The first line of discussion I seem to have had with anyone who has played DXHR (which is a considerable fraction of the people I know) concerns how we played it. And to talk about how is to say whether you approached it lethally, or non-lethally. Whether you relied on knockout punches, tranquiliser darts and stunguns, or whether you stabbed people in the dick. Most people I know felt that to be true to the game, and to themselves, they had to defer to a non-lethal route. I… did not feel that way. At least not by the end of the game.
This is my story. (Mild mechanical and narrative spoilers.)
It seems reasonable to argue that the finest achievement of the Deus Ex games is to offer some choice about how you handle combat situations. They are combat games, really, but since they are based around infiltration, rather than direct confrontation, there’s considerable scope for activities other than shooting men to death. Getting them to lie down and have a nap, via a range of persuasive implements, also becomes an option. The role-playing ramifications of that are pretty profound, especially when set against the backdrop of most of the games we play. You get to be the guy who doesn’t murder hapless goons (thus neatly sidestepping the “think of the Goon’s family” guilt-joke from Austin Powers) and instead drags their unconscious forms into airducts, traumatising them forever. We like that. It’s ethically okay and it’s gameologically refreshing. It’s also an interestingly different challenge.
DXHR pulls it off so well that John almost exploded when the non-murderous approach was forcible over-written by the bosses. Only the quick thinking of a nearby PC games journalist with a fire-extinguisher stopped the indignant Mr Walker from detonating into a crater where his desk should have been, and instead he was able to walk away, calm down, and vent his frustrations by attacking exploitative game distribution practices. I digress. The point is that DXHR, from the outset, is keen to offer a choice. You can take the tools of non-violent man-defeating into the game pretty much from the outset, and that remains mostly consistent throughout what is a huge, sprawling game.
The line, however, is easily crossed. Initially I too was lured by the promise of doing things differently. The game certainly incentivises non-violent approaches, because you get more XP. It’s not vastly more, but enough to build up and make a difference to the powers you manage to unlock across the entire game. What it doesn’t do, however, is judge you in the way that the original game did. Despite opting for the tranquilliser darts on my foray into the early parts of the game, and being careful to punch (rather than impale) the first few folks I encountered, my situation suddenly got out of hand when fighting and shouting and mistakes woke some guards I’d previously knocked out. In my enthusiasm to put one of the buggers back down I stabbed him the groin. I was pretty surprised, as I’d not done that before. Nevermind, I thought, I’ll skewer and shoot my way through this level and then enjoy the horrified indignation of the other characters who are tracking my progress.
Except not. Nothing. I had been ready for at least some barbed earpiece comments about my ultra-violence, but nothing was forthcoming. I was ready to be made to feel guilty, but the hit wasn’t there. Wasn’t Sarif going to tell me that the company looked bad? Weren’t people in Sarif HQ going to say “I heard he likes to stab men in the groin!”
They were not.
That’s fine, I supposed. Maybe something else would show up later. I moved back to non-violence. I have to admit that I wanted to conform to the way I knew John, Alec, and Kieron were playing the game. They were going to be taking the route of concussion blasts and knockouts. I should too, I thought, so that we could compare similar experiences. And anyway, I am not necessarily the luddite who prefers base displays of gore and fire over subtlety.
And that was where the game proved me wrong. And it did so entirely within its narrative. It is highly unusual for me to find any real affect in game stories, but when I finally encountered the “main” enemies, my restraint was dissolved. These brutal strangers were fucking with my life, and those of my Sarif colleagues. They had nearly killed me. Why not strike back? I owed them.
I purchased the most formidable, lethal, personal augmentation, the Typhoon, and immediately, ruthlessly obliterated a large gang of enemy drones. From there in, motivated by Jensen’s only vengeances (the need for which multiply through the game – his losses are not limited to the start of the game, and other companions are lost and abused) I became intent on bloody retribution. And it felt good to not worry any more. And why would Jensen himself have cared, having reached that point of horror at what was going on? His enemies clearly showed no pity on his allies, or innocent people, so why should they be gifted non-violent processing?
Do I want XP points? No, revenge.
From there on I savagely slaughtered everyone in DXHR. No masked mercenary was safe from Jensen’s retractable elbow swords. A lucky few were slapped into instant death by a shotgun point-blank to the face, while other still faced grenades, or the business end of a spooled-up minigun. I was relentless. It was almost a pleasure to run out of ammo from time to time, because then it means the stabbity-stab was on. The killing had kicked off and it really didn’t stop until I entered the game’s final room.
It’s important to note, of course, that violence in DXHR does not mean that you dispense with stealth. Far from it. This is not a game that becomes a stand up shooter, even when you are are your most armoured, and most heavily armed. Rather, the point is that it enables you to become a nightmarish mechanical murderer, lurking behind corners, under windows, behind doors. You are still vulnerable to attack, but nevertheless a brutally efficient predator upon the hapless drones that are sent after you. I might not have been tranqing and stunning, but my stalking of my targets was no less stealthy, and no less exciting. Hell, I think some of the more brutal run-ins were some of the most cathartic moments I’ve experienced in a game of late, as my encounter with the mercenaries proved.
DXHR does offer you choice. One of those choice is to become a spear-armed cyber-murderer who would make half the protagonists of our blood-soaked game worlds shudder in disbelief. And, as a lifelong connoisseur of the imaginary violences, I’m definitely okay with that.