Review by frostyfree
"Gaming takes its next steps towards evolution"
The first Deus Ex, released in middle of the 2000, sold modestly, to little initial fanfare. Ion Storm's effort - the greatest of the 'immersive sim' genre and the title that sparked Warren Spector to coin the term in the first place - marked the point in many a gaming career, both as consumers and producers, that things changed forever. Having met with virtually universal critical acclaim and having forged what seemed, at the time, to be The Path Ahead in gaming, it is considered an inviolable classic, and is frequently cited as the best (PC?) game ever made.
Something happened in its wake, however; the immersive sim effectively died. Noted for its highly involved storyline structures and rich, expansive game worlds and lore, the genre had reached its apex with Deus Ex - and to a lesser extent Thief: Deadly Shadows (Ion Storm, 2004) - and before anyone could further define what it was to be an immersive sim, there suddenly were no more.
It took another three years before any studio undertook a big-budget attempt at an immersive simulation, and it was 2K Boston's BioShock that raised the bar in the process (itself an heir to then-Irrational Games' 1999 cult classic immersive sim System Shock 2). As a mainstream success, BioShock prompted a resurgence in the genre; earlier that same year, Ubisoft Montreal created a new studio for Eidos, and the team was specifically tasked with bringing back Deus Ex. While DX had gotten a sequel in the form of Deus Ex: Invisible War in 2003, it was much more linear, and bore almost none of the RPG hallmarks of its predecessor, favoring a dumbed-down system accentuating a more FPS-esque design standpoint. This new project was to be a return to form inspired by the original, but updated, upgraded, and overhauled.
That project is Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
DX: HR has a distinctive sound to it that jumps out from the get-go. Music, composed by award-winner Michael McCann, is atmospheric and omnipresent, more subtle and suggestive than anything else, and this works to fit to the rest of the game like a comfortable glove. There's little bombast here; it's strictly low-octane fare that accentuates DX: HR's existing mood and attitudes instead of overpowering them. The soundtrack is something memorable in the way that it enriches the rest of the experience while still being subdued - if called upon to hum the tune to any one piece, I'd be hard pressed to recall anything except the overworld theme playing as I traipsed around Detroit, but I can distinctly recall all of the music being good. Like, really good. Sinister pulses echo as you speak to shady corporate types, while the cities have tracks playing behind them that evoke struggling optimism in the face of uncertainty. McCann nails every aspect of the sound direction, providing oomph! where necessary and remaining elegantly minimal otherwise. It's similar in concept to Akira Yamaoka's work for Silent Hill 2 in that even the silence feels like a deliberate design choice - it's less an absence of music and more a period to build suspense, or to allow the brooding atmosphere space to breathe. Rarely do games get soundtrack execution this flawlessly done.
On the other side of audio-related things, sound effects are competent but unremarkable. Gunfire is sufficiently bang-bang, and everything feels like it has weight in movement; one of the most key elements of stealth in DX: HR is sound production, and the team gets it mostly right. Moving around sounds correct and appropriate, and you get a satisfying thud of your augmented heels to the pavement as you sprint along dimly-lit alleyways in urban Hengsha. The way the AI reacts to the sound you make is also noteworthy in how realistic it is - you cannot, for example, shoot a man in the back of the head with any weapon, silenced or not, and expect people just down the stairs from him not to hear. Speaking of, on the down side, suppressed weapons are a bit too muffled, which takes some of the punch out of your pistol and combat rifle if you do choose to silence them, and the melee combat takedowns have the ridiculous motion-swoosh and impact tap noises you can hear in The Matrix, but there's nothing glaringly awful here.
The voice acting is similarly well-done. Elias Toufexis manages to somehow pull off Adam Jensen's Christian-Bale-as-Batman-level of gritty, guttural, gravelly-voiced grimness without becoming an outright caricature of the film noir trappings of the setting, and much of the game rides on the strength of making that work. Your colleagues are likewise immediately recognizable and distinct; you'll immediately take a liking to the pompous jackass Frank Pritchard and sly pilot Faridah Malik, and never once lose track of who is who in the audio. Particularly masterful is Steve Shellen as David Sarif, your boss and wealthy corporate executive, who manages to come across as both highly idealistic and somehow sinister at the same time. The weak spots of the cast are Al Goulem and Jane Yuk as Lawrence Barrett and Zhao Yun Ru respectively, but fortunately neither of them get to do a whole lot of talking.
Perhaps the defining trait of DX: HR is its unique and evocative art direction, that of a cybernetic, triangular-tessellated neo-Renaissance (the haves) and grimy, twenty-minutes-into-the-future refuse (the have nots). The gold and black color dichotomy further emphasizes the difference between people living in DX: HR's imagining of the future, and those just watching evolution pass them by - the split is made apparent in the geometry, hue, and contrast of every scene in the entire game. This stark exposure of the schism amongst people, machines, and architecture could have easily been parlayed into something cheap, overwrought, or even annoying, but Eidos Montreal really crushed this as well. Subtle things like Sarif's jacket constantly call back to the core motifs without being glaringly obvious about it. Your augments allow you to see things bathed in a golden light - but only while you have Smart Vision enabled, and then it's back to the plain geometries and nigh-darkness of the Triads' hideout. Every visual element in Human Revolution is expertly tied together by these keynotes while still allowing the other facets of the game to breathe; you're never overwhelmed by a tacky art choice in the same way you are never overwhelmed by the magnificent soundtrack. Everything in the presentation is working together like a finely-tuned... well, machine.
The graphics themselves can be a mixed bag. Environments are gorgeous even when the areas they're depicting are not, rendered with exacting detail. The designs for futuristic Detroit, Hengsha, Montreal and Singapore all mesh together nicely while remaining different enough to remain distinct. Interiors are varied, exploration areas are mostly unique, and it feels like very little (if anything!) got recycled here - it's the antithesis of Dragon Age II, the literal polar opposite. Character models are another story entirely. They're utilitarian and sufficient, but nothing mind-blowing. These graphics are a shade above last-generation quality in some areas, which can sometimes really stick out, and due of the nature of the game, models clip through other things or themselves in user-activated third-person cutscenes with some regularity. If L.A. Noire represents the pinnacle of graphical achievement this console generation (as I believe it does), serving to emphasize how important photorealism is, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a testament to how little it matters. The characters are all highly stylized and are incorporated as part of the overall art direction; they do not stand alone well at all, but as part of this particular whole they enhance the overall presentation significantly.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution's special edition - an extra ten clams well spent if you're a U.S. citizen - comes in a swell-looking case in a plastic sheath. It contains an extra disc of bonus content, such as a 44-minute 'Making Of' documentary, the soundtrack, and various other goodies. There's also a small designbook inside that gives you a brief glimpse into the concept art of the DX: HR world, but it's woefully small for how compelling the art direction actually is.
Gameplay: A Perfect Blend
One of the major selling points of the immersive sim genre is how immersive it actually is. Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and the Thief games were remarkable for their ability to pull you, the player, into the game's world and experience it as if it was your own. Characters other than you behave in patterns that are realistic; they chat amongst themselves, take phone calls, and go to the bathroom. People react to you if you have a gun drawn as you approach them - you need to put it away. The geography is laden with advertising media that has zero bearing on the plot, but enhances the world in which you are, allowing you to more fully lose yourself within it. Secret locations are just hidden behind twice-locked doors and armed guards; sometimes you'll find an elevator shaft to drop down, or a forgotten sewer accessway in the slums. Human Revolution completely embodies the immersive sim to a level that not even its famed predecessor can claim. Detroit and Hengsha especially are effectively living, breathing cities, with a populace and geography that is realized in spectacular fashion and breath-taking depth. In terms of nothing but the game world, the best word to describe DX: HR is just 'depth.'
And 'depth' also applies to gameplay mechanics. Early into the game's narrative, the protagonist (Adam Jensen) is forced to undergo surgery to get augmentation. After this has happened, DX: HR presents you with a fully-fleshed out network of available powerups (herein called 'Augments') that range from mildly useful (doubling the size of your radar) to entirely game-changing (the ability to turn completely invisible for limited stretches of time). Nothing is kept hidden from you; instead, the game offers you a choice on how to approach your own Jensen, and gives you the tools to go about putting that vision into motion. If you want to be a potent fighter relying on gunplay, you can take armor upgrades and recoil dampeners to take less damage and keep your rifle steady. If you focus on hacking through terminals to bypass threats and access secret goodies, you can take an augment that allows you to more easily move undetected in a computer network, or access levels of higher security. If you intend to be a stealthy operative archetype, you can choose to activate the personal cloak, and an augment that muffles the sound of your footsteps even while sprinting. Guns are given a similar treatment; there's more than a dozen of them, and most allow for complex customization - you can silence your combat rifle, but you can also enable a homing device, allowing you to shoot bullets around corners. You can put a laser sight on your revolver, and also outfit it to fire explosive rounds. You are given a ridiculous level of choice in how to approach your own character.
That degree of choice extends to every tier of gameplay. The core design philosophy of DX: HR seems to be 'choice,' and you have plenty in how to approach objectives. Early on, you are faced with a task that involves entering the secured sub-basement of a police station's morgue to access a body; to do this, you can either walk directly in the front door and ask some cop buddies to let you in. Maybe you found a hidden route that lead to the police station from the sewer. There's always the side door, locked behind a keypad that can be hacked. Perhaps you tend to stay on the rooftops, so you noticed an air duct leading in from the top of the building. Or possibly you tried your luck with the cop buddies, they said no, and now it's time to shoot your way in. This isn't a hypothetical - DX: HR actually gives you the gameplay freedom to make these tactics come true. I didn't pull this from imagination - I really did it. You are encouraged to explore, to find alternate routes, to stray off the linear and beaten paths that so many other RPG-esque games force down your throat. It's refreshing to say the least, and monumentally impressive in how well it's been fleshed out. As Jensen, you really are the master of your own destiny. This is the kind of open-world emergent gameplay that lesser titles can't even approach, and even Bethesda's Elder Scrolls and Fallout games don't quite match; while the worlds are smaller, they're so much more detailed that there's no comparison. You don't just run back and forth from point A to B - you make choices throughout the game, all the time, and they define not only Jensen's personality but also how you engage and interact with the game. The level of meta present here is awe-inspiring in how elegant and simple the end result seems to be. After playing it for an hour, you fully expect to be able to accomplish objectives however the hell you want, and I'm pleased to tell you that you can. Gloriously or just gorily, you can.
Social choice is also an important aspect of Human Revolution's immersive simulation. On occasion it's nothing more than yes/no answers or simply inquiring after more information, but frequently DX: HR will put you in situations wherein you must talk your way out of trouble, or try to elicit information from less than cooperative folks. Dialogue selection is handled intelligently via a wheel with single-word summations of the response type ('Cold,' 'Professional,' 'Empathetic,' to name a few) in a manner akin to BioWare's long-since-grown-old variant, with the notable improvement of calling up a preview of what Jensen will actually say if you choose that response. This saves a lot of heartache, because it allows for you to always feel as though you are in control of your character's actions and behavior - you don't just pick 'Nice Guy' as an option and allow the game to do the rest (looking at you again, BioWare). It's doubly important when you are tasked with the more plot-driven conversations upon which major decisions rest, as you will have to tailor your responses to the other participant in your conversation. What's more, you cannot simply write down a 'path' of correct options through a major discussion - the game changes them subtly (or more dramatically) each attempt, emphasizing further player choice and maintaining a sense of consistency while not being denigrated to just rote memorization.
Menus and subsystems are easy to navigate and manipulate, if a bit strange to acclimate to at first - X is the universal confirm/interact button, for example, and the trigger scroll up and down text as you read it, not the right stick. The augmentation menu is especially snappy and impressive, and the inventory system is handled as a block-grid not unlike playing Tetris with your stuff, as seen most recently in Resident Evil 4 (and, of course, in the first Deus Ex). Nothing about the menus are particularly great, but then nothing about them is particularly bad either, and the augmentation menu and inventory are 'game-y' unto themselves. Hacking, which is played out of a menu, is intuitive and fun without being too repetitive, and believe me this is a godsend considering how much hacking you will likely do - it's played like a more gambling-intensive capture-the-point minigame that has you weighing risks versus reward. Capturing any point has a percentage chance to alert the security protocol that it has been breached; if alerted, it will systematically begin searching for your I/O port (your 'base,' essentially), and if it takes yours before you take theirs, your hack is unsuccessful. It takes a degree of skill and a degree of luck, but if you're unfortunate you can swing the tide in your favor with viruses to prevent a nasty early detection from turning into a system-wide lockdown.
The Options menu allows for a wide variety of customization as well, like inverting your y-axis, turning off the golden glow around objective items, and shifting your difficulty on the fly. Which may be important, because Human Revolution can be punishingly difficult from time to time, as enemies frequently outnumber you by a wide margin and are frequently better equipped than you are. This makes careful consideration as to your upgrade path and dialogue decisions even more important, as you cannot reasonably expect to shoot your way out every time in the same way you cannot expect to hack your way in every time. Adaptability is the responsibility that comes with the privilege of such far-reaching gameplay freedoms, and the game is accordingly challenging.
Also of note are changes to the traditional Deus Ex formula, in that there are now scripted, animated cutscene takedowns and a third-person cover system, as well as a regenerating health model. These feel like afterthoughts to review because they are so seamlessly integrated into the game at-large that it doesn't bear mentioning. The cover system is startlingly good; it's effective for both stealth and firefighting, but is not a crutch that can replace tactical thinking and sound judgment. The health regeneration is there to prevent players from being forced to retreat or backtrack and search painstakingly for health kits, or quick-save every eleven seconds; it's not some Call of Duty Wolverine-level healing factor, but merely a gameplay expediter. It will not save you from being overwhelmed by a crushing wave of enemies, but it will allow you to keep moving forward when you barely survive a blazing gun battle instead of scavenging the route you just took for misplaced med-kits.
Storyline: Conspiracy Abounds In 2027
Deus Ex was a landmark achievement in both emergent gameplay and storytelling, and for good reason - it revolved around an intricate plot concerning a global conspiracy and shadow governments that had their fingers in every pie. Much of the enjoyment of that first game sprung from realizations as to the true nature of the man you just trusted with a keycard, or your discovery that your allies aren't who you think they are. In this, Human Revolution is a complete success as well, with an elaborately conceived and well-thought-out storyline that engages you from the beginning and doesn't let go until nearly the end. Fans of the series will recognize characters who will go on to be important in the earlier two games (given that DX: HR is a prequel) while newcomers will not be left in the dark. Strong characterization among the primary characters helps carry the weight of your decisions throughout as your relationships with others change and morph based on how you've each behaved and what new information has come to light. The conspiracy-driven nature of the first games plot is even more oppressive here; Jensen is virtually a Byronic hero, fated to resist the inexorable tide of Destiny, or Progress, never to find any true victory, and DX: HR itself is somewhat doomed by canon; we as players know it exists in the same realm as Deus Ex, and must fit with that game's narrative appropriately. That being said, Jensen's actions through the course of the story feel genuine no matter which path you personally elect, and major philosophical questions about transhumanism and the ethics of rapidly advancing technology play huge parts in the surrounding struggles and drama regardless. You will be forced to consider more than once what you personally believe in, using Adam as your acting agent, and the game offers neither hint nor judgment as to your decisions thereof. DX: HR is the type of game purists have been clamoring for, where you get no convenient 'morality meter' telling you that you've been sufficiently Good Guy enough to pick more Good Guy options. Human Revolution's world is thankfully much more complex than that, and often your quandaries are neither black nor white - firmly grey.
Symbolism is also used liberally, both in naming conventions and in structures, as well as the chain of events themselves. In keeping with the series' track record of being historically immersive, these ideas are not afterthoughts thrown in as if DX: HR were a low-budget anime - the concepts of what it means to be human, and how important human limitations are to experiencing what it is to be human are fully realized philosophies that directly impact the plot. Unfortunately, that's where Human Revolution makes its only stutter-step: at the very end, when it's time to bring all of these conflicting ideologies to bear. While allowing for up to four endings, the choice you make that dictates which ending you get is strictly at the end of the game, which makes much of the rest of your decision-making feel like a cruel waste of time in retrospect, only barely changing the final outcome. The endings themselves are poorly constructed and leave too much hanging, as characters that were introduced are never truly allowed to reach the natural conclusions of their narrative arcs (two in particular are left grievously unattended in any ending, although one of the characters in question is given a profound "WTF!?" moment in a post-credits dialogue a la Metal Gear Solid). While it's nice to have the option, it feels tacked on; the rest of the game is so stunningly good that the last fifteen minutes of the game feel like a complete letdown. And perhaps that's what's coloring my opinion - that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a jaw-dropping achievement in gaming that is seriously hampered from a narrative standpoint by a rushjob done at the end is just disappointing at best, and downright frustrating at worst.
That being said, DX: HR is one of the few gaming experiences wherein you can honestly say that the journey is just as important as the destination. Playing the game itself and making decisions as they come feels important at the time because they are; you're not playing for some endgame when making a decision into the third hour of the game, and in a way that's a good thing. I just wish there was a little less immediacy to the endings themselves, and that the characterization was allowed to catch up to the lofty goals set by the admittedly great plotting. The pacing is great until that last fifteen minutes - it makes them just stick out that much more.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a game about ideas, choice, and depth. It communicates ideas in a deep way through choice; choice is given to you by providing you in-depth ideas; the depth is present in fully realized, consequential choices and ideas. Much in the way that the art design, music, and gameplay are a seamless blend of complimentary concepts, so too do the elements of the plot work in tandem to really capture you... until a deflating final fifteen.
DX: HR is easily the best game of this year and in the debate for one of the best games of this console generation. It's a landmark achievement for both immersive sims and gaming in general, showing what's possible when a project team gives a damn about its work instead of the deadline for their next FPS project. If you enjoy fleshed-out single player experiences - if you enjoy RPGs - if you enjoy first-person shooters - if you enjoy tactical espionage action - if you enjoy videogames at all, pick up Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Audio: 9.9 / 10
Visual: 9.1 / 10
Gameplay: 9.9 / 10
Storyline: 9.3 / 10
OVERALL (average) adjusted: (9.55) 10 / 10
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 08/29/11
Game Release: Deus Ex: Human Revolution (US, 08/23/11)
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