Deus Ex: Human Revolutions: The Boss Fights

As I said last time I wrote about Human Revolutions, they suck. Badly. But I think it’s important not just to leave it there, but to go into some detail about what, exactly, is wrong with them.

I want to emphasize that this is very much about my personal experiences of the boss fights. I haven’t done much research into the mechanics underlying the fight. As such, there may be some inaccuracies in here, which I apologize for. On the other hand, the game bears part of the responsibility for any such inaccuracies, since it means that the game failed to adequately communicate to me just what was going on.

The first glaring issue with the first boss encounter doesn’t fit well into the narrative. Jensen, the character I’m controlling, has meticulously snuck through a huge military installation. He’s gone completely unnoticed. And then, he walks into a room and (via cut-scene) announces himself to the boss and his associates. The scene would come across as more reasonable if I had been playing a high-profile Jensen, one who had shot his way through the base. But the game knows I haven’t been playing like that. It comes across as disrespectful to me and to my sense of agency to force me to relinquish stealth via cut-scene in the way it does.

The first boss is mechanically troublesome as well. Coming out of the cut-scene, the boss is directly ahead of Jensen at short range, with only a small piece of cover between them. Jensen immediately comes under fire. This meant that every time I started the fight, I had to grope for the cover. I acknowledge the instinct to start out the fight with a high-intensity moment, but I consider it really quite rude to put me in such imminent peril coming directly out of a cut-scene, especially since I haven’t had any time to examine the space the fight it taking place in ahead of time.

There’s also the problem of the weapons I was carrying. I knew there were boss fights, so I made sure to carry an assault rifle, even though I was playing non-lethally, but if I hadn’t, I would have found it immensely frustrating to be forced to scrounge around the environment during the fight in order to acquire an effective weapon. Even though I knew I the fight was coming, and so had appropriate tools for it, it was still quite the trial by fire. I had never fired the assault rifle. I had never thrown a grenade. I had hardly been shot at, so I had no feel for how fragile Jensen was. There had to be a more appropriate way for the game to ease me in to these mechanics. The original Deus Ex had a firing range during its tutorial; something like that would maybe have been appropriate here.

It’s also notable that none of the stealth and hacking tools I’d been using thus far were at all useful here. It’s possible that the invisibility augment would have worked, but I didn’t have that yet.

In the end, I beat him sprinting to a side-room and chucking mines at him until he died. To the game’s credit, it didn’t take that long – only two or three mines – once I’d worked out my strategy. On the other hand, I never felt like I was getting any feedback on the extent to which I was damaging him, and so I was pretty surprised when he went down all of a sudden.

The second boss felt better integrated into the story, but was far more unpleasant mechanically. Once again, I was put in immediate peril coming out of the cut-scene, and thrown into a space I hadn’t had a chance to investigate. But this time, I’m not merely under fire, the boss is charging right at me and I’ve got to immediately run to the side to avoid damage. It was really annoying.

It felt like the game went out of its way to make me poorly equipped for the fight. It was clear to me that there was a boss coming up, given the layout of the floor I was on. In a room just before the boss, the game prominently gave me a mini-gun, a bunch of ammo for it, and the unique upgrade for the mini-gun. What’s more, once the boss fight is underway, the only weapon that’s out in the room, rather than in a supply cabinet, is another mini-gun. So I figured it was a pretty good bet that the mini-gun was going to be useful for the fight, and dropped one of my other lethal weapons in order to make room for it. Was that ever a mistake. A weapon with a spin-up time, that’s best used a mid-range from behind cover, is entirely inappropriate to fight a boss who tends to charge straight at Jensen, or gets briefly stunned, in a small room with limited sight-lines and no cover.

Speaking of those supply cabinets, they’re pretty awkward to use. The fight takes place in a circular room with smaller, concentric circular walls with gaps in them within the room. The boss becomes visible near to Jensen, and then either charges at him or shoots at him, and then turns invisible again. The resupply cabinets are all on the outer perimeter of the room. First of all, this makes them hard to see, since I natural assumed a stance of having my back to the outer wall, so that the boss couldn’t appear behind me. Second, once I had realized the cabinets were there, there’s still the issue that to use them requires me to run my back on the room, leaving myself largely blind. In retrospect, I suppose it’s fair to introduce an element of risk into attempts to resupply. But given that I was going into the boss fight inappropriately armed, and so it was necessary for me to scavenge a more appropriate weapon than the mini-gun, I was very frustrated at the time.

Once again, the tools I used for the rest of the game outside the boss fight were entirely ineffective. When the boss is invisible, it’s as if she’s not physically in the room at all. She doesn’t show up on the enhanced radar I’d purchased. She doesn’t show up in my enhanced vision mode. This was a very real opportunity to make some of the tools that a stealth-focused player relies upon useful in another context, and I’m baffled as to why the game wouldn’t take advantage of that.

This is another fight where there’s an issue with player-feedback and direction. There’s a friendly NPC observing the fight who tries to shout out advice – she seems to be saying that the only way to hurt the boss is to stun her, and then damage her while she’s stunned. But I’m not sure that’s what she was saying. It’s really hard to process instructions while simultaneously trying to avoid a charging bull. And the stun-effect is inconsistent – I had the boss run right through a mine and keep on charging at me. On the other hand, contrary to what I thought I picked up via the instruction, the boss is clearly not invulnerable while she’s not stunned, since I’m defeated her with another mine she ran over while charging at me. It was all very confusing and kludgy, and not fun at all.

Story-wise, the third boss doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s one of these cases where it doesn’t make a lot of sense that the boss waited for Jensen at the end of the level while he snuck through a whole facility, instead of, say, putting the facility on active alert and engaging Jensen with some backup.

Mechanically, the third boss is fine. He shoots. He throws grenades. The game makes the same mistake of starting the fight with Jensen under fire. But the big problem is the space in which the fight takes place. In addition to aesthetically feeling like it’s from a different game, it is incredibly unpleasant to navigate, especially when under fire from the boss. It’s all narrow corridors with low pieces of cover jutting out from the walls. These pieces of cover are useless because of the boss’s grenades, but they do a spectacular job hindering movement. Again and again I’d try to back-pedal away from the boss or duck around a corner, only to get caught up on one of these low walls and promptly be gunned down.

The final boss I was just confused by. It’s clear that I wasn’t the only one, since the designers felt obligated to stick HUD indicators on the parts of the boss that were to be shot. Unfortunately, throughout the rest of the game these beacons indicate objectives to be interacted with, not things to be killed. Regardless, I won, and I don’t even think I died. But I still don’t really know what was going on with the fight, and it was highly anticlimactic to feel like I muddled through the final battle, rather than actively engaging and mastering it.

On the whole, I really question the necessity of these boss fights at all. The persuasion mini-game conversations captured much more of the intensity of a one-on-one confrontation than the boss fights did. And encounters where guards were actively hunting Jensen, like escape at the end of the first China section, provided much more interesting opportunities to display mastery of the game’s systems, bringing in not just combat skills, but stealth too.

I feel maybe they were trying for a Metal Gear vibe with the bosses, with this elite squad of opposing mercenaries. But they failed utterly. You’ll notice, reader, that I haven’t referred to any of the bosses by name. That’s because I don’t know them. They’re never given any chance to express a personality or motivation. Jensen has no relationship with any of them. They’re just generic video game obstacles to overcome.

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