Science knows no borders. Science knows no country. Science is free from boundary and bounds. Video games rarely present questions beyond what other castle a princess might be in, or where to find the BFG and Quad-Damage. Deus Ex: Human Revolution asks a question you’ve probably never considered – what does it mean to be human? Four years ago, if you asked fledgling Eidos Montreal that question you might have gotten a science fiction answer, but as we see the release of their sequel to one of the best Action-RPGs of any generation or platform, their answer would be to simply point at Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius. Mr. Pistorius lost both of his legs at birth due to a congenital defect. Doctors told him he would never walk, much less run. They were wrong. Pistorius is a qualified Olympic runner thanks to set of prosthetic blade legs made of spring steel allowing him to not only run quickly, but even faster than a normal person. This caused an incredible outrage in the runner community, stating that he was given advantages through technology with which no human could compete. Pistorius had become more human than human.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution will be, for many, the first foray into the Deux Ex universe. The series is one of ups and downs, but one thing has remained true – Deus Ex is more than your average RPG. It asks questions about transhumanism, weaves conspiracy and combat, breathes stealth, stealing, and story, and does it all in a way often imitated but never replicated by other games. The team at Eidos Montreal had the daunting task of resurrecting the series after the slight misstep that was Invisible War, and making it appeal to a modern audience. After four years of very hard work, I’m very pleased to report that they have succeeded in every way.
“When due process fails us, we really do live in a world of terror.”
Our game opens in the year 2027. Adam Jenson, the security officer in charge of Detroit-based Sarif Industries, is taking a quick tour of the facilities, noting the various projects and prosthetics being built by his biomedical manufacturing firm. When things turn completely sideways and the facility is attacked, Adam is beaten almost to death by heavily augmented thugs and left for dead embedded in a wall. Several scientists are kidnapped, but Adam has his own problems – the only way to save his life is to heavily augment his entire body. Blending science and science fiction, Adam is rebuilt as an incredible soldier – a testament to Sarif’s ability to restore people to their former selves. Veterans returning from war can have their arms and legs rebuilt, augmented eyes can restore sight to the blind, and the military applications of such augmentations are endless. As Adam returns to work 6 months after the brutal attack on Sarif Industries, there are two things on his mind – recovering his friends and finding out who is responsible for what has been done to him.
Stepping away from the details on the story, let me reassure you that there is plenty of it here. The Ubisoft Montreal team started development by having all team members play through the original two games several times to really get a feeling for what it means to be a Deus Ex game. They settled on several pillars of gameplay that they used as foundation for Human Revolution – Combat, Stealth, Social and Hacking.
“A forgotten virtue like honesty is worth at least twenty credits.”
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is primarily about stealth, so we’ll start there. The game is played from a first-person perspective, with a third person perspective used when you stick to surfaces for stealth. I’m reviewing this on the Xbox 360 (A PC review will come shortly after release), so controls will be referencing that platform. Tapping a button has Adam put his back against the wall, allowing Adam to peer around the corner, crouch, roll, or SWAT turn around doors to try to minimize enemy sightlines. Since enemies key in on sight and sound, keeping a lower profile becomes key rather quickly. Adam can put points into an optical camouflage that turns him completely invisible for 3, 5, or 7 seconds per energy cell (Adam starts with 2 and can expand that with augments). It doesn’t render him silent (yep, there are augments for that too!) so you’ll have to be careful even if you aren’t visible.
Social skills in Deus Ex: Human Revolution were a complete surprise to me. You’ll have interactions with a lot of NPCs in the game, most of them just window dressing to fill the world, but occasionally you’ll actually get a ‘boss battle’ social interaction. Deux Ex: Human Revolution will occasionally ask you to try to obtain information from a target, convince them to take a particular action, or avert a dangerous or disastrous situation. The situations are random and somewhere beyond the Mass Effect style good/neutral/evil options we’ve seen in other games. Without augmentation you’ll be expected to read your subject and react accordingly, trying to discern and then satisfy whatever psychological need they require to complete the sequence. You’ll get several options for replies, with some being tough love, others being empathy or apathy, a few cold responses, or even some direct threats to round things out. These reactions will push your subject in one direction or another, eventually culminating in either you achieving what you set out to accomplish, or the subject shutting you down and refusing your request, most of the time on a permanent basis.
There is a social augment you can get in the game that changes the way the social minigame is played. This augment allows the player to see the target’s heart rate, breathing, and whether their response falls into an Alpha, Beta, or Omega response pattern. These patterns aren’t precise indicators of the target’s intention, but give great clues that you can use to exploit their weaknesses. When you think you’ve figured out their randomized motivation, you can even release a pheromone to attempt to charm the subject.
If you’ve watched our interviews with the Eidos Montreal team, you’ve seen a behind-the-scenes look at what the social and hacking minigames were designed to be. If you’ve watched any of the recent documentaries on the game, you can see what it became. The hacking system is a simplified but very challenging attack from the IO port to the Registry on the target device with the objective being to unlock doors, shut down cameras and robots, disable laser grids, and more. The interface is simple – you can either hack, reinforce, nuke, or stop. The hack allows you to overtake a node, reinforce makes the node you are on harder to trace through, nuke instantly captures a node without being detected, and stop halts the clock before the system can trace you – the last two items being consumables collected or purchased. Each node has a certain percentage of detection if you touch it, and eventually the firewall will detect and begin a trace on you. Reinforcing the node raises the level of the node, making it take longer to hack through. There are spam, clearance, and other miscellaneous nodes that have effects like simultaneously raising and lowering two adjacent nodes. In the environment there are also optional square nodes that yield additional experience, cash, or the two consumables. These are often further out of the way and more difficult to capture, but a few points in the hacking augmentation tree helps mitigate that nicely.
The hacking system is used on doors, safes, and security systems. Each object is given a rating 1 – 5 that tells you what hacking augment level you’ll need to attempt the hack. Putting Praxis points allows you to raise your skill level, but you’ll need addition in Fortify to keep yourself safe (failing sets off an alarm in hostile areas, or locks the terminal for 30 seconds in non-hostile areas – the hack attempts are finite, so you can’t just try indefinitely), and optionally adding the ability to control cameras and robot sentries. Dominating a robot sentry can even allow you to turn turrets or robots on their masters, cutting them to unsuspecting ribbons.
The final pillar of the game is Combat. Anyone who played the original Deus Ex game probably thought “Oh hey, a shooter!” grabbed the pistol, and was promptly killed by an NSF Agent just outside the Statue of Liberty in their first encounter. Deus Ex is not Doom or Counter-Strike, and you cannot play it like those titles either. You will gain access to machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles, stun guns, and much more throughout the game, but even with arm stabilization, dermal armor implants, and enhanced health, you will have a difficult time just cutting your way through your foes with impunity. Playing the game in a hybrid fashion, blending stealth and combat is a more effective, giving you both lethal and non-lethal options. Given Adam’s incredible amount of augmentation, he can also engage targets in both lethal and non-lethal fashion up close using his fists or retractable blades in his forearms.
All four of these pillars hit on all cylinders. Ducking from crouched position, popping over the top to shoot an enemy, blind firing around corners, or closing distance and taking them out up close and personal works perfectly – it is clear that combat wasn’t pried into a stealth game at the last moment. Hacking remains challenging throughout the game and I often found myself hacking terminals that I’d already obtained the codes for simply for experience and the fun of it. The social interactions represent major turning points in the story, and the results have real and lasting consequences. Costing an old friend their job, convincing somebody to be truthful when it counts, or even preventing a suicide are all possible with the right choices. The fact that these choices are randomized means that you’ll have a different experience for the first several times you play through the game. Being stealthy isn’t the only way to play the game, but it is clear that a great deal of thought went into this approach. Eidos Montreal set forth four pillars that they wanted to hit, and they hit them dead on.
“You can’t fight ideas with bullets.”
Deus Ex: Human Revolution wouldn’t be a Deus Ex title without an incredible story and a deep-seated conspiracy. I’m not going to tell you anything about that, but suffice it to say that the team in Eidos did an incredible amount of work making everything in the game ‘matter’. The side missions are relevant and important; the main mission is frenzied and fast paced. Don’t think you’ll be finishing it over the weekend though – the game clocks in at over 30-35 hours if you complete all the side missions. You’ll want to as well as it is the best way to not only experience the story, but the universe. Every hacked computer reveals emails and communiqués that slowly unfold the well-twisted story. Side missions unlock hidden lockers full of information on not only the main movers of the story, but even your own mysterious past.
The game has been described several times by both press and producers as “multi-option, multi-path, and multi-solution”. This means that the game was built with 2-3 (or more) solutions for nearly every puzzle. The boss fights notwithstanding, you can make it through the entire game without pulling the trigger once. Making your way through air vents, knocking out guards and stealing pocket secretaries full of codes, hacking doors and laser grids, direct or indirect combat, stealth, or really any other method you can pick will all work. Very few games offer this level of flexibility, and your chosen augmentations (you’ll only be able to get about 75% of them if you do everything in the game – you cannot earn enough experience to get them all) help make those scenarios easier, though nothing makes the game ‘easy’. You’ll die and often, and most of the time it will be through your own action or inaction. The reload times on a fully-installed game is about 22 seconds, so the death penalty isn’t that bad. On the other hand, making poor choices and living with the consequences means resisting the urge to load a previous save. There is no morality system per se, but since there are multiple endings, you’ll want to stick by your choices to see them all anyway. In this world, the concepts of right and wrong are often pretty blurry, so even recognizing what “right” is can be a challenge in and of itself.
Art Director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête gave us a very clear idea of the art style utilized in Deus Ex: Human Revolution when he described it as “Cyber-Renaissance”. The sepia, gold, and black tones are reminiscent of Blade Runner, evoking a possible but somewhat far-fetched future. Since the game is set in 2027, Belletête and his team went with a somewhat futuristic look for the game, but blended it with Baroque-inspired fashions that called on modern and classic styles throughout the ages. The female characters have dresses and suits featuring large neck ruffles that you might see on Elizabethan royalty, while the men often have heavily stylized outerwear like coats with embroidered shoulder pieces. The team was careful to blend these into the futuristic look of the game, so when you see it in action it just somehow makes sense. The environment is similarly styled with low-profile Japanese modern furniture mixed with ornate and traditional opulent hardwood pieces that evoke a blend of both style and beauty. Rather than using photorealism as a reference, the game is heavily stylized with characters looking real enough to be detailed, but nowhere approaching the uncanny valley. Looking at what was done with Invisible War (the future means use lots of pink neon, right??), I was pretty nervous about what this game might look like. When I saw the concept art of a wounded Adam Jensen, leaning back against an ornate love seat, light streaming in as he stares offscreen in contemplation, I knew that the team had the art direction nailed. My hat is off to Belletête and his team.
The commercials for the game were handled by the team behind the CGI work for Final Fantasy, and it looks absolutely amazing. The CGI in the game was handled internally, and honestly it is one of the only jarring moments you’ll encounter visually as they tend to just ‘pop’ in when you enter the area. Through my runs through the game (there were several) I only encountered one or two areas that had a framerate hit, and they were in internal and non-combat area of the Pangu, oddly enough. I also spotted one incident where a soldier leaned on scaffolding that didn’t exist. During the hacking portions of the game you can look around to ensure that you aren’t being observed, but occasionally the game camera just drifts on its own. A quick flick of the thumbstick sets it right, but it can be annoying. For a game this big, I’m absolutely shocked that I didn’t find anything else.
“You are only minimally modified. We can help you correct this.”
Steve Szczepkowski, Lead Audio Designer (good luck on pronunciation – nobody at Eidos was able to do it the same way twice) was in charge of ensuring that this sounded like a Deus Ex title. To that end, he employed Michael McCann to handle the music of the game. The team described his early work as ‘close, but not quite’, but once he paired up with Belletête and his team he apparently saw exactly where to go with his work. The music in the game is pure perfection, with the “Icarus Rising” piece being a showcase that will make you want to buy the soundtrack.
It isn’t all music that sets the score for Human Revolution – there is also over 20,000 lines of fully-voiced dialog in the game. Ambient and overt conversations are near-constant throughout the game with NPC talking about the mundane things they did this weekend, how much trouble they might get into if their boss finds out that they dropped their Pocket Secretary, talking about the extra drafts coming from the air vents, and a ton of other conversations that can lead you in various and new directions in the game.
The voice acting can be a little jarring at time in the game. Adam sounds pretty grizzled and gruff which can be jarring at first, but he grows on you. Other characters can be a little forced, but overall I’d say it is a pretty admirable effort across the board.
This IS Deus Ex.
When you are making a new game based on an already well-established universe it is a pretty big risk. When you are making a new game based on a property that is widely considered to be a genre-defining title, you have more pressure than you could hope to handle. Somehow, even while building a completely new team in the process, Eidos Montreal has managed to pull it off. Lead Producer David Anfosi, Art Director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, Game Director Jean Francois Dugas (or JF for short), and the rest of the teams and leads at Eidos Montreal have pulled off the impossible. Not only is this a Deus Ex game, it is raising the bar on the original. Every element of the game can be handled in so many ways and somehow you’ll still end up with a completely different outcome. The game is built in such a way where the augments compliment the game, but don’t restrict or define it. The game is not only flexible enough to offer multiple runs through it, it absolutely ensures it. By the time I reached the end of the game for the first time I was so entrenched in the conspiracy and storyline that I immediately started a new game to try it a different way. When was the last time you wanted to start over after completing a game? While you are thinking about that answer, riddle me this – when was the last time a game made you contemplate mortality, morality, and human evolution? Run to your nearest shop or hit an online store – if you are a Deus Ex fan, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is what you’ve been eagerly waiting for.