issues, where the game strung two or three long dungeons together without a break in a city-hub. I wish Montreal was a city-hub, rather than just an office building/dungeon. It would have been cool to see the developers’ take on their home city.
I felt like I ran out of useful things to upgrade mid-way through the game. This is part of the danger of having a broad, flat upgrade tree. The hardest upgrade decisions are the first few, and as the game goes on, there are fewer and fewer interesting options to choose from. In general, the game was pretty easy, aside from a couple of difficulty spikes where I felt like I got thrown into an encounter unexpectedly and without the right tools. I fully support making the default difficulty in games fairly easy. It does no good to frustrate players.
So, all in all, the game turned out pretty damn well. Before release, I was sort of expecting a fiasco, and I’m pleasantly surprised that the developers at Eidos Montreal were able to keep so much of the spirit of the original as they did, while making a very modern feeling, playable game. (Even if they kept some aspects of the original, like the grand conspiracy, that I could do without). Expect that entry on the game’s bosses (which will be far less positive) next week.