Review: Deus Ex – Human Revolution

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Short version: Absolutely worth a play, but there are a number of flaws that cause DEHR to fall short of greatness. The bosses, the “domestic” environments, and certain je ne sais quois mais ce n’est pas bien about the level design. It’s far from perfect, but the core gameplay, second by second, is fun and exciting.

What works

The world of Deus Ex is a softly-glowing, amber world with lots of set dressing. You won’t recognize Detroit, but I’m not sure if anyone does these days. It’s a fairly standard cyberpunk-looking environment, but for the most part it’s crafted with care. There are lots of little details here and there that have nothing to do with the game really, but still add flavor. Many of the locations actually feel like the real thing: Sarif feels like a real office area; the FEMA complex seems right, and a few others hit the mark quite well.

You’re rewarded for doing pretty much everything except for truly screwing up. I played the game as a semi-pacifist, not killing anyone that didn’t really need it. I got points for being “merciful,” and then when I had to cap a guy for real, I got “marksman” credit for a headshot. That said, it does reward you more for doing things on the down-low. I aimed for the Ghost and Smooth Operator bonuses on every mission, meaning I couldn’t ever be fully seen by guards or cameras. That’s not to say I was above mowing some fools down when it was crunch time. It’s fun because really, you’re challenging yourself to do it the way you think it should be done.

Augmenting yourself feels great. For the most part, you really see the benefits. “Damn, if only I had upgraded my arms, I could move that thing out of the way and get in that vent.” Or “Yeees, with two more seconds of stealth or an extra battery, I could just walk right past that camera.” The upgrades genuinely enhance and diversify gameplay, and you’ll face some hard decisions.

The gameplay itself is mostly stealth action, and it generally plays out quite well. You mostly feel like a badass, and going from first person to third person to hacking to shooting is effortless. You also feel obligated to try things differently, or do them better, so multiple playthroughs are an option. There’s an achievement for not killing anyone in the game (apart from the bosses, who die whether you like it or not) that’ll take some work. Especially when… well, you’ll see.

The story is a mixed bag, but it’s ambitious in some ways and fairly well written. Ironically it relies on the “deus ex machina” trope and as usual, there’s a big revelation at the endTM that you see coming a mile off. At least it’s not aliens.

What doesn’t

While in the zone, rolling between bits of cover, taking out baddies on the sly, and actually doing your job, you feel great. The “hub” areas, however, are reminiscent of mid-2000s shooters in their graphical and navigational limitations. The areas you walk around seemed very little to me like living streets and much more like budget game levels. Apartment buildings are little more than bare corridors, often having floors without doors at all, fake or not. Most rooms, even plot-centric ones, are cut-and-paste. The NPCs peopling the world are barely window dressing, having little or nothing to do or say. You can steal stuff right from under their noses or read their email.

The character models, too, seem like holdovers from the last generation. The main characters and things like guards generally look great and are animated well, but NPCs have what feels like pre-Half-Life idle animations, dead eyes, and atrocious voice acting. Not to mention every woman in the game seemingly shares the same anatomically-offensive model, with breasts bigger than their heads and waspish waists. Really, guys, you couldn’t task an intern with making a few variants? And after playing LA Noire, the poor models, poor voice acting, and poor lip syncing are doubly disappointing.

Much has been said about the bosses, so I’ll just note that I agree with the general opinion, which is that they suck. They were, in fact, developed by a separate company, and it shows. Fortunately, they only make up a small fraction of the gameplay, so your best bet is to eat some painkillers, waste a bunch of ammo, and get it over with.

Behavior and cues were inconsistent. Why is it that an enemy can pinpoint a single footstep, but the frazzle of an automatic unlocking device doesn’t set off alarms? Why is opening a locker enemy-audible, but the hiss of reloading my combat rifle “silent”? Why can mines see me when I’m invisible? Why is cover sometimes laughably effective, sometimes the opposite?

The setup of the world and your means to get through it seem very arbitrary. It doesn’t always detract from the fun, but it was very clear to me that I was taking one of, say, three paths the developers put into the game. The incredible proliferation of unlocked air ducts leading straight to critical areas where enemies always look the other way makes you feel less like a ninja and more like just a guy taking “Path B.” You can still tackle things in your own way a lot of the time, but unlike effectively sneaking around in, say, Crysis, you don’t feel it’s because of any merit on your part.

Lastly, the load times are a real problem, even on a brand new PC like mine. If you’re a perfectionist like me, expect to spend many, many idle minutes staring at pointless game tips, even if you’re loading from a save only a few seconds earlier. I got a lot of Words With Friends done during the 30-second or longer loading times.

What it is: A good game. Think of it like an orange: sure, it’s got some bitter parts and seeds, but for the most part it’s pretty delicious. When you’re in it, you’re in it, and there are plenty of great parts and little things to explore. It’s a bit like Metal Gear without all the usual Kojima trappings.

What it isn’t: A sandbox game. How you progress room by room is up to you, but the world offers little to no freedom. There are a few side quests but for the most part it’s a pretty linear operation. Not as linear as Invisible War, but it’s no GTA, either.

Conclusion

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is not without its flaws and busywork, but overall it’s a worthy successor to the Deus Ex name and the parts that really matter work well. Minimizing your contact with the sadly-realized peripheral world will help keep your opinion of this game high. That and something to read while it loads.