SummaryHigh-class gaming is back
The GoodLooking back and comparing two decades - the 1990's and the 2000's - I came to the conclusion that the former was a richer, more creative, and decidedly more innovative period of game-making. Sure, the last decade has seen its share of great games. Its biggest contribution was probably the popularization of open-world driving action; but particularly in the field of FPS / RPG hybrids, we've only been awarded with the rare delight that was Bloodlines, and saw how Fallout 3 diligently tried to break the mold. When the first Deus Ex came out, I thought that it would propel gaming into the new decade, century and millennium with its ingenious genre blend. But it didn't happen. Games didn't follow its example; even its own sequel, though still a good game, shrunk in size and scope, intimidated by the "streamlined" (read: dumbed-down) style that unfortunately became too prominent in modern gaming.
And just when I became convinced that the glorious past has been cast into oblivion, Deus Ex: Human Revolution appeared. Like a phoenix raising from the ashes of its grandfather, this game restored my faith in a better future for video games. An audacious, daring project by an inexperienced team turned out to be a grandiose achievement that instantly conquered the hearts of those who longed for deep and intelligent gameplay perfected by the first game.
Human Revolution is what most modern games are not. Small playing field, simplified gameplay mechanics and linearity are just the opposite of what this game offers. It is a vast, rich, fulfilling, clever game obviously created by people who aimed to please those who enjoyed the first Deus Ex. It is as if they have dedicated all their time and effort to studying the original game and then created a modern version of it, injecting it with a distinct personality and even correcting and enhancing what the first game lacked.
Granted, these corrections and enhancements mostly refer to significantly prettier environments, less moronically behaving (but still not very bright) enemies, locals who actually speak their own language (the Chinese speak impeccable Mandarin!) and some interesting, but minor additions such as the cool hacking mini-game (BioShock, Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol: watch and learn). For the most part, Human Revolution is typical, good old Deus Ex: crawl through vents, try not to set off the alarms, deal with pesky turrets, happily gather experience and spend it on modifying your character, all while enjoying a conspiracy story starring a softly speaking cybernetically enhanced super-agent. The concept is hardly new; the brilliance is in the execution.
The game simply does so many things right that it becomes painful to look at all those other games and wonder why they couldn't do the same. Disregarding a certain graphical monotony (which has become a Deus Ex tradition by now), level design in Human Revolution is absolutely stellar. A special award should go to whoever designed the city hubs. First of all, those areas are huge. Not only the claustrophobic corridors of Invisible War, but even the vast environments of the first game cannot compare to what you see here. Hell's Kitchen is smaller than Detroit; Hong-Kong is just a village compared to Hengsha. The latter, by the way, is positively amazing. This breathtaking, sprawling city that takes hours to explore to the full is one of the most awe-inspiring areas I have ever seen in a video game; a chunk of tasty, delicious gaming meat to sink your teeth into.
Hostile areas are on par with the hubs: large, complex, and interesting to explore. There is an enormous amount of optional rooms to visit. There are tons of things to do and find everywhere. Discovering secret passages, hunting for rare and valuable items, fooling around with security devices, planning alternate routes, reading other people's e-mails - there is no end to it, and it's always rewarding. Human Revolution casts you into a generous, fascinating, detailed world, and you can take a break from the storyline's goals at any time - just hang around, chat with people, enjoy just being there.
Invisible War did away with RPG elements; Human Revolution triumphantly brings them back. In fact, in some ways this game is more of an RPG than the first one. Everything is now awarded with experience points, and the game marvelously conveys a feeling of constant growth and achievement. Hacked a security terminal? Got experience. Pushed away a candy machine and discovered a vent behind? Got experience. Shot an enemy in the head? You are "Marksman"; 10 XP. Tackled an enemy in melee? More experience for non-lethal takedown. Completed a whole level without triggering alarms? "Smooth Operator" achievement, XP reward. You aren't just allowed to accommodate the game to your own playing style; you are being rewarded for whatever style you choose, at the same time gently reminded that another, harder way might be even more rewarding. This is pure design excellence.
Want more role-playing? There are interesting side quests that are more numerous and involving than in both predecessors. You are prompted to make moral decisions not only to determine the game's ending, but also at various points of the story. Dealing with a hostage situation, saving your partner's life at the risk of jeopardizing the mission - there are all kinds of tough situations that provide delightful role-playing. On top of that, the well-written, psychologically astute "conversation battles" add even more depth to the role-playing. From time to time, you'll have to engage in mental duels against prominent characters in the game, defeating them by selecting dialogue options divided into various approach patterns. Winning or losing such a "battle" is in many cases a matter of life and death. And of course, the game's ending depends on your support towards a certain ideology, just like in the previous installments.
The story in this game is, frankly, a bit of a mixed bag. We've seen very similar stuff in the two previous games; furthermore, it is hampered by a few out-of-place sequences that make the narrative uneven in quality. However, there is still plenty of gold to be found in this story. Most of the dialogue is clever and well-written (and well-acted, for the first time in the series); major characters are convincingly portrayed; grand conspiracies and philosophical undertones still inspire and make us think. It is perhaps not the best story ever conceived for a video game, but it is still more interesting and competently executed than most of the other stuff out there.
The BadNo game is perfect, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution has its (very small) share of dubious design choices. I can already hear everyone scream "boss battles!"; while I do join the cry, my reasons are perhaps a bit different. Honestly, I didn't hate the boss battles themselves. It's nice to have an adrenaline rush after hours of methodical exploration, sneaking, hacking, vent-crawling, accurate headshots, and other predominantly cerebral (in video game terms) activities. However, what bothered me in those battles was their almost complete detachment from the game's story, their discrepancy with the game's tone. You defeat four or five circus freaks who might have just barely failed an audition for correspondent roles in a Metal Gear Solid game. Those people either say nothing at all or blurt out painful B-movie-esque phrases that tarnish the game's intellectual image. By far the worst characters in the game are those bosses; it is as if a different person with clearly inferior skills wrote their dialogues that somehow got through the testing and made it into the final version. Were the developers afraid that their game turned out to be too mature and intelligent? Was it a nostalgic throwback to arcade times? A nod to the Japanese enforced by the mighty publisher? Here is another fertile ground for conspiracy theories.
I missed melee weapons; but even more than those I missed interactivity. This was, for me, the game's most disappointing aspect. Its two predecessors had marvelous physics systems that allowed you to manipulate pretty much everything you saw. Sadly, in Human Revolution this interactivity is restricted to a few repetitive objects: crates, soda machines, and an occasional stand-out item such as the traditional basketball. The graphics in the game are very detailed; but for the most part, what you see are mere decorations.
The Bottom LineDeus Ex: Human Revolution gives us what we've been craving for: smart, classy, generous gaming. It elegantly recreates the greatness of the first game, boldly fulfilling the tremendous expectations. Above all, it proves that the groundbreaking achievements of its progenitor (and also of System Shock and even Ultima Underworld games before it) have not vanished; the great tradition lives on in this modern classic. Along with Fallout: New Vegas, it is a bright beacon that illuminates the way into the new decade, and an example of what modern game designers should strive for.