Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Unfinished Business: Steam Sale Backlog - Deus Ex Human Revolution 'The Missing Link' DLC

[Unfinished Business is a feature where I take an unplayed game or unwatched DVD that has been languishing on my shelf and chronicle my experiences with it.]

Deus Ex: Human Revolution was one of my favourite games last year, managing to be both respectful to the groundbreaking original while streamlining some of its more unwieldy elements and allowing players a welcome degree of freedom in achieving their goals. The game tailed off at the end, slipping into thoroughly unwelcome modern habits of forcing the player down certain paths and attempting to disguise its diversion into linearity with meaningless, pre-set 'choices'. The game's greatest triumph came in its city hubs, vast urban spaces packed with sidequests, hidden pathways and locked doors. During the story missions, the game struggled to maintain that same sense of openness.

It's a shame that the Human Revolution DLC, 'The Missing Link', fixates on the weakest part of the game and mostly ignores the positives. DLC is not something I'm willing to invest in normally, but the opportunity of spending a few extra hours in Adam Jensen's world for a tuppence (damn your temptations, Steam Sale!) seemed as good a place to start as any. Unfortunately, it ended up summing up much of what is unappealing for players about the DLC model.
The DLC takes place shortly before the final act of the main game, with Adam Jensen discovered in cryogenic sleep after sneaking onboard a cargo ship set for Singapore. It's a poor decision from the outset, because no matter how much the scenario tries to raise the stakes, it is always battling against the fact that Adam's mission is of no consequence to the story of the full game, to which he returns once the DLC has been completed. It exacerbates a problem inherent to all single-player story expansions: it is impossible to see them as anything other than expanded side-missions.
'Missing Link' is even more throwaway for being set in the middle of a story which never refers to it again, but even DLC set after the conclusion of its main game can only feel auxiliary, as players will have already completed the core experience. 'Missing Link' attempts to expand on the conspiracy behind Human Revolution's narrative, but only does so on a superficial level. The appearance in the final cut-scene of one of the original game's character represents the most hollow kind of fan service, its contextual purpose no greater than a reminder that Adam Jensen's story takes place prior to that of JC Denton.

The throwaway nature of its story doesn't stop 'Missing Link' from committing to it at tiresome length. The strong animation and vocal work from Human Revolution is absent, replaced by half-hearted voice acting and bland character models which twitch unnervingly to compensate for how rarely they're required to be anything but talking heads. Human Revolution was a chatty game, but its twenty-five to thirty hour length distanced its ramblings far enough apart to not feel excessively intrusive. 'The Missing Link' has too much to say in its four hours (at best) and little of any interest. It's difficult enough to care about plot twists and undercooked ethical dilemmas in a glorified sidequest, even moreso when the ideas presented are so lacking in originality or nuance. A hidden third option for the scenario's showcase dilemma is neat, but only serves to undercut the question being raised about sacrifice.

The scenario's location, on board a cargo ship and then an underwater base, allows the developers to reuse a vast number of assets from the main game, reinforcing how quickly and (relatively) cheaply the DLC was churned out. It raises questions over how willing publishers are to make available the kind of budget required to produce something worthwhile, when attitudes among gamers towards the practice tend to be (justifiably) negative. If Eidos know they're only likely to get, say, a third of the people who bought Human Revolution to shell out for a downloadable expansion at a lower price, where's the incentive for them to hand over the cash needed for the developers to create something original and substantial, like a new city hub? The extensive asset recycling in 'Missing Link' suggests a 'make do with what you've got' attitude that only further diminishes the value of the experience for players.

It's also worth noting how ill-suited the Deus Ex concept is to being forced into the limitations of downloadable content: creating open levels for players to experiment in takes time and money to construct compared to a more standard linear pathway, which is also more effective at slowing down a player's path from beginning to end. Consequently, 'Missing Link' is a very straightforward game, offering only the token gesture of a handful of alternate avenues which rarely converge much further than a single locked door away.

The augmentations system, allowing the player to select from a variety of character upgrades, is an equally uncomfortable fit: Jensen's abilities are reset at the start, but rather than doling out Praxis points (the upgrade currency) gradually and in limited supply, a substantial quantity is discovered at the end of the first act. True, not enough to reset Jensen to his super-augmented status at the same point in the Human Revolution story, but sufficient to abandon the slow satisfaction of building up a character with slow and careful deliberation. Not that it particularly matters, since the scenario's narrative position prevents any new augmentations being brought to the table: reacquiring Jensen's powers feels closer to the tedium of recovering something lost than the delight of gaining something new.

There's little to recommend about 'The Missing Link', which suffers horribly from trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It's an eminently disposable few hours of gaming, devoid of the trademark Deus Ex pleasures which require a slow-burn approach to gameplay. It feels cheaply made and constantly fighting against its short format, more concerned with stripping a big game down into a manageable size than creating an original, self-sustained gaming experience. It's a crippling argument against the DLC model in its current form, which seems to exist solely to gain maximum return out of players on a barebones investment by the publisher. For all the attempts to label DLC, DRM and distribution platforms for PC gaming as 'incentives' for not pirating or selling games to the used market, slipshod releases like 'The Missing Link' only provides further evidence of the cynical motives at play.



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