Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Post-Launch Review
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Developer: Eidos Montreal, Nixxes Software (PC)
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: August 23, 2011

I know this is much sooner after release than I like to review things, but I wanted to play this game. I apologize for violating my principles.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a prequel to the original Deus Ex, released in 2000. The series is known for its mix of shooter and RPG elements and extreme richness and versatility of options and play styles.
DX:HR is set in 2027, 25 years before the first Deus Ex, in a time where corporations have become more powerful than governments and more influential than nationality or racial divisions. The game follows Adam Jensen, the security chief of Sarif Industries, a leader in the field of human augmentation and biotech. After a massive terrorist attack on the company headquarters the night of a key hearing on a technological breakthrough, Jensen is nearly killed and severely damaged. He is revived and mechanically augmented without his permission, and turned loose to discover the truth behind the attack.

At Launch
Deus Ex received very positive reviews, with critics praising the open-ended flexibility, depth of plot, and importance of character interaction. The flexibility of the combat system was also praised, giving the player the freedom to choose between combat, stealth, hacking, and exploration, and to freely change play style on the fly. Reviewers felt that the game kept the spirit and feel of the original intact while introducing more modern mechanics. The one main criticism was the inclusion of a few boss fights that force the player into a combat situation, removing the ability to choose other options.

Post Launch
A couple of bugs were fixed, but notably, loading times were improved. A second major patch fixed stuttering and performance issues as well as a couple of gameplay bugs, as well as confirming support for 3DVision and Surround. There's a DLC mission, titled The Missing Link ($15 at release), which takes place near the end of the game during a three-day period where main character Adam Jensen dropped off the grid, and explains the events of those three days. Click here for the mini-review of The Missing Link.
The Director's Cut edition adds some more upgrades but most importantly it upgrades the boss battles, adding more options so they're not as jarringly different from the rest of the game.

The Good
This game has a really good opening. Seriously, it's awesome. After a brief introduction to some characters, the setting, and the intrigue, you get a short but intense playable segment, followed by a pretty crazy cutscene and an extremely impressive opening credit sequence. Oh, and make sure you take a thorough look at Megan Reed's office at the very beginning; there's some neat stuff hidden there.

Adam Jensen
Adam Jensen is a pretty cool dude. He's got cool sunglasses and a cool trenchcoat with subtle floral patterns on the shoulders. He has a classy beard and tough-guy scruff. He's got a deep gravelly intense voice that still manages to convey emotion. He has slick black robot arms that are out of proportion because the mechanisms don't take up as much space as regular arms. You get to choose how he goes about things like in most RPGs, but you also actively determine how he feels about things.

Augments Replace Skills
The original Deus Ex had two separate systems for skills and augments — skills were upgraded by earning experience, while augments were found during gameplay as nanotech canisters. The gun skills of the original made combat frustrating and dangerous until sufficient points were invested to raise your accuracy and damage to the point where you could reliably hit things.
In DX:HR however, the skill system is removed entirely, and experience unlocks points which you use to upgrade your augments. There is not enough experience available in the game to unlock all augments, and many upgrade levels require you to choose between two or three options, after which time the other options become unavailable — for example, there are three vision upgrades, but you can only have one of them.
I like this way better — the game doesn't artificially cripple your aim until you put enough points into Gun. Instead you have a normal level of competence as any first person shooter, and you can then spend upgrades to reduce recoil and whatnot. Plus it means you don't have to keep track of two separate upgrade trees.
Another minor neat thing: without cheating it's impossible to earn enough points to max out every augment, which means you have to actually think about what you buy and can't just go “I'll have everything eventually”.

There are a lot of cool options to choose from — and I'm not just talking about upgrades or path choices, I mean everything. There are some cool augments to choose from, including a very awesome slow-landing aug, a cloak, the ability to punch through walls like a boss, and others. I was pleasantly surprised by the “object highlight” menu option: it's off by default, but when turned on, it's very unobtrusive. Turning on object highlights simply adds a thin orange outline to interactable objects. At first I left it off, thinking it would be more fun to explore on my own; but later I tried it out and couldn't turn it back off. It's most useful if you get the punch-through-walls upgrade, because you can only punch through weakened walls, which normally are only denoted by a faint crack or two. Object highlights makes it easier to find those cracked walls so I don't miss anything in my obsessive exploration.
One augment in particular that impressed me is the CASIE social mod, which is very different from conversation skills in other games. In most RPGs, the conversation skill either automatically works if your rank is high enough (ie, you have max rank, so whenever you try to convince someone you succeed) or has a percent chance of working. Not so in Deus Ex. The CASIE aug analyzes a person's temperament and gives you information on how they act and speak, as well as a persuasion meter and occasionally flashes hints as to their personality type. Once you think you've identified someone's personality type you can activate pheromones and attempt to manipulate them into agreeing with you. The CASIE aug makes it easier to convince someone of your point of view, but you still have to pay attention to their speech and actions, figure out what they want, and choose the appropriate dialogue options... kind of like in real life.

The prerendered cutscenes look great. The game's emphasis on orange lighting effects works well here, with lots of soft illumination and slightly stylized art direction. The music that goes with the cutscenes always manages to sound intense and make the cutscenes exciting. However, you can frequently spot some mild artifacting due to compression. It's not that noticeable overall though.

This might be a minor thing, but it very much impressed me: the big robots in the game seem to be based off Big Dog and Little Dog, real-life robots used to research and program complex movement and balance. Here's a screenshot of an in-game robot followed by a photo of Big Dog:
Click for more info on Big Dog!
Choices Matter
Some of your choices have a pretty big effect on the game and how it plays out. A few characters can be killed and not come back later, including a major one. Depending on if or how you complete certain quests, you might get either extra help or more trouble later on. As an example, in one of the first missions you're sent to stop a terrorist. You can choose to kill him or let him go. If you let him go, that will have repercussions later — some good, some bad. Not sure what happens if you kill him because I only played through once.
This might sound fairly generic for an RPG, but that's because I'm trying to avoid spoiling specifics. I'm totally serious here, guys.

Side Quests
I often hate side quests in RPGs for being unrelated to the main plot and not making sense in the timeline (why are you rescuing the farmer's wife from bandits when you're on the clock to prevent the world from exploding?). But they work quite well here. Each quest fits in nicely at the time it's available: at the start of the game when you're investigating the terrorist attack on Sarif Industries, the side quests involve some of the fallout and unanswered questions of the attack and how it affected individuals. When there are violent anti-augmentation riots in Detroid outside Sarif headquarters, some old friends call in favours to help deal with some potential terrorist attacks that would take advantage of the confusion.

There's some pretty neat stuff going on here. Most importantly there's the ongoing debate over the morality of human augmentation. It's pretty cool to get new legs and be able to jump ten feet in the air or see through walls, but the downside is that you have to take a drug called Neuropozyne for the rest of your life to prevent rejection of the implants. If someone is dying and can be saved by augs, is it okay to do so without their permission if it means they have to buy drugs for the rest of their life?
There's the question of regulation and control — if augs can make a man strong enough to punch a hole in a guy's head, isn't that dangerous? What kind of regulations should there be for testing and research?
There are also groups who question whether it's right to modify the human body to such an extent. Some argue on a religious basis, some think it's arrogance or playing God, and others are just grossed out by augs.
Your own character was augmented without his consent, ostensibly to save his life, but probably to make him better at his job. You get the chance to explore how you feel about that through some dialogue options and a quest or two.

Feels Like Deus Ex
This is probably the biggest point of concern for fans of the series, and I have to say, the developers certainly did a great job at capturing the spirit and feel of the original Deus Ex, while streamlining, updating, and improving at the same time. Some people saw the cover system and complained that it looked just like any other shooter. Well sure, you can play it as a shooter — or you can play any number of other ways. The cover system is heavily used for stealth as well: when you're in cover, the camera switches to third person, allowing you to get a better look at your surroundings, as well as squeeze up tighter against the wall to reduce the chances of being seen.
This version is both simple and complex in all the right ways.

The Neutral
Dropped A Thread
I can't talk about this one without spoilers, so skip to the next section if you don't want any.
Adam's ex-girlfriend Megan Reed isn't actually dead. You find and rescue her near the end of the game, but there's no real closure there. When he finds her Adam is pissed because she's been hiding some sensitive information from him and has been working for the bad guys for months (against her will... ish? Kind of?). So when everything's clear he sends her away for extraction... and then she's never mentioned again. Not in the next mission, not in any of the four possible endings.
I know that Adam Jensen, Security Chief is a busy man and there was stuff to get done. Saving the world is kind of a big deal and you can't really let anything get in the way of that. But it does seem a little weird that we get so little interaction when Adam discovers that his girlfriend who he thought was dead for six months actually isn't and he's physically in the same room with her.

The Bad
Mandatory Boss Fights
For a game that sells itself on being able to approach any problem any way you want, the mandatory boss battles feel distinctly out of place. Room full of soldiers? I can take them on in direct combat; sneak around and take them out one by one; choose lethal or nonlethal attacks; sneak past the guards without touching them; hack into alternate routes or disable security. But when it comes to a boss battle, your only choice is to fight.
For the most part, the fights aren't actually hard, which actually kind of makes it worse. The game as a whole never requires you to choose certain upgrades in order to advance. Some paths require specific upgrades, but if you never picked up, for example, the punch-through-walls upgrade you can still finish the game. As a result, the boss battles are structured in such a way that a character build with no combat investment and no weapons on hand can still make it through the fight — alternate damage sources and weapons are always provided in the boss room. So not only are you strangely stripped of choice, the mandatory fights are almost insultingly easy.
One fight, though, really bothered me. There's a battle against a cloaking enemy with a very powerful close-range attack and some pretty strong guns. I was focused on stealth and hacking, so I had no points spent in combat and no upgraded weapons on hand. This fight does provide you with a means of damaging the boss other than shooting her, but here's the thing: it hurts you as well. And with no points invested in combat, that damage usually killed me, and when it didn't, the boss finished me off. I tried this battle over and over for an hour before I went to the forums for help, and even when I finally did learn the optimal way to win with my loadout, it still took me a good 10 tries to get it right.
It turns out that the boss battles were outsourced to a different studio, which explains the lack of the game's usual option diversity.

The ending was a bit disappointing. After a fairly easy boss fight you are shown to a literal ending machine with four buttons: push a button, get an ending. Each of the closing cutscenes is just a series of clips with a voiceover — and the clips aren't even from the game, they're all historical footage and photographs and stuff. Plus, the voiceover is all about the philosophy of your choice, and doesn't tell you anything about the world you've chosen to create. I would have preferred an ending determined by the choices I made throughout the game. That would encourage me to play through again and explore different approaches than I tried previously.

The Verdict
Recommendation: play it.
When my points of criticism are "all of the boss battles and the ending", you might think those are good reasons to avoid a game. Nope (especially not after the Director's Cut which improves the boss fights). The game is awesome. It does a very good job capturing the spirit of the original, without requiring knowledge of said original if you don't want to play an eleven-year-old game. It may (by necessity of the tech) have a bit less depth than the original, but it looks great and plays great, and still has a lot more versatility than the majority of modern games. For some games I'd recommend waiting for a price drop, and you can do that if you'd like, but Deus Ex is definitely worth the full price. The opening is worth experiencing even if you don't intend to play the whole game, but if that doesn't get you hooked, then you're... weird. Or something.

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