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Friday, February 26, 2010

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Review

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an engrossing and atmospheric adventure that keeps you guessing.

The Good

  • Varied mechanics allow you to accomplish missions the way you want  
  • Evocative futuristic atmosphere  
  • Engrossing story with themes that resonate  
  • A long adventure that invites replay.

The Bad

  • Poor boss fights remove the element of choice  
  • Long load times, dated facial animations, and other technical drawbacks  
  • Weak AI detracts from both the shooting and the stealth.
Choice. Many games provide the illusion of it; fewer deliver it in any meaningful way. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of those few: a first-person shooter/stealth/espionage/role-playing hybrid that allows you to overcome obstacles as you see fit. Let's say you require access to a guarded apartment building. You can shoot your way past the patrolling sentries. But maybe you'd rather sneak past them unnoticed, silently knocking them out as you go; hack an electronic lock on a side entrance; or find a hidden vent and shimmy your way inside. Play the way you want: It's up to you. In Human Revolution, this kind of flexibility can be awe inspiring, but like with many ambitious games, the individual parts and pieces aren't always satisfying on their own terms. Neither the shooting nor the stealth is best in class, and a number of flaws disrupt your suspension of disbelief. But even if the details don't stand up to scrutiny, taken as a whole, Human Revolution is an excellent game with an unsettling vision of the future we face.

David Sarif is worried more about profitability than ethics.
In that future, human augmentation has changed the way we live. Augmentation technology makes the more fortunate among us stronger, faster, and hardier--for a cost, of course. It's the year 2027, and the world is divided. Some believe that augmentation is the next step in evolution; others think it strips us of our humanity. Sarif Industries is one of several companies that research and manufacture such technology, and you play as Adam Jensen, Sarif's security expert. Scientists are on the verge of a mysterious breakthrough when high-tech soldiers ransack Sarif's headquarters, making off with important info, murdering scientists and leaving Adam for dead. Sarif rehabilitates Adam with the help of augmentations, turning Adam into both man and machine: something beyond human. As Adam, you set off to discover who was behind the attack and what, exactly, they were trying to find.

As it turns out, you uncover more than you expected. You explore Shanghai and your home city of Detroit, along with other locales, to piece together clues. Some of them illuminate plot elements; others flesh out the world as a whole; while still others provide unexpected personal data and set the stage for a surprising turn of events. In this grim vision of the future, anti-aug demonstrators hang on their prophet's every word; sexual deviants seek augmented prostitutes for extra thrills. Human Revolution explores the symbiotic relationships binding the press, the government, and big business--a modern, relevant theme that gives the story an air of disturbing authenticity. If you played the original Deus Ex, you will appreciate seeing the origins of the turmoil to come, before nanotechnology further revolutionized the human condition. Electronic books you stumble upon hint at the coming innovation; newspapers document increasing social tensions (and, cleverly, refer to how you completed your most recent mission); and emails and PDAs provide insight into the minds of the game's key figures.

The visual design does a great job of setting the stage for those tensions. Human Revolution's color palette makes frequent use of gold and black, which results in eye-catching visual contrasts. Take, for example, a nightclub in Shanghai called The Hive. The honeycomb design stretching across its neon yellow exterior is not only striking, but also similar to interface elements associated with augmentations. This kind of thematic and visual consistency is common and makes for a cohesive atmosphere even when trotting across the globe. Human Revolution takes great pains to be believable and immerse you in its world, which makes its technical deficiencies all the more noticeable. The city districts you explore are good sized but not enormous, which makes the extended loading times between them seem drastic. You spend minutes at a time in lengthy conversations, staring at the dated, mechanical facial animations. On the Xbox 360 in particular, the frame rate can take a hit as you pan the camera around--a distraction in any case and a greater annoyance during firefights. On consoles, it feels like developer Eidos Montreal tried to squeeze a bit more out of its graphics engine than it could handle. On the PC, the game performs adequately but still looks slightly dated. But this is a case in which good art design overcomes the technology that renders it. The game is as much about places as it is about people, and it does an excellent job of giving its environments character and grit.

And so you perform story missions and side quests in these cities, where hobos huddle around flaming barrels for warmth and private security firms intimidate the locals. You find answers for a grieving mother, publicly humiliate a cowardly murderer, and seek a dangerous hacker. And in most cases, how you accomplish your tasks depends on how you wish to play. Let's say you must make your way through a heavily guarded facility. If you prefer the direct approach, you could shoot your way through. During the course of the game, you find or purchase pistols, revolvers, combat rifles, shotguns, and more--and you gain access to augmentations that further support your violent tendencies. As you play, you earn experience; in turn, you then earn praxis points used to unlock new skills and enhancements. Players into bloodshed should appreciate the dermal augmentations that increase your armor, reduce weapon recoil, increase inventory space, and improve resistance to concussion grenades. From the action-packed perspective, Human Revolution plays like a cover shooter. When you snap behind cover, the camera pulls into a third-person view, and you peek out or pop up to load your enemies with lead.

The shooting mechanics are fine but not outstanding. The cover system works well, but even with dermal upgrades, you are still fragile enough to feel in danger when you engage the enemy. And ammo is scarce enough (though not frustratingly so) that you'll want to make every shot count. Unfortunately, the none-too-smart AI frequently diminishes that sense of danger. It isn't uncommon for enemies to empty clip after clip shooting at the wall you are hiding behind, refuse to shoot back even when you're pumping bullets into them, or jump en masse into a grenade rather than away from it. Actually, it isn't just enemies that act in unconvincing ways. In many cases, you can tap away at people's computers right in front of them, saunter into a shopkeeper's storeroom to steal credit chips and ammo, and emerge from air ducts right in front of fellow Sarif employees. For what it's worth, the previous Deus Ex games also featured such illusion-breaking details. And like before, those details stand out because the game otherwise works so hard to create a believable cyberpunk world.

You don't have to shoot anyone on your way through that aforementioned facility, however. There are good reasons to take the nonlethal route. One is that you earn extra experience for leaving your foes alive; another is that it's more satisfying to sneak than to shoot. That isn't because the AI magically improves when you go stealthy; while you are crouched, a guard might walk up to you, his crotch in your face, yet not notice you. But patrol patterns make it challenging--though hardly impossible--to elude notice. If you played Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction, the stealth gameplay will feel familiar. You can tumble from cover spot to cover spot or press against walls and obstacles to remain out of view. And again, the right augmentations can complement this play style. In this case, they take Human Revolution from plain-Jane sneaker into fully featured stealth game. Eventually, you can observe enemy figures through walls, see their cones of sight on your minimap, or mark them with pips to make them easier to track. But even while sneaking, you can feed your hunger for violence with a melee attack. If you're feeling generous, you can clobber your enemy but leave him alive and earn a few extra experience points for your kindness. Or, you can forfeit the extra experience but get the rush of a vicious assassination.