Thursday, 28 July 2011

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

In the first entry of my two-part Deus Ex: Human Revolution preview, I gave a broad outline of how the game plays, based on its opening ten hours, and how effectively it captured the spirit of the licence, which went missing with the first sequel Invisible War.

This second entry will be written as a more exact detailing of the areas present in the demo and the individual strengths and weaknesses thrown up in each. There will also be outlines of some of the choices you can make, how the experience differs depending on the path you choose, and why a boss fight near the end represents a major misstep for an otherwise very exciting game. Needless to say, SPOILERS abound.

I'll structure the article into segments describing each area of the demo, separated by images representing each environment as per the one above.

The game begins by taking a leaf out of Half-Life's book with a guided tour around the technology labs of a corporation called Sarif Industries, for whom protagonist Adam Jensen is in charge of security - and my, doesn't he have a growly voice that Christian Bale would be proud of? The woman guiding you is Jensen's scientist girlfriend, Megan. As you make your way down the forced route - able to turn your head and look around, but with all other movement on-rails - she describes the work Sarif is doing on human augmentation, examples of which you can see behind various screens, and its potential benefits both as a military application and for wider society.

While this section sets the scene for the game fairly well in terms of laying out one of the key concepts, it's exposition-heavy and overlong. The carriage ride in Half-Life worked because it showed you the areas you would be working through later on in the game. Here, you're walking through a lab that only exists for the purposes of this introduction. Consequently, while we're introduced to important characters - Megan; Pritchard, who is Jensen's contact throughout; David Sarif, head of the corporation and Jensen's boss - and ideas, these are things which could have been done a lot quicker and more efficiently.

The tour ends with a trip up to David Sarif's office, whereupon the labs are attacked and Jensen has to head downstairs to defend them. This brief level forms a tutorial for core mechanics such as the shooting, cover system, aiming down-sights and using the environment - you get to lift your first crate and crawl through your first vent here, seminal moments for any Deus Ex veteran. It's linear and very basic in terms of what you can do, feeling more like the second level of the N64 Perfect Dark ('dataDyne Research', if you're wondering - and yes, that punctuation is correct) than the original Deus Ex. That's no bad thing though: with augmentations out of the picture for the time being, it's a succession of crisp firefights which encourage you to use your environment intelligently for cover, without piling on too many complications too early. Since the difficulty level is set low, it's a good time to adjust your settings before heading out into the meat of the game.

Once you reach a certain point, the game jumps into a cut-scene showing Jensen taking an almighty thumping from a cybernetically-enhanced enforcer. After that, the game's credits sequence begins, taking place over Jensen being operated on and having augmentations fitted to repair his most grievous injuries. This is all well and good in itself, but for the fact that these cutscenes occur throughout the demo and are all pre-rendered rather than using the game engine, breaking the game's reality. You can skip them, but that means missing out on parts of the story or taking sudden jumps from one location to another, which is no less jarring. It's an entirely aesthetic issue, but one which compromises the player's all-important immersion in the game world.

Following the cutscene, you make a brief visit to the Sarif Industries HQ in Detroit, where you can look around a bit, to no particular end, before meeting up with Pritchard to have your retinal implant adjusted. This essentially means you gain access to your HUD. You have your first conversation with him, which boils down to choosing the tone of your reply from a menu. When you're sent off on your first mission, to retake a Sarif factory that has been overrun with anti-augmentation extremists, you also meet your helicopter pilot, Faridah, with whom you have another brief conversation before setting off. Neither of these chats seemed to have any notable consequences on the rest of the demo, so apparently exist solely for practice and more exposition.

Before arriving at the factory, you are faced with a decision which deliberately recalls one from the opening level of the original game: choosing a weapon to supplement your basic pistol. You can choose lethal or non-lethal, and long or short range. The silenced tranquilliser rifle (non-lethal, long range) is by far the best, with the others being a revolver, a stun gun and the combat rifle. Once you arrive at the factory, you follow the pre-set path until catching sight of your first enemy.

From here, the game presents you with a number of choices. The earlier weapon selection was a clever way of introducing the idea that there are many different ways of playing the game, and the first set of enemies you come across gives you a decent selection of options. You can of course pop a cap in the first enemy's head should you so desire, but sneaking up on him presents two options: lethal or non-lethal takedown, both of which are silent and don't seem to produce any different results - enemies subject to non-lethal takedowns don't seem to wake up, for example. However, choosing to perform a takedown depletes some of your energy, represented by miniature battery icons beneath your health meter. These can get frustrating, because choosing a stealthy approach depends on your being able to take every opportunity quickly. Instead, performing too many melée attacks in a short space of time means you have to wait for your energy to recharge, a needless frustration. If you forget to do so, it will lead to your carefully planned approach going awry and usually means you'll have to switch into gunfight mode.

You can also try and sneak your way around direct confrontation, and exploring your environment in this first area reveals a path that can be accessed by climbing on top of some crates, sneaking through vents (naturally) and along beams on the roof. Depending on how you enter the next area, Jensen's brief chat with Pritchard over the intercom will acknowledge your choice - a nice touch.

The rest of the level operates in much the same way, offering you office environments and more laboratories to work through and test your skills. As you gain experience, you will unlock your first Praxis point, allowing you to upgrade one of your augmentations. As mentioned last week, the menu to do so is slick and easy to use, but offers a range of options that can all be accessed from the start. I'd recommend hacking for its all-purpose handiness both in this level and even moreso later on, although you may wish to hold back until you can unlock or earn more points and access more substantial rewards - Invisibility is fun, if short-lived.

At the end of the level, you face your first meaningful conversation, which is in fact a negotiation with Zeke Sanders, head of the anti-augmentation extremists, who is holding a hostage at gunpoint. You can either talk him down (or say the wrong thing and get the hostage killed) or try to kill him directly. I followed through the option of talking him down, meaning he let his hostage go and consequently reappears in the next level. Reloading my save, I also killed him once before he shot his hostage, and another time afterwards. What the consequences of those options are, I can't say. The mission ends once you board Faridah's helicopter back to Detroit.

Detroit represents the game's first (and demo's only) city hub, which means a large non-linear environment in which you are given a handful of primary objectives that must be completed and a few optional secondary ones. You can tackle these in the order and manner of your choosing once you leave the Sarif skyscraper, at which point you can access a secondary mission immediately by talking to Megan's mother.

The first thing worth discussing is the size of the city and the numerous ways in which it can be navigated. It is divided into several sections, accessed most easily by going through the overground train station, but also connected via underground sewers, hidden passageways and blocked paths which require certain augmentations to get through. Although it is at first a bit daunting to remember what road leads where, each area has something visually distinctive to help you piece it all together eventually. When truly lost, maps have been dotted around the city to help.

There's really no end to how much time you can spend exploring - first time around, I spent over six hours just wandering the streets, sneaking through the various nooks and crannies and experimenting with different environmental objects and augmentations to find new areas. There's a lot to find too, and a lot of it is genuinely useful: advanced hacking skills, for example, can open up doors to arms storages containing new weapons, special upgrades and/or those all-valuable Praxis points.

Although there's usually one prominent entrance to each, many such stashes have an additional way of accessing them if you look around and have the right augmentations in use. In other cases, certain augmentations are required for the secrets to show up at all: you'll want to be able to punch through walls before looking around the sewers, for example. You can also find arms dealers, with a prominent one operating out of an abandoned petrol station and another hidden away inside a block of flats (you have to climb through a window), but offering a valuable silencer for sale. Of course, if you don't want to pay, you can just start shooting, but while this means you get certain items for free, others won't be accessible at all and you obviously can't revisit him later.

Talking to certain people means you can take on secondary missions from them, which can be anything from raiding someone's flat to performing an assassination - not exactly inventive, but suitably engaging distractions. To give a sense of how much there is to find, I know for a fact that I missed at least one secondary mission despite my extensive searching. If there's a criticism to be made, it's that there's no indication of who is important and who isn't, and there are a lot of NPCs who don't have much of interest to say, diluting your enthusiasm for the hunt. The amount of care given to padding out the game's world through scattered e-newspapers and chatty bystanders is commendable, but it's shame that so few of them have anything of great interest to say. The original's absurdist streak is sorely missed.

The primary objectives involve entering a police station and collecting a chip from a character who died in the previous level. Although you have a choice how to do this at first - you can sneak into the station and down to the autopsy lab in the basement, try to shoot your way through, or negotiate with the man at the front desk, who turns out to be an old friend of Jensen's - it seems that once you have the chip, you have no choice but to engage in a gunfight afterwards unless you already cleared out the station by doing it earlier. If there really isn't another way of doing this, it annuls any earlier choices to the contrary and proves self-defeating to the game's oft-stated mantra of offering equal rewards for different approaches. Once you're out of the station, you are instructed to take the chip back to Jensen's Blade Runner-esque flat so it can be analysed by Pritchard.

With that out of the way, your second primary objective involves activating an antenna which happens to exist deep within a gang-controlled area of the city. This is a pretty standard sneak-or-shoot section, but the large number of environmental obstacles make a stealth approach particularly tense and fun to plan out. Once your mission has been completed, Faridah once again arrives to collect you and whisk you away to your proper second mission.

The final mission in the demo was where the game began to feel a little repetitive, as it involved breaking into another high-tech facility which bore a strong resemblance to the first two missions. The outdoors section where the level begins is exciting though, because your enemies are more powerful both in terms of weapons and armour than those which have been encountered before. This encourages a stealth approach, as only upgraded weapons are of much use against this new powerful set of guards, who are otherwise just as vulnerable to takedowns as their weaker counterparts from previous missions.

If you're wondering why I haven't gone into much detail on the weapons yet, it's because they're a fairly standard set of machine guns (a heavier combat rifle or smaller Uzi-type), sniper rifles, shotguns and pistols, with a crossbow thrown in for good measure, if you can find it. They're all fun to use and have their advantages and disadvantages, not least in the amount of space they take up in your inventory (which can be expanded), but nor are they particularly surprising. Shotguns are useless at range but work well up close, sniper rifles are powerful but shoot slowly, and so on in describing the arsenal of virtually every other FPS ever made. Being able to equip specific weapons with upgrades does add an element of strategic thinking though, because should you choose to discard that weapon later on, the upgrade cannot be transferred. Usually this would direct you to give the bulk of the enhancements to the pistol, creating a useful all-purpose handgun, but its ineffectiveness even in a fully kitted-out state against the final mission's armoured guards mean it is probably worth spreading upgrades out across a selection of key weapons.

Returning to the mission at hand, the first section - which involves sneaking through a rain-swept outdoors area to reach the lift to the enemy bunker below - is the most engaging because there are a huge number of paths to take and secrets to find, all of which blend fairly naturally into the level design. In earlier missions, there is a tendency for each route to feel a bit too pre-prepared - if the original Deus Ex presented players with sprawling arenas, this game is perhaps more of a straight but very wide path - to convey to the feeling of forging your own road. It's possible, given how the demo only represents one-third of the game, that this is just to get players used to finding different ways through each environment with a bit of early guidance. Given how much more enjoyable the game is when it leaves such business to the player to work out (more or less) for themselves, let's hope that is the case.

Once you're inside the bunker - following a long ride down in the lift, which it is annoyingly possible to repeat if you accidentally press the button again, as I somehow contrived to do - the game's first proper mech makes an appearance. There was a small one in the first mission (the Sarif factory), but this one's a hulking beast, lumbering around the wide-open hangar you are presented with. Again, careful progression allows this section to be completed without being noticed, but if you've picked up some EMP grenades, a full-on assault is a viable option as well. It's at once an exciting and terrifying sight though, recalling far too many memories of being shot to pieces by similar robots in the original game.

Although the environment is a little too familiar for its own good, the design becomes increasingly complex as you move further into the facility, requiring a variety of skills to get through unscathed, even on lower difficulties. (The indoor snipers in particular can be fiendish if you don't get rid of them early). Although challenging in its own right when pushed up to the highest difficulty levels, my impression is that the real Deus Ex pros will get an extra kick from working out how to navigate each area without being seen at all. Sneaking around unnoticed is one of the game's biggest thrills and though some areas force you into taking a more aggressive approach, levels are for the most part stage-managed so that getting around every new environment without triggering an alarm becomes an elaborate game of chess.

Unfortunately, the mission and demo came to an end on a bum note which exacerbates the previously mentioned problem in the police station, of the game cancelling out your earlier choices in order to force you through a set-piece - in this case a boss battle. Having performed some very extensive exploring, I'm certain that there is no way to avoid the confrontation - against the same chap who gave Jensen a hiding in the introductory stage, no less - which ends the level. This wouldn't be so bad, but for the fact that not only is it impossible to avoid the boss, but he also can't be taken him down using anything other than lethal force. Non-lethal weapons are shrugged off and while more useful equipment is dotted around the sides of the stage (note: make sure you have a grenade handy from the start), anyone who has focused on tranquilliser guns and melée takedowns for the previous ten hours is going to be at a serious disadvantage.

There's also the fact that forcing players into performing a kill in this way - technically the guy commits suicide in the cutscene that follows the battle, but let's not get pedantic - goes against the Deus Ex mantra of not only allowing players to choose not only their own approach to the gameplay, but even whether they want to participate at all. The original game forced you to go through certain pre-set points, but boss battles could nearly always be avoided or neutralised by a player choosing not to follow an action-based path. Unfortunately, it looks as though Human Revolution is less brave in that regard.

Nevertheless, whilst it undoubtedly has its shortcomings, the game is looking quite superb. The open-path gameplay in the city hubs is a refreshing change from the linear FPS' which dominate today's gaming market, and the missions are designed to not only accommodate a variety of approaches, but offer different rewards depending on the player's choices. The unskippable boss battle at the end is a worry and the colour scheme and environments can get repetitive, but when the core gameplay is this exciting and rewarding, I'd say Human Revolution is a strong contender to be one of the games of the year when it is released on August 23rd on PS3, 360 and PC.



danny said...

Thanks for writing these, they are really useful. I'm still not sure whether to pre-order the game though. It sounds great, but i think i may be disappointed.

Also i was wondering if you were a games journalist, if you arent already you may find this useful:

Xander Markham said...

Thanks danny, really appreciate your sending me that link. I'm not a games journalist - Flixist is my only 'professional' work, so to speak. I'll be giving that article a good read though!

Even though DE:HR isn't perfect from what I've played, I'd still recommend picking it up if you enjoyed the first game. They're very similar in feel, but HR modernizes in the right places while staying faithful to all the best stuff.

Anonymous said...

I am doubting if this is a trustworthy preview, besides including nothing new and not much of a divigerent opinion from other previews you included promotional shots of the game.
If you really played it than show screenshots from the game instead of copying/pasting from other websites.

Xander Markham said...

I didn't post my own screenshots because it's easier to use ones readily-available. Anyone who has played the game will recognise that each shot is relevant to the area of the game the article is describing, and given how similar a lot of the environments are, I'd say this isn't something someone who hadn't played the game could do easily.

As for it being 'recycled writing', all I'd say is that I certainly haven't seen any other previews which go into as much detail on each specific area as I have, including such details as where you can buy a silencer in the City hub; the fact you can find secrets using the wall-punching aug in the sewers; or that you can travel back up in the lift after breaching the bunker in the third mission.

Anyway, thanks for your comments everyone!

Clement Moraschi said...

I'm not sure if I played differently but I talked to Haas to gain entrance to the station and I got the chip and no gunfight ensued. I exited through the sewers but just to make sure I reloaded, took the chip again, walked upstairs past all the cops and walked right out in plain view, nobody questioned my presence.

Hmmm, I'll replay that last mission again, because it seemed the level layout in that mission was far more restrictive than say, the derelict row section

Xander Markham said...

@Clement: (SPOILERS) I'm glad there's that choice. When I reloaded my save and tried to do the police station 'peacefully', I removed the chip from the body and was then immediately attacked. I killed the guy, which brought most of the station down on top of me. To be fair, that was my only attempt, so there was probably some option I missed. Thanks for clearing it up!