Tuesday 29 November 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Detroit, 2027. The human race is changing, with nanotech research and cybernetics technology making 'augmented' humans stronger, faster and smarter than their 'normal' forebears. Numerous groups are opposed to augmentation on ethical and religious grounds. Adam Jensen, chief of security at Sarif Industries, one of the leaders in augmentation research, is severely wounded when terrorists attack and destroy one of Sarif's labs. Saved by augmentation, Adam must investigate the attack, discover the motives of those seeking to destroy Sarif Industries and, ultimately, decided which side of the argument is the 'right' one.

Human Revolution is the third game in the Deus Ex franchise, serving as a prequel to the events of the original Deus Ex and its lacklustre sequel, Invisible War. Set twenty-five years before the first game, Human Revolution helps show how that world of nanotech and enhanced humans came into existence. As a prequel, Human Revolution requires no existing knowledge of the earlier games and makes an ideal jumping-on point for new players.

Contrary to screenshots which suggest that it's a FPS, Human Revolution is a science fiction roleplaying game played from a first-person perspective. The game is built around the idea that though there is a central narrative the player must follow (this isn't an open-world SF RPG like Fallout 3), the player has tremendous freedom in how he or she follows that narrative. The game has a robust combat system which will satisfy those who like shooting things, but it also has a solid stealth mechanic for those who prefer sneaking around in the shadows (or, more often, inexplicably large air ducts). The game also has a hacking system so players can also hack into computer networks and turn automatic defences against enemy forces. Even within a particular play style, there is flexibility, with the ability to stun or knock out opponents rather than killing them being a particularly welcome feature (and the game has achievements for those who complete the game without killing anyone). Most players will probably mix and match styles as the mood takes them, or depending on the mission.

Deus Ex was infamous for its tremendous flexibility and freedom, adapting its storyline to cater for the player deciding to kill off major NPCs on a whim and letting them simply escape from tough bosses rather than being forced into difficult battles (especially if they were not built for combat). Human Revolution isn't quite as liberal in its approach to gameplay, most notably due to the four tough and unavoidable boss fights which have been commonly and frequently criticised. In a game which enjoys giving you different options in almost every circumstance, being forced into situations where you have to break out the heavy artillery is annoying, especially if you've been upgrading your character for say stealth or hacking and are not optimised for combat.

However, this is the only major criticism I can level at the game. In almost every other arena, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a triumph. The game has a fantastic atmosphere and sense of place, backed up by an absolutely superb soundtrack and carried through some top-notch writing. Deus Ex is one of the most critically-acclaimed games of all time, and there were doubts that Human Revolution could live up to that precedent. These doubts have been laid to rest. The game is more than worthy of its illustrious heritage, and deserves plaudits for its clever design. It employs regenerating health and a cover system, two features of modern FPS games which are often groan-inducing and tiresome (is there a company somewhere that specialises in building chest-high walls and inexplicably littering them over levels?), but Human Revolution takes ownership of them. The regenerating health is justified as a force-shield, whilst the cover system (well-implemented as these things go) does double time as a tactical combat mechanic, allowing your character to move around whilst suppressed, rolling from cover to cover, firing blindly and finding sniper vantage points. Actually, the cover system pulls triple duty as a stealth mechanic in non-combat situations as well.

The game has a lot to say about the rights and wrongs of cybernetics, augmentation and the power of corporations and governments, but tries not to get preachy. As the game progresses, your character can develop his own opinion on matters, informed by the events he's experienced and the choices he's made, and the multiple endings (there are four radically different resolutions, each with three different endings based on your character's actions earlier in the game, meaning a total of twelve possible outcomes) can see him reaching very different conclusions. Whilst you can't create your own character, you can certainly develop him in more depth than in most CRPGs. This is helped by an excellent 'dramatic conversation' mechanic where you must argue with a major NPC over an important topic, trying to convince them to help you or surrender without the need for violence. Major plot revelations crop up in these conversations. However, it's odd that there aren't more of these (there's only three or four in the game), as in their own way they are more critical to the game than the tedious boss fights.

The game's central storyline is gripping, tightly-written and populated with memorable, well-acted and flawed characters. However, the game has two large hub areas (in Detroit and Heng Sha) where you can wander off from the main story for a while and pursue some side-quests. A couple of these side-quests are extensive, taking a couple of hours apiece to complete, and are a great opportunity to gain additional XP and increase your character's skills and augments. These hub areas are rich in incidental detail and flavour (overhearing citizens discussing the news stories of the day, being offered food from stall-owners etc), but arguably there's little to do in them outside of the (relatively few, for the size of these areas) quests and buying some equipment and weapons from a few vendors. A bit more going on in each zone would have expanded the play-time (which at 25 hours is reasonable but not particularly notable for an RPG) and made the game a little richer. Also, the game rarely strays far from the traditional FPS paradigm of having most of its actions set indoors in successions of corridors and offices. A little more variety in locations (perhaps more outdoor opportunities for stealth or combat) would have been nice.

These kind of complaints are very minor. In a world of increasingly bland and 'safe' first-person shooters, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (****½) stands out with its strong writing, well-defined characterisation and its refreshingly open approach to freedom and choice, whilst having compelling action sequences as well. It's one of the strongest RPGs, and indeed games overall, of the last couple of years and is well worth a look. It's available now on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA), as well as on the OnLive cloud gaming platform for PC and Mac users (UK, USA).

1 comment:

Dolorous Menhir said...

Excellent review, excellent game. Showcase for what games are capable of - story, character, freedom, serious issues tackled in a mature way. It has it all, and happens to be great fun too.