I’ve just finished playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I’ve come away…a little disappointed. I’ve been trying to work out why, and thought it would be worth a blog to sort my thoughts out. If you’ve not played the game and want to avoid spoilers look away now as this is going to be chock full of them.
I played the original Deus Ex a fair few years ago, and agree with the various plaudits that were heaped on it. The ability to choose your own approach and style, and the morally questionable actions of just about everyone in the whole game made it not just a great game but a great experiences. I’ve played through it a couple of times since and it’s still enjoyable, if a little dated now graphically. I should say up front that my personal prefered style of play is to out sneak and out think the AI of games. Sure I like a good FPS once in a while, but given my all time favourite game series is Thief…well that should tell you a lot about how I approach DE and DE:HR.
So DE:HR looked like it would be a treat and a half. And being me, I played it on the hardest settings and tried to roleplay my decisions rather than going with what I thought would be the “best” option. Hence I had a blazing row with my boss early after I got augmented because, hey, basically I thought he’d been a total dick.
If you’ve read any of the gaming press you know that DE:HR is the prequel to DE and there are many nods to the game; not to mention other related tropes (like an excellent conversation about rebuilding cops with a guy called Alex Murphy.). A lot of the press coverage I’ve read seems to lap up the easter eggs and shout outs that are scattered throughout. Personally a lot of them left me cold, beyond “Oh, fair enough” when I hacked yet another person’s email to find *yawn* the same two circular emails.
I guess what disappointed me most was the linearity and small nature of the zones. Detroit and Shanghai where you spend a large chunk of the game are at best a couple of blocks wide, and like oh so many games you can only go into a handful of buildings. People on the street are a bit…well the population of the two blocks of Detroit must have numbered at most 20-30 people. I see about that many people in the same area of the small village where I live. Not really an overpopulated megacity of the mid-21st Century and hardly the living and breathing city I might have hoped for. And when you come down to it 90% of people you meet are civilians who have a line or two or dialogue and are other than that essentially just walking furniture.
It was only in the last level in the arctic headquarters of the “bad guy” that I began to feel like I could pick a direction and that there were enough people wandering around (or stone cold dead) to make it feel like a real installation. If only the early levels had been this open then that might have killed part of my concerns.
My other major disappointment is the boss fights. Well at least the first three. As I mentioned I sneak and think my way around problems. So what happens when I approach a boss area? I get a cut scene of Adam Jenson (aka me) just strolling into the middle of a room like a civie. Honestly, I’d spend the past three hours creeping along corridors, crawling through ducks, peaking around corners and basically ghosting through levels unnoticed by all (save for the odd poor sucker who would feel a tiny prick and then collapse fast asleep. So to have Adam just stroll into the room utterly and totally went against how I’d played him and totally drew me out of the game.
There’s been a lot written about good games drawing you in so much that your mind feels within them. It’s the whole suspension of disbelief that great drama runs on, and bad acting or glaring anomalies always shatter that illusion, that buy in, that empathy that you have for the characters. And since “my” Adam was doing something like a numskull that really set me back.
Not to mention suddenly I’m facing a guy with automatic weaponry armed with a taser with a 5m range and a one shot tranq-dart gun that might as well be a plastic BB gun against the guy. Thankfully I had read that the best way to smash through the illusion wreaking boss fights was with the explosive Typhoon 360 projection system (TM Sarif Industries). So I used it, broke my RPG code against killing that I’d imbued Adam with and got past boss fight one with a slight bitter taste in my mouth. Given a free hand by that point I’d have activated some stealth, vision and hacking augmentations. But no, I had to pump the points into the Typhoon.
On then to Shanghai and another city that appeared to be locked down into tiny chunks. Sure the acting was good, the plot was great and there was fun to be had. Well aside from my heavily augmented cyborg dying if he fell about 5 feet. Guess the leg augmentations were actually glass not ceramic-metal composite! Eventually I reached boss 2, a stealthy shoot ’em from the cloaked shadows kinda gal. And yes, once again Adam just strolled into the Lion’s den. A double dose of Typhon and away she went in no time at all. Unsatisfying, but obstacle passed.
The plot thickened and I revisited some locations on the way to boss fight three. But oh buggeration, thanks to a decsion made hours ago to replace my chips all my augmentations go away and I have to fight him essentially naked and drunk. And he’s invisible, lithe and has the most powerful gun in the game. It would have been nice if one of the thousands of crappy emails I read or conversations with a local had hinted that “Oh no, don;’t change your biochip otherwise boss three will wipe the floor with you.”. But no, no one did. *sigh* I actually walked away from the game at this point for a week I was so pissed off with being killed in 4 seconds flat every time.
In the end I went back to my save before Boss 3 and scoured the now guardless level for weapons that might help me fight him. Yes, my stun-o-matic non-death dealing weapons were of no use here (as usual against bosses) and thanks to a stroke of genius, a hacked turret dragged across the level and a lucky shot to the head with a machine pistol I got past him. Honestly a game that purports to be a smart one and yet a) requires me to make a vital choice with no info and b) Then expects me to fight an uberboss without a chance to get around him with smarts, well that gets my goat.
On then to the finalé of the game and to be honest the best experience. Even the boss could be…out smarted through tactics, observation, carefully planted mines and judicious use of my augmentations. And then the three endings…colour me shocked (not in the slighted) that the “correct” choice is “non-of-the-above”. For once THIS gelled with my Adam. Taggart, Sarif and Darrow’s world views were all flawed; and so was mine. And while given the level of my augmentations I don’t buy it that Adam goes down with the ship the self-destructive response and closing voice over; well that was spot on.
And okay, I did like the final post credits VO linking into the original Deus Ex plot.
I should say the graphics are stunning, the sound brilliant and for the most part the game play is excellent. The take-down moves (nonlethal from choice people!) were an especial treat. And the combat was fluid and quite, quite deadly when you cocked up.
But like it’s protagonist Deus Ex: Human revolution is in the end a creation made up of parts that just don’t fit right. The game I played before this was Assassins Creed: Brotherhood (great game, similarly downbeat ending!) and it gave me so much freedom to just play that it was a joy to log into. DE:HR wasn’t. It was a solid story telling exercise, but with such limited freedom that it jarred. I missed the real freedom of an open world to do what I wanted. So much felt directed and as linear as any corridor bound FPS, unlike the lab rat I can spot where the walls are and know you aren’t going to let me past them to the rest of what looks like an exotic and exciting world beyond. I wanted to move beyond the confines of Adam’s single-minded quest to find what happened to Megan and the scientists and explore Detroit or Shanghai. I wanted my Adam to conform to the vision I had for him. And I wanted to play with my augmentations and delight in being the superman.
I was denied this – and as such the experience of playing DE:HR has left me…sadly dissapointed.
(and oh, that as “Mr Stuntastic no-kill” I couldn’t save Malik from gun-bunny central. Great message there designers, that I should have been just shooting everyone and that stealthy no-kill is a no-win approach!)