Poorly Thought Through Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The original Deus Ex is considered one of the best games of all time, and one of the first games to truly (and somewhat successfully) merge the RPG and FPS genres.
In the original Deus Ex, you play as JC Denton, as state of the art, cybernetically augmented agent, who gets involved in a story featuring government conspiracies and grand Illuminati type social manipulation stuff. I honestly don’t remember the plot of the game anymore, it wasn’t that memorable.
Deus Ex is considered one of the best PC games of all time.
What made Deus Ex so amazing was that you could approach the game in many different ways, and 2 players handle the same situations completely differently, depending on their playstyle and character build. Deus Ex even had boss fights that could be completely bypassed by just running away and slamming the door.
The game would never force you to do anything a certain way, it would give you a goal, give you a vast array of tools to accomplish that goal, and then let you just get on with it however you see fit.
In the decade that followed, with the rise of open world games, we have seen many games give us varying degrees of freedom to accomplish goals. But back in 2000, this was almost unheard of at the time.
In 2003, Eidos released a sequel that was not received well. Deus Ex: Invisible War, a game that wasn’t bad at all, it was just rejected because it didn’t quite live up to the promise of the original. After that, we would not hear much about Deus Ex for a long time.
8 years later, we hail the arrival of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a prequel to the first game. Is Human Revolution finally the worthy sequel to the original Deus Ex? I was hyped to find out!
I somehow managed to avoid any information on Human Revolution before release. In fact, I didn’t even realize it was coming out until about a week before the release date. All I knew was that it was a prequel and you play as a dude with a funky beard who wears sunglasses inside and doesn’t have arms. It turns out he did have arms (the teaser trailer I had seen a long time ago confused me!), but the rest was fairly accurate.
In Deus Ex: Human Revolution you play as Adam Jensen (although you could be forgiven for referring to him as Solid Snake), the chief security officer for a leading biotechnology company called Sarif Industries. Sarif scientists have made a huge discovery and are preparing to present their research to the government. Needless to say, things go wrong. the Sarif Industries HQ is attacked, and Adam Jensen is mortally wounded.
His life is saved by the augmentation technology of his employers, and when he comes to, he finds that he is now more machine than human. As he recovers from his injuries and tries to come to terms with his new situation, a Sarif Industries subsidiary is attacked, and Jensen is brought back to work to deal with it.
What follows is a story of extremism, corporate espionage and government conspiracies. While sometimes convoluted, the story is solid and touches on heavier themes than most games, like intolerance, prejudice and extremism.
What strikes me immediately when playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution is that this is not really a role playing game any more. The original was very much an RPG, as your character would be terrible with weapons unless you levelled up his skills. Even just aiming straight would be tough if you hadn’t put points in your chosen weapon type, although in retrospect, it was odd that an elite agent like JC Denton would be so awful at everything.
In Human Revolution, Adam Jensen can wield any weapon expertly from the start. You have some character progression choices through augmentations, letting you do things like lessen or eliminate recoil, improve your hacking abilities, punch through walls, and jump higher. You can even gain the ability to see through walls, jump off buildings without taking damage or become invisible for short periods of time. But in terms of design, this game is very much an action game with RPG elements, not an Action-RPG. I’d say Human Revolution falls somewhere inbetween Mass Effect 3 and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, in terms of its ‘RPG-ness’. Which is to say, not that much of an RPG.
The quests are very well done, with engaging characters and plots. Even the side quests you can pick up in the city hubs are well developed and interesting. Never do you come across flat characters with nonsensical fetch quests for you. While there are some “go here, kill that dude, bring back the thing” type quests, they all come with engaging characters and plots that make the quest worthwhile.
Human Revolution has one of those inventory systems that give you a set number of squares and makes you manage your space manually, meaning you’ll be rotating weapons and packing things together as best you can to fit that new gun in there without having to drop anything. A lot of people seem to dislike this, but I’ve always enjoyed it immensely, ever since the old X-Com games on PC, to Resident Evil 4, to here. It’s just an involving way to handle inventory and makes you think about what you’re carrying around. To me, anything that makes the player think about things and get involved further, no matter how minor of a feature, is a good thing.
In Human Revolution, the combat is an interesting blend of 1st person and 3rd person combat, and it tries to give the player the same sort of freedom to approach situations as the original Deus Ex did. However, it falls short in a few specific circumstances, and very clearly displays a preference for stealth in general.
Jensen can’t take a lot of damage, if you’re not careful you’ll die almost immediately if caught in enemy fire, and enemies will swarm you if you’re in a bad position. This almost requires the player to start out stealthy, orientate themselves, and plan an approach to each area.
Not that I mind, as I like the stealthy approach. Jensen can walk quietly if you crouch, or even get an augmentation that lets you run quietly, and by pulling the left trigger, he’ll stick to walls in order to hide behind cover and peek out behind corners.
First person games with cover systems are often really awkward when you go into cover, leaving you just staring into a wall, and the wall usually has a texture that, while good looking from afar, was not intended to be examined so closely. The Killzone games are a good example of this. Human Revolution bypasses this neatly by pulling back into a 3rd person perspective when you are in cover, climbing ladders or performing cinematic takedowns. It works really well.
In fact, when you’re sneaking around hiding behind stuff, Human Revolution reminds me a lot of Metal Gear Solid. Waiting patiently, trying to figure out a soldiers patrol patters, the cone of vision you see on security cameras (and enemy soldiers as well if you get the augmentation for it), even Jensen’s pose while in cover and the way he holds his weapon, is very reminiscent of MGS. This appears to be entirely intentional, as the game sports an achievement called “the foxiest of hounds”, that the player can earn by finishing the game without ever setting off an alarm. A nod to the Foxhound team in Metal Gear lore.
In most situations, you have the choice between sneaking past an obstacle, going in guns blazing, or hacking something in order to move on. In most cases, I ended up doing a mix of all of them. I don’t have the patience to try to sneak through the whole game, reloading saves every time things go sour. As I was playing through the game, I ended up starting most situations by sneaking and quietly taking out the guards, but if I was spotted I would just go “Aw screw it” and start blasting fools with my shotgun. I found the different approaches available, as well as how a situation can swing drastically from one approach to the other, very engaging.
The hacking system is quite entertaining, especially compared to the old progress bar in Deus Ex. You’re faced with a grid full of nodes, and you need to capture the goal node before the alarm system captures your starting node. You do this by hacking a path through each node, while reinforcing your own nodes to buy valuable seconds. You also get “powerups”, like a nuke that can capture a node instantly without alerting the system, and a Stop ability that will freeze the system for 5 seconds. This hacking mini game can lead to some tense moments as you frantically try to finish your hack before the system shuts you out and starts the alarm.
You’re also able to hack security consoles and take control of cameras and security bots. I had a lot of fun with hacking a turret, setting it to fire on enemy soldiers, and then using my augmented strength to carry the turret around. It provided both a shield and infinite ammo, and I could put it down to provide suppressing fire while flanking my enemies.
A lot of people have complained about the boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with good reason! The problem boils down to the fact that throughout the game you are given a choice of how you want to play the game, while the boss battles just… don’t. The game essentially asks; do you want to be stealthy, or a tech savvy hacker, or a hardened soldier? But the boss fights, they force you to fight. You don’t get any options whatsoever, you have to fight. The first boss fight in particular is really bad with this, as it’s early on, and players will only have had a few points to spend on augmentations, which will have gone into whatever they specialized in. If that wasn’t being a hardened soldier, then you’re in trouble, as the first boss fight has you locked in a room with a large man with arms that turn into machine guns. And there is nowhere to run. This happens a few times during the course of the game, and while it’s not at all game breaking, it can be quite hard for certain character builds. From a design perspective, it is quite jarring and completely betrays the design of the rest of the game.
More successfully, Human Revolution also features something along the lines of boss debate battles, where Jensen enters an argument with certain key characters, and if you choose your responses carefully, you may talk them down and avoid a fight, or get that piece of information you need. It’s quite refreshing and I really enjoyed it.
I think my biggest issue with the game, and really the only serious downer about Human Revolution as a whole, is the ending. The final boss battle itself is quite weird and borderline anticlimactic. But the real head-scratcher comes after you defeat the final boss, and find yourself faced with something that can basically be boiled down to the “End-O-Tron 3000”. You have to choose one of four choices, that then give you your ending. It doesn’t matter what choices you made, or what transpired during the course of the game, none of that influences the ending of the game, just this one choice. It’s one of the more puzzling design decisions I’ve come across in a long time.
There’s an achievement for seeing all the possible endings in the game and I assumed it would have required me to play the game repeatedly, making different choices along the way. But no, I got that achievement by just reloading my final autosave and choosing each different End-O-Tron 3000 option in turn.
Human Revolution presents the illusion that you’re experiencing a heavily choice based game, only to shatter that illusion entirely and render every single choice you’ve made in the game insignificant. Much like the much maligned boss battles, this inconsistent design choice hurts the game.
The immediately striking thing about Deus Ex: Human Revolution is that it looks and sounds a lot like Mass Effect in many ways. The design of the more high tech futuristic areas look a lot like the Mass Effect space stations, and the background music sometimes sounds like it’s been captured directly from ME.
The graphics are very good for the most part. The character models are well done with a good amount of detail, while the lighting compliments the normal maps very well. There are no jagged edges, texture seams, or undesirable shadows formed by the normal maps. Textures are crisp and good looking for both characters and environments. It’s always nice when you see posters and notes on walls and tables, and you can actually go over and read most of it.
The art style favours dark steel, teal and black, contrasted with warm oranges in the lighting. It’s quite nice and creates a tangible sense of atmosphere.
My only real issue with Human Revolution in terms of its visual and environment design is the city hub areas, that often feel very static and fake, with mannequins propped up to simulate a real place. There’s something very unsettling about wandering the streets of Detroit and Hengsha.
I always point to Metro 2033 as my example for how to do a city setting that feels real and alive. In that game, people were always moving around, or having conversation unrelated to the player. The people in the city areas were going about their daily lives, just doing their thing, not standing there like robots who had no purpose in life unless you were looking straight at them. It would be full of ambient noise and background conversations. Even if you peeked through a door that’s cracked open, you’d see people moving around inside. Metro 2033 really raised the bar for how to do believable public areas.
You can see a bit of what I’m talking about regarding Metro 2033 here:
Human Revolution on the other hand, while it makes a decent effort at creating a city setting, just doesn’t succeed very well. The characters in the public hub areas just kind of stand there. There are some conversations that trigger if you get close to them, which is nice, but it’s really just the bare minimum. Even the streets wrecked by riots felt more static and barren than chaotic. The buildings you can not enter, while well textured, feel like cardboard boxes with paint on them. You can’t see through windows you’re not supposed to be able to enter, for example. Very rarely did I believe in the world around me when I was in the public hub areas in Human Revolution.
Human Revolution also has some stiff animations that, combined with the realistic character models, create a robotic look that evoke the uncanny valley a little more often than you’d like.
The sound design is solid, with strong weapon sounds, and a good sense of direction in terms of footsteps and ambient noise. In a fight against invisible cloaked enemies, I could easily track them by their footsteps if I focused on it. The voice acting is pretty good (although some of the hobo characters border on racist stereotypes), and does a good job of selling the various characters and their personalities.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution tells an intriguing story set in a very well fleshed out and complicated world, that is only let down by a somewhat dodgy ending sequence.
The gameplay is part Metal Gear, part Mass Effect, with a dash of classic Deus Ex. With only a few unfortunate exceptions, it provides an excellent gameplay experience that lets the player decide how the game should be played.
In terms of presentation, it’s a high quality game with a solid voice cast and a really effective art style that really creates an atmospheric world that supports the story and setting.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is finally the worthy sequel to Deus Ex that fans had been waiting for. It’s a much better game than the original in almost every way. However, it doesn’t quite pack the same punch or break new ground the way the original did, and it unfortunately also has a few puzzling inconsistent design choices with the boss battles and the ending sequence that hurts the overall game.
The competition is just so much more fierce these days than it was in 2000, and while Human Revolution’s faults are relatively small, they are enough to prevent it from standing head and shoulder above the rest like its predecessor did. Due to this, it will probably never become the kind of cult game that Deus Ex was, which is a shame, because this game could have been a classic.
If you enjoyed the original Deus Ex, or stealthy games like Metal Gear Solid, Chronicles of Riddick or Thief, you will probably get a great deal of enjoyment out of Deus Ex: Human Revolution.