Sunday, 25 September 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Impressions


Disclaimer: This opinion piece is based on the "Give me Deus Ex" difficulty (i.e. highest difficulty) - while the article notes which parts are likely to differ in gameplay due to difficulty, a few discrepancies might occur.

Additionally, this article contains copious amount of spoilers; read at your discretion.

The Deus Ex brand (derived from the "deus ex machina" literary technique) has become a household name among PC gaming circles ever since the first game's release in 2000; presenting a rare degree of coherent and involving storytelling, intelligent design, a gripping narrative and - above all - the hitherto unseen ability of multiple paths across any of the game's levels.

The game is generous with its flavor text, ranging
from emails and public announcements...

Now, after eleven years (and a surprisingly mediocre sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War), the franchise returns with Human Revolution. The game is styled as a prequel to the original, featuring a dystopian society that has begun to witness the next degree of human advancement; bio-mechanical augmentation of the human body, ranging from minor prosthesis (such as cognitive aids) to full body-part replacement.

The game spends a great deal of energy to develop a believable world; the environments are designed in such a way as to reflect the recent technological advancements, the various overheard conversations hint at the side-effects of such breakthroughs, even discarded newspapers and compromised mail accounts color the world with a pessimistic, dystopian hue - this also presents one of the title's minor problems, as most of the "flavor" text is easy to miss for a player not in the appropriate frame of mind, rewarding careful exploration and a slower pace while "penalizing" faster, all-guns-blazing approaches (something which the developer fails to communicate to the player properly).

...to overheard conversations in the streets of
any of the major city hubs.

In fact, the entire game seems to be favoring the stealthier approach to any given problem; neutralizing opponents without killing them, hacking doors and security systems (even when having the correct login credentials), finding side-passages (almost always ventilation shafts) and completing objectives without being detected will always award more experience than their more combat-heavy parallels.

This would not be a problem normally, except that the game has been marketed heavily as a "suit all styles" game - rewarding one play style while penalizing the other (by withholding said rewards) seems like a bad design choice, especially when with some tweaking it would have made a more (apparently) fair and even system (for example, while there is a "No Detection" bonus, there could also be a "Clear All Enemies" bonus to accommodate players of a more aggressive mindset).

DX: HR sadly rewards stealth far better than
aggressive playing, despite previous indications.
The game begins with protagonist Adam Jensen getting a tour of Sarif Industries (one of the game's major factions), where he works as a chief of security; it is worth noting that at the onset, Adam is not augmented - the game does a great job of highlighting his vulnerability, with large groups of enemies proving to be vastly difficult challenges (as one would expect realistically), although the final fire-fight might be a bit too hard (on the highest difficulty setting - I assume lower difficulties have an easier time of the encounter).


At the tutorial's end, in which Sarif Industries is invaded by a mercenary army which massacres the on-site personnel, Adam sustains heavy injuries; this allows the game to introduce the augmentation mechanic, which has been used in an effort to save Jensen's life. The developers opted for a free-form upgrade system; each of the possible augmentations (corresponding to various body parts) can be acquired by spending Praxis points (earned via in-game items and at specific experience point thresholds) - there is no preset path of upgrades; every upgrade is available at any point in the game, provided the player has the required Praxis to unlock it.

The inventory system is highly intuitive; note the
ability to rotate any item to fit.
This offers a wide variety of approaches and play-styles throughout the early levels - sadly this does not persist, as by mid-game a particularly stealth-oriented character can gain enough exp. and Praxis kits to unlock nearly every augmentation (though upgrading them all takes a good deal more time). This eventually robs the game of replayability - from a certain point onwards Adam reaches a "default" level of power, diminishing the upgrade mechanic to a mere point-sink.


The augmentations themselves are interesting for the most part, offering a wide variety of tools to suit each play-style: from the stealthier "Glass Shield Cloaking System" augmentation that renders Adam near-invisible for a limited amount of time, to the more aggressive "Typhoon Explosive System" augmentation that blasts nearby enemies, to the more exploration-centric "Icarus Landing System" which allows Jensen to fall off great heights with no injury.

The augmentation mechanic feels highly rewarding,
even if it offers its entire contents after a certain point.
The energy system for these abilities has been balanced against overuse; every single activated ability (including silent takedowns, stealth, breaking down walls and running silently) shares a common energy pool - while it depletes in a rapid fashion, the final "cell" recharges over time, ensuring both that players are less likely to get irrevocably stuck and are rewarded for conservative use.

The combat itself is weirdly balanced; as mentioned above, stealthy characters are rewarded over their action-oriented counterparts, which is itself the result of both the level design and experience system - the levels favor stealth, with multiple side-routes built into nearly all combat areas, while experience awarded for stealth/non-lethal methods outweighs its more direct/lethal analogues.

Boss fights, the game's second-worst element, was
apparently outsourced to a different studio.
Sadly, while the general combat and navigation is well-executed (if a bit stealth-oriented), the boss fights are a different story. At specific points in the game, certain characters will challenge Adam to one-on-one combat (usually after a cutscene); these NPC's are badly characterized, with no apparent motivation nor reason for wanting to hinder the player's progress - these fights are also very combat-oriented, presenting an unfair disadvantage to players who (up to that point) had to rely on stealth and hacking skills to advance.

This shift in pacing is also apparent in the game's finale, which has Adam literally decide on the ending by activating the corresponding console, thus invalidating (in a certain degree) the choices the player has taken up to that point - all while being spoon-fed a good deal of exposition by one of the game's NPC's. The endings themselves are also highly disappointing: each consisting of a short collection of still images coupled with Adam's narration, who justifies his choice - no mention is made of the fates of the game's major factions or characters, thus denying closure to the player.

Ultimately, while the game succeeds in building a consistent, believable world with an intriguing narrative and an interesting combat implementation, its shifts in focus (boss fights), unfairly balanced experience/augmentation system (stealth vs. combat) and disappointing endings rob it of the all-time classic status.

Resources
=======
* Deus Ex: Human Revolution Official Site (requires age check)
* Deus Ex Series - Wikipedia Entry
* Deus Ex Wiki
* "Deus ex machina" - Wikipedia Entry

1 comment:

  1. So it fails to live up to the name of its predecessor?

    ReplyDelete