Sunday, 23 October 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

It’s all about choice.

If you’ve played a game or two over the last few years, you’re probably used to that. Look at the Fable series, or Mass Effect. It’s not just RPG’s – Bioshock had (fairly token) elements of it, in whether to harvest or save the Little Sisters. Choice is big in gaming right now, and generally speaking, I’m not just talking about its popularity. Games like Mass Effect have you making decisions that affect the entire galaxy on a regular basis.

Much of this trend can of course be linked back to the original Deus Ex – hardly the first game in the world to introduce an element of choice, but perhaps the trend setter. A hugely inspirational, and widely loved, Human Revolution has a lot to live up to, especially given the rather lacklustre reception given to Deus Ex: Invisible War, the second game in the series.

Happily, Human Revolution is a fine prequel, and an excellent game in its own right.

Once again, choice is all important; not necessarily the world defining choices that you’ll find in Mass Effect (for much of the game, at any rate), but more the freedom to play the game as you see fit. You start the game in essentially a preview of the power you will have later in the game; an extended tutorial in which you have an upgraded weapon (apparently with unlimited ammunition), and borderline immortality. You do not, however, have access to any augmentations, the most interesting part of the game, and it is the events of the prologue that see you gutted and rebuilt practically from scratch. It does serve as a fine introduction to the basics of the game, and shows off the action components admirably. Human Revolution has a very intuitive system that lets you slide into cover (and a third person perspective) at the touch of a button, and pop out to gun down your enemies as you please. Combat itself is satisfyingly meaty, and there are a few wonderful set pieces scattered throughout the game. Of course, depending on how you want to play the game, you might never fire a gun for your entire playthrough, but more of that later.

Six months after the prologue, you are called back to duty, now with a natty pair of cybernetic sunglasses that appear to retract into your skull with a thought, an even more gravelly voice (Adam Jensen, your character, is clearly a fan of Christian Bale), and quite definitely “more machine now, than man.” Your boss, the affable David Sarif, needs your help in securing a factory that has been taken over by anti-augmentation terrorists, and life only gets worse from there. The game sets its stall early. If you play games regularly, you may now be used to being given an objective, and then feeling free to ignore it until you want to. If you indulge this habit in Human Revolution though, you get a message from your boss informing you that the hostage situation has deteriorated, and to shift. It’s a nice touch, although not one that is really followed up on; you can spend most of the game quite happily wandering around the various locales collecting side quests and XP, and no-one will criticise or comment. Once on your way though, you are promptly given the choice of lethal or non-lethal weaponry, and then the possibility of close range or long range. Each has its merits, of course, depending on your personal preference. I choose the close range stun gun, which certainly made for a challenge – the slow reload time meant that if seen, I was basically dead. Ah well.

Having chosen your weapon, you are dumped behind the factory with a couple of augmentations already installed, and a choice of a further one to install before you kick off. But which one? Again, complete freedom. Do you want to learn how to hack through computers and keypads? Or perhaps you want to turn yourself invisible for a few seconds, or modify your body so that you can fall from any distance without fear of injury. Faced with this choice, the gameplay can be a bit deceptive; there are more computers, keypads and the like than almost anything else in the entire game, most of which require hacking (although you can find passwords for some of them lying around or through looting enemies). While you are perfectly able to bypass them by other means (an alternate route, or in the case of locked doors, sometimes just blowing them up), it can be hard to shake the feeling that the developers had a ‘proper’ way of playing in mind, and that method involved hacking. Similarly, taking down opponents through non-lethal means nets you more experience, leading to similar suspicions, although I do think those are eventually unfounded. Non-lethal methods might get you more experience, but a lethal approach will likely mean taking on more opponents, so it probably balances out.

As for the augmentation, I promptly upgraded my hacking, and set out. Enough of the plot though; spoilers are the enemy. All I will say is that Human Revolution is ferociously clever, and deals with weighty issues with striking confidence. It might not be an absolutely original and ground-breaking plot – human augmentation is hardly a new idea – but execution is all. Most importantly, the game never judges. Even at the very end, there is no ‘right’ path for you to take. This lack of judgement extends to smaller issues, of course; there is no such thing as the morality metre here. The game will never judge your actions, whether you refuse to help friends and colleagues without a reward, or whether you cut a bloody swathe over three continents.

Mechanically (no pun intended) speaking, Human Revolution is an equal triumph. For a start, the game looks beautiful. Not necessarily in location – you spend a great deal of time running around slums or office buildings, which are never going to be the most striking environment however well they are rendered. However, the graphics are rich, with a design theme strongly reminiscent of Blade Runner and similar films (the cars seen scattered around instantly called to mind Minority Report) but that also hints at Renaissance design, especially in terms of costume. For all that though, when the money shots come, they are worth the price of admission; your first shot of Hengsha, a two tiered city devoted to scientific research is up there with the first sighting of Rapture in Bioshock.

I have already commented on the excellent combat (although neglecting to mention the takedown system, which instantly and often awesomely puts down one or two opponents at the touch of a button), but the rest of the gameplay is equally strong. Stealth is easy to pick up, although tricky to master, relying on the same cover system as combat. Once hidden behind a wall, you can roll between obstacles, or slide around corners quite easily, although it can be difficult to judge if you are sufficiently concealed from guards further away. There is an augmentation that allows you to see enemy sight lines, but I wasn’t altogether convinced of its usefulness. As with much of the game though, successfully sneak behind a guard, and you feel like a genuine badass. The other main element is the hacking, which takes the form of a rather neat mini-game. Having made the decision to hack something, you are faced with a maze littered with nodes; some of them simply open up new paths, others release rewards of some description, while others slow down the anti-hacking programs you are racing against. It is a race against time to capture a path through the network and open up the terminal before getting kicked out to the sound of blaring alarms. You can drop out early, at the cost of a chance to unlock the terminal; if the alarm goes off the terminal is locked up for thirty seconds, and there is of course the possibility that guards will investigate and try and kill you. It’s probably the best take on hacking I’ve seen in a game yet.

The game is not perfect, of course, but the flaws are mostly so minor that it almost seems churlish to comment. The AI is mostly excellent, responding to even the slightest disturbance…so long as they see it. If a door opens that shouldn’t be opening while they are watching, they will head over immediately. Open it when they can’t see, even if they have literally just walked past it, and they won’t notice the difference next time. Similarly, they will react with prejudice to dead/unconscious bodies, but they won’t notice an absent colleague, even if their routine involves standing next to said absentee for a good twenty seconds. Like I said, niggles, but they can break immersion occasionally. Similarly, if you hack something bystanders will react in terror, but if you drop from a great height using the aforementioned no falling damage aug (the Icarus Landing System), they don’t even flinch. For the record, the Icarus System involves you descending from on high in a ball of glowing golden lightning and gently landing, with the option of channelling that energy into a shockwave. You know, inconspicuous.

Far more serious are the boss battles. Whereas the element of choice is oh so important for the game, boss battles remove it entirely, your only choice being what weapon to use against them. It is the first boss that is most affected by this; having developed my non-lethal hacker quite nicely, it was a shock to the system to suddenly be confronted with a giant of a man with a gatling gun instead of an arm. He tore me to pieces in seconds. By the time you get to the next boss, you’ve either adapted your style of play or been exploring enough that you’ve almost bypassed your particular choices – I found that I was getting augs simply because I had the points for them, rather than them being necessary for my play style. The abrupt removal of choice is jarring, and somewhat irritating, but if you look past that then you get some great set pieces.

What more can I say? Brilliantly designed, and excellent in each segment of its gameplay, with intelligence and sophistication oozing from every pixel. You owe it to yourself to play this game.

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