Eleven years ago, Warren Spector and his Ion Storm team unleashed Deus Ex, and they changed everything. They showed what was possible with the first-person viewpoint, how a game can challenge you both dextrously and cerebally, but also ethically. It was a game about choice and consequence, about freedom, lacking in traditional boundaries and pushing the limits of linearity. It was a revolution.
In August this year, then, the long-awaited third Deus Ex game is finally with us, and it changes very little indeed. All of the open-ended, option- heavy action is still here, still doing things that most games never even attempt, but doing nothing that wasn’t achieved those eleven years ago. The question is, then, does that matter?
At first, no it doesn’t. This slick, meticulously produced prequel tells the story of Sarif Industries’ Adam Jensen, a security specialist tasked with looking after the world’s foremost engineers of human augmentations. After an attack on Sarif’s labs, Jensen is left for dead, until a team of scientists rebuilds him, Robocop style. Now he’s an ‘aug’, as they’re called, more powerful than he could have ever dreamed, but altered against his will.
Fitting for a story so similar to Robocop’s, Deus Ex Human Revolution plays out against the backdrop of a decaying Detroit, ravaged by poverty and on the brink of collapse. The anti-aug movements are gaining momentum, and humanity has been divided. It’s a very strong premise for a game, dealing in ethical, human issues in the way the best sci-fi always does.
This is backed up by very strong mechanics which may seem overly similar to the original game’s, but without rose-tinted cyber-specs on, are actually infinitely superior. While it’s ostensibly a stealth game, Deus Ex Human Revolution’s skill trees allow you to become the Jensen you wish to be, be it a hack-happy computer bod, a silent assassin or just a trigger-happy headcase. Most of the narrative’s missions see you creeping into various high-tech facilities, looking for key characters or plot-sensitive artefacts, and when you get past ranks of guards, cameras, trip wires and sentry robots using all the tricks and techniques at your disposal, it’s a thrill.
At least it is, to a point. Being confident in your own systems and mechanics is praiseworthy, but here it comes at the expense of variety, and most importantly, interest. In between main-story missions, you’re supposed to amuse yourself by strolling the city streets (be they Detroit’s or dual-tiered Chinese mega-city Heng Sha’s) looking for side quests, but these open spaces don’t feel real. They’re lifeless corridors of urban nothingness, never capturing the atmosphere that Deus Ex Human Revolution desperately wants to create.
The side quests themselves, too, are dull. While they tell their own little stories which are interesting enough, too many are elaborate fetch quests, with little to no bearing on your character or the overarching story. Ultimately, they’re useful for building up your XP and levelling up your abilities, but they come at the expense of pacing. For a game so intent on telling a proper story, grinding things to a halt during the back end is never a good idea. Look at how Mass Effect 2 uses bottlenecks to push the pace along. Deus Ex does this succesfully for a while, but loses its momentum late on, which is also when it loses its confidence as a story.
Unfortunately, it falls into that ugly videogaming trap of becoming overly convoluted for the sake of a few more peaks and troughs, leaving this particular reviewer apathetic to almost everything. There was a simple premise laid out during the opening hours, a strong one at that. It’s a shame that the script writers didn’t have the confidence to just stick with that. In the end, there are too many characters, too many twists and too much talking.
Couple this with some truly odd design decisions, and you’re left with a sour taste in your mouth. Boss battles aren’t really suited to slow-paced, thoughtful games like this, especially when they’re completely devoid of invention. Sadly, they pop up too frequently here, often far too hard and cheap to boot, meaning you end up having to quick save multiple times during one extended gun battle. Not exactly organic combat.
When games tail off towards to the end, as they so often do, it’s easy to dismiss them as failures, but Deus Ex Human Revolution is no failure. So much of the earlier inflitration missions are lung-tighteningly tense, so much of the story is genuinely intriguing. Perhaps if taken slower, over a longer period of time, the pacing issues won’t be so obvious, nor will the repetitive missions. Who plays games like that these days, though?
So, is it the prequel that the Deus Ex name deserves? Well, yes and no. It’s not going to change the world this time around. But it’s the game Deus Ex always wanted to be, and for many, that’ll be enough.
Tags: Deus Ex Human Revolution
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