Groundbreaking games don’t come along all that often. Sequels/prequels/re-imaginings of groundbreaking games arrive even less often, developers understandably wary of the quality required to avoid ridicule and hate mail. Deus Ex: Human Revolution falls into the latter category, a prequel to a game that many consider the finest PC title of all time. Others consider it the finest title of all time period.
Whereas the majority of these titles fail to live up to the high expectations, Human Revolution largely succeeds. More than a mere cashing in on the prestige associated with the franchise, this is a game that retains the themes and sensibilities of its predecessors while adding a big enough coating of modern design, visuals and technology to be relevant to today’s interactive entertainment connoisseurs. In short, Human Revolution is up there with the finest action-RPGs of the past ten years. By up there, I mean right up there.
The game’s success starts and ends with the quality, depth and diversity of its setting, characters and plot. On the face of it this is a game about trying to figure out the identity and motivation of a group that has been attempting to sabotage Sarif Industries (the same biotechnology company that appears in the original) through attacks in both the digital and physical realms. As the company’s chief of security, Adam Jensen, the bulk of the legwork falls on your perfectly bio-engineered shoulders as you investigate political and corporate corruption, dodgy medical practises, your own boss and hackers hiding in girls-of-the-night districts of a futuristic interpretation of China.
Deeper than that though, this is a game about the nature of humanity in an increasingly mechanised and computerised world. It asks questions such as; Can we improve on the natural human design? Is it right to even attempt such things? What does ‘improvement’ mean? What does it mean to be human in a increasingly important virtual space? Can the bio-engineered and the ‘pure breeds’ live peacefully side-by-side?
Admittedly, this is fairly typical cyber-punk fare but Human Revolution handles the subject matter with a delicacy and thoughtfulness that is so rare in this medium. As with the finest examples of cyber-punkery Human Revolution poses more questions than it answers, forcing us to think about things from our own perspective and to discuss it with others in a bid to understand theirs.
These questions are presented via a world of engrossing detail and authenticity. In a fine example of how to make a futuristic setting feel authentic, everything here works alongside everything else. There’s never a moment in which you question the validity of the world because every detail has clearly been designed with a very precise sense of the overall goal in mind.
The most obvious example of this in action is the way in which the game’s various cities are similar to each other in their layout and use of technology but unique in their architecture, culture and use of language – making it feel like a palpable vision of our own future and not some airy-fairy, outlandish utopia or hard-hitting, no-holds barred dystopia that make up the bulk of sci-fi universes.
This sense of realism is aided no end by an art style which makes brilliant use of muted shades of gold, the darkest of blacks and piercing beams of neon. Where these three palettes combine the result is claustrophobic in the same manner as Bladerunner, Ghost in the Shell or a stroll through the Akihabara district of Tokyo. The same visual assault applies to the fashion, human bio-technology alterations and interior design (Jensen’s own apartment and a certain nightclub are especially moody and atmospheric).
However, the game’s enjoyment is not garnered from its time and place alone. There’s a fair old whack of gameplay to lose oneself in, too. Thankfully, this is handled in a manner befitting the complexity of the rest of the game in that you’re given combat options rather than fixed goals or gameplay mechanics. While I didn’t try it for myself, it’s probably possible to play through Human Revolution in its entirety without killing a single enemy (aside from the bosses with which you’re given no other alternative as a result of the nature of the game’s storyline).
For me, it’s the stealth approach that is most satisfying during enemy encounters. More often than not your aim is to navigate through hostile areas, engaging in combat is entirely optional. To aid you in this stealth approach, the cover system is diverse and all-encompassing; pretty much every surface providing a barrier against the enemy’s line of sight and weapons. You can shift around corners and traverse from wall to wall without breaking cover, affording you many opportunities to plan your attack/avoidance strategy as well as scope out the enemy and their probable strength in relation to your own. In my experience intelligence and patience is the best way to go, rewarded with undetected navigation.
To aid you in battle you have the option of acquiring new abilities (known as augmentations) via experience gained through everything from completing missions, fighting, successful stealth runs and the discovery of new areas. Augmentations improve everything from physical attributes and stealth skills to speech options and observational abilities. My favourites include the ability to see enemies through solid walls, opto-camouflage, increased radar range and reduced damage from falling from high heights. The latter doesn’t sound all that exciting but, believe me, it comes in incredibly handy when trying to avoid or escape the attentions of the enemy.
Combat can be made easier by hacking various devices and terminals that are liberally scattered throughout the world. Hacking takes the form of an against the clock node capturing mini-game that can be made easier by unlocking certain augmentations. Locked doors can provide a route around blocked/guarded passages or reveal a stash of hidden goodies, gun turrets can be turned on their masters and personal computers can reveal interesting (and sometimes essential) information on key characters or objectives.
Whatever your approach to gameplay you can’t complain about a lack of options.
This wealth of options extends to the mission design, which puts significant emphasis on the completion of side missions. Some of these extra-curricular outings provide moments that are among Human Revolution’s most interesting, enjoyable and time-consuming; offering much deeper insight into the workings of the world and its population than is achievable from sticking to the main missions alone. Aside from the added exposition, these missions provide valuable experience points for those looking to acquire as many augmentations as possible.
Slightly annoyingly, Human Revolution isn’t open-world in the purest sense of the term. Areas are open to exploration and side-mission hunting in any manner you wish but once you leave an area to travel to the next plot-advancing location the previous territory’s side quest are lost, forcing you to complete them before moving on. There are also some issues with long loading times and a couple of animation glitches but, to mark the game down on what are ultimately minor issues seems rather churlish.
Despite the quality of the combat, the emphasis on gameplay options, the diverse set of augmentations and the substantial side-missions, what will stay with me about Human Revolution is its focus on creating a rich, believable world filled with interesting characters, themes and conflicting ideals. The mere fact that it aims for such lofty narrative heights is commendable, the fact that it achieves them is worthy of celebration.
Read our feature for more on the game’s visual style.