Friday, September 2, 2011

REVIEW - Deus Ex : Human Revolution.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which I will henceforth refer to simply as Deus Ex) is rather unlike any other RPG on the current gen. It's somewhat-linear, sort-of open-world, heavily driven by narrative and offers an absolute glut of choice - far more than we're accustomed to, even taking liberal designs like BioShock and Fallout into account.

Occasionally its carefully painted environments feel paper-thin. Yes, you can turn on faucets and flush the toilet - it passes The Duke Test - but why the hell don't bottles break when I shoot them? What you can and can't play with is strictly controlled, but Deus Ex is thoughtful enough overall to earn one's respect and affection.

The game is a mix of detective work, first-person/cover-based shooting, stealth and exploration. The detective work generally boils down to arriving at a waypoint on your map and reading something on a computer you'll find there, but where Deus Ex makes its mark is the myriad options it provides in the journey.

Nine times out of ten - no matter how you've chosen to augment your cybernetically-enhanced future-badass - the game is prepared to accommodate your playstyle. Most impressive is that, unlike many other RPGs that pride themselves on options, all of this happens without a dialogue choice holding your hand, without a morality meter jumping up in your face to tell you you've been a very good boy.

It's so alien. Initially, you play Deus Ex constricted by your own expectations, not used to games being prepared to accept what you actually want to try. You need to get into a building, but it's blocked by a gate with a security level you can't hack yet. So poke around - check out the fire escape. You can't reach it, but maybe if you stack this box on top of this dumpster...

The first time this happens, you wonder if you actually broke the game. You reckon the designers at Eidos Montreal didn't actually expect or want you to climb up that fire escape yet - but up top you'll find a door you can easily slip through, on the way through the building's interior you'll discover the passcode to that front gate you couldn't hack before and it strikes you - they want you to find the alternate rout.

"Alternate rout" is probably the wrong way to put it - there is no "main rout" - there are merely all the different ways you may want to solve a problem, already programmed into the game.

Deus Ex's strongest facet is easily its tightly-wound stealth, which is a viable and potentially non-lethal option for every part of the game save a few boss fights. One can slip into this game's stealth systems like a comfortable pair of jeans, even without spending any of your precious Praxis points on its specifically stealth upgrade tree.

It's also, unfortunately, a double-edged sword. Deus Ex punishes failure brutally, in stealth as in combat. Given the confident feel of the game's weapons and the finely-tuned balance of its sneaking layouts, this would be intensely satisfying if a missed step didn't lead to such ridiculously lengthy load screens, but Deus Ex passes the Cooking Network test.

If I switch to The Cooking Network during a game's loading screens to watch Guy Fieri visit spectacular American eateries, your load screens are too long. Deus Ex, your load screens are way too long.

While it is (ironically) a technologically feeble exercise on the PS3, it remains ambitious and successful in design and scope. You can tell, prior to actually designing its angular futurescape, the artists at Eidos first created or examined images of (oh-ho!) renaissance-era interiors and lighting. A room's lighting is rarely mere overhead tracking - instead, the world shimmers with the warm glow of a thousand tiny candles, emitted from stylish ultramodern futurelights.

The mood and feel of the glamor and the grime of 16th-century Italy has been translated to near-future Detroit, Shanghai and Montreal, and the result is a game that bleeds an uneasily familiar style - cool and warm at once. It's not entirely successful, but I feel it only really suffers where technology is concerned, and rarely substance.

Navigating its environments is, to put it mildly, succulent. A few large-ish hubs beg for exploration, but more thrilling are the game's contained yet sprawling levels that immediately bring to mind the ambitious, reasoned and thrilling exploration offered by FPSs of old.

In the days of Quake, all levels were this huge, with this many paths.

Like its protagonist and volatile world, Deus Ex is constrained and its success is threatened by the technology of its time. Here and there, the game simply doesn't fit neatly on the PS3 - most frustratingly during its epic-length load times - but these spikes of pain merely temper what is, otherwise, a hugely impressive and unique experience.

While it's hardly perfect - I would have appreciated more overt exploration of the philosophical implications of mixing man with machine, instead of having such discussion hidden within easily-missed emails or e-books - Deus Ex is still a game that actually managed to surprise me with the depth of choice offered. The game is designed, from the ground up, to anticipate and accommodate all the crazy ideas other games wouldn't even let you try.

Once I was breaking into a shipping yard. I sneaked my way through the yard itself and made my way onto the roof of the main building, where I found a skylight. Looking down, I saw several guards going on about their patrols, and watched as they slowly converged into a tight knot in the center of the room.

I pulled out my sidearm and shot the glass out from beneath my feet.

My Icarus Landing System kicked in, bathing me in (candle-warm) golden light, slowing my descent. Slamming into the ground, all the guards were knocked off their feet. I employed the Typhoon Explosive System to finish them off before yanking the crossbow from my back and taking out the last guard, at the other side of the room.

It was awesome.

Then a guard came up from behind and put a round of buckshot into the back of my head. I agreed with the game that, yes, I would like to reload my latest saved game, and switched my TV to The Cooking Network.

Then I sighed.

  • sumptuous, stylish art direction
  • a great sense of progression : you start out so weak (so human) and become such a badass
  • excellent music
  • largely strong voice work and writing
  • the story becomes hugely involving by the end
  • very satisfying gunplay and stealth mechanics
  • the game is designed to let you do all the crazy crap other games won't
  • gigantic, sprawling levels that encourage and reward exploration
  • lots of neat side quests that really do show you more of the world
  • you can finish a quest with a dude and then punch him in the face
  • the hardest difficulty is very well-balanced and satisfying
  • significant replayability
  • fantastic ending

  • significantly awful load times
  • occasionally spotty voice work
  • the discussion of man-machine interfacing seems limited to an argument over whether or not it's too dangerous to control
  • while the boss fights are a satisfying challenge, they are severely at odds with the liberal design elsewhere
  • technologically unimpressive
  • the game's massive degree of side quests, exploration and choice result in a very uneven pace
  • oh look, another vent

Deus Ex isn't perfection, but you can see it from here.

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