Eidos Montreal accepted one hell of a task by carrying the weight of the beloved, some would say groundbreaking, Deus Ex franchise on its less than optimally experienced shoulders. With original designers Warren Spector and Harvey Smith moving on to other various multimedia undertakings, a ceremonial passing of the respective development baton was bound to arrive sooner or later, as many nostalgia pressure gauges reached the breaking point and longtime loyalists to the flagship installment remained eager for the next chapter in the Deus Ex saga.
Deus Ex: Invisible War, from 2003, was generally well-received (more so by critics than fans), yet it was clear that the technology at the time wasn’t up to delivering the sort of full-scale depth that was expected after the original game’s landmark out-of-left-field triumph. Now, with the majority of established gaming development studios having the resources of a high-budget Hollywood CGI extravaganza at their disposal, demands and expectations for a Deus Ex title in 2011 could be, for the most part, met. Visually, Human Revolution is extremely on point, bringing to life a world worthy of being compared to Ridley Scott’s ever-influential Blade Runner, yet its core gameplay mechanics ultimately feel unbalanced due to misplaced attention to detail and a lackluster execution revolving around the semblance of true choice.
Human Revolution is the third entry in the Deus Ex franchise, yet its events transpire in 2027—25 years prior to those in the first game. The player takes on the role of Adam Jensen, a former Detroit SWAT team leader who, after a spur-of-the-moment “fuck you” to his superiors, was demoted to security detail at Sarif Industries, a company specializing in a variety of avant-garde scientific endeavors, the primary being the bio-genetic blending of man with machine known as augmentation, something Jensen initially wants nothing to do with, but soon becomes the very thing that ends up saving his life. Even with the quality of today’s video-game cinematics being as respectable as they are, Human Revolution’s prologue set piece is still incredibly engaging. Moments after the game’s breathtaking, symbiotic environment draws you in (background characters go about their daily business as you possess control of Jensen’s gaze, examining the comings and goings of Sarif’s elite), alarms sound and a horde of anti-augmentation rogue extremists infiltrate the compound, laying waste to your comrades—including your former lover, a scientist who was on the verge of making a breakthrough in augmentation implementation—and leaving you for dead with a bullet in your brain.
Another reason the gameplay stumbles is due to the intense focus on two elements that should have no doubt been sufficiently downsized: augmentation and hacking.
The flashy opening credits roll over a RoboCop-style montage of Jensen being brought back from the brink of existence, his limbless torso subjected to binding mechanical appendages and crazy microchip enhancements being implanted in his skull. What follows is a barrage of William Gibson-esque cyberpunk vernacular and slight homages to Tetsuo, Strange Days, The Fifth Element, and The Matrix. The influence of that last film is especially prominent, as the bulk of Human Revolution’s dialogue is almost comically flat (not unlike that of Andy and Larry Wachowski’s leather-clad heroes), and protagonist Adam Jensen—forever smile-less, sporting a billowy dark trench coat and narrow lens sunglasses—bears an uncanny resemblance to Keanu Reeves’s Neo. While the rapidly expedited revenge storyline does little to pull the player in, Human Revolution’s graphical prowess more than makes up for the scriptwriting blunders. Multiple shades of understated grays, reds, and yellows overtake the intricately constructed industrial landscape, making the game feel like a genuine vision of America 26 years into the future (nothing is too polished, with sidewalk vents spouting thick steam beside boarded-up shops; even the interiors are suitably drab and dreary). The denizens of 2027 Detroit appear to have a penchant for Renaissance-era aesthetics: a newscaster wears a frilly neck collar and heavy makeup, bringing to mind masquerade balls and baroque artwork (highlighting the game’s theme of personal and societal rebirth); even assorted hobos on the street appear to maintain a decent fashion sense in times of communal crisis.
Evaluating Human Revolution on surface value, it’s a genuinely solid release on nearly all fronts, yet where it drops the ball is in the infrastructure of its playability. First and foremost, the AI is simply too idiotic. Even on hard mode, enemies can be outsmarted by employing Metal Gear Solid stealth tactics like constantly kneeling, hiding behind boxes, knocking out foes from behind and promptly dragging their limp bodies out of sight. Deus Ex being more of a choose-your-own-path RPG than a streamlined first-person shooter, I can forgive the lack of finesse during the firefight portions of the game, but it still irks me that the development team opts to allocate so much time in the tutorials explaining how to properly take cover behind objects (hold L1, press X to strafe between positions, tilt the control stick to look out and take aim at a target) when simply peering around corners without shielding yourself in this manner or essentially looking downward from rooftops to snipe foes is the easiest way to progress through heavily guarded areas.
What’s even more irritating is the fact that these tutorials blatantly tell you to avoid confrontation with adversaries as much as possible. In advising you how to play the game a certain way, the developers siphon the fun out of the experience before it even has a chance to flow forth from your fingertips. Much like the nameless pawns scattered throughout Human Revolution’s hostile territories, the bosses are, on the whole, generally laughable. Compared to memorable boss battles from the mind of Hideo Kojima, or even from something more recent like Mass Effect 2, Human Revolution’s ultra-baddies can be thwarted without much frustration by those with the charge-everything-guns-blazing method of play, which is the complete opposite of what made the original Deus Ex so innovative; there’s little to no incentive for being crafty here, balls-to-the-wall combat wins out at nearly every juncture, and I care not for petty PSN achievements.
Another reason the gameplay stumbles is due to the intense focus on two elements that should have no doubt been sufficiently downsized: augmentation and hacking. I’m all for upgrading stats and weaponry, but the augmentation leveling-up process takes far too long to begin feeling like you’re actually bettering yourself by wasting heaps of Praxis Points (a secondary type of XP, converted from earned experience or purchased with credits) on enhancing lesser features such as your radar or even perfecting Adam Jensen’s social skills. That’s right, there’s a set of enrichment options that allow for you to get a better read on how your in-conversation reply selections are effecting the emotions of characters you’re discoursing with. Some might get a kick out of this (those who partake in dating sims and the like), but I found it to be on the verge of groan-inducing, be it that the voice acting during these sequences just isn’t up to par with today’s standards.
As for hacking, it starts out as a multi-tiered beat-the-clock mini-game of sorts but soon spirals out of control into something of a chronic burden. A few hours in, I found myself spending needless Praxis Points upgrading my hacking abilities (certain consoles can only be hacked if your hacking status matches the required entry level) only to find out that I needed even more add-ons within the hacking game itself (slow-worms that stop the timer, nukes that instantly destroy the path of anti-virus nodes threatening to detect your intrusion) to be able to successfully infiltrate copious vital technologies. If all these bells and whistles had been applied to fine-tuning battle segments and perfecting the environmental interactions, Human Revolution could have been the successor Deus Ex devotees have been waiting for since the turn of the 21st century.
It’s a shame that actually playing Human Revolution isn’t as enjoyable an experience as watching and listening to the game. Astounding sights at every turn, a satisfying score by Michael McCann, and an overall towering production value keep Eidos Montreal from going down with their ship. If the same team tackles the next installment of the series (if there’s indeed a follow-up), here’s to hoping they can learn to stop babysitting the player and let them evolve organically without treating them a bit like Adam Jensen: forced into augmentation and left to deal with the less-than-desirable consequences all the while stitching together the remains of something once deemed culturally significant.