Thursday 3 November 2011

Reviewlet: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution feels properly “Deus Ex-y”, but that’s a double edged sword as startling innovation from ten years ago can be old hat now. Back then, for example, the idea that you might not actually be a noble anti-terrorist agent but a pawn for shadowy conspiratorial organisations was pretty novel, whereas in DXHR the presence of the Illuminati is marginally less shocking than the tutorial informing you that the WASD keys move you around. Adam Jensen, the central character of DXHR, has mirrorshades and a gravelly rasp heavily reminiscent of JC Denton, but though JC sometimes had a bit of trouble expressing emotional intensity (“A bomb!”), Jensen is a full-on charisma-vacuum who drones through every conversation in a monotone with an emotional range spanning the full gamut from “mildly disinterested” to “slightly miffed”. Perhaps memory (via rose tinted mirrored glasses) is being kind to the original game, or the writing was better, or the novelty of a voiced protagonist made up for clunky delivery, but it seems a much more glaring flaw in DXHR; as Charlie Brooker tweeted “If any film starred a character as rubbish & po-faced as this Deus Ex prick, audiences would hurl shoes at it.”

What saves DXHR is the gameplay, equally solid whether sneaking, hacking or shooting your way around. Again demonstrating its heritage, you tend to come off second-best in a straight up firefight, especially towards the beginning of the game when lacking an arsenal of upgraded weapons and sub-dermal armour. I remember having terrible trouble at the start of Deus Ex, coming to it from more straightforward shooters, blithely running around the starting level trying to shoot guards while sprinting, running out of ammunition without managing to kill anything and getting pummelled. DXHR therefore offers a similar plethora of routes and options through its levels. Some require augmentations to take advantage of, such as the hacking skill to open a door (via a mini-game) or enhanced arms to be able to pick up heavy objects blocking routes or even punch through walls. The tech tree of the augmentation system works nicely to let you specialise in a particular approach, from improved hacking skills to quieter movement or even a (brief) cloaking device.

If you choose to fight it out there’s a wide array of weapons from non-lethal shock guns and tranquilliser rifles to the staples of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles, with more exotic laser and plasma rifles later in the game, and a few varieties of grenade if you prefer chucking stuff. Avoiding confrontation involves a lot of crouching; I’m not generally a fan of stealth gameplay, especially if it involves ten minutes of analysing camera movement patterns and guard patrols and automatically failing the level if you get spotted, but it’s most enjoyable to sneak up behind a guard in DXHR and hit ‘Q’ for a satisfyingly crunchy takedown (lethal or non-lethal, depending how kind you’re feeling), and if you do get rumbled then you’ve still got options to run, hide, or pull out a plasma rifle and melt anyone who comes to investigate.

Even Jensen’s growl works; in lengthy dialogue sequences he might sound like he’s trying to bore the other party into unconsciousness (maybe his augmentations have made him too perfect as an infiltration agent and conversations are just a different sort of non-lethal takedown), but when out running missions he has a more of the Man With No Name about him, delivering the odd laconic aside but otherwise letting his actions do the talking.

Of course there is a bionically-enhanced fly in the choose-your-approach ointment: the boss fights that even Eidos admit were a mistake, when sneaking goes out of the window (or, more to the point, sneaking is unable to go out of the window, because there are no windows, air ducts, hackable doors or other alternatives). Forewarned is forearmed, though, so after seeing numerous tweets and comments I’d equipped myself with the Typhoon Explosive System augmentation (description: “Deals enough damage to kill all living targets”), which made the unavoidable fights as tricky as running up to someone and pressing “F2” (and sometimes pressing F2 again, if they were inconsiderate enough not to die the first time). Tiny spoiler: there is a later boss who you have to fight without the benefits of augmentations, which turned out to be just the sort of special occasion I’d been saving up a grenade launcher for.

I enjoyed DXHR enough to explore every level methodically, usually punching, stunning or shooting (depending how kind I was feeling) all the guards, hacking anything hackable, then working backwards through any air ducts or lift shafts (the exits are usually more obvious than the concealed entrances), but that did mean it got rather samey as it went on. It probably wouldn’t have been quite so obvious if I’d varied the approach a bit as I’d gone through, but despite the globe-spanning plot you wind up going through lot of strangely similar corridors with strangely similar grilles over conveniently human-sized ducting, evading (or shooting) strangely similar guards and hacking in to strangely similar computers (with the computers, keypads and alarms sharing the same mini-game that’s diverting enough to start with, but not deep enough to sustain that much interest). Maybe it’s a comment about increasingly homogenized globalisation (aaaaah!) The two city hubs are the highlights, with more scope for exploration and side missions, but if you thoroughly explore everything in one playthrough there’s very little replayability. The story is on rails; the first game was as well to an extent, forcing your hand at certain key moments, but it felt like you had more decisions to make on the way, whereas the extent of the choice in DXHR seems to be whether a couple of characters live or die, without a major effect on anything else. It’s fine to keep the action moving but never particularly engaging, not least due to Jensen’s dullness.

Overall a good game, not groundbreaking like the original, but solid enough fun. Deus Ex: Human Revolution gets the coveted KiaSA “Probably Worth Buying in a Steam Sale” award.

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