Just one more mission: impressions of the new Deus Ex


— 10:03 AM on August 26, 2011

It's now 9PM. My plan was to start writing this post three hours ago, but that didn't pan out. Instead of writing, I found myself running around in circa-2027 Hengsha Island, China, splitting up my time between sleuthing, sneaking, and breaking bones. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is just one of those games—the kind that has you persuading yourself to stop after just one more mission... before playing for another three hours and wondering where your evening went.

I was a big fan of the original Deus Ex. I remember playing it on my 1GHz Athlon hot rod 11 years ago and enjoying every moment. Oh, sure, the gameplay mechanics borrowed heavily from System Shock 2, but there was a whole other dimension to it. Character interactions, side quests, and the intricate storyline all made the game feel broad and dynamic, like you were a real actor unraveling a complex web of conspiracies. (The original release seemed to require some sort of supercomputer to run, though. I recall some pretty bad stuttering on my then-speedy machine.)

Ion Storm Austin managed to squeeze out a sequel in 2003 before getting shut down, but I never bothered with it. Reports of that title being dumbed down and scaled down for the Xbox offended my sensibilities as a proud, 18-year-old PC gamer, and I decided to occupy my time with other games. I slowly forgot about the Deus Ex series altogether—until, that is, news of Human Revolution started trickling out.

Shockingly for a game released over a decade later by another studio, Human Revolution has a lot in common with its granddaddy. Deus Ex wasn't afraid to slather elaborate RPG elements onto an FPS experience, and happily, neither is the new sequel. Both games also have the kind of elaborate storytelling that leaves you scratching your head at times. But for me, the most shocking part is that both games seem equally at home on the PC.

No, really. Human Revolution shows almost no signs of consolitis. Fonts and user-interface elements are appropriately sized for a high-resolution display, and the graphics fit within a 16:10 form factor without letterboxing. Players are asked to mouse around inventory, character configuration, and log screens, where they'll find themselves agonizing over how to spend upgrade points and, just like in the original, reshuffling inventory items to save space for new discoveries. To get a handle on the story, one is expected to read pages upon pages of intercepted e-mails, personal diaries, and e-book excerpts. Players can choose to master hacking, which involves figuring out the best path through a set of nodes and rapidly clicking your way through as a timer counts down, attempting to slow down a trace as you go along. Frankly, I can't imagine slogging through so much writing on a TV screen or having to use a controller to hack security consoles. Even dialogue requires careful reading if you plan to use your "social enhancer" augmentation to get things your way.

You'll find no trace of forgiving, console-friendly shooter gameplay, either. A few shots from even a weak future rent-a-cop will kill you dead, so you'll need to be careful about whom to engage and when. Luckily, Human Revolution offers elaborate sneaking mechanics reminiscent of the Splinter Cell series. There's a decent cover system, plus augmentations that let you peer through walls and tell you where enemies last saw you, so you can better flank them. The game gives you an XP bonus for sneaking through areas silently, stunning or tranquilizing enemies before they have a chance to alert their pals. Players with a more gung-ho attitude can load up on guns, grenades, and other deadly equipment if they so choose. One can even reprogram enemy turrets and robots to turn against their own team. There's something strangely cathartic about flipping a turret's allegiance switch from a remote security station, then hearing the faint sound of gunfire and seeing XP bonuses for downed enemies rapidly accumulate on the screen.

Somehow, Eidos Montreal has managed to retain much of the complexity of the first game, creating a true thinking man's shooter-RPG hybrid. In today's world of overly dumbed-down, cinematic RPG-lites and shooters on rails, that's refreshing, to say the least.

And how could I forget the game's open-world component? This is no Oblivion or Fallout 3, but the missions are spread out across large city hubs rife with explorable nooks and crannies, characters eager to dish out side quests, shops, and disaffected bums. The game starts out in Detroit and soon takes you to a massive, two-story Chinese city (you'll see what I mean). I haven't had time to play more, but I hear there will be further traveling.

Even within individual missions, the game usually gives you multiple routes to each objective. It's up to you to determine which path will work best for your chosen play style. Folks big on stealth will want to scout rooftops and air vents, which can sometimes provide shortcuts straight through heavily guarded areas. Those shortcuts aren't always easy to find, though. Rambo types can punch through walls and pelt bad guys with explosives, while more middle-of-the-road players may find themselves stalking guards on their patrols and knocking them out when they venture out on their own. Of course, you're free to adjust your play style if you get bored—there's nothing wrong with a little shooting spree after a few stealth missions.

I'm also quite impressed with the game's visuals, but not for the usual reasons. Eidos Montreal has come up with a very unique graphical style, outfitting cyberpunk characters with neo-renaissance garb and letting them loose in decors that mix ultra-modern architecture and late-19th-century decor. An orange hue permeates most locales, and true to Deus Ex tradition, all of your missions take place at night. Blade Runner fans will be overjoyed. Again, it's nice to see a game doing something different once in a while. I love titles like the Mass Effect series, but squeaky-clean futuristic environments and skin-tight combat suits are getting a little played out. Why can't the future have weird, retro fashion and lots of orange lights everywhere? In Human Revolution, it does.

I'll withhold my final verdict until I've completed the game. In essence, though, it seems Human Revolution beautifully captures the gameplay sophistication and atmosphere of the original game while making everything bigger, bolder, and more visually striking. Off the top of my head, I can only muster two complaints at this sequel. First, level load times are inconvenient at best and frustrating at worst—I'm talking a good 20-30 seconds per load on average, even after the latest patch. It doesn't help that load screens appear every time you enter a new district, walk into a large building, or have to load a saved game because you got caught sneaking around. Also, while the voice acting works well (in spite of the main character's overly gravely voice), wooden facial animations make the game's many dialogue scenes a little dull to watch. All too often, you're forced to stare at character models on the wrong side of the uncanny valley as their lips almost, but not quite, keep up with the recorded lines. If this took more after L.A. Noire, I'd be happier... but I suppose one game can't do everything.

After sinking a good 10 hours or so into Human Revolution, though, I think I can tentatively say that this is one of 2011's best PC games. I'd even be tempted to rank it up there with Portal 2. Few titles are that engrossing, and even fewer make the PC gamer crowd feel like first-class citizens.

   
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