Saturday, September 10, 2011

Human Revolution


Anyone who knows me knows that the original Deus Ex is one of my two favorite video games of all time, the other being the original Legend of Zelda. In the last 11 years I have played Deus Ex from start to finish at least 9 times and each time I’ve discovered something new about the game. Never before and never since have I played a game that so perfectly matched an intelligently written and poignant science fiction story that introduced concepts worthy of philosophical and social discussion beyond the bounds of the game world with the kind of guided (yet still open ended) game play that rewards player’s decisions through more than just trinkets and score increases. Deus Ex should not only be considered a model for modern game development and how to provide players with a wealth of choices while still managing narrative direction and overall scope, but also a model for how to tell a smart science fiction story in the digital age.

I won’t get into details here, but as most who are familiar with Deus Ex know, the sequel (Deus Ex: Invisible War) failed to even come close to the greatness of the original title. While it wasn’t a total loss from a sales standpoint, the perception of Deus Ex as a property had been soured and if the world had ended without another title in the series, there would be few regrets. Enter Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a prequel to the series under development by an entirely different team, nearly a decade removed from the original and in a gaming landscape that had all but left games with the depth of the original Deux Ex behind.

Initially I was skeptical, we all were, but as I saw more of the game and heard more from the developers it seemed that the crew at Eidos Montreal might just be able to pull off a title worthy of the Deus Ex moniker. Having recently completed my first play through of the game, I have to say that they succeeded on almost all fronts and even the parts that I have complaints about are still far in advance of Invisible War.

The first and easiest thing to talk about when examining Human Revolution is the game play. On this front, the developers absolutely nailed it to such a degree that if you were to remake the original Deus Ex using Human Revolution’s systems (mod makers: hint, hint), there would be very little you’d have to excuse. Playing the game on the PC I had few complaints (after a mouse lag patch and adjusting my FOV from 70 to 90) and the addition of cover mechanics and 3rd person camera cutaway take downs (console gaming staples for the current generation) both felt completely natural. In fact the cover system turned out to be a much more welcome addition than I had anticipated and in addition to fitting in well with the combat, I felt it added a LOT to the stealth game. Missing is the skill system and health management from the original Deus Ex, the former having been removed complete and the latter replaced by a more modern wait-and-heal system. To be fair, I miss neither system. Sure, the skill system made the original Deus Ex more of an RPG, but curtailing my shooting skills based on skill points always felt odd for an FPS. Granted they could have found more ways to convert the old skill system over to options in the augmentation system, but really … it’s a small complaint. As far as the health system goes, I can take it or leave it. The debate here actually has nothing to do with Deus Ex and more to do with old health bars vs. new health bars. These days I just expect to heal up if I can stand still long enough. It doesn’t phase me at all in Human Revolution, but I’m a quick save whore anyway so when push comes to shove, I just reload.  Beyond these minor differences I feel like I get virtually the same amount of depth from the game play of Human Revolution as I did from the original title. My only complaint might be with some of the level design. The city areas in general are fantastic, with tons of secrets to uncover for the industrious explorer, but the actual mission areas almost made it too easy for me to get around. I felt like the various stealth, hacking, and run-and-gun options were usually rather obvious. If you want to stealth past an area, look for a vent, if you want to hack, find a computer. I feel like the original game had a little more variety. Still this is a minor complaint.

If I have one major complaint with Human Revolution (and in the grand scheme it’s still minor compared to Invisible War) it’s the story. The main storyline never really managed to hook me as a player and I feel like this is a failure on two fronts. The first failure is in attaching me to the story and the characters. I never feel there is any reason to care about any of the characters I run across and it’s not for the game’s lack of trying. They immediately try to get you to care about the character of Megan Reed by mentioning the player character (Adam Jensen)’s relationship with her, but this is not a relationship the player takes part in at all. Almost as soon as we meet Dr. Reed, she’s taken out of the picture and when she shows up again later, Jensen’s reaction makes sense, but I don’t feel it as a player. I feel like the original Deus Ex did a much better job of endearing me to various characters. The very first conversation in the game with the player character (JC Denton)’s brother Paul allows you to play out a big brother/little brother dynamic and forces you to either take Paul’s non-violent posture or actively side against it. This dymanic plays out several times over with other characters as well. The original Deus Ex is always subtly asking you to make choices based on other character’s personal agendas and motivations. The most interesting character in Human Revolution is Frank Pritchard, the asshole IT guy who you find talking in your ear most of the game, but who you only physically interact with once. Had they enhanced the relationship with some of the other characters (specifically David Sarif, Hugh Darrow, Ben Taggart, and Megan Reed) to make those characters more than just exposition devices, the story decisions I had to make late in the game may have held more weight. Another HUGE missed opportunity exists with the 3 mercenaries you encounter at the very beginning of the game and who show up successively throughout. These are your core rivals from the start, the object of either your justice or revenge. Then only time you ever hear from them however is right before you kick their asses. Granted the situation is somewhat different in that these 3 are antagonists from the start, but the original Deus Ex’s Gunter Schultz and Anna Navarre are much better developed villains and because of this, the interactions with them as Deus Ex’s story unfolds carry much more weight.

The second failing of the story is that it throws too many links at you without fully developing them. The original Deus Ex unfolds very naturally with the Grey Death plague initially taking center stage and eventually implicating FEMA, MJ12, the Illuminati, and ultimately Bob Page as the ultimate villain. Human Revolution throws information your way, but rarely asks you to comment on it. When Human Revolution does ask for your opinion, the resulting comments feel more like flavor text than character building. In the end, the story of Human Revolution is almost a comedy of errors that more or less culminates with you cleaning up one man’s misguided mistake as opposed to thwarting an international conspiracy. The real problem, is that the international conspiracy angle is present, but largely undeveloped. It’s to the point where the final boss of the game is a key player in this conspiracy, but until that final battle you have little idea of her ambitions leading up to it. When I got to Area 51 in the original Deus Ex I knew what Bob Page wanted to do and I was there to stop him. In the process of doing so I was given several options for exactly how to accomplish this by various characters I had connected with earlier in the game. These connections along with the fact that the story had been preaching to me in regards to these various viewpoints throughout the game and that the options were physical paths for me to take and not simply and button to press, all contributed to the weight of that final decision. While I am prepared for the choices at the end of Human Revolution to a certain degree, they feel weak not only because I have little connection with the people involved, but also because the game doesn’t make me do anything different to achieve these objectives. You get to the end of the game and push one of four buttons after which you see a bunch of stock footage with some vaguely philosophical voiceover.

I suppose one of the difficulties of making a prequel, especially as (and for) a game that relies so heavily on player choice to determine the outcome of it’s narrative, is ending it in a way that is both interesting and yet doesn’t encroach upon the sanctity of the pre-existing property and it’s world. It’s actually because of this that I feel Human Revolution really dropped the story ball at the end. The Illuminati are the one major thread (besides augmentations themselves) that carries between both games. Throughout the game we are treated to notes, and broadcasts speaking about characters from the first game that we know to be involved with the Illuminati. At this point in time, these people are very much pulling the strings, but by the time we get to the original Deus Ex there has been a schism within their ranks that ultimately creates the situation whereby Bob Page becomes the core villain. While I can see that they didn’t want to associate the two games too closely in order to avoid certain pitfalls, I think this is an aspect they could have played with a bit more, especially considering how much the Illuminati figures into Human Revolution’s end game.

Regardless of these concerns, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is not only an excellent game, but a worthy successor to the original title and one that I hope gets expanded upon with future DLC and hopefully does a bit more to bridge the gap between the world of 2027 and 2052.

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