Welcome to the Transhuman Revolution
A video game review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution
By: Lawrence Napoli
People who dislike or misunderstand video games would probably never concede that it is, in fact, a work of art. For these people, video games consist of the zombification that ensues, from Mario running around on screen or a Doom style shooter committing virtual murder via various firearms. Of course, that is a very ignorant and borderline vulgar generalization of video games because fans know that in very recent history, games have pushed the storytelling envelope in ways that would make your average Hollywood CEO soil him or herself on the spot. A standard, 2-3 hour feature length film can only handle 2-3 significant themes to tell an enveloping story. Games like BioShock and Mass Effect do not suffer from such limitation because completing a narrative-focused video game involves a general commitment of around 20-40 hours depending on the thoroughness of the player. These types of games also tend to exhibit more immunity from the politically correct horse-collar than major studio dramas as social themes like racism, sexuality, government sponsored injustice, crime and corporate debauchery have become fairly commonplace in this form of media.
Cue Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a little game developed by Eidos Studios – Montreal and published by Square Enix that revolves around some light, dinner table conversation material by asking: “What does it means to be human?” Wait, what? Last I checked, this was one of those questions that’s right up there with “Is God real?” and “What is the meaning of life?” And despite thousands of years of theories by hundreds of philosophers of various backgrounds, all of these questions are still open for debate. Make no mistake, Deus Ex is not a game for the frivolous or the feint of heart. It constantly tosses around high brow ideas and requires a heavy time commitment to complete without the distraction of multiplayer. So everyone that simply wants to run around blowing sh*t up have about three more months to wait to be in their glory.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution features dramatic storytelling and enveloping game play that made me instantly dub it: the love child of Metal Gear Solid and Mass Effect. It’s never a bad thing when a game draws inspiration from the best, but what’s funny about DE’s “virtual parents” is that neither of them are first person shooters. This game is. But it does feature several third person cutaways to in-game action when the player unlocks new abilities for the protagonist – who is (unfortunately) another one of those “tough guy, grisly white boy, loners" that narrative video games haven’t really been able to divorce themselves from, yet.
This game is also an action RPG that is similar to Fallout 3 and New Vegas in that almost everything the player does, from completing missions, to kills/takedowns and even discovering hidden paths, is rewarded with experience. Accumulating experience at various levels unlocks Praxis points which are used to unlock/upgrade the main character’s cybernetic abilities. The upgrade system is one of this game’s absolute strengths because it features lots of goodies to choose from without spoiling the player -- because Praxis points are finite and maximizing every ability come end-game is not likely. The player must choose, but choose wisely, because there are lots of really cool abilities like seeing through walls, stealth camelflouge and the “Typhoon” combat system featuring 360 degrees of explosive ball bearings emitted from the character’s arms and torso. I know, it’s epic.
The narrative of DE centers on the role that Adam Jensen plays as the security chief for a major cybernetic augmentation corporation known as Sarif Industries. Global conspiracies, international espionage, murder, mischief and all fashion of mayhem abound aplenty. It is the player’s task to get to the center of it all as well as determining the fashion in which one gets there. Laying complete waste to the enemy via explosives, automatics, and lasers is just as effective as sneaking around while knocking out NPCs methodically. Even in situations where it appears you cannot progress without committing a fatality, discovery and patience can yield an alternate route every time.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is not exactly an FPS that rewards twitch reflexes. Although the game allows you to go on a murderous rampage, the overall tone and context to the game highly suggests the player to make like a ghost. As such, gun play is handled via mechanics that will take some getting used to. First of all, I didn’t find the aiming to be very smooth. Searching for targets feels clunky, so much so that I presumed the protagonist actually had toasters for hands. The aiming mechanic is not accomplished by depressing the shoulder buttons on the controller either; it’s done by depressing the right analog stick. This is perhaps the most annoying part of the control system because every gamer is used to precision aiming via index fingers. I had a tendency to forget about this little detail at various points in the game which led to my unintentional tossing of a grenade in front of NPCs that alerted the whole world to my presence. Actually connecting with your target from distance is a recurring issue. I cannot count how often I felt I had the enemy dead in my sights, only to have missed them by a mile. This issue can be improved via augmentation upgrades, but I figure if scoped weapons can’t hit a target from 20 yards away it’s probably not worth using in the first place, regardless of aiming acumen. What makes the aiming situation worse is that it is almost as easy to completely whiff on your target at point blank range.
Movement involves standard running, jumping, sprinting, strafing and crawling. Although these can also be upgraded, they cannot be altered to some fantastic level such as running up walls or teleporting. This is somewhat disappointing because the player will be walking everywhere to reach objectives and passing the same (rather plain) landmarks and NPC animation all the time does get tiresome. Adding more dynamic movement would not only make these moments in the game more fun, but also present even more player alternatives to reaching the goal (another main selling point to this game).
The most rewarding game play mechanic is the melee takedown option when triggered, cuts to a third person perspective of Adam Jensen knocking out or ripping to shreds enemy targets with hand to hand fisticuffs. Takedowns are by far the most efficient means of removing human threats from the field of play, and they are quite thrilling to watch because the animation varies. Adam can put people to sleep via choke holds, throw multiple strikes, break multiple limbs and even whip out the iconic sword-like baton that is built into his arms. The player can choose between lethal and non-lethal takedowns, but cannot determine which animation will trigger. It’s still nice to see more than one “bonk on the head” routine, which adds credibility to the Adam Jensen character as a professional with significant martial prowess. Player beware, enemy NPCs patrolling the other side of the room will be on you like white on rice if they see takedowns occur, forcing the player to approach this game like chess: always thinking about multiple moves in advance.
The overall visual style of DE is practically carbon copied from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and it incorporates the color of gold/amber in every scene. The yellow-scale of the color palate may be a tad blunt to new players, but once immersion into the story sets in, this choice is actually a nice change of pace from the grey/steel industrial look most other sci-fi franchises go with in presenting a world of tomorrow. There doesn’t appear to be a proper 24 hour time cycle in DE as most of the game takes place at night, but this appears to be a conscious choice for the multiple settings in order to highlight the flourescense of technology: the illusion of life in that which is lifeless.
Unfortunately, the look of the setting completely overshadows character models and animation. The cut scenes look great, but they are supposed to. The look of in-game characters is very inconsistent as Adam Jensen and a few of the main supporting cast are up to par with this generation’s graphics, but everyone else that populates the world of DE looks as lifelike as the Buffalo Bills football team: simply going through the motions. I understand that cybernetic technology is being introduced to people in this fiction, but that doesn’t mean everyone would assume the demeanor of a stop animation T-600 if they have a mechanical hand. The look of the mechanized opposition in this game is equally unimpressive as they amount to little more than really large Lego sets with an unpleasant disposition wielding machine guns.
The musical score, sound effects and voice acting also represents an amalgam of inconsistency. The score blends perfectly with the sci-fi world of Deus Ex, and makes appropriate shifts between scenes of casual investigation and those that are action packed. Ambient sound of both interiors and exteriors resonates with great depth, which is curious because the game certainly does not show the number of people in a certain space that would generate such a sound. The sound effects of technology, weapons and explosives are standard issue acceptable.
The voice acting, however, is a miss. Adam Jensen’s raspy voice never fluctuates and appears primed to be the heir-apparent for the next Batman animated project. That doesn’t mean this choice is not appropriate for the character, but as I mentioned in this review’s intro, this character type has been done too many times before. The voices of all Asian and Hispanic characters redefine stereotypes somewhat distastefully. Honestly, I was expecting Mexican sombreros and Fu Man Chu mustaches to make the ignorance complete. Finally, I felt that the various conversations the player can listen in on from the non-combatants that populate DE to be bland and uninteresting. This wouldn’t be as bad if the metropolitan areas that the player traveled to were more densely populated - to warrant such vanilla commentary. I guess no more than 100 people can afford to occupy these futuristic cities, even as hookers and hobos.
Often is the case that acute details like the protagonist that the player controls and everything he or she interacts with in a virtual world represents the hooking realism of the video game narrative which then expands to lessening degrees of detail for everything else. The reverse is true for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. No character or single game play mechanic is as impressive as the overall environment that the player navigates within, which makes sense from a thematic perspective. Adam Jensen is unique, but his uniqueness is never defined and never regarded as more than a pawn in a global, socio-economic-behavioral evolution that is going to happen with or without his efforts.
The mechanics of this video game have some undeniable issues, but can be overcome with practice and determination; both of which are essential to getting the most out of Deus Ex. It is a shame that the shooting mechanic of this “FPS” is not reliable, but can be corrected by having the guns work the way they are supposed to, so those toying with the idea of a proper sequel -- please take note! The upgrade system for guns and augmentation should not be presented as a means of “fixing that which is broken,” but as a true sense of enhancement.
The fusion of man and machine appears as assured in the fiction of Deus Ex as it does in the real world of today. This makes the narrative of this video game compelling, relative and the absolute strength of this digital experience. When the civil rights movement occurred in the United States, observe how fervently individuals debated the issues on both sides of the fence. The potential “next step” in humanity’s evolution carries with it no less of a complex, metaphysical concern that will have an effect on everything. Would such a change be considered an evolution or is it dehumanizing? Is the concept of humanity limited to the flesh or can it be applied to the inanimate like technology or even the abstract like truth and justice? Would you like to start thinking about such issues? Play Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a serious contender for 2011’s Game of the Year.