I think I was sold on Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR) from the moment I killed some hostages by being late for a meeting. Back when the game was announced, the news was met by a healthy amount of scepticism. Who the heck are Eidos Montreal, and why do they think they’re capable of doing followups to two of the best games in history (the other being Thief)? They all have silly hair and could be French, I do not trust them. Look what happened the last time somebody tried to do a Deus Ex sequel. I bet this third one will be full of quick-time events (nope), unskippable cut-scenes (nope), and stupid boss fights (n … well, ok). And on and on we moaned with our doomsday cries.
But anyway, back to those dead hostages. As Adam Jensen I’d just got back to Sarif Industries after an enforced workplace vacation, but as a player this was my first chance to properly explore the offices. I was happily checking my emails (hey, I’d been away for a long time) while my boss was wittering on about some sort of distant crisis and how I should hurry up and meet him. As I made my way around the top floor, interacting with as many people as I could find, my boss informed me that the situation has now “got a lot worse”. Oh … oh dear.
I wasn’t expecting this at all. The usual way for videogames to operate in this situation is to create a false sense of time pressure where none actually exists. Here, I’d been told not to fanny about and the direct result of my doing so was some dead NPCs. Some people lost their lives because I was too busy trying to break into my co-worker’s cubicles. During (and after) the mission I had to put up with people sneering “nice job with the hostages, pal” at me, or offering awkward condolences like “well … I’m sure you did your best Jensen”. It was an amazing demonstration of how the game would react to my actions, and it confirmed that this unlikely sequel was a fine successor.
DX:HR is, in many ways, a love letter to the original Deus Ex; and just like a besotted admirer, Eidos Montreal is guilty of detrimentally overstating some aspects of its paramour. Hacking is ubiquitous to the extent that it’s pretty much a vital skill to upgrade, while the ‘do this to get this ending’ conclusion of the original game is literally distilled down to a selection of buttons to press. It’s a case of being a little bit too faithful to the source material, where some creative divergence may have helped.
However, this dedicated developmental adherence to the ‘Deus Ex way’ does a great deal more good than harm. Levels are designed to be in harmony with whatever direction you’ve taken your character in, offering multiple routes and methods of progress. Those ill-conceived boss fights aside (and even these are do-able with the equipment left laying around in the rooms), it’s possible to make it through the game as quite a few different Jensens. You can be stealth-Jensen who throws fridges in people’s faces if he gets caught, or hack-happy Jensen who also carries heavy weapons wherever he goes, or maybe even pacifist Jensen who has to reload a whole bunch because being a pacifist in this game is hard. That a majority of ‘builds’ are viable is to the title’s immense credit. Plus, if you like, you can still do the most Deus Ex thing of all and shoot people while hidden inside a vent.
Emergent gameplay is here as well. After trying for far too long to dunk the basketball in the Detroit hub, I simply built a tower of crates and barrels up to the hoop and dropped it through. Problem solved. Likewise, it was a joy to discover that the best way to stop guards peeking through windows at my computer hacking was to build a barrier of items to block their view. It’s even possible (though sadly, only at one point) to lug a giant turret through a level and into a boss fight with you. Experimental moments of lateral thinking like these are pure Deus Ex.
So too is DX:HR’s approach to atmosphere. Locations such as the Picus building and the Detroit police station actually feel like the places they’re supposed to be, thanks to convincing architectural design, office clutter and NPC/email chatter. In combination with the broad, near-future-with-renaissance-fashion-twists look of the game, this attention to detail creates a fantastic sense of place. Narrowing Deus Ex’s madcap ‘every conspiracy theory in the world is true!’ narrative to a thematic preoccupation with transhumanism was also a wise move, giving the plot a more focused (if less campy fun) feel.
Until a problematic final act, the writing in DX:HR is strong, with the ‘conversation battles’ being particular highlights. In David Sarif, Eidos Montreal pulled off the unlikely trick of creating a sympathetic corporate man, lacking in ethics but with a singular, worthy vision of the future. Sarif’s relationship with Adam Jensen is one of the most fascinating in the game; as much father-son as it is boss-employee (hell, Jensen never even seems to get paid). I didn’t trust Sarif. At times I didn’t even like him. But my attempts to pin him down for his shortcomings always seemed to end with him offering an all-too-reasonable argument starting with “but Aaaadaaaam” and my sloping off to do another mission to further his interests.
Against some towering odds, Deus Ex: Human Revolution turned out to be a triumphant return for the series, and as such is well worthy of a place in our Top Five for 2011. Oh, and my apologies to the NPC families of those hostages. I’ll try not to dawdle so much in future.