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Deus Ex: Human Revolution 360/PS3 Review

By Matt Cabral, 8/22/2011

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When I first met with Eidos Montrealís Deus Ex: Human Revolution team over a year ago, I didnít envy their position. With just over 12 months of development time to go on the title, they faced some daunting challenges. Not only would Human Revolution--their first title as a team--shape their reputation as game-makers, it would represent the reboot of one of the mediumís most cherished series for faithful fans, as well as the introduction of a potential new franchise for those who never experienced the original. Still hard at work and no doubt feeling the stress, they seemed cautiously optimistic about their odds on delivering the goods. When I sat with them just recently, however, their modestly positive outlook had morphed into humble, yet assured confidence. After soaking up 20-plus hours of the finished game, I now understand their newfound demeanor.

A prequel to the original commercial and critical success, Human Revolution delivers far beyond expectations. No, itís not a perfect game, but it does pull off the seemingly impossible feat of staying true to the originalís beloved spirit--something 2003Ďs sequel Invisible War struggled with--while delivering a standalone experience to match the high expectations spawned by this generationís best games. Not all of its individual elements will be embraced by everyone, especially those gamers still stuck in the year 2000, but taken as a whole, itís hard to deny whatĎs been achieved here. Human Revolution stands as one of the yearís best, but it does so without simply cribbing from a genre thatís already been done to death or polishing a familiar formula. Among the most popular titles of this generation--and their many clones-- it truly stands out as something refreshingly unique.

Taking place in the year 2027, the game puts players in the black trench coat of Adam Jensen. An ex-SWAT member, Jensenís now the head of security for a world-leading corporation that creates and manufactures augmentations, essentially cyber-prosthetics that not only replace things like bum knees, but also grant their owners Bionic Man-like abilities. From increased brain functionality to super-strong limbs, these enhancements are a medical miracle and a lucrative business to be in. Theyíre also at the center of Human RevolutionĎs conspiracy-spinning narrative, which sees pro- and anti-augmentation groups willing to kill in support of their beliefs and agendas. While the storyís packed with plenty of dramatic twists and turns, as well as shocking surprises and thrilling moments, it doesnít quite live up to its promise. Despite a few underdeveloped plot points and a feeling that not all the pieces fit into the final puzzle, the storyís generally engaging throughout; unfortunately, some undercooked voice acting, done no favors by equally unpolished character cutscene animations, occasionally yank you off the dramatic rollercoaster. Still, with its four possible endings and appealing global espionage vibe, the story is leaps and bounds better than most of the mediumís phoned-in narratives.

The real meat, of course, is the gameplay, and itís here Human Revolution exceeds expectations. Players can tackle the game stealthily, with bullet-flying force, or with some combination thereof. Plenty of titles have attempted to grant gamers this level of freedom, but most fall short in some key area; either they get the action right, but drop the ball with the stealth mechanics--and vice versa--or the so-called choices offered are actually scripted and directed beneath their seemingly freeform surface. Human Revolution nails both genres in a way that could stand toe-to-toe with dedicated shooters and stealth entries, but it also layers in tons of nuance and depth, yielding experiences that often land far outside the been-there-done-that box. Itís rarely an either/or experience, forcing you to sneakily snap necks or unleash bullet storms, but one that encourages and rewards both approaches.

It does this by seemingly accounting for players' unpredictable actions, then realistically reacting to them. When youíre detected by the enemy in most stealth games, all hell breaks loose and you end up in a body bag. In Human Revolution, however, breaking from a Sam Fisher-like approach only means youíll need to think fast, use cover, and start pumping that trigger finger. Conversely, if a firefight goes bad, you may be able to flee through an exhaust vent, hide out in a close-by room, or maybe hack a sentry bot and really turn the tide of battle. Some of the gameís most thrilling encounters are actually those that begin stealthily and end with a room full of corpses. On more than one occasion, when my cover was blown, I had to hunker down in a glass-walled office--like a bare-footed John McClane--while my fragile surroundings shattered all around me. Thankfully, retaliating once the glass shard storms subside is a blast due to Human Revolutionís varied arsenal. Sporting both heft and aurally pleasing effects, the weapons are a joy to wield.

The titleís non-linear level design mirrors and complements the emergent gameplay philosophy you see in both stealth and combat. Thereís never just one or even two set paths through an objective, but several, most of which can change dynamically as you progress. You can, for example, breach a locked room by hacking its lock, crawling through its exhaust event, or maybe acquiring its door code legitimately from an NPC. Things get more complicated when you consider the door could be guarded, the vent could be blocked by an object too heavy to lift, and the NPC may be a temperamental d-bag. Toss in a number of variables, like the option to kill the door-guarding patrolman and deal with the potential fallout, and things get even more interesting and unpredictable. Youíll rarely approach an objective that isnít ripe with risk-versus-reward decisions that need to be made on the fly. Upgrading an augmentation thatíll quickly allow you to bypass a previously inaccessible area, for example, may seem like a great idea, until you realize youíll need the upgrade you just spent to hack the computer inside said area. As a rule of thumb, the quickest solutions are not always the best, and killing a policeman in his own precinct, well, thatís never a good idea.

Further supporting Human RevolutionĎs dynamically-driven player-choice approach is the smart decision to switch to a third-person view when Jensenís behind cover. Stealth mechanics can be a nightmare when executed from a first-person perspective, but seeing your whole character and his surroundings sidesteps this frustration. The sacrifice, however, is forgoing standard shooter controls in favor of an unconventional layout. Console gamers expecting to peer down iron sights when they pull the left trigger will no doubt find it jarring when they execute this move and it instead shifts Jensen to a third-person cover spot. It wonít feel right for at least an hour--that was my experience, anyway--but give it time and skillfully toggling between the two modes soon becomes second nature.

Human Revolution is far from the first game to employ dual perspectives, but itís one of the few to pull it off this organically. It doesnít hurt that Iím a total sucker for Jensenís third-person takedowns; using blades that spring from his arms, he can unleash a variety of eye-pleasing kill animations. Whether mercifully choking someone into unconsciousness or rearranging their ribcage with an elbow-driven blade, these stylish finishers never get old--oh, and they only get better when Jensenís augmentations allow him to take multiple goons out at once. Speaking of ass-whupping upgrades, earning XP and applying it to building a better Jensen lies at the heart of Human Revolutionís addictive RPG system. Leveling grants Praxis points which can be spent on augs that enhance everything from combat and stealth skills, to how you socialize with NPCs and hack security systems.

I could go on forever on how I went about outfitting my own personal terminator--even reloading saves to regain and redistribute points--but the best thing I can say about the system is that it totally engrossed me. More than just the expected addiction that comes with any good character-progression system, Human RevolutionĎs had me agonizing over every body-enhancing choice I had to make; I so badly wanted to fully upgrade all my combat abilities, but how could I resist the augmentation thatíd finally allow me to hack level 5 security locks--I had to know what was behind those doors, damn it! You canít pimp out all the possible augs in a single play through, so plan on playing multiple times if you want Jensen to be all that he can be. Weapon-tweaking kits and mods also grant perks like laser sights, rate of fire increases, and larger ammo clips. Youíll need all the help you can get too, as adopting a guns-blazing approach can be dangerous in a world thatís not exactly handing out ammo like cheap Halloween candy.

Complementing the solid combat, intuitive stealth mechanics, and engaging character-leveling is Human RevolutionĎs fully-realized universe. Beautifully bathed in perpetual moonlight and neon outside, and fluorescents lights inside, the titleís Blade Runner-meets-cyber-renaissance world is rich with detail and atmosphere. But ogling it is only half the fun. While not technically an open-world game, its city hubs are expansive, encouraging exploration both indoors and out. When you walk into New Detroitís police station, for example, it actually feels like a bustling work environment, filled with people to converse with, offices to break into, and air ducts to creep through. Some of my most satisfying moments actually saw me sneaking around such environments, entering offices through creative problem-solving, then hacking into computers to read emails of folks who could be chatting with coworkers right outside their officeís breached doors.

It doesnít hurt that Human RevolutionĎs hacking mechanic, one I admittedly didnít get the first few times I tried it, is probably the smartest Iíve ever played. Rather than matching lame symbols or crossing colored wires, youíre racing against time--not only can you be traced and kicked out of the system, but a passerby could catch you in the act at any moment--all while balancing risks and rewards. Conversational combat, NPC encounters you can ďwinĒ or ďloseĒ depending on the questions you ask, are similarly absorbing. Completing them successfully can net you integral intel youíd otherwise not find at all or would have to acquire by more time-consuming means. I actually would have preferred more of these encounters over the gameís traditional boss battles. Sure, taking the life of a big bad is satisfying, especially behind Jensenís lethal limbs, but it also feels too videogame-y in a title that so often breaks conventions. In Human RevolutionĎs world, winning a war of words is actually more rewarding than siphoning some level-capping thug of all his hit points.

Seeing Jensenís critical path to its conclusion offers a satisfying romp, but itís the many optional things you can do along the way that make you feel like a living, breathing part of the world. Side missions are never arbitrary fetch quests or tasks that break the believability of the universe. In fact, most are not only interesting, but often tie to the main narrative in some way. If you want to dig even deeper, there are hundreds of emails, ebooks, and newspapers that further flesh out the culture and politics of Jensenís world. Even secondary objectives, like rescuing hostages from an explosive-rigged room, feel organic to the volatile world and conspiracy-riddled story. If all this doesnít manage to immerse you in Human RevolutionĎs richly realized world, the endlessly atmospheric soundtrack should do the trick.

Iíll admit I was among the naysayer that doubted Deus Ex could be restored to its former glory. Not so much because the first game had set the bar so high, but because it did so over a decade ago. Gamers' evolving tastes and the industryís rapidly changing technology make it exceedingly difficult to stay true to something that was considered great ten years before, and it's almost impossible to do that while also appealing to those brought up on todayĎs games. Itís a no-win situation, but Eidos Montreal has found victory. Iím sure those who still bow at the Deus Ex altar will find faults, but based on my experience with all three entries in the series, Human Revolution is its best, striking the sweet spot between retaining the franchiseís spirit and evolving its gameplay to contemporary standards. For those new to Deus Ex, unburdened by any memories or expectations, youíre in luck. Human Revolution is one of the most engaging interactive experiences youíll enjoy this year.

Overall: 9 out of 10



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