Given the gaping sinkhole in my PC gaming history sandwiched by when Myst released and when I bought Portal last year, I had not played a Deus Ex game prior to Human Revolution. That didn’t stop me from getting excited, however. My interest-from-afar in the series stemmed from its title, given my predilection for literature. When I took a closer look at the games, they seemed right up my alley. A sci-fi, cyber punk, dystopian game with guns that you totally don’t have to ever shoot people with, with a subtle whiff of noir and divergent, explorative gameplay?
It sounded too good to be true and if I could have trusted my computer to run the games better than a dolphin might run a land race, I would have downloaded them immediately. Instead, I settled on waiting for Human Revolution, the prequel to the franchise that promised to evoke the original games and augment them with the savvy of the last 10 years of videogame development. I’m disappointed.
You play as the gravelly voiced Adam Jensen, head of security at an advanced biotech firm. A highly coordinated attack on the facility sees its prized researchers killed and chief o’ security Adam Jensen is left with egg on his face. Debris covered, blood soaked egg. Jensen is pulled from the wreckage barely clinging to life and his good old boss/contractually-decreed-medical-proxy David Sarif chooses to replace most of Jensen’s body with cybernetic prosthesis (well beyond what was medically necessary to save his life). Sarif even gives Jensen fancy sunglasses that retract into his face like cat claws if cats had claws on their faces, which Jensen coolly wears indoors, outdoors and frequently at night.
So sets the stage for the requisite intrigue and conspiracy, which is smart enough to keep you guessing and throws in variables, twists and revelations at opportune moments. Though the beer can and cardboard box collecting Jensen doesn’t evoke much empathy, there are interesting exigent and tertiary dynamics at play, as well as semi-shallow allusions to present day issues. Unfortunately, as a whole, Human Revolution fails to ply its wares, suffering from frequently uninspired gameplay and lifeless, incomplete atmosphere.
I had an uneasy feeling from the onset. After leaving the room you start the game in, Jensen is meant to follow lead researcher Megan Reed through the facility, drinking in exposition through their dialog and the occasional interjection by fellow scientists. However, as soon as you leave the room, Jensen leaves your control. It’s one of those scenes where characters fixedly walk slowly and have a conversation while you only have brief camera control.
It’s a cutscene, really, but without any of the cinematic benefits of a cutscene, and with all of the cessation of control. As a design choice, it feels both antiquated and contrary to the design philosophy of player agency that I had expected coming into the game. It was a long walk and not having to control Jensen left me unengaged, whereas if I was given control over him I would’ve giddily and gladly followed along like an enthused puppy dog, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Human Revolution is at its best when you’re left to wander. I had a wonderful time meandering about the city, finding new nooks and crannies, hacking and reading the emails of every person ever, and occasionally stumbling upon impressively organic sidequests. Finding your way up a fire escape and going through an open window into someone’s bedroom is just exciting. Talking to people, especially when you’re trying to get something out of them or convince them to do something for you, is also great fun, including the occasional one on one “social battles” that were handled with a fair bit of subtlety. Simply being a part of the environment, though it’s imperfect, and taking part in implicit story-telling is where the game shines, though even there I found the sort of voyeuristic nature lacking, particularly as the world did not feel intimately or organically populated.
The game fails, however, when you attempt to follow the main narrative thread and get noticeably parceled off into “levels” that drag on far too long. As sick as I am of shooting things in videogames, Human Revolution’s more “action-y” gameplay segments – that is, the bits where there are armed guards everywhere that want to shoot you – are where things fall apart, even if you use a stealth approach. It’s practically all sneaking through vents or behind chest-high walls through same-y office or warehouse locales around derivative, dim enemies. As I went for a non lethal run through, I also ran into the issue of non lethal ammo being nowhere, ever, which was a pain. The “combat” sections of the game simply pale in comparison to breaking into someone’s how and putting their refrigerator on their bed after looting all of their money.
Equally boring (and frustrating) are the much maligned, banal boss fights which are diametrically opposed to the way the game encourages play (stealth is the most rewarded option), forcing you to brutishly fight and murder big bad augmented opponents. Again, here no alternative path is offered and if you haven’t kept your limited inventory stocked with plenty of things capable of murder – I didn’t, given that my aim was to not kill people – you’re in for a rough time. They’re hackneyed and don’t fit in with the rest of the game.
One other point of contention is the Human Revolution’s aesthetic choice; or, yellow. Yes, the entire game is yellow enough to make Curious George’s The Man in the Yellow Hat seem muted, and yes, that’s a bad thing. That yellow look is an interesting one, but it doesn’t need to dominate everything, everywhere, because when it does, you lack contrast and contrast is important in just about everything, especially aesthetic appeal. The sewers, for example, could have looked dark and murky and sewer-ish. Instead, everything is the color of mustard gas. It’s a hideous sight.
The game’s signature look is right for some portions of the game, not all portions of the game, and it becomes a dulled caricature when it overwhelms everything. The look of The Hive, a trendy club, could’ve left such a more lasting impact if everything wasn’t yellow. The other aesthetic problem is the sameness of things (mostly furniture and general interior design); from peoples’ homes to office buildings on different continents, to all the warehouse locales, so much looked recycled, leading to boring environments.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution had the makings of a great game. Instead, it spends most of its time wallowing in a mire of unexpectedly insipid gameplay staged in the most vacuous segments of a world that could have used more life. The explorative, investigative and conversational elements are strong, but Eidos seems to have confused the boring bits of gameplay as interesting, mistakenly making them the meat of the experience. The end result isn’t bad. It’s sometimes quite good. But too frequently is it mundane and vapid.