Deus Ex: Human Revolution Hands-On Preview
When Deus Ex was released back in the summer of 2000, PC gamers marveled at its ability to weave a solid narrative in between bouts of frantic action and RPG skill-building. With a unique and original take on the first person shooter formula, players were able to tackle a high-tech dystopia and forge their own path through many important choices and three vastly different endings. For many, the thing that made Deus Ex so forward-thinking was its high-level discussion of things like terrorism, corporate rule, and patriotism. It was also a unique game for its time; a Deus Ex made after September 11, 2001 would have been very, very different.
Many gamers showed an immediate lack of faith when Eidos, still a functioning entity but now under the Square Enix umbrella, announced a prequel by a team comprised of not even one person that worked at ION Storm, the studio that made the first two games. Few tie-ins that come out this long after the original are very good, and on the surface it can easily look like a vapid attempt at a cash-in on a big name. But the difference here is that Deus Ex had almost all of its success on PC, and bringing a shovelware game with that name on it wouldn't mean much to the console crowd. Much like Bethesda did with Fallout 3, Eidos Montreal seems to understand that if you're going to resurrect a perfectly good name like Deus Ex and bring it to both the original audience and a new one, youíve got to make a damn good game.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution's setting captures a technological renaissance brought forth in the 2020s, when mechanically augmented people (who eventually became rustbuckets themselves by the time we catch up to them in the first DX) spark the questions of what it means to be human, and who controls the future that we eventually see in the original game. Things do seem much more high-tech in this prequel, but this is actually well-supported in both games' mythology as a sort of global economic collapse, probably some time shortly after Human Revolution's timeline, that yanks the world backwards.
But thatís in the 2050s. In Human Revolution, itís 2026 and youíre playing as Adam Jensen, an ex-SWAT security director for a biotech firm called Sarif Industries. Jensen's ex, Megan Reed, is a researcher also at Sarif, and she's just made a huge discovery that allows for rapid and fundamental changes to human DNA. On the eve of the trip to Washington where Sarif will testify in front of Congress to hopefully make this new tech legal, the company's headquarters is attacked. In the tutorial-styled gunfights that start the game, Jensen takes out a few armor-suited enemies, but he quickly finds himself overwhelmed by mechanically augmented foes with incredible strength and superhuman abilities.
I got the chance to play a full three hours starting at the game's introduction, and I can tell you right now that this is going to be one of the most intriguing, thought-provoking games released this year. Usually, games with original and unique plotlines or art styles like this are made by an independent team - stuff like The Void, Braid, Limbo, or Amnesia come to mind - but it's rare to see a AAA-level game try these things. For me, this game is likely to go further to bring in scholarly-level philosophy and thinking than any major title since, well, Deus Ex. Much like with the original DX, your conversations with people often can lead to waxing philosophical on a number of topics, many of which are entirely new to the series, but from what I got to play, these elements are also reflected in Jensen's memories and psyche as well. Your plot-oriented choices will reflect how you personally want to see the world change, and the consequences are not always what you expect them to be.
Much has been said about Human Revolution's visuals and music, and while I'd like to focus on how it plays in this preview, I can't avoid it. This game looks brilliant. It's not really about texture quality or polygon counts, as from a technical perspective, the console versions look comparable to most modern day shooters. But it's the art and design that gets you. This game, draped in a gold or sepia tone, brings in Renaissance fashion with a vision of a high-tech tomorrow, and the end effect is entirely unique and completely stunning. The music evokes past Deus Ex themes while bringing them to new places, and the voice acting is right on par with what you expect (but don't always get) from a good story-based game. Human Revolution's presentation is superbly high-class, and the glimpses we've got from other areas of the game - from last year's E3 demonstration - show that this continues on past the first couple of hours, too.
With all of that said, it's important to note that most of your time in Human Revolution won't be spent ogling the architecture, debating transhumanism or waxing philosophical on the potential loss of humanity as various body parts are replaced with, well, spare parts. This is not a conversation simulator. As Jensen, you'll be on a hunt for the perpetrators of a pretty big global conspiracy that starts with the attack on Sarif, and that means that while you do get to explore and talk to people in non-combat areas, a majority of your time is spent in first-person gunfights, sneaking, and espionage.
On to some of the action and combat. Much like ION Storm's original, the structure of Human Revolution sends you on a linear path from one city or level to another, but once you arrive, you'll be free to explore streets, find nooks and crannies, and often come up with at least a couple of solutions for almost all of your objectives. You'll make use of multiple augmentations, including the ability to increase your speed, agility, or strength. You'll be able to track multiple enemies and avoid them or just quietly finish them off, and you'll be able to see weaknesses in enemy patrols or structures or even peer right through walls. And then there are the melee takedowns where spikes protrude from your elbows and you stab people with them in brutally satisfying fashion. You'll get extra bonuses (like additional XP which leads to more augmentations you can install or upgrade) for dealing with things in one of the many non-Call of Duty ways that the developers have set up for you.
In fact, playing this game like a Michael Bay-inspired shooter is discouraged in quite a few ways. You'll be able to get away with it sometimes if you've got solid aim and a bit of perseverance, yes, but it's much easier (and, from what I played, more satisfying and fun) to at least lead into gunfights with some kind of edge. That could mean hacking computers and turrets to turn the tide, sneaking into a good position, or just by using a strength augmentation to hold a huge vending machine in your hands, using it to block enemy fire - and then you throw it at someone's face before you pull out your weapon.
The variety and handling of weapons is a vitally important part of any first person shooter, since the weapon is such a prominent part of a player's view into the world. Even though you do have a real RPG-style inventory in Human Revolution to allow you to carry multiple, upgradeable guns, you can't possibly fit them all into the space given. You're going to have to choose what to keep and what to throw away, and this is where a lot of Human Revolutionís RPG elements start affecting the combat. You'll have room for lots of extra support items if you can get rid of a few guns, and bringing that rocket launcher along means you'll likely have to go without other, useful stuff for some sections.
During the first combat mission, you'll get the choice of a revolver or combat rifle on the lethal side, or a stun gun or tranquilizer dart-firing rifle (with scope!) on the non-lethal side. You only get to choose one, and while there are weapons you can pick up from incapacitated or dead foes in that first mission, your choice of gear before the mission even starts will greatly influence your style of play. Going non-lethal offers both a higher risk and a better reward, as you'll get more XP for non-lethal takedowns, but enemies that you haven't dealt with can wake up the ones that you've only knocked out. There is a way to go through the game without killing a single normal enemy, but from what we understand, bosses are the exception: through careful conversation choices, you can talk your way out of at least some boss fights, but at some point you will have to finish off at least one of them. (That was the intent of Deus Ex as well, although some players figured out tricks to dodge fights that were intended to be unavoidable.)
While Human Revolution won't be laying out a fully free-roaming universe to explore, you won't find yourself in a corridor-shaped tunnel leading to every goal, one at a time. It's up to you to search around to find alternate paths to infiltrate, attack, or escape. You can go on the direct assault if you like, too, and your choices for how to improve your augmentations will generally influence the way you choose to finish your objectives. If you've been improving your stealth augs, then finding that air vent on the side of the building often leads you to the most success. Improve your ability to soak up direct damage, and shooting your way into the front door might work best. It seems unlikely that the best bet for most players is to avoid combat entirely, but if half of your enemies have met mysterious ends before the shooting starts, then you'll at least have a distinct advantage.
I did play around with the AI and stealth in the demo, using manual saves (yes, even on the 360 or PS3) to experiment with ways to take on a warehouse full of bad guys patrolling, guarding hostages, and ransacking the warehouse. What I found was that the AI has occasional moments of brilliance and sometimes moments of intense stupidity, so I canít really say this is a shining example of AI, but sometimes they will really surprise you. My melee takedown run was really pretty rough, as the spacing and timing of patrols left me very little time to do a non-lethal takedown and drag the guyís unconscious body into a dark corner. After watching someone else using the HUD-enhancing augmentations to see patrolsí cones of vision and track specific people on his little minimap, I was able to see that itís definitely viable.
One of the things that concerns a lot of hardcore PC fans is the fact that Human Revolution will be released on PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 simultaneously. They're concerned that the game will be oversimplified both in gameplay design and in the graphics department on PC in order to make the console versions easier to deliver. And hey, Deus Ex: Invisible War was one of the first games to really suffer from this issue, and this is one of the cases where it really did drastically change the way the whole thing was designed and then played.
It's true that from a gameplay standpoint, a few modern-day simplifications are included in Human Revolution, like a third-person cover system, regenerating health, and a few other tidbits, but what has been added does work well, and there's always some RPG element integral to these modern-day features. I did find that the cover system worked very well in switching from first- to third-person view and back, but the game's design itself doesn't actually require you use it if you have a particular style of play in mind. It's not like Mass Effect 2 or Gears of War, where you pretty much have to shoot from behind cover in nearly every fight just to survive.
I didn't get to go hands-on with the PC version, although that's a common thing when a developer is bringing their game across the country to show it off - packing up a half-dozen huge gaming PCs for flights is a pretty serious pain in the ass. What I will say is that if we get a solid mouse-and-keyboard feel, a wide range of tweaking options for controls and graphics, and some way for people to install mods (whether it's developer-supported or not), then I think this will be a very worthy action-RPG on the PC.
From the perspective of a huge fan of the original Deus Ex, who loved it not just for its FPS action but for its RPG choices (for both the gameplay and the story) along with its uniquely controversial subject matter, I see the franchise going in entirely the right direction with Human Revolution. The verdict's still out on the full game, because even with two distinct sessions of the game's first three hours, I've only barely scratched the surface. If Eidos Montreal is able to maintain that level of charm, originality, and ambition throughout the whole game, then they definitely have a winner on their hands.