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Deus Ex: Human Revolution review

[Note: This is a PC review]

It has been 8 years since Invisible War released. In 2005 Ion Storm was shut down and the Deus Ex franchise was left in the dark. Until Eidos Montreal took upon themselves the task to bring back the franchise with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Their endeavour resulted in an experience that is highly enjoyable but is marred by some glaring flaws.
There are numerous games that may be considered classics but very few are ageless. Deus Ex is one of them. It is hard to overemphasise how well-crafted the game was and how it is still an epitome of genre-blending. In more than one way Human Revolution tries to emulate Deus Ex from hub-world structure to having your pilot flying you to places to even some very similar missions; in some ways it succeeds in doing so. Thus Human Revolution is measured against its predecessor as it is appreciated on its own, even though it was never expected of the game to reach the heights of the original.

A well-realised world
The game is set 25 years prior to the events of the first game and the world is at a tipping point regarding the augmentation technology. Large corporations have vested interests in the technology while pro-human activist groups oppose it. Some seek regulation of technology, some seek prohibition while others want it free of restrictions. The story poses a question of ethics in human evolution; whether merging man and metal deprives us of humanity or whether it is progress to achieve the potential greatness that is already inside us.

The game does an excellent job of creating a sense of believability in the story and the setting. You learn much of the state of the debate by talking to people on the streets, reading ebooks, news reports and emails. The game does admirably in presenting the moral ambiguity of the debate over augmentation; it presents the good and bad of both sides. The story is set in 2027 which is not very far in the future from today and the game world does feel very likely.

The player comes into the story in the role of Adam Jensen, the security chief for Sarif Industries, a premier corporation specialising in augmentation research. The story begins with a devastating attack on the Sarif Industries labs that leaves Jensen for dead. He is saved from the fatal injuries through advanced augmentations. Once he reports back to his duty six months later, events start to unfold that involve politics, corporate espionage, myth and legends. The story takes Jensen across the two major hub-worlds and a few other locations as he learns the mystery behind the attack and its far reaching consequences to human evolution.

The story is progressed through conversations and cutscenes, though much can be learned through exploration. It holds up very well, slowly building up towards the end. The end however does not live up to the events that lead to it. There are four possible endings and none of them are executed in a tangible and substantial way. Another issue with the story is three of the bosses you fight. The game never told me why I should care for them; whether like or dislike. They do not have a meaningful connection to the story which makes fighting them rather academic; they are just overpowered mercenaries.

The protagonist
JC Denton in Deus Ex was simply a nano-augmented special agent or something of the sort. The game did not try anything more with him in terms of story and character development. Human Revolution however does attempt to develop Jensen as a character. But unfortunately I never really felt any connection with him. One of the reasons being that he lacks intelligence. I spent most of the time exploring, hacking into computers and learning a lot of information ahead of its time in the storyline. But he does not acknowledge any of it when it is time to progress the story be it through cutscenes or conversations. There is a quest-line that involves delving a little into Jensen's background. Some of the information that is learned through this quest I already knew long ago because of my Social Enhancer augmentation that can be used to coerce people into revealing information. During the quest Jensen acknowledges none of what he already knew and basically re-learns. His writing in general is below the standards of other characters and often makes him look rather bland and unintelligent. Which is in contradiction with the aforementioned augmentation. And the stiff facial animations and rather indifferent voice acting do not help the cause.

Visuals and art direction
While the story derives heavily from the Greek mythology, the visuals are heavily inspired by Italian Renaissance. The colour palette, clothing of characters have a distinct look to them which maintain consistency throughout. The augmentations look careful craftsmanship of an artist instead of the mechanical contraptions they really are. There is plenty of detail in the world and while some assets are recycled, it never makes the player grow weary of repetition. However, these high points are somewhat beset by the less than impressive facial animations. The enemy animations during a double takedown are of especially questionable nature. As mentioned before, this becomes a bigger issue with Jensen than it is with other characters. Nixxes Software who ported the game over to PC platform did a commendable job as the game ran without issues. It performs well on a wide range of configurations. I played the game on integrated graphics. Yes, you read that correctly.
Sound design
There is a lot of voice work in the game. Every character in the game can be approached and talked to. Voice acting is generally solid. Jensen's voice work though not bad by any means does not do much to his character development as it comes off very indifferent. Sound effects on the other hand are very well designed. From weapon sounds to takedowns to environmental effects feel natural and provide sufficient immersion. The game's soundtrack is however a bit difficult to comment on. There was not much of it playing in the background or at least I did not notice. The times when it was pronounced enough for me to take notice, it was a treat to my auditory senses.

If you are patient and explore and listen to your surroundings you also hear soundtracks from Deus Ex playing on some radio. I was able to catch the UNATCO and the Lebedev's Airfield themes (in addition to the surprise at the end) from the first game. Kudos to Eidos for injecting those nostalgia shots.

Gameplay - a mixed bag
Deus Ex managed to blend Shooter, RPG and stealth elements like no other. Human Revolution follows in a similar direction with a heavy emphasis on augmentations. This emphasis is very important because the game foregoes the skill system that the first game featured. In fact, skills were the primary to develop your character with augmentations serving to compliment the style of play you have chosen. Human Revolution tries to achieve both aims with an extensive augmentation system. The results are mixed.

There are a vast number of augmentations to choose from and upgrade. These augmentations can make Jensen resourceful whether you prefer stealth or aggression or a mix of both. A wide variety of weapons from standard to high-tech firearms and numerous utility items consolidate the augmentation system very well. Whether you choose to be a pacifist and not kill anyone or pick enemies from distance with a sniper or go right in with guns blazing, it is possible to do so. I did find there are one too many Praxis points (used to purchase augmentations) to earn. I finished the game on its hardest difficulty with eight unspent points, and I am sure I could have avoided spending a few more.

The game's level design is stellar. The levels mainly consist of urban environments such as industrial complexes,  labs, sewers, residential buildings and streets with various floor levels, ducts and plenty of objects to take cover behind. Exploration is highly encouraged and is often rewarded with XP bonuses and secrets. Getting from point A to point B is never dull, you just have to look around for different paths. Certain augmentations are required to navigate different paths. There is a fair bit of backtracking in the hub worlds but nothing to the extent of causing frustration.

So there is freedom of choice, except in hacking. Hacking is an ubiquitous gameplay feature. You may choose not invest in hacking related augmentations but it is not recommended. The hacking minigame is executed well enough that it does not become a chore after a while. Each successful hack nets some XP along with additional possible bonuses. Hacking is susceptible to abuse, however, especially if you spent many points in hacking since you can still hack even if you have the code. Which is something I am guilty of.

Having spoken of the freedom, this game is primarily designed  for players who like to approach things deliberately. This is evident by certain design choices. First, the amount of ammunition available is not high. The game forces you to be careful of the shots you fire. Second, Jensen is very vulnerable to enemy fire. Even with Damage Reduction augmentations it does not take many bullets to render Jensen dead. However, regenerative health prevents the combat from becoming too hard. The replenishing energy cells also serve a similar purpose. Third, the inventory size is limited and requires some management.

Those are definitely the high points of gameplay. Additionally, there are some serious issues.

The enemies
The enemy AI is not very, well, intelligent. There are different types of enemies, some are apparently tougher than others. They maybe tougher but are definitely not any wiser. I  had an instance where I had taken down two of the three enemies and the third one still kept shouting commands to his non-existent subordinates. You may contrast this AI with Arkham Asylum's enemy behaviour (for example) and you start to notice the deficiencies. All enemies have fairly standard patrol paths that require only patience and not so much skill to avoid. Enemies do not react to hacked terminals or turned-off laser grids. Even if you are discovered it is fairly easy to escape: just find another piece of cover. Regardless of whether enemies are normal mercenaries or augmented ones, they can all be taken down with the same takedown manoeuvre. Enemies' alertness to sound is also very poor. If you run too close to them, they will be alerted. However, once you crouch you never have to worry about making sound, whether you are splashing in water or taking enemies down with brute physical force.
The bosses
As I wrote already there is a disconnection between the bosses and the story. In addition, the boss fights are poorly executed. It is not that they are bad intrinsically, though one of the fights turned out quite cheap for me, but that they seem misplaced in the context of the rest of gameplay. These fights are fire-fights. The fact that rest of the game can be played without ever resorting to lethal measures makes these encounters the worst feature of the combat. It also means you have to carry one or two lethal weapons compromising the inventory management. The nature of these fights shatters the illusion of choice and freedom found elsewhere in the game. Oddly enough, the augmented bosses chose not to install regenerative health implants.

The root of this problem comes from the lack of a skill system. Deus Ex's skill system ensured that you were investing in at least one set of weapons, thus it never forced you to resort to methods that you were not proficient in.

Final thoughts
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a bold endeavour. Invisible War was put to torch for apparently not doing justice to the original and Human Revolution had always been in danger of a similar fate. Eidos Montreal were careful to stick to the roots of the original while crafting the game for a new and wider audience. It borrows many things from Deus Ex but also deviates in significant ways. While the game shines presenting a believable world and providing a vast amount of freedom in  both navigation and combat, it suffers with an inadequate AI and poorly designed bosses. The gunplay is not of the best tier but this game is enjoyed with a silent approach in mind. There are other minor annoyances such as Jensen left out in the open after cutscenes (a pet peeve of mine in stealth games), some screen clipping and certain augmentations make others practically useless (upgrading Radar system to level 2 meant I did not have any use for Stealth Enhancer tree). In the end it is easy enough to focus on the game's high points and enjoy the ride for what it attempts to accomplish. Human Revolution is definitely a strong start in a new generation for the franchise. I eagerly await Eidos' plans for the future of Deus Ex.

Score
Presentation - 9/10
Graphics - 8.5/10
Sound - 8.5/10
Gameplay - 8/10
Entertainment - 8.5/10

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - 8/10


Appendix
Just so I am a bit more clear, I more or less follow the scale at the bottom.

 

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