Shape the future of humankind in a global search for answers.
PC Release: August 23, 2011
By Ian Coppock
The games that are true giants are so because they make us ask the big questions. Existence, god, children’s smiles, crap like that. Happily enough, these games are also leading the charge into video gaming’s acceptance as an art form. Magnificent pieces of media from across time push a fascinating worldview and/or make us wonder about the fundamentals of society, and ourselves. We revere them because we can’t get their questions and conundrums out of our heads. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a masterpiece of questions and personal struggle. It doesn’t have the most conundrums and paradoxes I’ve ever seen in a game, but it does speak them the deepest.
Deus Ex is the third installment in the long-running Deus Ex trilogy, though it’s a prequel, making prior gaming unnecessary. Like its predecessors, this game’s core comprises the questions with no easy answers. Deus Ex envisions a year 2027 in which humankind has innovated brilliantly, but failed to address widespread social upheaval.
Adam Jensen, the player character, is a former SWAT cop-turned-security chief at Sarif Industries, a Detroit firm that produces robotic human augmentations. The company is one of many that participates in the controversial science, building machinery that can surpass the abilities of organic tissue.
Though seemingly miraculous, augmentations have created a new societal rift between “augs”, who make up a small but growing minority, and the general population who oppose them for a variety of reasons. Playing God, inherent unfairness, and other concerns fuel resentment of augmentation. Though not augmented, Adam is indifferent to the affairs beyond his job. He spends much of his time with Megan Reed, his ex-girlfriend and Sarif’s top scientist.
During a routine patrol, Sarif is attacked by masked gunmen with military augmentations. Adam tries to save Megan but is mortally injured by the enemy leader. All of this, on the eve of a technological breakthrough that would make augmentation “available to all.” Adam is left to die as the lab is destroyed.
With no other means to save his life, Sarif’s scientists salvage Adam’s body and augment him to replace what little was not destroyed in the attack. After months of painful recovery, Adam returns to Sarif Industries to conduct his own investigation of the attack. Megan and the other scientists are dead, and whatever they’d been working on prior to the assault was stolen. Adam picks up a new clue during a second attack at a company plant, and pieces together a trail that lead him across the world.
At this point I’m wondering if I should pull out the “tip of the iceberg” metaphor or not, but the experience might be ruined if I confirm or hint at the size of said iceberg.
The first thing I immediately noticed Deus Ex doing well was balancing a prior reputation with player-chosen character development. Adam has his own voice and general demeanor, but the player can use Mass Effect-style conversation wheels to determine most all his moods and perspectives. These perspectives build upon each other, making it possible to come up with many different Adams who all retain a similar mood, though not necessarily outlooks. These go beyond Adam’s favorite burger toppings; you can make him love or hate his new augmentations, be peaceful or violent, and generally a nice dude or an asshole.
Not one of the major characters in this game is one-dimensional, which is incredibly refreshing. It means they’re more interesting, but also that they may not be trustworthy. Each has their own agendas and goals in your global search for the truth. Adam is assisted in his search by several checkered Sarif Industries agents, including the deliciously unreadable CEO David Sarif; the up-front and witty pilot Faridah Malik; and Pritchard, a dry, antagonistic computer specialist who aids Adam during missions.
Adam’s conversations with these characters can shape entire missions and sequences. You’re given the opportunity to discuss developments with allies and even a few antagonists. Adam can empathize with, antagonize or plea with the people he meets, and your persuasive success will change major game events. These conversations range from talking down terrorists to trying to get information from David Sarif himself. There’s one bit where a conversation can save you from infiltrating several enemy bases, and another that may stop you from having to gun down innocents. Just to give you an idea.
By shifting the focus to encompass dialogue as well as action, Deus Ex pulls off a milestone in video games’ journey to mainstream art acceptance. This game demonstrates that a video game story can be thrilling and beautiful without reliance on the violence that so many people deem integral to a video game. The game is violent, but only if you choose it to be.
As I mentioned in the beginning, augmentation is at the heart of most plot and character conflicts. Even most of the side missions deal with their ramifications. The game absorb’s your opinion on augmentations as Adam’s own, and even if he likes them, he endures a vicious inner struggle over whether he’s still human. Protests and social movements representing both views happen throughout the game. It kept the tension up, and the question of mechanical augmentation at the forefront of major events.
Deus Ex was built to accommodate multiple playstyles. Bullet junkies can break in guns’a’blazin, or stealth fanatics can sneak through vents and behind guard positions. No matter what you choose, the game rewards you with experience points that go towards unlocking your next augmentation ability. Adam cannot get all of the aug powers, even in an entire playthrough, so choose wisely. You’ll be fine if you don’t try to play a bunch of different styles at once.
The game’s pacing is a combination of linear and open-world. Adam visits several cities during his journey, including Shanghai and Montreal. These areas are vast and open-world, but the game’s events are linear, meaning you may not be able to revisit a city once you’ve completed your missions. Adam can peruse shops, talk to NPCs and look for hidden money and items.
In each city Adam can also undertake various side missions, which may have something or nothing to do with the plot. Some of these quests involve helping out your close friends with their own agendas. Others see Adam helping or damning complete strangers. Most of these come with the reward of money or a Praxis Kit, which is good for one new aug ability. The Missing Link, a piece of downloadable content, adds a bonus chapter to the main narrative. It’s not too bad, and bundled into the edition of Human Revolution on Steam.
Though Deus Ex is beautifully designed, I’d be doing you a disservice if I glossed over my tri-weekly complaint bucket. Some of Adam’s abilities are severely hampered by battery bars, which are slow to recharge. Even a simple takedown eats up a whole bar, so by that logic he has to wait ten minutes to recharge after lifting a Snickers to his mouth. You can upgrade the bars to recharge quicker and eat magic granola bars to replenish them instantly, but I found this to be a MASSIVE sticking point in my strategies. I think Square Enix tried way too hard to balance the gameplay with that one.
Another problem and perhaps the game’s most infamous pitfall is the bossfights. Even if Adam is super-sneaky, he gets himself into numerous brawls with big baddies. The problem is that Deus Ex was built for stealth, so if you get shot, Adam dies as though his armor is a feather pillow. These fights don’t feature good cover, compounding the problem. The overall issue is that these fights only respond to brute strength. I think they should have been designed to respond to the player’s style, with stealth attacks and dynamic moves to suit my own understanding of the game. It’s possible to get through the entire game without killing anyone, believe it or not. You can stun them with a taser or sneak, but I always carried guns just in case I was thrust into a boss fight.
These guns ate up my inventory space, the third big problem with Deus Ex‘s gameplay. The inventory is one of those old-school cube systems where weapons and items occupy a shaped space in your pockets. It’s that system where you can’t carry something because another item is occupying too many rows, or the various squares of free space are disparate.
To be fair, the game tries to organize your items to allow for blocks of space, but the entire affair was an unnecessary headache. I thought we’d established that if you want to do inventory limits, you do it by weight, like in Skyrim. Isn’t that also how carry weight works in real life?
I can’t give Deus Ex a break on these problems, but I can say that, with the exception of the boss fights, they become somewhat manageable nuisances. Square Enix was a little rusty and old school on some of their implementation, but the heart is in the story and sneaking.
To parallel the game’s sense of conspiracy, Deus Ex‘s artwork is beautiful in its form but somewhat harsh in its essence. All but about 5% of the game takes place at night, creating additional spooky-spooky.
Deus Ex can’t seem to get enough of the color yellow. It’s the game’s primary theme, and is boldly or subtly in everything. Even Adam’s displays and conversation windows are in yellow. I suppose this was a choice meant to contrast with the game’s darker visual elements, and I really liked it. My respect for the color yellow went up markedly after this game, hooray.
The game’s environments change and reflect both ongoing events and philosophical battles. In addition to augmentation, the game struggles with the concept of capitalism. If you think our wealth gap is bad now, by 2027 the middle class is on the endangered species list. With societal segregation at a critical mass, Adam strolls through either glossy skyscrapers or downtrodden slums, with little middle ground.
The environmental artwork is beautifully done but a lot of the character animations are stiff and robotic, even for the people who don’t have robot parts (phnarr, phnarr). All of the NPCs have that strange attempt at natural motion which looks more like a robot swinging its head one way and then another in three-second intervals, which made me giggle.
The game’s voice acting varies depending on which role we’re talking about. Adam Jensen and David Sarif’s voice actors put the most into their characters, and everyone else fits on a declining scale. The one that made me laugh and then cry was a rather racist portrait of homeless black people in Detroit (“WEALL SHEEEEYUT, CAP’N”), some of whom Adam can get info from, for a beer.
The game’s music is a curious combination of old-world vocals and new-world guitar and drum. Mournful baritone voices play with irregular drum beats to create a sense of the game’s plot and environments feeling big, rather than just looking big. The main score, which combines epic strings with high-pitched ballad opera, is my favorite piece of video game music (it plays in the cinematic trailer if you’re interested. Also on a CD).
Despite its drawbacks, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fantastic game, and a welcome reintroduction of the venerable Deus Ex series. I highly recommend this game; shooter and stealth fans will be sated, but the narrative is one of the strongest I’ve seen in recent games. Informed by a combination of thick atmosphere and meaningful dialogue, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is something truly special.
You can buy Deus Ex: Human Revolution here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.