"All the science I don't understand, it's just my job five days a week" -Elton John, Rocket Man (1972)
Rama Rating = 9 out of 10
In video gaming there is something about having choices that can be more disenfranchising than empowering. The linear structure is something that video games do often but rarely do well; fencing a player character in might save a developer countless hours of work on details that might never have been seen by a player, and at the same time it shortcuts the building of a player character's heroic persona. In almost all titles, you are a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut who is single-mindedly focused on his or her goal simply because you have no other option but to be, and to do, so. Take those walls away, and it's the uncertainty of wondering if what you are doing is 'right' that can actually make for a great gaming experience.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution, out now for the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 from Edios Montreal and Square-Enix, has been born into a legacy that borders cruelty in the level of expectations it needs to live up to. The original Deus Ex has for over ten years remained near, if not at, the top of the list of the greatest video games of all time. The first follow up, Deus Ex: Invisible War was, in isolation, a great game, but its failure to live up to its predecessor made developers gun shy about tackling another game in what is a valuable intellectual property.
As a prequel to the first game, the FPS/RPG hybrid Deus Ex: Human Revolution side-steps the previous games' complicated mythology and places the player into role of Adam Jensen, head of security for the Sarif Corporation, the leading manufacturer of cybernetic prostheses and augments in the year 2027. After an apparent terrorist attack severely injures Jensen, his bosses use the most cutting edge cybernetics to rebuild him (they have the technology) to save his life and give him the tools necessary to find those responsible.
Fleshing out this detective story is a world that is changing perhaps too quickly thanks to technology. People can be made stronger, faster, and even smarter if they can afford cybernetic enhancements, which is generating class-based resentment and even violence among the population, however the cost of continual maintenance for the enhancements is very high with the consequences of disrepair painful or fatal. In addition to these class lines, bio-ethical questions have divided the population even further on the grounds of the 'rightness' of modifying the human form verses using this technology to save and improve real lives.
It is a testament to the quality of this game's writing that all these conflicts can not only be depicted as aspects of the game world but at the same time be happening within the player character himself. Jensen didn't ask to be augmented, but he didn't ask to be injured to the point where augmentation was necessary to save his life. He also didn't seem to care about the social-philosophical question of augmentation before the attack, but is now an active participant on more than just the rhetorical level. These internal struggles are both shown, using subtle but clever environmental objects, and told through the choices made by the player in dialog.
Again, it’s the choices in dialog or how you move through a level and their lasting impact, that is at the game's heart. In a style that is true to what made the original game so great, Human Revolution can be played to completion in a manner largely decided by the player: as a straight up shooter or as stealth action game. Each area has been conceived with multiple routes to the end in mind, and is strewn with items, hackable doors, reprogrammable turrets and guards to persuade or bribe that will have you backtracking over and over again just to see it all. The aforementioned hacking of terminals and doors is handled via a clever mini-game, which combines speed, strategy, resource allocation and luck with real consequences for failure, but will have you trying it even when you have found a pass code just for fun, experience points and the cash or XP bonuses found on the hacking 'game board.'
It's these RPG elements that harken back again to the original game and its proto-sandbox style. After the purely linear introductory stages, you are released into the city to proceed with the story missions at your own pace. Filling in the gaps are side-missions which smartly are not purely of the fetch variety, instead each fills in details of both the back-story and the of the world of 2027 itself and at the same time let you better decide your in-game personality by letting you resolve them largely in a manner of your choosing. These open spaces are filled with voiced NPCs, fine details of life in 2027 and there are many ways to get around the city including roofs and sewers, as there are in the game's 'story' stages.
As the game ramps up the difficultly in foes from anti-augmentation terrorist goons to armored mercenaries with war-bots at their command, you earn experience points that will allow you to expand the powers of your mechanical body. Twenty-one different aspects of your body can be upgraded, most several times, from a pool of upgrade points you can earn by leveling up, finding in-world or buying from your local cybernetics clinic. Such upgrades include ones for your legs to let you jump higher or run faster, your eyes to make you immune to the effects of flash-bangs or even your brain which can be augmented to help you determine an NPC's mood, to better persuade him or her. Most of the active powers, like an optical camouflage field or the ability to stealth take-down two foes at once, use a common 'battery' power meter located under the regenerating heath bar. This meter, which only refreshes itself initially to the lowest full level, can be replenished by eating energy bars. One eye must be kept on this bar for stealth players, as it is necessary to have at least one full battery to perform any kind of stealth take-down, slowing the process for clearing a room of foes.
This process isn't limited to your own body, as your weapons, which start as the kind of generic complement of silenced weapons, pistols, shotguns and assault rifles can be upgraded with parts to increase their stats like reload speed and damage, with attachments like a laser sight to increase accuracy and with custom parts that can turn a pistol into a mini-rocket launcher.
The use of such weapons, which is almost optional as it is apparently possible to go through the game without killing anyone except for a few bosses, which are challenging but fun fights, requires mastery of the game's cover system. Depending on the setting, going into cover requires a button press or a hold and shifts the view out to third person. From there you can negotiate yourself around your cover, turn corners and roll between gaps (no mantling), blind-fire or poke your head out to take an aimed shot that pulls you back into first person. The multitude of cover-based of button pushing options is daunting to master and the auto-ducking will sometimes stick you to the side of cover instead of behind it.
Visually, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is absolutely beautiful. In addition to the fine world detail is the title's overall excellent art direction. A key aspect that is at an even more basic level than the ingenious use of neo-Renaissance design elements to sell the idea that the world is undergoing a transcendent period of social and spiritual change, is the game's use of the colors like gold and yellow. Perhaps ironically, since they are vibrant, life-filled colors that stand in opposition to the traditional use of blues and grays in cyberpunk and science fiction. Its brightness also allows the game to draw a starker dichotomy when the game attempts to sell an area as more dangerous or insidious visually. It is a truer sign than anything else that this game is trying something new. Working against it unfortunately is the voice acting, which while largely competent, is dragged down by the voice of Jensen himself, whose single timber, a grating monotone, is akin to how Clint Eastwood might sound if someone kept shooting his dog in front of him. It wasn't the attack that robbed Jensen of this part of his humanity, he was apparently born without it.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a beautiful, smart, highly addictive, replayable, worthy successor to the original game that allows a generation of gamers to take a deep breath and be at peace that a rare style of game has been preserved for the foreseeable future, whatever changes that future might bring.