Detroit, 2027. As predicted by just about every video game ever, the future is a bleak, smoggy dystopia bolted together on Blade Runner’s soundstage, and stuffed with set props and extras from Robocop. Biomechanical “augmentation” is all the rage among the upper classes and private military, while the proles wave denouncing slogans outside Sarif Industries HQ downtown, mostly because they’re pissed they can’t afford eyeball-powered lasers.
You’re Adam Jensen, former SWAT commander turned Sarif Industries’ chief security officer, and card-carrying member of the ultra-exclusive Trenchcoat and Goatee Club (“Bringing back 1998!”). As events get going, you find yourself on the business end of a black ops infiltration operation, and everything goes quickly from bad to so, so much worse.
Oh, it’s the oldest story in bleak, smoggy dystopian future history – global conspiracy and grasping, self-interested corporate scheming at the expense of real people. But quite in spite of its predictable narrative convolutions, Deus Ex: Human Revolution has turned out to be an extraordinary trip through the vents and email correspondences of virtual reality.
The world itself is realised with breathtaking conviction – from the slummy streets of Motor City to the slummy streets of Shanghai and back again, Deus Ex thrills every super-enhanced nerve. Rarely does a game manage to present such a compelling and authentically immersive space to play.
The backend systems do a pretty good job of keeping things together too. As a newly augmented human, you’ve got access to an impressive array of Sarif Industries-endorsed self-improvements, prominently featuring hacking, stealth, and physical boosters, which you can activate as you do stuff, gain XP, and level up, or simply buy the necessary Praxis Kits at your local LIMB clinic. Just don’t wonder why Sarif Industries didn’t max those out on your behalf and save you heaps of cash and personal endangerment, or you’ll break the fourth wall and you probably won’t much like what’s on the other side (chip crumbs, taxes, you).
Full frontal combat is serviceable enough, although the real Deus Ex experience is playing it subtle. In fact, if you’re not playing this on the hardest difficulty, and going for the no kill and no alarms Achievements / Trophies / whatever they’re called on PC these days, you’re not playing Deus Ex, you’re playing some limp-wristed pretender.
While not quite as sophisticated as something like Thief or even The Chronicles of Riddick, the game’s cover- and augmentation-supported stealth gameplay is based around enemy line of sight and senses, and makes for some brilliantly tense moments. The enemy AI is terrifyingly quick to adapt to changing circumstances, and even the best-laid plans can instantly turn to total disaster with just one peek over a desk at the wrong moment.
Alongside the standard ordnance register of pistols and rocket launchers, there are also a bunch of permanent but non-lethal conflict intervention negotiators, including a tranquiliser rifle and a stun gun for the long- and short-range respectively. If you’re able to get up close and personal, there’s also a hands-on takedown manoeuvre that’ll knock out or kill enemies (YOU DECIDE!), and the gentle kiss goodbye is implied.
Elsewhere, hacking plays a big part in Deus Ex, and perhaps for the first time ever, the designers responsible for putting this together have produced a mini-game that’s actually rather fine. The big idea is to link nodes on a network until you’ve cracked it, with some nodes transferring bonus XP or cash if you can capture them successfully. Each node captured increases the risk of detection, which when triggered starts a countdown that’ll boot you off if you don’t complete the hack in time. Some augmentations can make this process much easier, and there are also collectible one-shot software packages to help you out in a fix.
Hacking won’t just open doors, mind you, but with the application of specific augmentations, you can also control cameras, turrets, and enemy robots. In other words, it’s a fundamental gameplay mechanic that can dramatically alter emergent contingencies, and investing points in these augmentations is kind of a non-option.
Which brings me around to my one major problem with Deus Ex – the boss battles. At the end of each chapter, you’ll square off with some suddenly significant antagonist who just sort of turns up out of nowhere. If you’ve been gun-rushing through the game, this isn’t likely to be of much consequence, but if you’re all spec’ed out for ghost ops, these encounters can find you dismayingly unprepared.
After trying and failing for about half an hour to deal with the first boss in the game, I eventually had to reload an earlier save, and spend another hour or so moving back through the previous area and gearing up. I didn’t make the same mistake a second time, but the entire boss battle premise just seems so out of place here anyway.
This issue notwithstanding, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an absolutely terrific game that shows its production budget on every neon-lit, inner-city billboard. In between its astonishing scale and clever, You Choose! gameplay, it’s like a template for how other games should be. Expect to see it grab every GOTY award this year.
Not sure what all the fuss is about? Catch up on all of Deus Ex’s history here.