Wednesday, 31 August 2011

No Country For Aug Men: Deus Ex Human Revolution review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional. 

Format: PS3, 360, PC (version reviewed)
Developer: Eidos Montreal; Nixxes Software (PC)
Publisher: Square-Enix
Players: 1

The turn of the millennium was a strange time for gaming, as it moved into the mainstream courtesy of the advent of the PlayStation while still clinging onto the basement coder's ethos of experimentation and intricacy. Deus Ex exemplified this mindset better than any other game of its time, melding the aesthetics of the first-person shooter to an in-depth upgrade system and open map design most commonly associated with role-playing games, all soaked in milliennial conspiracy and technological angst. Perhaps being such a perfect fit for the time in which it was released was one of the reasons that its sequel, Invisible War, dropped the ball so badly. Being a generally hopeless game didn't help, of course, but where the original felt like a story born in reaction to a specific culture, Invisible War always seemed behind the times despite its futuristic trappings.

Human Revolution recaptures the original game's sense of being a product of its time, although not in quite the same way. 2011 is a time when technology's power and reach is growing faster than many would like, media prophets are egging on social upheaval in cities across the globe, and economic turmoil is straining the divide between rich and poor. As with Deus Ex, Human Revolution takes these problems and exaggerates them to create a compelling and rich world for its game to unfold in.
Yet where the turn of the millennium had a clearly defined underground hacker culture upon which to reflect, Human Revolution struggles to find an equally tangible social trend with which to connect. If most decades of the twentieth Century could be identified by a certain movement - post-War, flower power, punk rock, etc - the first ten years of the twenty-first have been primarily defined by a shying away from such social phenomena. In the lack of anything new or challenging, culture has sought identity through regurgitations of the things which this generation remembered from its youth. You can barely spend ten minutes on the internet without coming across some revival of an old franchise, whether it be in movies, gaming or (to a lesser extent, although still visibly) television.

That's where Human Revolution's difficulties have their roots, an inability to define itself as something more than an enhanced tribute act. Fortunately, the act to which it is paying tribute is one of the greatest in the gaming medium's short history and developers Eidos Montreal make mostly wise choices in choosing the areas of the original fit to remain untouched, as well as the ones which require restructuring. From the streamlined upgrade system to cover-based stealth gameplay and intuitive conversation 'battles', Human Revolution manages to be respectful as a successor and an upgrade.

The original game's quirks were charming but often frustrating (new protagonist Adam Jensen can't lose control of his legs, thank goodness, but does take J.C. Denton's gravelly voice to a whole other level) and couldn't possibly be considered acceptable in the landscape of today's highly refined gaming experience. By instead focusing on capturing the essence of the core gameplay experience whilst ironing out its irritations, the game manages to retain the Deus Ex feel despite the changes.

That atmosphere is most potently experienced in the city hubs, where the grimy retro-futurist art design is given free reign to show off its versatility and cohesion, to a soundtrack that shifts effortlessly from eerily haunting urban melodies to pounding action tracks as the setting and situation requires. Set in 2027, the cities are based around the mix-and-match template of real-life equivalents, with glass skyscrapers springing up alongside run-down housing blocks, and tweak them to feel just alien enough to remain credibly near-future whilst also a natural fit for the story's more outlandish characters and ideas.

There are two dominant colour schemes: the most obvious is the combination of black and gold, reflecting the game's key social divide. Gold for the gaudy excesses of the major technological companies, corrupt governments and gangster mobs ruling the underworld. Black for everyone in the middle, hanging on the words of anti-technology evangelists as a means of giving themselves purpose, failing to realise that even in this small act of rebellion, they are as much puppets to bigger forces as when remaining quiet. The second colour scheme is a washed-out blend of greys, greens and blues, capturing the soulless veneer of a world giving up itself to the grip of technological slickness.

The dual nature of Human Revolution's world is reflected in how the game plays, with the original's focus on choice and player-determined progress being a key inspiration. Inspiration is the key word here, because while there are many more opportunities to forge different paths and play styles, the game is less enthusiastic about improvisation than it is about giving you multiple (well-disguised) branching paths. The city hubs offer the closest approximation of the original's openness, with a number of side-quests spread across a large area to explore, but even then the methods available to achieve your goals are more tightly reined in than before. Invisible walls will block certain walls from being scaled, and on the rare occasion when you can draw a gun in the presence of a key character, they will remain alive no matter how many bullets you blast into them.

For the most part, this isn't a problem. There are still vastly more options than in almost any other game of this or the previous generation, and having the freedom to explore the sprawling cities and tackle missions at your leisure gives much the same thrill as from eleven years ago, even if true experimentation is forbidden. The sort of stuff that everyone used to do in the original has been planned for anyway - using two crates to cross toxic surfaces, for example - and since there's no signposting other than the presence of helpful objects nearby, it still feels rebellious and brave even if you secretly know it was all planned from the outset.

Unfortunately the city hubs make up only a fraction of the areas you visit, even if it is perfectly possible to spend ten times as long there than anywhere else. There are only two of them, with each given a subsequent revisit that turns the joy of exploration into something of a completionist chore. The rest of the game is made up of more focused missions that move along a linear path, even if you have some options as to how you want to reach the end. These areas are usually engagingly designed and enjoyable to navigate, but become somewhat repetitive in appearance and approach after a while. Both stealthy or combat-heavy approaches are possible and equally well-balanced in terms of neither being vastly more or less difficult than the other. It's obviously harder to go from combat to stealth than vice-versa, but the game mitigates this to an extent by segmenting its levels.

More disappointing is that there is an evident difference in terms of reward for your chosen approach, as in order to get a decent experience income, you must move unseen whilst non-lethally taking down as many guards as possible. Killing guards yields little, especially as part of a wide spread of assault rifle fire, and avoiding confrontation completely gives no reward at all. The choice is there to play as you wish, but the game has a clear idea of how it would prefer you to play.

The augmentations are similarly unbalanced, with certain ones carrying more importance as early unlocks than others - you don't want to go for long without pumping a few Praxis Points (the game's upgrade currency) into hacking, for example, and the navigational augmentations - being able to jump higher, land safely, lift anything, cross or break through any surface, etc - become increasingly vital as the game progresses. Hacking becomes even more overpowered due to the lack of automatic unlocking devices, which are only made available, along with some weapons, if you buy certain versions of the game - effectively meaning that players are put in the frankly appalling position of being asked to pay more for a better balanced game.

Where the original required a degree of specialisation and made it possible to move forward no matter what your choice was, Human Revolution's need for players to acquire certain skills means it doles out its Praxis Points quite liberally. Having completed all the side-missions, I finished the game with everything I wanted and more fully upgraded, plus several Points left unused. (Weapon upgrades are similarly plentiful). Whilst this will please those who want to be properly rewarded for exploring every corner, it diminishes the value of the system as a whole.

The more general approach is helpful in making it easier to adapt when a plan goes wrong - unlike the initially useless J.C. Denton, Jensen is adept at gunplay from the start and only given options to become even better - but makes what should be the most important items in the game feel disposable, with no real importance attached to choosing what to upgrade at any given time. Since you are already at a decent level of competence in the key arts at the start of the game, with augmentations being more icing than cake, the overall quality of the gameplay experience isn't damaged, but the excessive generosity does impact on the sense of reward from seeing your XP bar filling up.

What does do significant damage to the gameplay experience are the boss fights, which are uniformly frustrating and completely undermine any plans the developers had for player-led gameplay specialisation. While the game encourages sneakiness, intelligent exploration and non-lethal combat for the most part, every now and again it forces you into a combat arena with a heavily-augmented behemoth waiting to be gunned down, with no chance of either getting around it or subduing your opponent without resorting to fatal violence. These encounters are not only philosophically dreadful, but logistically as well: most are remarkably difficult when played properly, but farcically easy when taking advantage of certain exploits - or the overpowered Typhoon augmentation, which isn't particularly useful anywhere else even on a combat approach, but becomes invaluable as a full upgrade in boss battles.

That lack of dedication to its core beliefs leads to a steep drop in quality for the final quarter of the game, where the developers' clear worry about not being able to tell their story comes through in increasingly linear environments and a final level which involves navigating a mostly empty environment between talky sections (and this game talks a lot, without the option of skipping through it), facing a few waves of enemies and the easiest boss battle in the game, then a final 'choice' - fingers crossed that the use of a near-literal Deus Ex Machina to wrap everything up was an intentional in-joke - that crudely preaches the themes and ideas which were more engaging when left simmering under the surface, free from the clich├ęd Greek myth analogies. It also reveals how meaningless your earlier decisions have been as part of the bigger picture.

The worst thing about such problems is that nearly all of them rear their heads in the most apparent way in the game's final act, concluding what is an otherwise splendid experience on a particularly sour note. That I was able to play through the first ten hours of the game without so much as a trace of boredom after having already done so not long ago on the leaked demo should give an idea of how enjoyable the game is at its best. The core gameplay mechanics pull off the remarkable feat of being as strong a stealth game as a shooter, while also presenting a hacking minigame that stays enjoyable to the end. Though unbalanced, the augmentations offer a significant number of tactical options and greatly enhance those rock-solid fundamentals, and levels are designed to take full advantage of them in a variety of clever ways.

At its most confident, Human Revolution is a worthy inheritor of the Deus Ex name. Only when that confidence wavers does it fall back to earth (this expression seems appropriate, given how much the game venerates the Icarus myth), but even then mainly suffers due to the depth of the drop from greatness to mere competence. For a generation which has grown up with the likes of Call of Duty and Uncharted as their benchmarks, the game offers enough freedom  and visual style - a shame about the immersion-breaking cutscenes and twitchy in-game animation though - to show how majestically the gaming medium can soar without the misplaced need to be 'cinematic': if anything, the weaker final segments of the game are marked by a return to design sensibilities more modern in approach. The original Deus Ex remains one of the most ground-breaking games ever released and while Human Revolution is mostly content to follow in its footsteps, that's more than enough to make it unique in a marketplace of mechanically-designed competitors.  [ 8 ]


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