Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Future Shock: Deus Ex Human Revolution (Preview Part I)

Three weeks ago, I wrote a Retrospective article on Warren Spector's Deus Ex, the highly influential cyberpunk shooter which defined the wildly ambitious, slightly unruly nature of turn-of-the-century gaming. Next month sees the release of the game's second sequel, subtitled Human Revolution, which aims to recapture the spirit of the first game - so badly missed in the woeful first sequel, Invisible War - whilst tweaking some of the more outdated aspects of its design to fit into today's very different gaming scene. 

Because the first draft of this preview was getting monstrously long, it will instead be divided into two parts. Today's will outline the broad strokes of the game, explaining the play mechanics, how comfortably they fit together and a general assessment of what the game feels like to play. The second part, which will appear next week, will look more closely at the precise details of the missions in the ten-hour demo I played through, including the kinds of choices you are offered, the environments your character navigates and some details on the story.
The first thing I did upon booting up the demo was to head into the controls menu so I could get a handle on what my options were. For Deus Ex veterans, this might produce a bit of a nasty surprise: the game is obviously being developed with consoles as the primary platform. There are an awful lot of controls, with more or less everything from the original game topped off with modern additions such as down-sights aiming, ducking to cover and so forth. It's perfectly workable, but a tad unwieldy on a keyboard rather than a controller. The tutorials also all featured 360 buttons, which is something of a giveaway. This latter point will of course be resolved once the game hits retail in late August - the preview is based on an early build of the game - but the minor annoyance that this is a console game shoehorned for PC will almost certainly remain valid. Most PC gamers will be used to this feeling by now, but given how the original Deus Ex - despite its later console ports - is royalty on the platform, it's just a tiny bit disappointing.

Fortunately, the game itself is fiercely loyal to its roots. The outside influences and nods are obvious, especially during an introduction which recalls the first Half-Life, but it is a Deus Ex game through and through. What's important is that it is much better balanced than the original for players who don't wish to specialise in any one particular skill, or who are thrown into a situation where that skill can't help them. There's a single, awful exception to this, which I'll explain next week due to it being a level-specific situation.

Regardless of how you use your upgrades - or 'praxis points' - you will always have a level of competency in crucial areas like using your weapons which will allow you to work your way out of a poorly executed plan. Even though that does appear to give a slight edge to the hacking upgrades, which allow access to a greater number of doors and computer systems, in reality the different approaches - stealth, attack or hack - have a capably balanced mix of rewards. Hacking allows you to visit more places, but if you spread your other upgrades around just a little then there's always an alternate route to anywhere important. The upgrade system is also streamlined to offer enough choices to make your decisions difficult, but not too many that you can't achieve reasonable proficiency in a number of skills with a little extra effort. It's all clear and easy to understand in a manner that is simplified rather than dumbed down.

The original's oppressive sci-fi aura is also recaptured in a way that instantly revives any trace of lingering nostalgia: there's still the striking contrast of slick, dehumanised office and laboratory environments against the grimy streets outside, populated by hookers, tramps and gang members. It's in these environments where the key hallmark of the Deus Ex games is waiting to be indulged: much has been made of the options that the game offers players for navigating and interacting with its world and inhabitants. Levels are designed to encourage exploration for alternate paths and hidden routes, many of which involve sneaking through ventilation shafts - a tactic which should be very familar to series veterans.

There's something thrilling about not only being allowed, but actively nudged towards taking the time out from your mission to look around and play with the options presented by your environment to see what you can come up with. The old tactics are still the best: constructing precariously balanced towers of boxes and barrels to reach fire escape ladders or overcome fences gives the frisson of rebellion even when you suspect that the developers had it planned out all along, placing crates and moveable items at just the right spot to be neither too near nor too far from a potential obstacle. As in the original game, it's worth taking the time to fully check every nook and cranny, because rewards can be hidden away in delightfully barmy places.

Multiple objectives also return: hooray! This is something I personally have longed to see make a comeback since it died out around the time that linearity and controlled storytelling became king, and is a big reason why I still find the single player mode of N64's GoldenEye 007 so enjoyable to play today despite its many dated elements. It is made more palatable for modern gamers by a saving system which combines checkpoints and manual saves. You to choose where you make most of your saves, but occasionally the game will do it automatically when entering an important environment. It's a handy concession to how easy it was to lose hours of play to forgetfulness back in the day, and since you can of course choose the save file you wish to load, any saved automatically can be ignored or deleted.

Though the missions proper feature a single objective marker to make your way towards in more conventional fashion, the city hub - Detroit was the only one present in the demo, though there will be others in the full game - gives you multiple assignments, some of which you have from the beginning while others are received by talking to certain people and accepting their tasks. All of these can be tackled in the order and manner of your choosing. At first, it's a little overwhelming: after years of being presented with a succession of precise instructions, the first instinct at this newly recovered freedom is to worry about what to do with it. However, the game offers a clear hierarchy in terms of importance to make the decision a little easier, while also allowing the option to turn individual on or off objective markers, so that if you go exploring, you might find that one can be started by popping around a nearby corner.

It's an intuitive and engaging system, giving just enough direction to allow you to manage your choices effectively. If there's one criticism I would make, it's that none of the objectives affected each other in any noticeable ways. To be fair, that's not something which older games did either, but as welcome a return as this old-school freedom is, perhaps the developers' sights could have been set just a little higher than replicating the functions of a decade-old title. It would have been neat had there been some tactical element to the order in which you chose your objectives: perhaps completing A before B would make C easier, but doing B first would have consequences that make A easier and C harder. For a game that puts so much emphasis on choice, each objective in the city hub felt like it existed in isolation. There's nothing wrong with how it works at present - in fact, as a return to a more classical design mantra, it's wonderful - but in all my greed, it was a shame it didn't do a little more than just copy.

The look of the environments, unfortunately, are one of the demo's more underwhelming elements. The art design offsets bold yellows with desaturated blues and greens, leading to the 'black and gold' effect that has been prominent in the majority of pre-release trailers. On the one hand, this gives the game an identity distinct from the original, even whilst seeking to offer an enhanced copy of its core gameplay. The downside is that extended play can lead to a sense of repetition and exhaustion at the lack of variation in the colour scheme. 

It's not helped by the fact that the demo showed little of the original game's variety: while that game had plenty of warehouses and laboratories, there were also parks, the statue of liberty, shanty towns and all sorts of odd little places to nosy around. Human Revolution seems to have captured that game's crypto-fascist futurism to great effect, but forgotten a lot of the absurdity that gave the game its flavour. The original Deus Ex seemed to acknowledge that listening to copious amounts of straight-faced dialogue isn't much fun, so peppered it with just enough silliness to give a bit of levity to the serious themes. Human Revolution appears to take itself a bit too seriously, which reflects in its sensible environments. The original threw in locations and landmarks that might not have made much sense, but were fun to explore. In Human Revolution's demo, the environments are more logical and fit together better, but don't excite the imagination in the same way. What is there also tends to be retreads of places the original game took you through - labs and warehouses for missions proper; sewers, stations, apartment blocks and bars for the city - which push the nostalgic pleasure too far into overfamiliarity.

Despite these relatively small frustrations, should the first ten hours of Human Revolution be emblematic of what the full thirty-hour game has to offer, it should comfortably be one of the best experiences of the year. It promises to be, at last, a worthy sequel to the original, capturing almost everything which made that game such a joy and giving it the focus to succeed in a new decade. Next week, I'll go into greater detail on what you can expect from the missions and the story: if you have any questions, leave a comment and I'll answer them as best I can. Until then, rest assured that the future appears to be in very good hands.

You can now read the second part of the Deus Ex: Human Revolution preview here.



Anonymous said...

So it sounds like the gameplay may be very well done, but the overall story and game world may not be as well realised as many fans hope?

Xander Markham said...

I'd say that's a fair assessment, though it's worth point out that the levels shown in the demo - again, not based on the final version of the game - were a bit bland, uninspired rather than actually bad. However, the gameplay was easily strong enough to compensate.

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

though you have to remember... it's detroit... it isn't exactly known for its parklands