I can’t help comparing Deus Ex: Human Revolution to its progenitor, the original Deus Ex. Because playing through the vast, complex game, it’s clear that new studio Eidos Montreal was studying the first game very closely.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is set in the year 2027, a time when “augmentations” — sophisticated machine parts that replace and work better than normal human body parts, like ultra high-tech prostheses — have become normal in modern society, though only those who can afford them are able to have augmentations. Then there’s the drugs; a special medication is required for everyone who has “augs,” to keep their bodies from rejecting the foreign objects. Fail to afford the pricey meds, and your body could literally fall apart. Plus, there are parts of society who are strongly opposed to augmentations. The world is a powder keg, and it’s ready to go off.
Adam Jensen is a former cop who lost his job after an operation went badly, and now he works as head of security for an augmentation hardware manufacturer called Sarif Industries. The story begins when Sarif is attacked by mercenaries with an unknown agenda, on the eve of a major breakthrough by Sarif’s scientists. Jensen is mortally wounded in the fight, so his employer has him outfitted with state-of-the-art augmentations to save his life. A slick opening credits sequence shows us this.
When Jensen returns to work six months later, he’s plopped right into the middle of a conspiracy involving the people who attacked Sarif Industries — a conspiracy that will test his new abilities and force him to question everything he knows. Figuring into this techno-noir/conspiracy thriller is an even deeper mystery regarding Jensen’s own past.
When it released in 2000, Deus Ex was hailed as a visionary masterpiece by legendary game maker Warren Spector, because it mixed FPS and RPG elements into a brand new concoction, and then added in a story that scratched many a gamer’s itch with a globe-trotting adventure and conspiracies galore. Its trademark was how it allowed players to play the game any way they wanted: you could go into every situation guns blazing, or you could use stealth and operate entirely from the shadows. Every scenario had multiple solutions, which gave the game tremendous replayability.
Human Revolution works overtime to replicate the magic formula that made the first game so appealing, and it succeeds. Every single thing about the game — the physics of the objects, the way people and things move, the music, the voices — is almost slavishly loyal to the original Deus Ex. It couldn’t feel any more like the first game if it had been an HD remake. I’m absolutely certain that Mr. Spector would not only approve, but would be impressed at Eidos’ devotion to the paradigm he created.
Eleven years is a long time in computer terms, and the years of advancements allowed Human Revolution‘s creators to give their protagonist far more detail and cooler abilities. Instead of sneaking up behind a bad guy and popping them on the head with a heavy object, Jensen sneaks up and performs a cool “finishing move” (think Batman’s takedowns in Arkham Asylum) to either knock out or kill his prey. He’s got some very fancy hardware, too, including retractable sword blades that come out of his arms. The augmentations in the first game were made up of nano-technology, but since Human Revolution is a prequel, the augs are of the traditional, mechanical kind. Jensen’s strength, speed, sight, resilience, and much more can be improved via augmentations, which give the game its role-playing elements.
The level design oozes style and atmosphere, though the outdoor areas are far more compelling than the indoors. Particularly Shanghai, the second of three metro areas you’ll visit in the game, for which the designers pulled out all the stops. This oriental megalopolis is reimagined as two futuristic cities “stacked” on top of each other, with both equal in size. So when you’re outside in the Lower City, you can look up and see the underside of the Upper City’s man-made “ground” high above. The size and scope of it is a marvel to behold, and the other two cities (Detroit and Montreal) can’t help but feel kind of bland by comparison.
The game’s much-talked-about black & gold color scheme is still an odd choice, though I can appreciate the developers’ desire to give the game a distinctive aesthetic. Nearly everything in the game glows with a diffuse yellow, which feels peculiar at first, but you barely notice it after a while. Other components of the game, such as the musical score and the voice acting, are very strong overall, though Jensen’s gloomy voice sounds as if it was created specifically to remind players of the gravelly, monotone voice of the first game’s JC Denton. Like so many other elements of the game (if I didn’t know better, I would think the music is the exact same soundtrack from the first game), the developers shot for nostalgia with their protagonist. Gamers will have to decide for themselves if this was a good idea or not. One area where Human Revolution falls woefully short is in its facial animations, which are downright robotic. These characters aren’t capable of emoting at all, which feels ancient by today’s standards.
Speaking of characters, there are a ton of ‘em, just like in the original game, so it can be a challenge to keep track of who’s who. That said, I found the storyline this time, despite its complexity, to be much easier to understand this time around; I remember Deus Ex‘s story being rather convoluted and hard to follow. Another difference I noticed is how there are fewer interactive objects in this game. The original game offered players a staggering amount of interactivity with the game world; it seemed that there wasn’t a single object that couldn’t be manipulated or played with. Human Revolution has functioning sinks and toilets, and some boxes and heavier objects that can be lifted (once you have the necessary augmentations), but that’s about it, other than mission-specific items and stuff that can be hacked like computers and alarms.
Hacking is still a prominent part of the Deus Ex world, but Eidos Montreal came up with its own twist on this test of logic and speed. It gets more engaging as you unlock better augmentations to help with the hacking, but I never got so confident with it that it was something I looked forward to. Dialog trees also return, although they’re much more strategic in this game, having genuine impact on the events that unfold. There’s even an augmentation that lets you emit pheromones to influence and persuade others.
There are three main bosses to defeat — one for each city Jensen visits — and I found these to be almost impossibly hard, even on the medium difficulty setting. The long load times (usually upwards of fifteen seconds) made the boss fights all the more frustrating, as a quick defeat means twiddling your thumbs through that blasted load screen over and over. The rest of the game, whether you’re using combat or stealth, is well balanced, and has some truly ingenious levels to defeat. Enemies aren’t the smartest ever, but neither are they stupid. The mixture of weapons and augmentations feels second nature after a while, and thoughtful management of your inventory is a must.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a smart, confident rebirth of a long-missed franchise that’s both lovingly crafted and a lot of fun to play. The game’s ending ties nicely into something longtime gamers will remember from the first game, but there’s still plenty of story left between the two games that Eidos could choose to tell. And major studios these days rarely put huge amounts of money and time into creating games of this size without the intention of re-using all of those assets to continue the franchise with sequels. If Eidos can keep the quality bar this high while making improvements on the formula, then I await Deus Ex 4 with baited breath.