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The Games Of Christmas ’11: Day 23

No Shame

I can already hear Horace's giant claws tearing away at the fabric of reality, preparing for his grisly entry into our "Earth" on tomorrow's tomorrow of Horacetide Day. Children will press their noses against the frosted panes, watching as he tears through the fragile frames of any too slow to avoid his infinite arrival. Ah, so lovely. But today there's this:

It's... Deus Ex: Human Revolution!

Jim: The abiding feeling that DXHR produced in me was one of relief. After all this worrying about whether the newly-forged Eidos Montreal could possibly put together something in the spirit of the original, we found out that okay, they actually could. Sure, there were some wrong moves along the way - and we all complained about them loudly - but the over-arching theme was right there. Bang on. We got the sprawling sci-fi plot and the multiple locations, but more importantly we got a genuine range of choice about how to attack the levels. Sticking to the route of non-lethality was by and large possible (apart from the disappointing boss fights) and it was the kind of game where you could feel your choices about how to play (and not just what to do) really had some consequence.

But going back to that feeling of relief: I think the success of DXHR confirmed that there are some developers out there, and even some publishers, who want to continue to explore the areas mapped out around a decade ago. There's been a lot of defeatist talk over the past few years about how that era is "over" and that games which merge genres and expand their remit across action, stealth and RPG are basically not viable in the mainstream. DXHR has proven that they are viable, and that we do want to play them. It was a golden moment for gaming in 2011, and I cannot wait to see where the Eidos studio goes next. The idea of a fourth Thief game now fills me with optimism.

John: I've run out of things to say about Deus Ex 3. What does that mean? I think it's suffering from BioShock syndrome. I absolutely bloody loved it when I was playing, and then sort of forgot why afterward. But I can remember what was wrong with it! Oh dear, I don't think I do having a brain very well.

Focus. Stealth! Yes! My goodness, it got stealth right, didn't it? Better than any game before, better than the Thief games (which bodes extremely well). I always felt enormously powerful, even when hiding in the shadows, and I finished the game without killing a single person. APART FROM THE BLOODY BOSS FIGHTS. Ah yes, there it is.

It really was tremendous, but it wasn't tremendous for the same reasons as the original DX was, and I find it hard to reconcile that in my memory. I mean, it was certainly a far better executed game than DX, less flaky, far sleeker. And it didn't have any greasels in it. But I didn't learn anything from it, and I think that bothered me.

Kieron made an excellent point about that, as it happens. I was 22 when DX1 came out, and 33 when DX3 appeared. There's a fair chance I've learned more stuff in the last 11 years, and had I encountered DX today I'd probably not find it quite the epiphany it was back then. Although I'd still ponder that DX3 would not have managed the same accolade in 2000. I found myself frustrated that it was obvious the developers had learned extraordinary amounts about transhumanism to make it, but didn't feel they wanted to pass it on to me.

But games are not school, and you'd have to be a lunatic not to have thought this one of the best games of the year, and one of the better games of the last few years. It did what it did so supremely well (APART FROM THE BLOODY BOSS FIGHTS), and while it didn't do things I wished it would have, it wasn't nearly enough of a detriment to do anything other than celebrate a remarkable achievement.

Adam: If you’re not the kind of person who spends a massive amount of their leisure time staring at numbers slowly rising across a map of Europe, or clicking through the spreadsheets of a simulated football season, you may not understand how much it means to find those rare occasions that you enjoy something and can then lay it to rest.

Let me put it like this – when I skedaddle off this mortal coil, I’ll leave a Crusader Kings XXIV save game for my firstborn to continue in my absence. It’ll be like Brewster’s Millions, except he’ll have to conquer the world as an obscure Polish count to get his hands on three hundred quid in a savings account. Most of the monstrous creations that roam around the dark corners of my hard drives will probably outlive me, making a mockery of the very word ‘completion’.

Not so with Human Revolution. I played through twice and then I was happy to move on. Maybe I’ll revisit it over the years, as I have with the original, but I don’t feel compelled to yet.
What that means, among other things, is that Human Revolution is one of the most complete and satisfying games I’ve played in years. I was incredibly skeptical about it before I played, not just because I thought it might not capture the sense of freedom and improvisation that I remember from Deus Ex, but because deep down I feared that it might nail those things all too well and in doing so make me realise that my glasses were far more rose-tinted than I’d thought.

Needless concerns. Human Revolution’s blend of gadgetry, sci-fi, morality, choice and stealth is a joy to experience and, crucially, feels like a genuine sequel rather than some sort of revisitation or namecheck. Technology aside, it could have been released ten years ago because Eidos-Montreal seem to have played Deus Ex yesterday and still been amazed by the possibilities it offered to the industry. In the alternate reality I inhabit in my dreams, Looking Glass and Ion Storm stand astride gaming, making bundles of joy like Human Revolution the exception rather than the norm. It’s flawed (OBLIGATORY ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF BOSS BATTLES) but we’d be mad to ask for perfection.

As I was writing this, I noticed that Jim has finished on the same note as I intended to. It’s an important note. Human Revolution did so much so right all on its own, but it also made me believe that the existence of Thief 4 might be reason for rabid anticipation. I love rabidly anticipating a new Thief game. It’s been too long. Human Revolution is a bridge between now and then, showing how much we can still learn from an era it sometimes feels like I never stop raving about.

Alec: There was light, then there was darkness and some boring Quake and Wolfenstein sequels, and then, years later, there was another light and now it seems as though there was never any darkness in the first place.

We went through years without hope, where it seemed that almost all the lessons of Deus Ex had been ignored and forgotten: the future was Halo sequels and Gears of War and billions of things starring shiny-muscled men called Jack. Now, things seem almost back on track: Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a relative smash hit, a sequel seems more than likely and we have proof positive that big audiences don't run screaming from stuff that involves anything more than bangbangbang after all. It's like Deus Ex never really went away.

For that, I will forgive DXHR its relatively constrained physics, its lack of hyper-crazy and its anti-climactic Deal or No Deal ending. It managed to recreate (and non-slavishly so) so much of what its precursor did - hell, it's even given us a new catchphrase. "I never asked for this" is surely 2011's "what a shame."

I'd like it to have been wilder - it floated ideas like the two-tier city then didn't show off more than a few streets and offices. I'd like it to have involved a little less hiding behind very similar desks. I'd like it to have offered more scope to be a dark, deadly robo-god. But this is like saying "I wish this amazing party also had three different flavours of Pringle and a wider selection of wine." DXHR did skimp on a few snacks, sure, but it was - is - nonetheless an amazing party. A blockbuster through and through, but smart and subtle and adaptive.

Something that's not quite so often noted about DXHR is that's also very funny, on the quiet. The tale of Jensen's broken mirror, Megan's dog and Pritchard's TV show pitch - underneath all that glowering the game isn't afraid to laugh at its characters and their absurdities. That only made me like these guys all the more, knowing that beneath their set-jawed action posturing they were petty and hapless and human. Take the imperative to save the world away from Adam and Frank and God only knows what they'd do with all that time to kill and technology to tinker with. The bickering! The vengeful hacking with hilarious consequences! The clumsy trashing of furniture by malfunctioning metal arms! There's a sitcom waiting to written there - I’d totally watch ‘One and a Half Men.’

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution

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