“If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” ~Albert Einstein commenting on the Atomic Bomb
You’d be forgiven for approaching the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution with trepidation. Warren Spector’s original masterpiece was years ahead of its time, but the sequel sullied the series’ reverential status among PC gamers. Some Deus Ex purists barely acknowledge its existence. As with many high-profile games lately, Invisible War abandoned its PC roots and catered to a burgeoning console audience, losing its scope in the process. In an industry that typically treats PC gaming as an afterthought, this didn’t translate into optimism for Human Revolution. Factor in the absence of series creator Spector and growing development trends toward shorter RPGs that prefer hand-holding to freedom, and your reservations would be well-placed. Fortunately, Eidos Montreal has delivered a thrilling and compelling experience well worth the wait; one you’ll revisit multiple times.
As protagonist Adam Jensen, you’re forced into the cybernetically-enhanced lifestyle following a devastating attack on Sarif Industries, which leaves you clinging to life and several close colleagues dead. Six months later, you’re brought out of recovery as David Sarif’s head of security, to investigate a hostile intrusion into one of Sarif’s Detroit-based manufacturing plants. While seeking some revenge and overdue answers is part of what’s driving you, it isn’t long before you’re embroiled in a global conspiracy rivaling season-length story arcs of the X-Files.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a story to tell, and it doesn’t dumb down the delivery. Between branching plot points, political turmoil, personal grief, painful reunions, and engaging topics like human evolution and racism, the narrative doesn’t insult your intelligence. While the voice actors delivering the lines can fall flat on occasion (Jensen is just too gruff and detached for me at times; certain NPCs phone it in), the lines themselves are sharp. It’s a script bursting with compelling storytelling and believable dialogue. In fact, as technology continues to pervade every facet of our existence, Human Revolution’s cautionary tale could feasibly become our reality.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Propelling this story forward is what the developers call “four pillars of gameplay:” stealth, combat, hacking, and social. Indeed, a vast majority of Jensen’s intricate missions can be completed in a variety of ways. An early mission in the Detroit Police Station emphasizes this, and the pillars are far from being gimmicky gameplay enhancements. Jensen’s goal is to reach the morgue to extract evidence, and he could convince an old SWAT colleague to simply let him in. If smooth talking isn’t your forte (or if you flat-out fail), you can hunt for an alternate path and sneak in. Don’t like stealth? A couple well-placed gas grenades can knock the officers in the lobby unconscious, allowing you to hack your way in. Or, if guilt doesn’t weigh you down, you can simply shoot your way in, though it won’t be a cakewalk. Even a “boss encounter” turns into a battle of wits as you attempt to talk down a nervous criminal and save a hostage.
As unbelievable as it sounds, your success in these scenarios depends on the kind of game you want to experience, and that experience is greatly enhanced by the game’s augmentation system. While you do have the freedom to approach your missions in a number of ways, you’ll start to naturally gravitate toward one of the pillars.
My preference was stealth; the ability to silence my footsteps, turn invisible, and sprint past heavily armed Spec Ops soldiers was exhilarating. The opportunity to bust out some expert CQC for a non-lethal knockout was even better. Tack on a few augmentations which prevent damage from falling, and the ability to move weighty objects like The Hulk, and you become a silent menace, able to access alternate routes and sneak into any location with ease. Alternately, you can become a killing machine with Jensen’s experimental Typhoon attack (imagine millions of high-speed ball bearings exploding outward from your torso), dermal armor enhancements, and precision aiming. Or, use pheromones to convince someone to see the situation your way. If you don’t want to sneak past, knock out or kill enemies yourself, augment your hacking skills and program their sentry bots and turrets to do your bidding for you. (The hacking minigames strike a perfect balance between challenge and enjoyability.)
With all this flexibility on offer, don’t get lulled into a false sense of security. Augmentations aren’t doled out generously. Instead, you have to find (through exploration), earn (every 5000 Experience Points), or purchase (at a LIMB clinic) Praxis kits to unlock these specialties. This means you’ll need to think carefully about each upgrade. This restrictive design choice was likely to bolster replay value – which was already high – but Jensen won’t be turning a perfectly tuned machine across all four pillars. In truth, I can’t wait to start a second playthrough as a wicked minister of death, and a third as a silent pacifistic hacker.
This is my rifle…
Though my personal playthrough didn’t involve an excess of gunplay, I did sink a few upgrades into my sniper rifle and 10mm pistol (there are much more elaborate weapons on offer, but let’s not spoil that surprise). Note that I didn’t say “a random sniper rifle.” No, this was my sniper rifle, a deadly companion throughout the entire campaign. It consumed a considerable amount of inventory space, and since I had dropped money on upgrading its reload speed and ammo capacity, I was hesitant to drop it, because it meant potentially losing it forever.
Overall, the gunplay in Deus Ex: Human Revolution is realistic, satisfying, and accurate. You become quite attached to your weapon of choice, and since ammunition is sparse throughout the game, you learn to either improve your shooting skills, or die trying.
With all this freedom, you might be expecting a morality system to influence your choices. Instead, the developers let your own moral compass dictate how you wrestle with the aftermath of your decisions. Indeed, during the final minutes of the story, I felt a tinge of guilt and regret over my recent actions; the plotline reaches a definitive end, but you’ll be debating your decisions well after the credits roll (and speaking of credits, watch them or miss the crucial teaser that follows).
Sometimes a developer’s original vision for a game world can be diluted by revisions, distorted by too many creative hands. But the near-future world of 2027 truly feels as if it came from a solitary artistic vision. It oozes a renaissance-meets-cyber-punk aesthetic, and the individual city hubs have their own narrative layers outside the dense main conspiracy. From the opening sequence which paints a picture of desperation, to the provocative Tai Young Medical fliers advertising the perfectly augmented female. From the persistent newscasts, rousing talk radio segments, and the violent anti-augmentation protests on the streets of Detroit, the art designers have created a beautiful, striking world that will resonate long after those credits roll.
The Bottom Line
It seems impossible to ask for a game that delivers a mature story, perfectly executes multiple play styles, and gives you the freedom to interact with it at your own pace. Sure, there is some spotty voice acting and the occasional stretch where the frame rate noticeably starts chugging, but these aren’t glaring enough to dissuade anyone from picking this exceptional game up at full price. My largest complaint was initially going to be the difficulty of boss fights, until I noticed subtle clues the developers had placed right under my nose. I applaud Eidos Montreal for designing a game that doesn’t hold your hand, and gives you the freedom to experience their world any way you see fit.
One final note: It was difficult to not discuss the intricacies of the storyline and its many sub-plots and side quests during this review, but doing so would have resulted in spoilers. Suffice to say, there is a wealth of topics here to propel discussions well outside the world of gaming, from politics to technology, to civil liberties and humanity’s future. You may be haunted by your story’s outcome, or you may embrace it. Either way, expect a 25-35 hour experience you’ll want to revisit multiple times. In fact, Deus Ex: Human Revolution has the potential to reach the same plateau as your favorite novel or movie — don’t be surprised if it becomes a game you want to replay every year.
- Release Date: August 23rd 2011
- Genre: Action RPG, Stealth
- Platform: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
- Developer: Eidos Montreal
- Publisher: Square Enix
- ESRB Rating: M
Our score: 5/5
Editor’s Note: Review copy provided by Square Enix PR. Played storyline in its entirety, with majority of side quests completed.