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Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The third game in the Deus Ex franchise and the first to be released in nearly a decade promised to be a return to form for series fans.  But does Human Revolution live up to the legacy of the legendary first game, or is it another one to be dropped and promptly forgotten like Invisible War? 

Released almost a decade after Invisible War, Human Revolution thankfully doesn't hit the reset button again, instead opting for a prequel to the first Deus Ex focusing on humanity's newfound fascination with mechanical augmentation.  The main character, Adam Jensen, finds himself an unwitting recipient of mechanical implants after the company he works for falls under siege and he is critically wounded (including a rather graphic headshot as a reference to Robocop).  Per series norms, how he copes with his new life is left up to the player, either enjoying the benefits of augmentation or buying into the counternarrative that he's now less than human and wouldn't wish his fate on anyone.

To its credit, Human Revolution does at least feel more like the first Deus Ex than the second - you're not overly limited by a lack of options or cramped by tiny, narrow level design, and the augs you're given access to are rather extensive and have quite a few new flashy effects.  From softening falls to punching through weak walls to hacking hostile robots to reducing weapon recoil to emitting a powerful explosive attack in a short radius around your character to literal x-ray vision, you get some quite useful and powerful effects.  They're not too abusable, though, as the majority of them run off an limited energy meter that only regenerates partway (one bar in the original release, two bars in Director's Cut).  You'll need a fair number of candy bars and batteries to keep your energy topped up if you want to use your augs extensively.  Like many modern shooters Human Revolution features regenerating health, though it occurs slowly enough that you can't abuse it too much - if you go in running and gunning against large groups of enemies you'll still probably die pretty fast.

There's a lot more focus on stealth-based gameplay too, with the player able to flatten themselves against walls or press a button near an unaware enemy for an instant takedown, either lethal or nonlethal depending on how long you hold down the Q key.  Another new mechanic I quite liked is the "battle of words" - at several points in the game you basically get into an argument with another character, and by picking the right choices you can get them to stand down, often ending a confrontation nonlethally or gaining some other benefit afterward; in fact, one of your augmentations plays into this, giving you hints on what to say based on that character's personality traits.  One can also purchase and modify weapons, which once again run on separate ammunition types (hooray!) and for the first time in the series can even sell weapons back for extra cash, which is something I ended up doing quite a lot.  There is an annoying catch, though, in that you can only carry one of any given weapon type at a time - any others you pick up are emptied of their ammo and immediately vanish into the either, so if you want to sell a lot of weapons back you have to drop your current copy and carry them back to the seller one at a time.

A major detriment, at least in the original release of HR, are the boss battles - overlong and generally awful slogs against bullet-sponge bosses that can sustain multiple headshots from high-capacity weapons without flinching, but take you out in only a few hits.  Not to mention this rigid style of design completely disregards the choice-based gameplay everywhere else in the series and even in this game. Apparently the boss fights were actually farmed out to another development studio, and I believe it considering how out-of-step they are with everything else in the game.  Thankfully the Director's Cut does alleviate this to a degree, giving them wider arenas with things like vents to sneak-attack from and automatic turrets to set traps with.  

I don't much like HR trying to rope you into one particular gameplay style, either - getting experience bonuses for nonlethal takedowns (which add up very fast) and a gimmicky hacking minigame that awards more XP and lets you constantly unlock more virtual "viruses" that make future attempts easier means you're basically going to play a stealthy superhacker no matter what, because the alternative is missing out on a huge chunk of valuable points and supplies with no recourse.

Some prominent plot holes and inconsistencies creep in fast as well.  2025 seemingly has much more advanced technology than the 2052 setting of Deus Ex, withs full-body augs and AIs that can easily pass the Turing Test to the naked eye and holograms that don't require bulky projectors.  The ending is somehow even lamer than Invisible War's big dumb faction punch-up, with Adam being taken to an island of essentially mindless aggressors and  literally being led to a room with three buttons and told to pick one to choose an ending.  Pretty weak stuff, especially given how vast, complex and rewarding choosing one of the original game's conclusions was - you were picking a plan of action and carrying it out while outwitting gene-spliced monsters and armed super soldiers, and no matter which path you chose it was pretty epic.  I also felt there was a big missed opportunity by not having any of your prior choices play a role in the final area at all - it just seems that nothing you do before that stage makes any difference going in or affects the outcome whatsoever; also true of the original games, sure, but this was the first Deus Ex of a new generation of consoles and a perfect opportunity to do something new with the format..  Of course, the prequel problem also kicks in, in that you know how things are going to unfold in later games so two of the choices you're given are a purely hypothetical what ifs with no basis in canon, which just kind of makes me wonder why they give you an option at all other than to say "yep, it's Deus Ex and it's all about CHOICE, even if none of it actually matters in the end!".

Human Revolution feels like a "designed by committee" return for Deus Ex - made by people looking to create something that will appeal to fans and turn a profit for their shareholders without quite understanding what made the original work so well.  It hits a lot of the beats and has a few good ideas of its own, but for everything it does right there's something else that feels undercooked or just not implemented very well.  The gameplay gives the illusion of choice but ropes you into a particular playstyle for longterm success, and  everything you do in the plot just feels ancillary, like you're playing out a bit of lore mentioned in passing in some random computer terminal in the original game that ultimately has little bearing on its events.  There are also substantial performance issues even on modern machines, with a lot of stuttering and frame drops at very inconvenient moments.  The end result is a moderately fun experience that doesn't live up to its potential on any front, but does at least recapture some of the immersive design, heavy atmosphere and creative problem solving the original game provided.

Developer: Eidos-Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix Europe
Released: 2011, 2012, 2013 (Director's Cut)
Platforms: PlayStation 3, XBox 360, Mac OS X, Wii U
Recommended Version: All versions play pretty much the same, though the 2013 Director's Cut does feature some substantial improvements to enemy AI, overall gameplay (including much better boss fights) and some core mechanics, as well as improved visuals and including the Missing Link DLC.  The Wii U version also has a few exclusive additions like using the touchpad to display a minimap, input keycodes, interact with computers and activate some augmentation features