I just completed my first play through of the new Deus Ex game, Human Revolution or DX:HR for short. I guess you could also call it DX3, but that might confuse some of the folks that disavow that Invisible War ever existed.
I was, and am, a huge fan of the original Deus Ex. In 2001 it was a truly original game and I consider it, easily, my favorite videogame of all time. I’ve played it through maybe five times all together (and a few times I didn’t finish) with strategies varying from soldier, to hacker, to spy, to pacifist, to knife only psychopath (although I had to upgrade to the Dragon’s Tooth towards the end, and I didn’t count a couple of the “boss” type characters which had to be taken down with LAMs or GEP rockets). I can remember some of the original Deus Ex levels so well I could probably reproduce them faithfully from memory.
Invisible War was a forgettable sequel. I remember virtually nothing of the storyline, the character, or the mechanics thereof. I just know that when I finished it, I decided to erase it from my memory and pretend, as a lot of other internet gamers, that it never happened. It was less a Deus Ex game and more a botched product of the then dying Ion Storm (RIP). However, I was encouraged when the pre-release buzz was building for Human Revolution started and the developers seems to have their heads screwed on right, and they acknowledged that Invisible War was a failure. To see my favorite franchise fall short again would be enough to make me lose hope that it could ever be done right again.
So, with that bit of history and personal opinion out of the way, here’s what I thought of the most recent volume of Deus Ex.
As I mentioned, a lot of the pre-release hype convinced me there was hope for the game. Admittedly, some of it made me question the future, but overall I believe most of their choices came off better than I expected.
The first thing I was disappointed in in pre-release was that there were going to be no skills. In the original, you had skills, which were upgraded with experience, and augs, which were found and upgraded using various canisters you had to find throughout the game. Skills included things that you or I could accomplish, stuff like weapons accuracy, melee skill, swimming, hacking, medicine, etc. Augs, just like in the new game, practically gave you super powers.
All in all, I think they combined the two systems well, although they accomplished it partially by stripping the need for a lot of the skills. For example, swimming is moot because there is no water. Medicine is pointless because you regen. Melee is done away with as there are no melee weapons. The remainder of the skills were rolled into augmentations. Lockpicking (although mechanical locks are now unheard of and lockpicks don’t exist), computers, and electronics were all rolled into hacking which is very well represented in the tree with three separate branches. “Environmental Training” was condensed into a rebreather augmentation that lets you resist toxic gas. Weapons skills are now handled all together with an augmentation that increases accuracy while moving.
A lot of the old favorite augmentations came back too, like cloak, and silent running. Dermal armor has taken the place of the shield. Regen is now a built-in augment you have from the start (bolstering the no-health approach of the game, which also rendered the medicine skill moot). I didn’t get the chance to use any of the advanced retinal augments but they sound similar in concept to the original as well.
There were also some cool additions to the augmentations too. The Icarus Landing System lets you jump from any height and take no damage. High enough and you get a neat bubble effect and you can optionally stun everyone around you — although I never got to use that feature. The social augmentation sounded neat to open more dialogue options. You can gain the ability to punch through (some) walls too which is definitely a plus for path finding. Then there’s the neat offensive augmentation, the Typhoon, that allows you to expend Typhoon ammo and cause a shockwave of death. Very cool, although it sucks when used against you =).
Really, I didn’t end up missing skills and the game does fine with just the augmentations.
The XP Problem
I really didn’t like the fact that XP got you augments though. I know they rationalized it in game with the fact that you were somehow “awakening” your augments with experience, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. How does me doing an arbitrary action like finishing a mission suddenly entitle me to the ability to cloak? I understand it’s just a mechanic, but perhaps it would’ve made more sense to have canister-esque items for the baseline augmentations (the things you have to spend two “praxis points” to open up), and then XP would allow you to upgrade within the tree the baseline augments open up? (If you haven’t played the game, this essentially means that you’d have to find a canister to get cloak, but you could upgrade your cloak’s efficiency through XP points).
The core of the problem here is that XP is too easy to get. My first (and only for now) play through was non-lethal stealth. I got XP left and right, hacking systems, completing sidequests, getting bonuses for finding secret ways in. Every takedown (we’ll get to those later) was easy XP. Then you get a massive bonus for getting through a level without triggering an alarm, or getting noticed. To top it off, you can even buy these points for credits!
By the end of the game, my stealth Gandhi had more “praxis points” than I knew what to do with. I ended up spending my last 5 points maxing dermal implants that reduced damage 45% and made me immune to EMP. This on a character that almost never got shot… only because I had literally nothing else worthwhile to spend the points on. I had maxed hacking (the capture and stealth trees, fortify was pointless then), maxed my batteries, maxed cloak, maxed my storage capacity and lifting strength, could run silently and jump nine feet into the air… I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to the augmentation screen and found, oh wait, I have three points waiting to be spent.
This abundance of augmentations also factors into the game because you no longer have to make any tough choices. In the original game, the canisters each contained two augmentations and you had to choose between the two irrevocably and they had to be installed by a bot so you couldn’t just hang on to the canisters until you decided which was more useful. Some were easy choices just based on your play style (Combat Strength probably isn’t important if you’re going to be shooting people up, for example), but others were very tough. Do I want my augmentations to all take less power (Power Recirculator) or the ability to upgrade one aug on the fly (Synthetic Heart)? Do I want regeneration (energy expensive, but useful for all damage after the fact) or the ability to absorb fire/plasma/energy attacks? In either case you can’t have both. DX:HR doesn’t force you to make these choices. Every augmentation is open for you and you can just carry around three of these praxis points to use at any time. Get to an area with EMP? Oh I guess I’ll just “awaken” my augmentation for EMP immunity. Thanks!
The Pointless Augs
There was also an entire stealth tree that seemed pretty much pointless too, which was disappointing. Mind you, I was playing on the hardest difficulty (although I’m sure some would say I was cheating at it because I turned on the reticle) and it was never an issue to “mark and track” my enemies. You can see them all on the radar, so who cares? I don’t need to know how much noise I’m making… if I’m crouch walking I’m being quiet enough. I don’t need to see the visual range of my enemies because I can see what way they’re facing on radar. It’s saying something that my stealth character made it all the way through the game without a single point in the general stealth tree. There are also some others that seem a bit pointless… like the HUD telling you how long until enemies’ alarmed status ends. Doesn’t really help you at all, since you can see when it ends anyway, it just tells you how long you’re going to have to wait. It’s not like it’s ever more than 30 seconds anyway. I feel like I should point out that the original had some questionable augs too, like Aqualung, Environmental Resistance, Radar Transparency (unless you suck) etc.
Still, the above gripes aside, the augs — although too easy to get and the XP system makes 0 sense — were fun to use and enhanced the gameplay as they should. I would’ve liked to see most of the same augment technologies just with fewer opportunities to get them to add to the challenge. Maybe a sliding XP scale instead of getting praxis points so regularly.
Probably the most controversial of the additions to the new game was the fact that there is no health. Well, there is, but you regenerate constantly by default which means that, like a lot of newer FPS games, if you get shot you just have to hide for a bit to get better. Initially I didn’t have a problem with this system. In fact, considering the setting of human augmentation it seems to make more sense in DX than anywhere else. However, in retrospect I can say it removed a lot of the urgency from situations. If I was feeling lazy and there was a single enemy, I’d just sneak up as close as a I could and then charge to do a take down, fully cognizant of the fact that if he gets a shot off, all I have to do is sit on my ass for 20 seconds. That is unless he head shots me or has a powerful enough weapon…
In the original DX, you had all sorts of fun because you were damaged. Getting through the next scenario might not be difficult but if you were out of medkits and had 10 health, getting through suddenly becomes a lot more challenging. There’s nothing like sneaking up on an enemy knowing that if he turns around it doesn’t matter if he’s armed with a feather duster, you’re fucked. Then there was fun stuff like, if you were hit in the arm enough, your aim got all wonky. If you were hit in the legs, you were slowed to a crawl. None of that happens in the new game, and it’s difficulty shows it.
Another change was the addition of a third person cover system. Honestly, this change was very well done and a welcome modification of the original game play. In the original game, you had the ability to lean around a corner to scope out what was there, but the cover system allows you to have a much better idea of what’s going on around you. On one hand, it’s kinda bullshit because you can see over walls that you’re crouched behind, but on the other hand I imagine it as sort of an extension of the main character’s intuition. The ability to see a room, see the enemies, crouch and still piece together what’s going on based on sound. Besides, you’re equipped with a radar system that can “see” practically everything, so why not?
The bottom line is that the cover system is just a formalization of the techniques you’d use in the first game if you were any good at it, and the ability to move quickly between cover is a definite improvement over the first game in which you’d crouch walk instead of doing a leaping somersault.
Related to the cover system you also have a third-person take downs. As a melee aficionado, I was disappointed that the game eliminated melee weapons. However, I’m still conflicted about it. The take downs were nice, very cinematic and also very useful. I would’ve have been able to complete a non-lethal stealth play through without them. Really I’m only apprehensive because they were so easy to achieve. Walk up to one (or two with an augmentation) guys and, provided you have enough energy, it’s light’s out. No finesse required, other than getting close to them without getting your head blown off.
In the original game, it was difficult to make it through with a knife or a baton. I can’t count the number of reloads I’ve had to do because I snuck up on someone, uncrouched and then fucked up the execution of a melee “take down” in the original.
I also don’t get why a takedown takes the same sort of energy as your augmentations. I mean, does it take as much energy to punch two dudes out as it does to turn invisible for 3/5/7 seconds? Maybe, but I think if they needed to limit the amount of take downs you could do (they did), then I think a cooldown period would’ve done the job better. Particularly because it’s tough to gauge how much energy you’re going to need in situations. For example, if you wanted to cloak and take someone down you need to make damn sure that you’ve got a full energy bar left by the time you reach your target or you’re just going to stand there.
All in all, I could take them or leave them. The take downs were fun to execute, even if they were too easy, and I suppose it makes sense that a consummate badass would be able to snap your neck or choke you out pretty much on a whim.
This is also the first time DX has had true boss fights. In the original you had climactic moments, and you killed a lot of important NPCs who were tough and armed like bosses, but there were no true bosses. Personally, I’m of the opinion that boss fights are contrived and this was no exception. Perhaps it makes a bit more sense considering the story line and the whole idea of augmented super warriors, but if they would’ve stayed true to the original and just integrated them into a level it would’ve been a lot more fun and a lot less frustrating than a true boss “arena” complete with ammunition and usually a novel way to destroy your foe. Not to mention it would’ve probably been a lot more challenging if they just showed up in the middle of a level and fucked you up instead of having the whole cliched cut scene.
The other point I’ll make here is that while the game did a good job making sure that the rest of the game was doable without killing anyone, when it came to the bosses you were forced to be lethal. I don’t really have a problem killing the bosses and sparing their lesser guards, but it was a huge pain in the ass to arm myself with lethal weapons at the beginning of each boss fight. For the second boss in particular it was extremely annoying that I had to find lockers, drop non-lethal items and ammo out of my inventory so I could pick up a machine pistol and some ammo … all while being chased. I guess that’s what I get for being non-lethal and having to kill someone.
Hacking is one gameplay addition that I think the designers did right and better than the original. The hacking minigame was a challenge and different each time. It added a level of difficulty to opening a door that wasn’t present in the first game (where all you had to think about was “do I have enough skill/lockpicks/multitools to do this?”). It was nice that sometimes I could break a level 5 system without an alarm, and sometimes a level 2 system would alarm right off the bat and make you sweat. I enjoyed all of the hacking in the stealth play through.
There were some other, minor, gameplay elements that I would’ve like to have seen in the new game, although I can forgive their omissions. I would’ve really liked to have seen ammo types, although since ammo is now an inventory item and you’re always at a loss for space that might’ve been annoying. Melee weapons would’ve been a plus as I mentioned before although similarly an inventory problem. Weapon mods were sufficiently scarce, but didn’t apply to enough weapons. With my non-lethal play through virtually none of the mods would apply to my tranquilizer rifle so I put them all on my reserve pistol. Some wouldn’t make any sense (damage, silencer), and it came with a scope, but why can’t I have a laser sight? I think the only mods I could actually apply to it were the reload speed mods.
None of these are that important however.
First off, let me say unequivocally that the level design was great. The levels provided numerous paths to take for virtually every scenario. The city hubs were atmospheric and suitably dirty and complicated. The facilities were well thought out and believable. The game seems to do squalor and sophistication with the same ease. This was a hallmark of the original Deus Ex, although the original seemed to tend toward the dingy post-apocalyptic side of the spectrum for the majority of the time. Perhaps I am just unaccustomed to the current state of PC gaming, but I was very impressed with the look and feel of the game.
The world told of through the various scattered e-books (not datacubes yet, I guess), newspapers, emails etc. seems realistic and, importantly, it seemed to connect well with the world of the original. There are a lot of juicy references for old players, like Manderley, TTong (who you actually get to see at one point), and the NSF.
That said, the immediate world that you play in seems much smaller. You globe trot, which is important for a Deus Ex game considering the original took you all across the world, but three of these locations you only see as a singular level. Albeit a singular, well-designed level, you still don’t get a chance to venture out before being choppered elsewhere. That’s similar to the first game where the only cities you truly explore are New York and Hong Kong, (I guess you might be able to count Paris, although it’s different) but there were many many many peripheral locations in those cities and between your visits to them. The original had much more content and had many more levels without a lot of time being spent doing pointless side-quests. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised in the age of DLC.
To make things worse, it seems like most of the places you visit don’t have any real secrets to find. The original had many little nooks and crannies to explore unrelated to the advancement of the storyline. To give an example: In the original Deus Ex, there was actually a very small secret MJ12 facility beneath the streets very early on in the game. You don’t encounter MJ12 as part of the story until much later, but if you find it you raise questions like “who the hell were those dudes with Roman numerals on their helmets carrying combat rifles in the sewers?” They weren’t part of any quest at that point. No one ever directs you to the facility, you just have to find them on your own. Now, I could be making an ass out of myself because there very well could be secrets like this in the new game. In fact, it could be rife with them but I can say that I didn’t find anything that surprising and I was looking.
The core issue I have with the immediate world is that it was too efficiently designed. There are different paths and doors to hack, storage units to break into, etc. but almost everything is there for a purpose. Every ladder, every vent, every corridor is there as part of some type of quest. Too many times I was called back to a room I had already broken into (the hacker in my character can’t stand a locked door) for some scripted event to happen. Without the reward of finding new places and secrets, I almost felt as though it was pointless to explore since the game would effectively take me to every place worth going. That’s not a good feeling in a Deus Ex game.
This part has spoilers for both Deus Ex and DX:HR [skip]
Finally, the story. Deus Ex had a lot of strong points, but its story was the strongest. It was vast in its scope. Your point of view shifted wildly as you played through the game. You were surprised and betrayed and truly felt the effect of your choices.
DX:HR tries to pull off the same feat. It does a much better job than the sequel-that-shall-not-be-named, but I still ended the game disappointed. I feel like I anticipated every twist and turn. The first time we heard of Pan… Pan… Panchaea? However you spell the arctic research facility, I knew I was going to be visiting it. The LIMB clinic biochip replacement because of the glitches? I knew that I should avoid it. The instant that it was revealed that Dr. Reed was “dead” I knew she wasn’t (although I admit I doubted myself when reading her autopsy).
I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I can never play a Deus Ex game for the first time again. Maybe I’m just not 15 anymore, but I’ve convinced myself that it’s more than mere experience that’s made the difference.
I felt that the choices that I made were of much less consequence than in the first game. This might be another place where I’m making an ass out of myself because I’ve only done one play through so I haven’t really seen how things could’ve turned out, however I feel that I have a grasp on the scope of the choices. On re-evaluating the choices in the first game I guess that they didn’t really have much effect on the overall story, but they had a psychological effect and they weren’t always obvious. The best example from the original is that I didn’t know, until my third play through (or so) that you could stay back (despite his urging) and save your brother, Paul. I always just assumed that I was supposed to run and he was supposed to die. Admittedly if you save him or he dies it has little effect in the long run (in one mission you have to recover his body if he’s dead, otherwise you don’t that’s about it — other than having him around your home base) but it’s psychological. I saved my brother, that’s important. Another big choice in the original was to kill Agent Navarre in the airplane. Basically you’re choosing whether you defect from UNATCO now or later, and the difference is very slight in the overarching storyline, but psychologically at the time of making the choice you feel like you have reached a giant fork and that feeling is all that’s important. DX:HR evoked no such feelings and each choice was obviously presented. The choice whether or not to frame Taggart is fun, but it’s effect is immediate and you never feel like it’s going to change the next steps of the game in any important way. Same with the biochip replacement.
I also mentioned betrayal. In the original Deus Ex, there was nothing more mind-blowing than escaping a prison complex full of secret police only to realize it’s in the basement of the department you used to work for. Yep, this super secret prison is actually right there where you happily and obliviously worked for the first couple of missions. It was totally shocking. That’s not a twist you can anticipate just by being aware of common cultural tropes.
The story suffers from the same fatal flaw that the level design did though. It’s effective and not much more. I can say that the story left me in the dark in terms of what I was going to be doing next, up until the very end. I didn’t know I was going to Shanghai until I was two minutes from being there. When I woke up in a cargo pod in Singapore, it was news to me. The story does have that going for it: it got me from one place to another with a purpose. If this was any other game that would be enough, Half-life even made its name doing this. But this isn’t just any game, this is Deus Ex.
The original story dealt with the Illuminati, the world government, secessionists. Conspiracy on an unknown number of levels that you had been thrust into as a wildcard. This story attempted to weave those elements into it (the Illuminati are mentioned, the crazy radio DJ ranting about the Bilderbergs, etc.) but failed to really make me feel like I was taking part until the last minute. In essence, the new storyline was attempting to weave conspiracy and corporate espionage into the main story, which was the most basic and utterly
over done classic save-the-girl storyline. Here’s the true problem: JC Denton was a government operative that felt betrayed by the system that created him. JC was out for Truth with a capital T. The Truth to destroy those that had made and subsequently deceived him. Adam Jensen, as much as I loved playing him, was a bodyguard trying to get his woman back.
Don’t get me wrong, this game was a lot of fun. I’m already planning another play through because, despite the fact that the choices were obvious and anemic, I’m interested in how the game changed and how it would play if I couldn’t open literally every door and hack every computer I found. It’ll also be nice to try out some of the more aggressive augmentations. Perhaps on this run through I’ll discover secrets and realize my previous statements are false or come to a greater appreciation of the game in general.
All in all, it’s worth it to check out, even if it isn’t as good as the original. This is definitely not a game that will be forgotten and it gives me hope that the next iteration will be even better. Hopefully, with strong reviews and sales, we won’t have to wait another 10 years either.