Earlier this month our dramatic Deus Ex: Human Revolution info blowout comprised of a new trailer, Alec and I having a chat about its atmosphere, setting and construction, I interviewed lead narrative writer Mary DeMarle and Alec broke apart the tutorial level like a handful of Twiglets. As of today I can finally talk about the first level proper, and I want to describe what Eidos Montreal has done with action, stealth and those curious new dialogue battles. Fear not, ladies and gents. I’ll be avoiding spoilers as best I can.
Ready? We’re going in.
Adam Jensen is perched, dark and predatory, at the lip of a vent overlooking the interior of a warehouse, office and simple research facilty where armed, jittery radicals stalk and bark between aisles of goods. The stakes of his mission- and yours- are high. Not only do you need to recover an experimental weapon belonging to your company, not only are there hostages being held in the complex, but this is the first test of the newly augmented Jensen following the disaster that left him at death’s door.
As a player, crouched up there, watching your opponents patrol and thumbing your way through your comprehensive map of the area, it’s a gorgeously intimidating situation. And, being a task that could have been pulled cleanly from the design document of the original Deus Ex, it feels like a statement of intent. As such, when you play this mission you may not be entering from the roof. You may have gotten your hands bloody in a direct assault on the front door. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and this mission demands patience.
I pick my moment like a jewel thief snatching up an exceptional stone and drop from the vent to a the peak of a pile of crates, then down, and down again, moving quickly from each crate towards the floor. Having sequestered myself down in the shadows I slide quickly up to a corner, slide up to another corner, picking my way over to the far side of the
Jesus Christing Jesus who’s shooting at me? Where’s the
Ow! Balls! Oh he’s behind me I’ve got to I’lll get out my taser and
Jensen keels over and slaps the floor like a leather sack of expensive consumer electronics. I’m dead. And this is me playing on Normal, as opposed to the two settings above it- “Hard” and finally “Deus Ex”.
Which is as efficient a way I have of telling you that this is very much a Deus Ex game. For the developers, throwing the player against a ton of weak opponents is not an option, because, in most cases, it’s not immersive. What they have to do instead is set you up against a smaller number of opponents than an FPS would, and then makes those opponents total dicks.
Reload! Try again. Adam Jensen is perched, dark and predatory, at the lip of a vent overlooking the interior of a warehouse. I take my nerves and use them to galvanise my plan into something more fool-proof. I start by taking my taser out of my sodding pocket. In the chopper on the way over here I was given a choice of four guns (politely out-doing Deus Ex’s original choice of three), first stating I wanted to go nonlethal, and then choosing the taser over a tranquiliser dart rifle. My thinking was that I’d go lurching from shadow to shadow, blasting perps at close range. Doing the maths now, it doesn’t look like I’ll have enough ammo for that. Too many bad guys. Just too many.
Okay. I’ve got it. I pick my moment like a lover timing a final, irreversible goodbye and slip once again down the pile of crates. I tap the cover button to send Jensen rolling over to a packed shelf, whip around the corner and deliver a godly taser blast to the chest of the gunman on the other side. I drag his body behind a crate, slip his pistol into my coast and leave the scene immediately. Ignoring the rest of the criminals I make a quick sprint for a nearby door, eyeing my minimap on the way over to make sure nobody’s behind me or the door, and slide through it, an electric ghost. I find myself in an office and drop down behind a desk to check my map. Where the Hell am I?
How’s this for a surprise: Deus Ex: Human Revolution has some of the finest stealth I’ve enjoyed in years. It’s a side effect of being an immersive sim. The world feels so weighty, dangerous and plausible that slipping past a man (or many mans) unseen is an incredible thrill. The minimap in the lower right corner of your hud is generous, but believable given the other cyberpunk tools at your disposal, and makes the stealth enjoyable rather than easy.
After several more rooms’ worth of cinematic sneakery I’ve examined plenty of datapads, been impressed by the new hacking minigame, left a trail of heavily electrocuted bodies slumped and learned that I love the new one-button takedowns for much the same reason I love the new cover system, which I talked about with Alec here. I know takedowns are the cause of another great lagoon of doubt within the hardcore PC community, but like the cover system, you don’t have to use them, but if you do use them you’ll find you interact with the world in a way that makes that much more sense.
Case in point, in one instant I was busy rummaging through a desk or something similarly uncool when a member of the group occupying the warehouse rounded a corner and spotted me from a distance of about three metres.
In the original Deus Ex, this meant JC Denton could look forward to a bout of circle strafing and baton smacks more at home in a police brutality video than a game about playing an ice-cool future superhuman. In Human Revolution, you can close the distance, press a button and loose a grin-spawningly cool bit of self defense at them, either knocking them out at the cost of bio energy if you tap the button, or ending their life with the blade hidden in your arm if you hold it down. Far from the cut to third person breaking immersion, the manoeuvre makes you feel more like Adam Jensen, because you never have to rub up against the glass wall of being unable to do something that fits within the narrative, and the need to get within spitting distance of an enemy makes the takedowns no more a “win” button than pulling the trigger on your gun is after you’ve put an enemy in your sights.
Finally, after slinking through what I thought was a relatively comprehensive run of the site (yet failing, I discovered later, to find the holding area for the hostages) and making one terrible error that leaves me hunkering in a ladies’ bathroom, taser pointed at the door, taking out several panicked guards as they come sprinting in one after another, I locate the group’s leader up the stairs in an office. It feels strongly like a parallel of the end of Liberty Island, when you discover the NSF leader in the base of the Statue of Liberty, with the twist that this time your discussion of ethics and motives have a deathly heaviness to them, as the leader is holding a gun to the head of a female hostage.
Up to this point, Human Revolution had mimicked Deus Ex in allowing conversations playing out with your avatar viewed through a cutscene-style third person camera. Not this time- I’m locked firmly into Jensen’s head as the leader spiels aggressively at me and I make my choices. Right off the bat I’m presented with the option of telling him that keeping hostages alive is not the primary concern of my company, a line ending with a sinister [Attack him]. I decide I can do a little better, and cautiously make a choice from between using reason, appealing to his code of conduct by flattering him and trying to empathise, or trying to humble him. I choose the latter, and Jensen launches into a surprising tirade along the lines of telling him that he’s not some gang banger, and that he’s better than what he’s doing right now.
The way Human Revolution’s new battle conversation-type moments work is that depending on what you say, your opponent may respond in a number of ways, and you need to read into that reaction and make the correct choice as to where to go next. It’s a game of rock-paper-scissors where your opponent’s choice is there in front of you, yet obfuscated into subtleties of language and psychology. You can often guess what the bad choice would be (trying to belittle a man who’s close to snapping and doing something stupid, for example) but the good choice is a much trickier thing to work out. As a minigame it feels real, and it feels adult, and to me it felt pleasingly difficult, by which I mean I was staring at my choices and picking over his every word and I still had no idea what to say. In the end I did save the hostage, but at a particularly embarrassing cost.
With this drama concluded, I left the complex feeling quite pleased myself and walked straight into the folded arms of a waiting SWAT team and my pilot. I really thought I’d done well. Her first words to me? As cautious an expression of doubt as to my methods and results she could possibly give to her superior at Sarif Industries. I chose the option that had Jensen telling her, in gravelly voice, that she had no idea what went on in there and that he did the best he could. But her words were still ringing in my ears as I boarded the chopper.
I could have done better. I could have done it differently. All I wanted was to load up an old save and play it all over again.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution continues to shun release dates, and will be released at some point in 2011. Want more? Quinns and Alec discuss what was seen in this hands-on session right here.