"The Game That Should Have Been"

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an excellent demonstration of a game designed with clear expectations that was ruined by subsequent decisions. The creators wanted to make a stealth game with a gripping, conspiracy-laden plot in a cyberpunk setting, one where you had choices in both the plot and how you played through the game. And, I feel that they could have accomplished this mission if they had been allowed to do so. However, they ran into a problem with the gaming trend of the day; the demand by so many to have choice in everything, to never have to do things the way the creators wanted them to. The result was a self-contradictory mess, and this review is intended to explain why this game that seems so great at first ultimately falls flat, and most certainly does not measure up to the praise is was initially given. One last note before we dig in; I really, truly wanted to like this game. It looked good, I heard it was pretty good, and it starts out great. And about halfway through, I realized the game had become a chore, and instead of looking forward to another playthrough done a different way, I was looking forward to playing something else.

The story is pretty good, as long as you don't mind conspiracy type plots. There are two main problems, however;

1. The characters are mostly unlikeable. Adam, your main character, is also downright bizarre due to the dialogue system; Adam, when you do NOT have control of the conversation, is demanding and harsh, although he is a good guy deep down. And if they had just left it at that, Adam could have been a decent enough reluctant hero. But no, they wanted to give you choice in dialogue, and so after Adam starts talking to whomever in his macho, tough guy, I'm-the-boss way, you suddenly get to choose his responses, and the right responses are usually to do a total 180 and become meek and pleading. And it's hilarious; if Adam had just started with a level-headed and respectful tone, everything would be okay, but instead they have him smash his head against the wall, and then try to act like he's really not the jerk he just made himself out to be. Over and over again. Adding the dialogue options did nothing but muddle the main character, because there are not enough options, like Mass Effect, to allow you to control him from start to finish, but there are more than enough to make him seem almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, unless you choose not to "win" the dialogue battles and continue his bull-headed attitude, which gains you nothing.

2. Although the game does follow a strictly linear storyline, you do have some freedom to explore and learn about the world. However, in a rather interesting, and poor, bit of writing, you simply cannot learn MORE about the world. No, you can only learn things sooner than the story tells you. But no one ever tells this to Adam, or any of the other characters, and it's downright infuriating. Over and over again, you will get to a critical point in the story, and if you have spent the last several hours listening to conversations, reading emails, etc, you will have a pretty clear idea of, say, A, B, and C, and have all sorts of questions about X, Y, and Z. After all, that's how this is supposed to work; exploring gets you the peripheral information that enriches and explains the basic plot. But, you'll get to the end of a level, to the big reveal, and Adam will bumble in and ask about A, B, and C, apparently because he never actually read or listened to a single thing for the last so many hours. Exploring and reading, in this game, are utter wastes of time; whatever you learn on your own will eventually be shoved down your throat in drawn-out exposition, while your actual questions are unanswered. Even compared to typical cloak-and-dagger stories, there is maddeningly little information coming your way, and your character always has to ask the most obvious questions and receive the least useful answers. You'd think they might have made it so that finding all this extra information earlier would at least alter the cutscenes a little bit and not bore you with repetition, but no, there's no consideration of the fact that you already know everything key characters laboriously spell out to you.

Here is where the game truly shot itself in the foot trying to appeal to precisely the kind of people who don't play these kinds of games anyway. The early parts of this game are a good, solid stealth game. A bit predictable, but then, you expect the first few hours to be mild so you can adjust to the game. You can look at all the available upgrades you can buy, and imagine a much more interesting and varied game coming your way. After all, we were promised that every level would have multiple ways to play through it, and clearly some of these upgrades could allow for that. However, somewhere around 10-12 hours in, depending on how fast you play, you may begin to realize that things are far more limited than you thought. You will have already encountered situations where you apparently selected the "wrong" upgrade and therefore can't play how you want to. You will see places you can't get to and loot you can't acquire. You might have even had to give up being stealthy altogether because every way to play the level you were in required either this upgrade or that one, and you have neither. Instead of automatically unlocking the "right" upgrades each level, or some other options, we are given choice, and then punished for not knowing that one upgrade isn't used til later, but this other one is.

But okay, that's only the beginning, right? Once you get all the mobility upgrades, let's call them, and the hacking ones, all things are open, right? Yes, but now it doesn't matter. Now, you'll go into a new area, and instead of 4 guards patrolling around, you'll have 6 guards on permanent alert, all close together, moving randomly and sporadically, along with 2 cameras and an automated turret. Oh, and the cameras and turret can be turned off, but only by hacking a computer in a room, behind a door which has to be hacked, all within visible range of the bad guys, because you can't hack in stealth. This is not a joke or exaggeration. I've had 8 guys flood into a room, all on high alert. And this is still a stealth game? Oh, sure, I could load an old save, play back to right before those guys came in, and set up some mines, assuming I had any, but how is that a reasonable expectation? Or, forget the mine, I could have just run up as soon as I opened the door, banked right, and tossed a grenade. Because I totally knew that all of my enemies were crammed in one spot outside of radar range and that I had 15 seconds to take advantage of that, right? I don't mind a stealth game that occasionally forces me to just evade bad guys instead of engaging them, but in Deus Ex, you better anticipate doing this more and more. Oh, but there is a work around; invisibility. Yes, you can turn totally invisible; with the right upgrades, and a stock of food to keep your energy up, you can just walk around invisible and take all your opponents out in one hit each. This isn't really a tactical option, it's a panic button, and one that becomes more and more appealing as the game gets more silly with it's challenges. I'm not the best stealth-game player in the world, I'll admit it, but even walkthroughs by the experts end up telling you to basically cheese your way out of tough spots. Clearly, they didn't know how to keep the mechanics fresh and challenging, so they just start dumping on you, and then give you a lazy way ouy.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter; Deus Ex was clearly designed as a stealth game, but they wanted to let you play through it as a straight up shooter as well. They wanted to make sure you could totally Rambo your way through the game, hacking almost nothing, reading nothing, never sneaking, and still get everything the game had to offer. And this desire really just mucked up the whole design. For one thing, it was clearly the reason that our cybernetic super-soldier is able to level up and pick and choose his abilities; designed as a pure stealth game, that wouldn't be needed. Second, that's why exploring and hacking all give you nothing of value. Third, that's why there is an entire array of weapons a spy would never use, and bosses that require you to use said weapons. That's not to say Adam Jensen should just start the game as a demi-god, but he could have automatically gotten stronger level by level, or had to find his upgrades, and unique covert ops weapons, by thoroughly searching every area, instead of a lazy upgrade system thrown in there so people who wanted another shooter could upgrade their aim and armor and shoot everything with a light machine gun. So many weapons and abilities seem either useless to a spy, or seem like the kind of thing you should just have automatically, just to try and fit in an entire second game. And the worst part is, as a shooter, the game fails. If you decide to give up all attempts at stealth and just shoot everything dead, it's still not very good; ammo is extremely rare, being found only by the 2s and 3s, the inventory system is maddeningly limiting, and, especially early on, Adam is just not very good at it. His aim and recoil control are terrible, and require upgrades to make "normal", and he's also a total wuss even with armor upgrades. Weapons can all be upgraded, but it can take a long time to fully upgrade a given gun, since shops are rare and have very little to offer. Specialty weapons, like the sniper rifle, also take up so much space as to make them a novelty item. So, as a stealth game, we have too many enemies who are absurdly tough to kill, and as a shooter, our character is too weak and has too few guns and too little ammo. We have two mediocre games for the price of one good one!

One small note here is the energy system, which reflects the same problem. Things like breaking through a weak wall, taking down an enemy quietly, or moving silently, all take up energy. I mentioned this above when describing the invisibility, and it's true that THAT should be limited, but many if not all of the other energy-consuming actions seem exactly like the kind of things that would have been free and automatic if Deus Ex was purely a stealth game, and limits were only placed when shoe-horning the shooter in.

And that's the conclusion, really; the setting, plot, and characters were all good enough for a great game. The mechanics were solid and intuitive. The augmentations of Adam Jensen were cool. Some of the weapons and other odds and ends were interesting, even if not totally unique. A great stealth game was clearly there, ready to give us what Alpha Protocol didn't (except for the dialogue system that game had). But then they decided to broaden the appeal of the game, ripped it open, stuffed in a 2nd rate FPS, and then stitched in back together. The only saving grace is that the division between a stealth character and a soldier characters are minor; if you get stuck trying to sneak around, there is little reason not to simply stand up and headshot the remaining baddies and continue on. This is essentially like a mage character getting stuck and pulling out a battle ax to decapitate his opponent, meaning it's frustrating and terrible from a role-playing perspective and speaks volumes about how complete the game is, but it will at least ensure the game is serviceable. If you buy this game expecting a Call of Duty, you will be disappointed. If you buy it expecting a Metal Gear Solid, you will be disappointed. If you buy it expecting Fallout 3, you will be disappointed. Expect that you are getting a mash-up with alot of missed potential, and you can have a decent experience playing this game once, and only once.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 05/07/12

Game Release: Deus Ex: Human Revolution (US, 08/23/11)

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