Review by SSpectre

"50% of Human Revolution is a solid Deus Ex revival. The other 50% is a frustrating mistake."

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The Good:
+ Player choice has a significant impact on plot progression
+ Successfully addresses the ethical issues it promises to
+ Satisfying stealth and hacking gameplay

The Bad:
- Boss fights are horrendous
- RPG mechanics are unbalanced and somewhat shallow
- Remaining story and gameplay elements are pretty hit-or-miss

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the most disappointing game I've played in years. That might be a little harsh, because it's certainly not an outright bad game, but look at its history: the first Deus Ex was a definitive role-playing classic, and Human Revolution has been touted by both press and players as the series' saviour after the misstep that was Invisible War (which I haven't played, but is apparently so atrocious that most fans like to forget it existed).

We were promised a true Deus Ex sequel (er...prequel), with a story that dealt with complicated real-world issues, and where player choice would have lasting consequences. And while those things are present, Human Revolution forgets the main thing that made Deus Ex spectacular: RPG mechanics that allow the player to progress through the game however they want. Human Revolution provides the options for this, but doesn't have the level design to match, creating a lopsided system where certain abilities and upgrades are much more useful than others. There's even one upgrade that literally does nothing!

I'm told Invisible War got the reception it did because it dumbed down its RPG elements. If that's true, and this is considered an improvement, then Invisible War must have reduced them to periodic stat boosts, because Human Revolution's RPG elements are still pretty ****ing dumb. Melee attacks are completely replaced by pre-baked takedown animations, any form of specialization has been replaced with a binary “you can/can't do this action” upgrade system, and the old “electronics” and “computer” skills have been combined, meaning there's about three times as much hacking as there is anything else in the game.

That last part is at least a little more acceptable, because the hacking is one of the more interesting parts of the game. It's treated almost like a separate RPG, where you manage the risk of being detected as you capture nodes and stores of items, which can be used to assist with future hacks. It's nice to see such a common element in sci-fi RPGs get fleshed out, rather than just being a progress bar or that out-of-place plumbing minigame from BioShock. The other feature I like the implementation of is the “conversation bosses”, where the goal is to try and win over a character to your line of thinking, using on-screen indications of their personality to your advantage. It's tense, original, and requires a whole other set of skills than what you're used to using. And it's a hell of a lot better than the game's other bosses.

The combat bosses are the absolute worst part of the game. The kind of bad where you just have to step back and think, “I can't believe somebody actually got paid to make this.” Every one of them has you stuffed into a small room with an obnoxiously powerful enemy who can take about thirty shotgun shells to the face before dropping. The final boss was so unplayable that I paid a visit to the GameFAQs message boards for advice, only to be told that the boss was really easy if I just had one or two specific weapons or upgrades...which I didn't.

Even if I did, it wouldn't improve my opinion at all. Boss fights that are either nearly unbeatable or pathetically easy, with no middle ground, based solely on whether or not you have a specific ability, are inexcusable, and they highlight the pervading flaw in Human Revolution: it has no idea what it wants to be.

Example: the game places an emphasis on stealth, and with good reason; the stealth gameplay is solid. Experience bonuses are given for avoiding alerting guards or alarms, and many of the upgrades offer neat enhancements to the stealth approach (i.e. visualizations of how far your sounds travel, enemy cones of vision, and limited cloaking ability, among others). Also, the level design encourages exploration to find ideal paths, which is a welcome inclusion, even if, from a realism standpoint, the level design is moronic (air ducts, air ducts everywhere). But if stealth was such a focus of gameplay, why am I forced into these abysmal boss fights where I just need to blast the enemy with a combat rifle for 15 minutes?

The game also makes a big deal about the choice between lethal and non-lethal tactics, but it very clearly favours the non-lethal route. Takedowns can be used either way, but non-lethal ones are silent and offer experience bonuses, so what's the point? I was told that lethal takedowns are “more permanent”, but I never saw any indication that non-lethal takedowns were anything less than permanent anyway. There are also some upgrades that indicate the game wanted to allow you a Crysis-style action experience (i.e. punching through walls, or landing from any height) but it only gives you the opportunity to use them effectively a couple of times, and then it's back to the endless stream of hacking and takedowns.

So much of Human Revolution's design has this haphazard quality that makes it seem like the developers were just throwing darts at a wall covered with mechanics, and it's difficult to completely like or dislike the results. The hub areas, for example, are filled with readable newspapers, eBooks, and emails that flesh out the story and make you feel like you're part of a real, functional world, which was one of the lesser-known triumphs of the original game. They're also home to a handful of sidequests that make the smart move of centering on important characters, and illuminating their backgrounds and stories.

However, the hub areas are also a pain to traverse, lack any form of fast travel, and are apparently designed by someone who only knows what a street looks like based on photos of back alleys behind strip clubs. Weapon upgrades return, as a welcome example of depth that wasn't gutted in the design phase, but the inability to specialize in certain kinds of weapons means you may as well just pour all your upgrades into one weapon and call it a day.

One of the things contributing to Human Revolution's shaky design is its length. At a little more than 10 hours (15 with sidequests), there's no room for the game (especially the RPG elements) to really spread their wings and show their true potential. For example, I collected a grand total of 9 grenades all game, and I ended up sinking every one of them into those god-awful boss fights. Compare that to the original, where explosives alone were so varied and useful that they could be the specialty that carried your combat through the entire 25-hour game just as well as rifles or pistols.

On the more optimistic side, the game offers a pretty good replay incentive in that different player choices will noticeably affect how later events unfold. In fact, the one thing the game does 100% correctly is how it handles player choice. There are no “good” or “evil” choices, just ambiguous decision-making moments with significant, organic consequences. For instance, sparing cornered villains may result in them lowering the enemy presence in your next area, but letting an ally sacrifice themselves so you can advance unnoticed will prevent them from saving you later on, and also make you feel like a dick and a failure.

The story as a whole doesn't fare as well, but it's dealing with some pretty big themes, so it's still worth exploring. In the game's alternate 2027, 25 years before the events of Deus Ex, biomechanical augmentation is in the process of being adopted by the global population. Adam Jensen, the protagonist, is head of security at Sarif Industries, a leading “aug” manufacturer, when the company is attacked by mercenaries. Adam is forced to undergo severe augmentation surgery in order to survive his wounds, but also because having cybernetic limbs and cranial implants will help him track down those responsible for the attack.

The search will lead the player through Detroit, Shanghai, and Singapore, and will uncover a conspiracy involving...well, a lot, but really, it's the themes we're here for, not the plot. The game delves about as deep into the ethics of the (very real) transhumanism debate as it's given the opportunity to, and it's rare and refreshing to see a game give you such material to think on, especially without pulling out its own opinion and shoving it down your throat constantly. Some of the material is pretty obviously pure science fiction, but those are usually acceptable as a device to serve the narrative.

Unfortunately, that narrative's overall quality is just like the rest of the game, in that it's kind of indecisive. Most of the major characters are all likeable and complex, and the multiple endings do exactly what I'd hoped they would: provide multiple options with no clear “right” answer, forcing a decision that takes some actual thought based on your entire experience with the game. Yeah, it was basically just a multiple choice question in the last five minutes, but the fact that it wasn't a simple choice between being Hitler and being Jesus elevates it way above most games with multiple endings.

Additionally, I like that there's no true villain – just a handful of powerful characters who truly believe that what they're doing is right, and whose methods happen to overlap a little. That said, the boss characters are all cartoonishly evil, and the actual plot progression is just plain stupid – the entire string of events is based on flimsy leads, weak evidence, and antagonists just giving information away because...uh...because.

But the biggest problem with the story is that since it's a prequel, a lot of the weight is drained out of the proceedings. We know there's going to be a big conspiracy, we know the Illuminati are going to be involved, and we know that none of the endings can be 100% canon, because it's a Deus Ex prequel. Honestly, the most surprising thing about the plot is how many of the initial “good” characters don't betray you.

The game is even all over the place on the technical and aesthetic side. Movement and combat are responsive and functional, but the inventory and hacking use awkward radial menus, and even simple things like button layouts are unintuitive (left trigger takes cover while clicking in the right analog stick looks down your weapon sights – prepare to hate your muscle memory). This particular problem may be a result of playing this on 360, as opposed to my preferred platform (PC, obviously), so if that's not the case for you, feel free to ignore this criticism if it makes you feel better.

The graphics look great in screenshots; models are intricately detailed, and the lighting and textures are consistently high-quality. But then it goes and gives each character dialog animation that's way down in the farthest recesses of the uncanny valley. And while I appreciate that a AAA shooter in this generation is trying to visually differentiate itself from its grey and brown peers, drenching everything in “fluorescent puke yellow” wasn't exactly the best way to go about it.

As for audio, the game's got a few decent atmospheric pieces for stealth sections, but the fact that the intentionally generic techno music that plays in the club area is indistinguishable from the game's “action” music should tell you all you need to know about that. Finally, the voice acting is respectable, especially compared to the original's. I couldn't take Jensen's gravelly Neo impression seriously at first, but there are a few emotional scenes where his voice subtly slips, which, combined with some other hints about his character, gave the impression that his voice is an act in-story, which actually served to endear him to me.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the hardest kind of game to review, because there's so much going on, both in its production and in the final result. So many good intentions clearly went into the game, but the filter of modern AAA development contorted them into pure mediocrity – never quite good, never quite bad. It's not a complete failure, but the expectations were just too high, and the ambitions too scattered for the final product to really be worth your time or money.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 08/28/12, Updated 09/24/13

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

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