Deus Ex: Human Revolution my (somewhat reluctant) choice for Game of the Year 2011. That’s not to say it’s my favorite game of the year (that’s probably still Mortal Kombat 9), and I suspect (and hope) that either Uncharted 3 or Arkham City will best it on a pure technical level. But right now, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (hereafter simplified to DE:HR for the sake of both readability and my sanity) would be my choice, but I wouldn’t necessarily be happy about it.
When DE:HR is on, it is a fucking great game. It’s the sort of game you sit down to play and the next time you look up the sun is on the other side of the horizon and the stress headache you’ve suffered for the past three hours is from a lack of blood sugar. It’s the sort of game that you don’t really mind dying fifteen times to get through a single room simply because of the freedom you’re given to explore the space and you finally clear that area and immediately reload from a previous save to see what else could have happened.
DE:HR’s is a worthy successor to the original Deus Ex. It’s obvious Eidos Montreal reveres both its predecessor and the cyberpunk genre itself. If you’re a cyberpunk geek then one of the first things that crosses your mind after playing DE:HR is how cool it’d be for Eidos Montreal to get hold of the Ghost in the Shell franchise-- the second thing is maybe these guys really should try remaking Invisible War. From there the possibilities run rampant. These guys could totally make a Neuromancer game, right? Or be trusted with Shadowrun, provided Microsoft hadn’t already pissed away the franchise.
Or maybe-- and do we dare say it?
Maybe they really could make a Blade Runner game.
Eidos Montreal “gets” cyberpunk. They understand the atmosphere of neon cool and shattered glass and the shifting moralities lie at the boundaries of technology and humanity.
Eidos Montreal’s cyberpunk chops are evident. The question is if the untested designers at Eidos Montreal also “get” good game design.
Sometimes this game performs magic.
You can feel it when you stare out from the curving windows of Tai Yong Medical and onto the manicured gardens of Upper Hengsha, with the South China Sea sparkling in the horizon. You can feel it when you emerge from the sewers of Lower Hengsha and behold the technological glory of the Upper City looming like an omnipresent god of wealth and privilege made manifest above you. You can feel it when you’re rising through the glass elevators of Sariff Industries HQ and stare out across the flickering neon skyline of Detroit in a scene carved from the very bones of Blade Runner itself. There is something very important happening when you play DE:HR, something larger than the game itself. It feels like something special, something that given enough room may have been more important than the original game.
Eidos Montreal reveres the original Deus Ex, perhaps to the detriment of DE:HR itself. Indeed, it feels like DE:HR would have been vastly improved if Eidos Montreal had dared deviate from Deus Ex.
For instance--and I don’t want to sound controversial or contrarian for saying this-- but I honestly think DE:HR would have been better if it wasn’t a Role Playing Game at all.
Now, I’m not saying to drop the branching storylines or the NPC interaction or the player’s impact on the story-- all the narrative structure that surrounds a traditional western role-playing game could and indeed should stay; Eidos Montreal has done a fantastic job creating the scaffolding of an outstanding cyberpunk universe within DE:HR.
Mechanically, DE:HR is a modern First Person Shooter, but a First Person Shooter that attempts to leave as many RPG holdovers from the first game intact as possible. And they honestly don’t fit particularly well considering that original game is over a decade old. There are experience points and levels, each level arriving every five thousand exp. You receive the same amount of exp regardless of who you kill or how difficult they are to take down-- the 50 exp you receive for skillfully strangling a chaingun-wielding human tank twenty hours into the game is the exact same 50 exp you receive for clumsily performing the same silent elimination on a woeful street-level thug fifteen minutes in. Performing mission objectives awards a hefty chunk of exp as well. You gain levels so easily it is no surprise that the game does not bother keeping track of levels at all.
There are no stats in DE:HR, and the only reward for gaining a level is a Praxis kit, this game’s version of skill points. Praxis kits are used navigate skill trees, any of which can be maxed out using but a handful of Praxis kits. There is not a lot of deviation in any given tree, indeed, many are not trees as much as straight lines of linear progression. Praxis kits can also be found in limited stock at select vendors, given out as quest rewards, and can often be found laying around in the game world with minimal exploration. The result is that you are quickly swamped in skill points; it is not uncommon for to open up your skill tree screen and see unaccounted Praxis kits swimming in your pool of unassigned points.
The byproduct of this wealth of points is that the game was designed with an need to fill out a lot of skill trees, and as a result many skill trees are required to fill out regardless of how you wish to play the game. The base inventory is woefully inadequate, so using Praxis kits to fill out your inventory space is a necessity. Large swaths of the game are largely unnavigable without the skill that allows you to fall from any height without suffering damage. There is a mechanic in the game where using silent melee takedowns require using up “battery energy”-- at the base level of battery regeneration your character is forced to wait an indefensible amount of time to store up enough energy to perform the simplest of actions.
Filling out these skill trees is necessary to make DE:HR, and that should never happen. Sure, you can play through the game and suffer a near-fatal concussion any time you fall further than 10 feet, but it’s a much less enjoyable game and you gain nothing of value for doing so.
Imagine a Metroid game where instead of the world becoming larger and more interesting the more you explore, you instead had a fully formed world that gradually becomes more enjoyable to play as you upgrade your abilities. That’s what DE:HR feels like, and it’s not until you’ve played through for several hours and unlock the skills needed to fix the game that it becomes fully playable, and by that point much of the game is over with anyway. Darksiders had this same problem-- a ton of enjoyable skills, but the sort of skills you’d had more fun with if you had access to them before the game was nearly over.
Using the remainder of the Praxis kit system there are three unofficial “classes” to build. Firstly, the traditional Deus Ex sneak thief, who accesses terminals to deactivate cameras, unlock doors, and turn automated sentries upon guards. The second; a stealthy angel of death and/or unconsciousness, flitting through unsecured air ducts and dispensing unseen vengeance upon any guard foolish enough to turn his back to an unattended sofa. The third is a traditional (and hilariously oblivious) run-and-gun FPS hero, filling bad guys with hot lead and explosive ordinance and generally unconcerned with the piles of bodies left in his wake.
There’s some small leeway in the way these three classes are built. Maybe if you’re playing the hacker you buy the skill to break down walls to bypass guards; maybe if you’re playing a ninja you get rid of gun recoil so that your silenced machinegun headshots are more accurate, if you’re playing a tank perhaps you buy the ability to throw heavy objects because hauling around a live sentry gun emplacement is funny as fucking hell and everything the tank does should be optimized for comedic effect. But for the most part you should always buy the same handful of skills in the same order. The hacker has to max out all the security bypass trees ASAP. The ninja needs the cloaking system to flit unseen between silent murders. The tank needs the diamond skin upgrade so he can withstand more than a single headshot while unloading uninterrupted streams of chaingun violence.
Now, the problem is 3/4ths of the way through the game you’ve filled up all the trees necessary to make DE:HR playable as well as everything you could want to fill out your class build. So like a hillbilly given a briefcase full of unmarked cash and a working meth lab you just start spending on anything. After a while there’s no reason for a hacker not to have the stealth upgrades meant for the ninja; the tank is defying security protocols with all the aplomb of a skilled hacker; the ninja is just as proficient at firing a heavy rifle through traffic as is the most hardcore tanks. By the end of the game all three builds are essentially the exact same class, or at least a hybrid of two of the three.
If by the end of the game everyone plays the same character anyway, why not get rid of the Praxis kits and just have one guy with all the interesting abilities already unlocked and open the entire game up from the very first minute? DE:HR is at it’s best when you're able to exploit the game’s defenses and work with as much freedom as possible; the fact that large swaths of the game are arbitrarily set aside to satisfy a legacy mechanic held back from the way PC games were made in the late 90’s only serves to hold DE:HR back.
Eidos Montreal could have taken the effort necessary to make the levelling system worthwhile by rolling all the enjoyable skills into the base character and starting from scratch with a limited number of upgrade points and a truly satisfying skill tree. But that would have taken time and money, both of which seemed to be in dwindling supply.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, LA; RETURN TO BOTH
The world of DE:HR runs a fine line between feeling dense and feeling cramped and falls on the wrong side more often than not.
There are two hub worlds in DE:HR. Dungeons appear as the storyline demands, and once these are completed you can’t go back to visit them again. There are a few areas in either hub world where you can find open combat, but there’s little reason to visit these areas until the story requires you to do so and fewer reasons to return.
Combine this with the wealth of Praxis kits and DE:HR provides little incentive to explore. Most areas are attached to the main story, and the rest is revealed through side quests, none of which are particularly hard to uncover. You uncover most of the world by dutifully following the story, all that’s left are weapon caches hidden behind locked doors and the occasional storyline-filled hidden computer terminal.
DE:HR operates on an economy of assets that rivals even Bioware’s notoriously spartan RPG classics. Grinding isn’t just nigh-impossible, it’s pointless, particularly for stealth-oriented characters that need to avoid combat at all costs. You can hack computers and electronic wall locks for extra exp but I doubt that all the optional hacking in the game combined amounted to enough exp to gain a single level-- not that you’d particularly need that extra Praxis kit anyway.
DE:HR feels all the more compressed considering you visit both hub worlds twice-- there are minor differences in NPC reactions on each visit, and new side quests to explore, but nothing interesting enough to make you feel like you’re experiencing these areas in an all new way.
It’s easy to understand the economic reality of modern game design-- publishers are unwilling to fund areas that most players will never see; much less bother playing through. But it’s less understandable when you see companies Bethesda fill it’s games with welcome diversion and charming fluff. The way Eidos Montreal has re-used areas and given the player so little to do within them makes DE:HR feel cheap and lazy.
And that’s infuriating; the world Eidos Montreal produced is one that I want to spend a lot more time exploring. It’s a good story (well, for a videogame story, at least) and the characters are interesting, even if none of them live up to the William Gibson inspired techno-cool the environment promises.
BATTLE ANGELS LAWRENCE, YALENA, JARON AND ALITA
Anyone who’s read my blog posts starting at Bigredcoat or knows me from the Platformers.net messageboards knows my open hostility towards the concept of the boss fight. Not that I don’t think the traditional boss fight has its place, but this place begins and ends with arcade games, any gameplay concept codified before or during the 16 bit era, Platinum-developed titles, anything produced by Hideo Kojima and most Capcom games. Exceptions can be made for stuff like Shadow of the Colossus because fuck you, I love Shadow of the Colossus.
But anything supposedly realistic or modern, or first person shooters-- and particularly modern realistic first person shooters with an emphasis on stealth and wits-- should leave the archaic concept of the climatic boss battle by the door. DE:HR’s boss fights are particularly boorish when you consider the freedom and elegance given to solving the original game’s infrequent boss encounters. You could take on Anna Navarre and Gunther Hermann using any mixture of guile, stealth and brute force, or if you were particularly inventive you could discover their particular “kill word”, which when uttered during conversation would instantly bypass either boss encounter.
Not so much with DE:HR. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hacker, a ninja or a tank-- all three fights play out in the exact same manner. Run around like a madman and wait for the boss to eventually blow itself up amid explosive crates or wander into a trapped electrical generator or something else highly unlikely and wholly inapplicable to anything you’ve done previously. None of the three have any redeemable or even particular noteworthy features aside from their general awfulness given the high quality of the game they are embedded within.
I should mention that there is one other way to get around all three of these bossfights, somewhat working as the kill word from the original Deus Ex game, albeit less elegant or engaging: the Typhoon skill. When fully upgraded the Typhoon augment completely eviscerates any normal goons within a few feet of your character and will destroy all three bosses after 2-3 applications. The Typhoon is the equivalent of a smart bomb and I would not be surprised if Eidos Montreal made all three bosses venerable to Typhoon simply to make the encounters go away as quickly as possible.
DO CYBORGS DREAM OF ELECTRIC CORDS?
My only other main gameplay gripe is somewhat a matter of opinion but it bugged me and I’m the one writing this -- the way this game deals with batteries is incredibly dumb.
What I mean by “batteries” is the artifice DE:HR uses to mete out how long you can stay invisible, or use silent melee takedowns, or activate the Typhoon ability, among other skills. A great many skills either take up an entire battery per use or gradually wear away at your battery store as they stay activated. You can gain more batteries via unlocking skill trees; alternately you can refill your batteries using edible energy bars that interact with something something augmentations in your gut something something nanomachines something glucose something. Don’t ask. You eat energy bars, you get battery power back.
This is inoffensive and indeed rather standard. The problem is that you can only ever regenerate your first battery on the meter. It does not matter if you have a reserve stock of four batteries or just the two you start off with-- Once you deplete any battery past the very first they must be recharged using power bars. Power bars are of limited supply and they take up valuable inventory space-- god help you if you pick up a jar of protein shake formula, that thing may give back a full bar of batteries but it takes up as much space as a full clip of chaingun ammunition, and it doesn’t stack. The result is a game where you’re given unusual freedom to resolve most any situation but you rarely ever want to actually do anything other than sneak through air ducts or kill goons using your gun. If you’re playing a ninja character then expect to spend large chunks of this game lurking in empty doorways as you summon the Herculean amount of energy needed to tap a guy on the shoulder and punch him in the jaw
There are a few lesser but still frustrating things that detracted from my DE:HR experience: DE:HR has what might be the most useless map I’ve ever seen; it is confusing and strangely incomplete and does nothing to elucidate where you were or where you need to go. One assumes the QA team relied entirely upon the onscreen GPS and ignored the map entirely.
Also, for a game that has a lot of quick deaths this game sure does take a long while to load any given area; this is all the more frustrating considering that none of the areas are particularly large; even the largest chunk of hub world is easily covered on foot in less than two minutes.
DE:HR offers achievements for finishing the game without killing anyone and without triggering any alarms, and while these would offer interesting ways to finish the game “as it should be played” the game offers no way to keep track of how many people you’ve killed or how many alarms you’ve triggered and the exact circumstances for triggering an alarm are unclear and seemingly arbitrary. Finally, the way the game handles its endings is extremely disappointing-- there are four endings, but none are in any way dependent on any of the decisions made during the game and all can be revisited simply by reloading a savepoint made before you enter the game’s penultimate room.
IN CONCLUSION: NO DIAMOND AGE; BUT AT LEAST AN ACCELERANDO
I feel I should take this moment to re-iterate that despite this incessant bitching, I greatly enjoyed my time with DE:HR. I cannot sit here and dismiss a game that I completed once, restarted immediately, completed a second time in a span of four days on it’s highest difficulty setting and went back to start a third game that very same night. Like I said, at this moment, DE:HR is my
Game of the Year. Aside from the bit where this game has the worst boss fights since Flaming Irish Superman closed out Bioshock 1, my main complaints stem from the fact I wanted to spend more time with this game and that it too much like Deus Ex 1-- neither of these are necessarily bad things. I just wanted this game to be better than it was, because I honestly feel that given more love and care it could have supplanted it’s illustrious ancestor.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is still a good game. An outstanding game, even. DE:HR simply did not fully live up to the expectations I had set up for it, and given it’s pedigree hat may well have been impossible. The very fact that we’re able to fairly judge DE:HR against the first Deus Ex game is a far larger testament to it’s quality than any review score or long-winded diatribe can attest.
There are lessons Eidos Montreal can learn in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Thief 4, stripped of an arbitrary skill system and given gameplay already suited to cramped corridors should be amazing, and Eidos Montreal has expressed open regret at the woeful state of DE:HR’s boss encounters. The next Deus Ex title-- in whatever form that may take-- may not only live up to Warren Spector’s legacy, but perhaps even surpass it.
If the original Deus Ex holds a special place in your heart, then buy DE:HR. You will not be disappointed. All my complaints are simply ways in which I feel the game should be better. If you’ve not yet experienced Deus Ex, then DE:HR is as good a place as any to start, provided you promise to play at least a little of the original at some point.