Future Perfect

Making a Deus Ex game can be no mean feat. With so many facets and variables to account for in its design and writing, it’s little wonder there have been so few games, if any, quite like it. A ground-breaking RPG blending shooting, sneaking, and everything in between, Ion Storm’s original Deus Ex from 2000 is highly regarded as an all-time gaming classic, granting you unprecedented freedom to shape its story and tackle any objective however you please in its darkly realised cyberpunk setting. Its sequel, on the other hand, 2003’s Invisible War, is less fondly remembered. While still an enjoyable game in its own right, Ion Storm’s attempts to make the follow-up more accessible resulted in the team scaling back Deus Ex’s defining traits and diluting the formula (universal ammo system, anyone?), losing some of the magic that made the first game so special, incurring the wrath of its fans, and forever cementing Invisible War’s status as the black sheep of the series. Even for its creators, replicating the original Deus Ex’s successes proved to be a steep challenge, and so it was with great trepidation that a third game, a ‘true sequel’, was awaited.

There were numerous attempts at developing a third Deus Ex game. Ion Storm themselves tried it twice, first with Deus Ex: Insurrection and then an open-world take on the franchise only ever referred to as Deus Ex 3. Project Snowblind, Crystal Dynamics’ last game before taking over Tomb Raider, was also originally intended to be part of the Deus Ex canon, but ultimately became its own thing after Invisible War underperformed. And so, having shipped Thief: Deadly Shadows in 2004 and unable to get a new project off the ground afterwards, Ion Storm shuttered its doors a year later in 2005, before which Deus Ex mastermind Warren Spector had moved on to eventually partner up with Mickey Mouse. If Deus Ex was ever going to have a future, then, a new team would have to be sought to take up the mantle.

Luckily for fans and the franchise, that team would be Eidos Montreal, a team purpose-built to revive Deus Ex (and later Thief) for a new generation of players and hardware with all the requisite upgrades. The studio was officially opened and the game formerly announced together in November 2007, but being such a big and complex game to develop, and Eidos Montreal’s work ethic being comparatively smaller teams working over prolonged development cycles, it wasn’t until August 2011 that the game finally hit shelves. To the relief of fans, and no doubt the developers too, the wait was well worth it.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution delivered the goods on every front and more. It adeptly recaptured the spirit of its forebear – putting player choice at the centre of the game – while simultaneously and just as capably updating its vast feature set to suit modern standards. Unlike the original, which was more than the sum of its parts, none of Human Revolution’s systems or mechanics could be accused of being subpar. Stealthy tacticians were proficiently catered for with a wealth of tools and techniques at their disposal, careful players able to complete the game without raising a single alarm; an intuitive Rainbow Six: Vegas-inspired third-person cover system complemented robust first-person gunplay, a logical and worthy addition to Deus Ex’s combat which proved the ‘dumbed down’- proclaiming detractors wrong (coincidentally, Game Director Jean-François Dugas also worked on the Tom Clancy shooter); and the AI remained consistent across the board no matter your approach, remaining unaware of ghost players or responding in kind to loud aggressors.

Even by today’s criteria, Human Revolution hits a lot of the right notes. You can legitimately play the game as a laser-focused, dedicated stealth game or a straight-up, cover-based shooter to rival some of the finest in each respective genre, but it is perhaps best played as a mix of both, adapting and improvising on the fly, circumventing obstacles with intuition and ingenuity, making the most of your inventory and surroundings. This, coming at a time when FPS games were in something of a rut, meant Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex revival really was the thinking man’s shooter. It was, quite aptly, a revolution.

A prequel to the original, Human Revolution takes place twenty-five years prior to J.C. Denton’s conspiracy embroiling in the now not too distant year of 2027, presenting us with an at once striking and unique vision of a future not totally out of the realms of believability. Eidos Montreal’s stylised depiction of 2027, complete with around one-hundred fake brands and lots of triangles in its art design, is still recognisably today’s world, and that’s because the team looked at contemporary and forthcoming real-word inspirations in various different fields rather than recycle the same old sci-fi tropes we’ve come to expect. For instance, Eidos Montreal’s outspoken Art Director, Jonathan Jaques-Belletete, looked at architectural designs for buildings that were being constructed or were in planning stages during development to help lend an air of credibility. On top of that, along with the Renaissance, Baroque, and Icarus myth influences, the more obvious pop culture inspirations can inescapably still be recognised (with a few crafty hidden references, too), but ultimately the golden-hued era of Cyber Renaissance in Human Revolution provides the game an artistic flair and identity that is entirely its own, something the original never had. While it wasn’t blowing anyone away graphically on release, some janky character models and stiff animations holding it back, the strength of the art direction alone is what makes Human Revolution stand out even today.

You play as Adam Jensen, ex-SWAT and newly appointed Security Manager for Detroit-based biotechnology corporation, Sarif Industries, who are quite literally on the eve of announcing a major breakthrough in human augmentation at the game’s start, one which will make cybernetic (not nano) enhancements accessible and, crucially, affordable to all. But, as the opening cutscene reveals, shadowy conspirators, complete with distorted voices and blanked-out faces on computer screens, have their own plans for humanity’s future.

Following a brief on-rails tour of Sarif’s research labs, followed by a chat with boss David Sarif, the facility comes under attack. The labs and research are destroyed, Sarif’s top scientists are seemingly killed (including Adam’s ‘are they, aren’t they’ ex-girlfriend, Megan Reed), and Jensen himself comes out of it a little worse for the wear to say the least. Close to death and his body broken beyond repair, David Sarif himself authorises a lifesaving operation on Adam, rebuilding him with his company’s top cybernetics, essentially turning him into the bionic man – new legs, new arms, new spine, the works. No, he may not have asked for it, but soon Adam (and more predominantly we) will come to appreciate his newly mechanised body and the superhuman abilities they permit in his globe-spanning, conspiracy-laden quest for answers.

We catch up with Adam six months later when he is prematurely called back to work to deal with a hostage crisis at a nearby manufacturing plant of Sarif’s on Milwaukee Junction. Primarily, though, he’s sent in to secure the top-secret Typhoon Explosive System, an advanced augmentation demoed during the prologue’s tour sequence and designed for the military (but also available to Adam), before the local police can storm the place and potentially let the cat out of the bag. Strolling into the lobby of the equally still recovering Sarif HQ, showing off his built-in sunglasses as he goes, Jensen is ordered by David Sarif to hurry to the helipad out the back, declaring “lives are at stake”. Take too long getting your retinal display fixed and nosing around the offices, however, and there soon won’t be any lives left to be at stake. The hostages can potentially be killed before you even start the mission, and this is Deus Ex teaching you a valuable lesson, that you’re actions (or in this case inactions) and choices can have major consequences not only for yourself but others as well. There are only more and bigger ones to come later on.

Your next choice comes en route to the factory: do you go in lethal or non-lethal, and do you want something suited for close quarters or distance? A trivial decision, you might think, but your answers will ultimately determine your playstyle during the upcoming mission, and considering it’s all you’ll be going in with, you need to choose wisely. A Stun Gun, Tranquilizer Rifle, Revolver, or Combat Rifle will be handed to you depending on your preferences before being dropped off on the plant’s roof and let loose, but you’re still very much in tutorial territory here. While the prologue taught you how to take cover and fire a gun, and the visit to Sarif HQ educated those who dallied too long about the consequences of their actions, here you’re enlightened to the numerous ways you can play Deus Ex. Even during this early stage, and without any extra augmentations to boot, there are still multiple routes and methods to achieve your goal. Fight your way through the front door or sneak in unseen via a vent on the roof; hide unconscious bodies in unpatrolled spaces or litter the corridors with bullet-ridden and retractable arm blade-lacerated corpses; save the hostages (providing they aren’t already dead) and talk down the terrorist leader or only get what you came for and kill the man in charge? The choices, and the resulting consequences, are yours.

With the Typhoon secured and the hostages either saved or killed, Adam is returned to Sarif HQ where Deus Ex begins proper. The first of two relatively small but compact city hubs (a third was planned), Detroit is where the sheer magnitude of options and approaches available to you becomes clear as you’re set free to forge your own path forward. While there are extracurricular activities to take part in, your main objective here is to get into the local police station’s morgue and procure the neural hub of an augmented hacker who involuntarily killed himself back at Milwaukee Junction. There are plenty of ways to get inside, the most sensible being to smooth-talk your way in, allowing you to freely roam around certain parts of the station and grab the hub without any trouble. Failing that, you can gain access from the sewers or up on the roof with some good old-fashioned problem solving and an extra augmentation or two. Or you could just go all-out Arnie and blast your way in, but it’s not advisable, although still entirely possible, to take on an entire police station singlehandedly at this early stage.

It’s a similar story later on in the game’s second hub, Hengsha Island, a city where the old has literally been overlaid with the new. Tasked with infiltrating an apartment complex guarded by a PMC, you can fight your way in through the front door, crawl through ventilation ducts to circumvent potential confrontations, or climb to the roof and enter via the emergency exit. After that? Get inside the Hive nightclub, which can be achieved either by possessing a VIP pass (which can be grabbed in a nearby hotel), descend to the sewer to find a more discreet way in, or pay an extortionate fee to the bouncer (or simply take him out).

This is typical Deus Ex, handing you total authorship of what you do, where you do it, and how you go about it. Granted, there are many games these days which let you choose your approach, but whereas in most cases the choice usually boils down to a binary selection of sneaking or shooting your way down one set path, Deus Ex’s intricate and intelligent level design means you have complete freedom to progress however and wherever you see fit. Social, hacking, combat and stealth; these are the four core pillars of Deus Ex. It goes hand in hand with the augmentations you’ve opted for, of course. Spend your Praxis Kits on upgrading the strength of Adam’s arms and you’ll be able to punch your way through weakened walls, though explosives will work just as well. Pour them into his hacking skills (like BioShock, hacking involves a rather fun minigame with elements of risk and reward) and you can attempt to bypass locked doors protected by higher levels of security, if you don’t have the correct passcode to hand, that is. Plump for the Icarus Landing System and you can drop from great heights without smashing your cyborg innards over the floor, meaning dropping in from the roof of the building next door is a viable option when applicable. Even in the more funnelled levels between visits to the hubs, there’s always more than one way forward.

Being an RPG, there is more to do in the city hubs than the main task at hand. Be it the dark and dirty back alleys of Detroit, or the cramped, neon-lit streets of Hengsha, there’s plenty awaiting to be uncovered. Stack some boxes up to climb atop an abandoned petrol station to get your hands on a free Sniper Rifle, descend an elevator shaft to locate a Praxis Kit to unlock a new augmentation, or try your hand at a little basketball to unlock the Balls Achievement/Trophy. In terms of side-quests, while not as abundant as Skyrim or Fallout, none of Human Revolution’s selection falls into the typical, bog-standard fetch-quest structure. Assist a former colleague to take down a dirty cop, put a grieving mother’s mind to rest, or help your trusty pilot solve a friend’s murder. These are all meaty, varied, and well-crafted endeavours to get stuck into, and, with the exception of one quest with answers deliberately left hanging, all have satisfying payoffs.

Completing side-quests also grants healthy doses of XP, of course, needed to unlock appropriate new augmentations for Adam, increasingly making him more (or should that be less) than human. While some Praxis Kits can be found hidden out in the world, most will come from earning set amounts of XP through natural play. And, luckily, XP is quite literally awarded for everything. Discovered a hidden route? Have some XP. Scored a clean headshot? Here’s your reward. Made it through an area undetected? Fill your boots. While it’s true the more stealthy and pacifistic approaches do receive the bigger XP handouts – making it through an area without being seen, taking a life, or setting off an alarm does require more effort, after all – you aren’t penalised for taking a more gung-ho approach. This is Deus Ex, and there is no right or wrong way to play. Sure, purists may prefer a no-kills, stealth-focused playthrough, but your Adam Jensen doesn’t have to be a saint. He can just as capably be a cantankerous, murderous bastard if you wish, taking no prisoners, accepting bribes from crooked cops, and only looking out for number one.

For those who prefer to be something of a Jack-of-all-trades, the game is designed flexibly enough that you can specialise in one particular playstyle while dipping your toes into another or two. You can’t max out your augs completely, but you can, say, be a master of stealth, a proficient hacker and reasonably handy in a fight. You can mix and match your augs as you please, perhaps fully upgrading the invisibility-granting Glass-Shield Cloaking System and Stealth Enhancer (allowing you to see vision cones, tag enemies and monitor noise levels), upping your hacking skills so you can turn security measures against their owners, and also bagging the double takedown-permitting Quicksilver Reflex Booster and previously mentioned Typhoon Explosive System for those desperate moments when your backed into a corner. Alternatively, you can do it the other way around, exhausting most of the combative augmentations while only touching on the more stealth oriented ones.

It’s just as well you can branch out, because although the level design does cater for a number of playstyles, Human Revolution’s forced and jarringly archaic boss battles are the exception. These are four instances where you are locked in a room in a fight to the death (representing the only four characters you have to kill), which means if you’ve invested your Praxis Kits into stealth and hacking augmentations, you can find it very difficult to progress (the Typhoon is your Get Out Of Jail Free card here); these are largely straight-up gunfights in enclosed spaces with little or no room to think outside the box. Universally panned, they’re uncharacteristically obtuse blotches on what is otherwise an impeccably designed game, and although they were outsourced to Grip Entertainment, Eidos Montreal eventually took the blame for not implementing them correctly. They would, however, go on to handle the pseudo boss battle for DLC The Missing Link much better, and later rejig the base game’s for Deus Ex: Human Revolution –Director’s Cut, which came to Wii U as well as the original release consoles two years later.

Human Revolution’s bosses were its only major stumbling block, though. Some people found the gold highlighting of interactive objects distracting (it can be switched off in the Options menu), others found the augmentation’s somewhat meagre battery system restrictive (careful resource management and/or a few upgrades can solve this), and there were numerous complaints aimed towards the pre-set endings, almost a year before the Mass Effect 3 debacle (let’s not open that can of worms again). But considering how much it does, how well it does it, and how long it does it for, the odd niggle is wholly understandable. To play it at its fullest, Human Revolution is a whopping thirty-hour cyberpunk RPG with true replayability unlike anything else of its time. It was a once in a generation kind of game, earning the blessing of Warren Spector and going on to sell 2.18 million copies in its first three months.

And now that success is only likely to continue. Following the mobile outing Deus Ex: The Fall in 2013, the next chapter of the Deus Ex saga is the newly released Mankind Divided, a direct sequel to Human Revolution and the first game to be released under Eidos Montreal’s transmedia Deus Ex Universe banner. Like all good sequels, Mankind Divided improves upon its predecessor in every conceivable way, but that’s not to say those who didn’t play Human Revolution should skip it. As the first game in the series chronologically, Human Revolution makes for an excellent entry point into the series for anyone yet to experience Deus Ex, and is naturally a perfect primer to Mankind Divided for those who’ve only played the earlier outings. It’s also just a great game in itself, even today in a world shared by Dishonored and Metal Gear solid V. So, while Mankind Divided may be the one currently stealing all the headlines, those yet to embark on the revolution are highly recommended to experience it from the beginning.

Last five articles by Tim


One Comment

  1. Chris Chris says:

    Man, Deus Ex is such an amazing series.

    The original is probably still the best in terms of scale and scope. It’s quite frankly insane by the standards of the time it was created. I played through that whole game and didn’t even think to try half the stuff that I ended up doing the second, third and fourth time round. Even now, some of it probably still remains hidden to me.

    Invisible War divided everyone – I remember hearing people being genuinely upset that it just wasn’t as good, rather than getting in a rage about it. I enjoyed Invisible War for what it was – it is the weakest in the series but it is still an excellent video game in its own right (even if the universal ammo thing was a little game breaking at times).

    When Human Revolution was announced, everyone went nuts, myself included. These games are my bread and butter and without their success, things like Dishonored wouldn’t exist in the same manner that they do.

    I’m currently replaying Human Revolution for a third time and attempting it on the hardest difficulty, all guns blazing. My previous two playthroughs had been pure stealth. I’m just about to enter the police station and tbh, I have no idea how it’s all gonna go down.

    Badly, I think.

    Great article Tim, well done.

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