Recently, the concept of ‘player choice’ has been a big to-do in the industry, and just about anybody who knows a role-playing game that’s been released in the last two years can recall some sort of manifestation of this idea. The industry is evolving, and player choice has become the standard. Developers are putting the story in players’ hands, allowing them to change and alter the progression of the game as it unfolds.
Before all of this began, however, there was a game called Deus Ex, released back in 2000. For those unfamiliar with the game series, or those just too young, Deus Ex is a first-person action role-player that relies heavily on emergent gameplay and player choice. It was revolutionary at the time and set the stage for every game to follow. Not only were players in control of their characters’ fates, but they were able to decide how they wanted to play the game – players were not limited to shooting and ducking for cover, but instead were given the choice to sneak, to fight, to hack, or to charm their through obstacles.
Flash forward to the present, eleven years later, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the third game in the series, has some pretty big shoes to fill. Before it, an icon, a frontrunner for all things to follow, a masterpiece in its own right – and not a game that was flawless, but symbol of the industry’s evolution.
Deus Ex: HR puts players several years into the future, a world encompassed by nanotechnology and human augmentation. Players assume the role of Adam Jensen, an ex-SWAT commander from Detroit now turned security officer for Sarif Industries, leading advocate and top-tier researcher for augmentation technologies. During an attack on Sarif Industries, Jensen is injured and, on the brink of death, is forced to undergo cybernetic surgery to save his life.
Environments are aesthetically rich and have a pulsing, living-robot sort of feel to them. Though some of the graphics (specifically, those of characters’ facial animations) could stand to use some touch-ups, the game’s overall use of lighting and color give it an opulent futuristic cyber-punk feel that is both beautiful and disquieting.
These qualities lend themselves to the ominous overtones throughout the game. Deus Ex: HR concerns itself with some heavy moral dilemmas, including the ethical arguments of transhumanism and rampant conspiracy theories.
Shortly after the attack on Sarif Industries, players will get to test out Jensen’s new digs. The game’s heads-up display is interesting in that Jensen sees exactly what players see thanks to his new retinal implants. Even more interesting is that, through various upgrades, players can enhance the HUD, such as allowing them to see enemy units’ cones of vision or various monitoring devices that assist in reading peoples’ responses during social interactions.
Players will earn Praxis points, which are used to upgrade Jensen’s augmentations throughout the game. For the most part these points are earned through gaining experience. Players are awarded experience points for just about anything they do. If a player guns down a unit, they get a couple of points. If a player sneaks through a ventilation shaft, they are given some more points. Realistically, there is no best or worst way to earn points – the game has been designed in such a way that players won’t be penalized for taking one route over another. There are multiple roads to the same destination.
If a player is asked to neutralize a threat, they can choose to kill the enemies, knock them out, or poke around some computer files to figure out a more peaceful alternative. If a player is asked to talk to an informant, they can ask nicely for the information or they can beat it out of them. However a player chooses to go about running their errands is entirely up to the player – and as such, the game will simply reward them in any way it can for doing a good job.
While this might seem trivial or childish in theory, in practice it works well. In fact, players likely will not know it’s even occurring. Sometimes a little experience bonus will pop up on the HUD letting the player know that they were just rewarded for doing something, perhaps unintentionally, and the player will go about his or her business as usual without paying it too much mind.
One of the first and most important decisions a player must make, which will consequently determine how the rest of the game is played, occurs early on when the first handful of Praxis points are allotted. Jensen’s augmentations give him a number of bonuses, including improved hacking skills, improvements to the HUD, social meters, increased armor and health, the ability to cloak, faster sprint speed – just to name a few. While the options are plenty, a player will ultimately choose between two different playstyles: combat or stealth.
The inherent flaw in this, and glaringly so that it threatens to undo all the good that’s come about through Deus Ex: HR, is that the game has boss fights. While each boss fight symbolizes the closing of a chapter and a step forward in Jensen’s search for the truth, they are rude interruptions to a game world that is otherwise free-flowing and open.
The boss fights in Deus Ex: HR typically consist of a large arena-like room where the player must confront the enemy mono y mono. For players that spent their Praxis points on combat-related augmentations, these battles will be exciting and the added pressure of the high-stakes style of play will get the adrenaline pumping. However, players that opted for the Solid Snake style of espionage will find these fights grueling and frustrating.
The problem is that, unlike the rest of the game, these fights have very specific strategies to them. Without giving too much away, there is a simple way to defeat the first boss. For players toting around a combat rifle, having just barreled through the first part of the game, it will be a welcome change of pace. “Finally,” they might exclaim, “a real challenge!” But players that have been squeezing their bodies into the cramped ventilation shafts and bounding across rooftops like Batman will dread these fights. Not only are they inherently tougher, but direct confrontation is the very thing that they’ve been seeking to avoid the entire game.
Once a player decides on which route to take, encounters throughout the game will follow a fundamentally identical formula. To use the stealth example again, players will be sure to keep an eye out in each room for hidden vents, ladders, and nodes they can hack. When forced to fight, players can choose to use Jensen’s Take Down move or find cover and start dropping bodies with some well-placed headshots.
Players will approach each new obstacle with the same solution, and this can become tedious after a while. What makes the game so intriguing, however, isn’t that it tests players to problem-solve, but rather seeks to engage and submerge them entirely.
Deus Ex: HR is not perfect. But then, when did that ever really matter? It’s a game that does what it sought to do, and to most people that’s close enough. There are some things the game could work on – over-repetitive looping broadcasts, somewhat less inspired interior designs, more interactive details throughout, haphazard facial animations, wishy-washy voice-overs – but not even all of these together could bring down what the game has built up.
Instead, focus on what it does well. The art, the music, the mechanics, the story, the choice, the freedom – in the end, these are the things that matter, because these are the things that define the game as a whole. When someone asks what Deus Ex: Human Revolution did well, don’t be afraid to say, “Everything.”
So, does it live up to its namesake?
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Mac OS X, PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Eidos Montreal, Nixxes Software (PC)
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: August 23, 2011