Because I am the luckiest man alive, I spent this weekend playing the first ten hours of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which is starting to look like it’ll be the biggest release of 2011. When I finished those ten hours, I went back and played them again, and have finally managed to compress my thoughts into a handy list of thoughts that'll occur to you, too, as you play. Five reasons to be hugely excited Deus Ex 3 and five reasons to be knuckle-chewingly nervous await you below.
"This game isn’t just good, it’s fantastic."
This is the obvious one. The art design is gorgeous, there’s loads to explore, and the whole package is so polished you can see your grinning face in it.
Better still, while the bugs you’d expect to find in code that hasn’t finished the full gauntlet of quality assurance were present, almost none of them affected how the game plays. No crashes to desktop, no guards being alerted while I was behind cover, no broken quests. Just the camera occasionally placing itself inside an NPC’s mouth, and the wrong text appearing underneath tutorial videos. Eidos Montreal could release this game tomorrow and it it’d still be in a better state than plenty of PC releases.
As for the game proper, after ten hours spent guiding protagonist Adam Jensen through dangerous conversations (his asbestos growl occasionally reveals a Detroit twang), as well as unforgiving infiltrations, a few firefights and an implausible number of air vents, I was left hungry. Both metaphorically - I was having an incredible time, and right on the cusp of fully removing the first layer of Human Revolution’s conspiracy - and literally.
I started playing Human Revolution on Saturday morning. I’d come home with a hangover, having eaten no breakfast. I didn’t stop to eat anything until late in the evening. It’s been a long time since a game’s managed to starve me like that.
"Hmm. Human Revolution seems to be offering what Deus Ex did, but that’s it."
Deus Ex went down in history not just because it was a great game, but because it was a staggeringly inventive game that has, in a sense, come to define the immersive sim as a genre.
Deus Ex was a game about freedom of choice. Arguably, a true sequel would try and expand on that freedom of choice, in much the same way that Half-Life 2 proved itself as a true sequel to Half-Life by being as inventive as the first game once again.
Instead, Human Revolution hones the more raw mechanics of the original game, improving the action, the implementation of augmentations, the visuals and so forth, without offering a great deal more choice. Buildings still have two or three entry points, you can still talk, hack, sneak or fight your way through obstacles, your decisions as to how to treat a character will still occasionally have repercussions, and you’ll be on the receiving end of different lines of dialogue depending on whether you follow a character’s orders to the letter or not. Talking purely in terms of your freedom of choice, Human Revolution could be an expansion pack for Deus Ex.
Then again, the problem with my only having played the first ten hours of the game is obviously that I don’t know precisely how many of my choices will twist things up further down the line.
"Whoah, this Detroit hub area is huge. And I’m free! Free!"
I gasped a little too loudly when I first opened my map and saw the size the inner city Detroit level, where the game first lets you off the leash. The gasp also went on a little too long, as you can’t zoom out enough to see the whole level at once, so I had to do some scrolling around. It’s bigger than any of the hubs in the first Deus Ex, with more side quests, more incidental detail, more passers by to harass and less loading times.
Do you remember first getting to Hong Kong in the first game, and ignoring the main plot for hours just to explore and get involved in side quests? That’s what this felt like. Except with everybody, everywhere talking about human augmentation and with less rats and pantomime accents.
"Seriously? I have to break into another industrial estate?"
The original Deus Ex had its fair share of offices, sewers, warehouses and plain streets, certainly, but it also had the Statue of Liberty, lime green Greasels, the Illuminati, comic book AIs, monks, energy swords, aliens, a German cyborg lamenting a vending machine that gave him the wrong snack, Men in Black, killswitches, a plague, Parisian catacombs and even Area 51.
Whether all this stuff could make a welcome return in Human Revolution is arguable (I’m sure lots of people remember Deus Ex as being significantly less silly than it was), but Human Revolution’s first ten hours lacks almost any colour at all. It’s a parade of cops, gangsters, mercenaries, revolutionaries, warehouses, offices, hobos, factories, penthouses and the occasional (excellent) robot. About the most colourful thing in it is the world’s dingiest basketball court, complete with a basketball, which - in what has to be a nod to the first game - you can fling at the hoop, but only with the same velocity and angle you’d use to smash a second storey window.
I also get the feeling that the above “crazy” story elements aren’t simply waiting in the wings, ready to pop out further down the line. I’m thinking this noirish and more plausible world is all we’re going to get.
"Wow, I actually care about these people."
Yes, the world is a bit drab, but it’s also very human, making me suspect that Human Revolution is the more adult game than its predecessor. Yes, the ridiculous arguments about politics with Australian bartenders will be missed, but look what we have instead- a love interest, and old flames. In one early mission, talking your way into a police station involves re-forging ties with Jensen’s old friend, despite Jensen and him having long since fallen out. And there’s one particularly horrible and deeply real bit of imagery the game drops into your path if you fail to save a hostage.
The new conversation battles are the star of these more serious themes. Where before you had to fumble your way through a multiple choice conversation like a blind man going down a water slide, now NPCs will randomly say slightly different lines on each playthrough that give you clues as to what approach might work best on them. It’s a fantastically subtle solution to a part of the game that more often than not was at best a little obscure and at worst meant several quickloads in succession to feel out your options.
It’s funny- not only are Human Revolution’s conversations now more of a game than before, they’re so fair and well written that they also feel more like part of the story. After failing one, I was inclined to face the consequences rather than just try again.
Better still, you have the option of picking up a social enhancement augmentation that gives you vague guidelines as to whether the person you’re talking to is susceptible to orders, praise and so forth, as well as letting you release pheremones along with a killer line once you’ve made your guess as to whether they’re personality type Alpha, Beta or Omega, with an insta-fail if you’re wrong.
"These cutscenes are making me want to take my keyboard and smash my monitor like a piñata."
While the swap to a 3rd person camera when you’re in cover or performing a takedown doesn’t hinder immersion at all (take my word for it?), Human Revolution’s hateful reliance on pre-rendered cutscenes definitely does. These clips are only ever very short, and only occur during the main story missions about once an hour, but they’re still irritating every single time.
I have no idea why they’re here. I’d rather find a severed testicle in my cup of coffee. Actually, that’s a lie. I do know why they’re here. They crop up during pivotal plot moments to make sure Jensen does the “right” thing, like eavesdropping on a conversation, leaping away from an explosion or walking into a room and going straight up to the person of interest.
Put another way, during the game’s most dramatic moments, the game doesn’t just take control away from you, it abandons the rendering engine for a rolling video that looks completely different. The last game to have this sickness quite as bad was Arkham Asylum.
"I want to spend the rest of my life on this augmentation screen."
Human Revolution’s handling of your augmentations is masterful. Rather than starting off as something akin to a display model, Adam Jensen is the archetypal billion dollar man from the off, with everything from cloaking technology to crowd control explosives mounted in his body. However, at the beginning of the game almost none of it is active. Instead, as Adam goes about his startling and high-risk life, his body gradually accepts his augmentations, and you’re allowed to activate one after another.
This means that right from the start of the game you can turn on anything that takes your fancy, from improved hacking to being able to punch through walls, with the twist that there are a wealth of choices and you amass the Praxis Points that let you activate this gear agonisingly slowly. Of the ten or so hours I spent playing the game, I think at least eight of them must have been spent in a blissful dilemma as to what I wanted to improve.
Better still, the game’s design constantly rewards you for the choices you’ve made, and never stops making you feel stupid for what you didn’t take. Going crawling through a sewer only to find the end of the tunnel is blocked by a crate too heavy for you to push makes you feel like an imbecile for not taking super strength. Looking down off a roof at your objective, far below, you’ll despise yourself for not taking the Icarus landing hardware that drops you slowly from any height. But you’ll also have that moment where you did take Heightened Reflexes, enabling you to do multi-opponent takedowns, and you’ll go sprinting up to two enemies having a conversation and knock them both out with a display of cyborg-fu that leaves you breathless.
"Wow, did they think of including an autopilot button, too?"
For all of its great environment exploration, Human Revolution’s waypointing system is a little out of control. Almost every objective of your missions and side missions appears on-screen as a large floating arrow, no matter how far away you are. On the one hand it’s extremely helpful, and casually eliminates all the maddening downtime of not quite knowing where to go, especially prominent in a game where you’ll often enter a building via what should have probably been your exit route.
On the other hand, there are plenty of missions which instruct you to “find” something, when that something is right there on both your map and your hud. Thoughtfully, you can both turn these waypoints off completely and toggle missions on and off in your log so their objectives do or don’t show up, but you’d probably be giving yourself a headache. The game’s been designed for use with them, so there will be plenty of cases where the game lacks the necessary signposting. Having no idea which door to knock on in a huge apartment block would be a good example.
"I am SUCH a badass. Watch this!"
Man alive, the action in this game is good. As much as the obvious questions pertaining to a Deus Ex sequel are whether it’ll keep the nonlinear design and interest in human interaction and consequence, a lot of your time in Deus Ex was spent sneaking, shooting, getting shot and thumping guys in the face with an extendable baton, which was fun enough. Here, it’s something to look forward to.
The guns feel great. The close-combat takedowns feel great. The sneaking feels great. My God, the sneaking feels great. Getting through Deus Ex without killing anybody was always an option, but Human Revolution positively encourages you to complete whole levels without being seen. Which, with the new minimap and Jensen’s grace when you attach him to cover, is a totally do-able objective, and even gets you an experience boost towards your next Praxis Point.
Crucially, you never feel weak. In the first Deus Ex, if you were a sneaky type and got caught, or you were a murderous type and took a lot of damage in a fight, there was a sense of failure. Human Revolution gives the sneaky guy tools to correct being located from his very first mission (punching that enemy who just walked into your hiding spot, or activating your camoflage to make your escape), and by swapping numerical health for regenerating health, the murderous type can no longer make mistakes. Now, it’s just a fantastic ride.
On the subject, hacking is now done via an excellent minigame. Not only is the curious arcade Uplink-alike they've got in here fun, and fairly deep, and based around risk-reward, you can hold down both mouse buttons to swivel the camera away from the computer terminal, allowing you to keep a lookout. Perfect. I remember reading in an interview that the hacking minigame was the project of one guy at the office, who worked on it obsessively and even scrapped it and started from scratch at one point. True or not, that's exactly what it feels like.
The preview code ends with a boss fight that you can’t escape from. And that’s not the worst of it.
As I found out after four deaths (mine), two concussion grenades, four stun gun zaps, eight potent tranquilizer darts, three point-blank blasts from a Pulse Energy gun and a final, desperate EMP grenade, you can’t incapacitate said boss, Metal Gear Solid style. You have to kill him. Or rather, you have to injure him enough so that the game can take over and show you Jensen being forced to kill in a pre-rendered cutscene. Which struck me as a pretty miserable ending to everything up to that point.
So there you have it! Deus Ex: Human Revolution arrives this August. Be more excited about it than you’ve been for any other game ever made, but also preemptively disappointed. You know it makes sense.