Game Pile: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

When constructing an overview of a videogame it’s best to start with the deep impression one gets, then work backwards from there to try and deconstruct what left that impression, like filling in a fossil with concrete and waiting for it to set, popping it free then smashing it over the head of whatever audience bothers to stand around. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a lot of ground to cover.

When I was a wee little lad, videogames primarily arrived in my life through my birthdays, very rare surprises from dad, and traded disks (with a K) from relatives and friends of the family. During this time, my game library was small – remarkably so – and every game I had, I played through as many times as I could. Games like the Quest for Glory series were fantastic for this, because they meant I could keep playing the game over the course of several days, and then go back and play it again to try and get a better finale (and I recognise this impression is part of why I love those games as much as I do). During this time I played a whole host of short-and-swift games, generic platformers and freeware games that I can scarcely remember.

My mindset was that of someone who could not enjoy an experience without enjoying it over and over again. Games had to stand up to one play through, two play throughs, five, ten, twenty. I had to really like a game, so my standards for what made a game good were very high! I’d play through demos and shareware versions of games a dozen times over before moving on to new, less substantial fare.

When I had disposable income of my own, two games on the White Label plan were System Shock 2 and Deus Ex. In the pantheon of games I liked, these were two games that I actually loved. I’ll get onto the topic of System Shock 2 some other day, though suffice to say anyone who wants to whine at me for giving up on games too quickly should know that I’d done runs through where I used the wrench for every single kill, and after that level of toenail curling difficulty, I have done my times in the Hardcore Difficulty Authenticity mines and all you johnny-come-latelies with your autosaves can gargle my salties. The subject at hand should rather be its lesser brother, Deus Ex.

I fricking loved Deus Ex, a game with multiple paths through objectives, with the first real hand-of-god sniping feeling I ever got, the first properly good stealth in an FPS, and a storyline full of twisty revelations, memorable characters. The writing wasn’t just decent at its core – there were little subplots including an interoffice romance that didn’t connect to anything else but made me laugh and stick in the memory. You could dive into the plot wholeheartedly or you could take a circuitous route, you could blow doors down and blow shit up, you could sneak around for indirect attacks or just plain evasion, and so on. The game was made out of baling wire and string, being remarkably easy to sequence break or escape the maps, but even when you did, the game could handle it surprisinly well. Well, okay, escape the map and you just die, most of the time, but sequence breaking, the game had a surprisingly good ability to handle.

Not that it’s all delicious scented rosewater of joy; Deus Ex looked like Weetbix in a sock and it had one glaringly dud skill, not to mention a completely wild difficulty curve that you’d need a Master’s Degree in Excessive Tax Law And Smartarsery to graph. Still, the technical problems the game has can be forgiven for it being nearly fifteen years old, while the plotting and development stuff is almost a testament to the way the undisciplined ‘design is law’ bullshit of Ion Storm in the 1990s could get done.

I don’t imagine Deus Ex really had anything you could call a design document. I imagine that at Ion Storm Dallas there was a sort of conspiracy-theorist pinboard covered in scrawled post-it notes placed there by designers with pie-in-the-sky idiocy like Killed by Drowning? and Swimming Boss, and the a programming and resources team was comprised entirely of obsessive-compulsives. That’s the only explanation I can imagine for how the damn game got made. It was lightning in a bottle – a remnant from a small window in time in which ambition and ability could be wedded to an expanding industry with money to burn, but before the panic of investment and the dangers of the market strangled development. It was good, too good. Ironically, Ion Storm’s other greate production, Daikatana was probably the first major burn that started triple-A gaming titles towards their overly conservative attitude nowadays.

What I’m saying is that there’s no way that game can be made again.

This padding is highly necessary to prepare for the sting of what it is to talk about Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The emotions one feels at the conclusion of a videogame can be mixed. Sometimes disappointment. Sometimes, relief. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is noteworthy in that at its conclusion, I felt like the game owed me a fucking apology. I started playing DX:HR a few weeks before Christmas, and had a generally positive opinion of it, if not an excited one, which was stymied by encountering the first boss. I was actually willing to abandon it there, and pass the verdict that the game was just decent, but not for me, until a friend counselled me to finish it before I passed judgement. Well, I did, and I still can’t imagine how that was a good idea.

Hold up, I hear you saying, You’re a fan of the first game, you’re a grouch, and almost every reviewer has mentioned that the conclusion to the game is pretty weak. Fresh off the conclusion of the game, you’re full of piss and bile and you’re just going to throw it around talking about how, compared to another game that was only slightly more technologically advanced than a graphing calculator, it wasn’t very good, aren’t you?

Well, hold your horses here, jumpy jack, because DX:HR isn’t a bad game. It’s not good; but it’s not bad.

The triple-A game industry has found the thing it does truly well, and that is the sandbox game. With titles like Assassin’s Creed, Fallout: New Vegas and inFamous (is Cole an apple product?), they’ve demonstrated that the thing they do best is give you a vast area full of detailed, visually interesting setpieces, pepper it with random things you can do to show off the powers and skills you’ve developed, then get the hell out of the way. Triple-A development is generally too expensive, too elaborate, too enormous to make a tightly-scripted, character-and-plot driven story without making it the focus of the most fundamental structures the game has (I understand they tried that with Alpha Protocol).

When a game is developed, there are some things in it that aren’t intuitively obvious to the player at the end. A lot of development plans – especially by amateur designers – start with ‘make an engine, then make each level as it comes up.’ That’s how a lot of amateur writing goes, too – we’re hardwired to imagine linearity in the game is linearity in its creation. It’s not the case, though; some things take a lot of time to make and do, so they have to be started on earlier. As with Other M, one of the biggest resource hogs are pre-rendered cinematics. Some of those cinematics can take weeks per second to construct, and voice acting is similarly a massive time sink. What this means is that rather than designing the game, then slotting in the cinematics afterwards with those cinematics designed after the game experience is known, most studios will instead work out as much of the script, the plot, the storyline in broad, outline strokes, find those crucial points they want cinematics, then send those things off to be produced before things like level design or even characterisation have been finalised.

This means that the cut scenes in such games can, with an undisciplined designer holding the reins (Molyneux, Romero, Garriott) involve or express characterisation or mechanics that don’t exist in the game, or even contradict things that are in the game. In some cases – as in Other M – the writing tries to compensate, in which case you have the scriptwriters and constructors of those cutscenes dictating to the supposed game’s writer what the greater point of the game is. Knowing this, I have the impression that this happened to DX:HR. The developers of the cutscenes had no way to represent the possibility that the pacifist run existed, and perhaps worked with an early version of the script, leading to the forced murders in each, the cold-and-bitchy idiot Adam Jensen, and his being duped by a ploy slightly more complex than ‘look over there, your shoe is untied.’

DX:HR shows to me what I imagine are the signs of a troubled development cycle due to the demands of the medium. It has to be voice-acted, it has to be gorgeous, and it has to have those cutscenes, because Valve are the only people in the world who know how to do cinema from the first person perspective. It has to have these things, and in order to achieve them, large portions of the game suffered – the portions that matter the most to me.

Yet, didn’t I say it’s not a bad game? Well, no, it has its upsides. It’s gorgeous, as any triple-A title would be, as it wants to give you good facial animations on your cast of ugly tight-skinned mummy-marionettes, and its upgrade system stays true to the spirit of the original by being full of interesting things you want and completely useless bullshit that doesn’t do anything. The characters you fight are almost universally sat in the position of ‘male in armour with gun,’ and that frees up the character development to focus instead on your (genuinely interesting) boss and co-workers, while the RPG elements try to leave the game relatively free to explore you, Adam Jensen as the way you’d like to. There is imagery and symbolism all over the place, and the attention to detail in the level design and worldbuilding is breathtaking. I remember when I first played Assassin’s Creed, I was quietly certain that there was no way the game had all the detail it seemed to around the cities – cities constructed to 1:1 scale. DX:HR is probably more detailed than Assassin’s Creed.

DX:HR‘s city hubs have aspirations towards sandbox game freedom, and my god, what a sandbox. There are deeper sandboxes, with more different types of stuff to do, but DX:HR has breadth such as to make even Fallout: New Vegas wince and gasp as it sinks inside and that’s a terrible metaphor so I’ll just move on from there. Unlike the children of the Wasteland, though, Adam Jensen is actively rewarded for being a fiddly, obssessive, compulsive note-taking lunatic, and the game is happy to give you little snippets of extra XP for just peeking into an empty broom closet – every single time you find one. There is seemingly no corner of the world where there isn’t something, and unlike the nooks-and-crannies style that World of Warcraft favours, where you can travel over huge expanses of nothing to find something, DX:HR is willing to show you multiple chambers of an enormous hotel, and then give you rooms with computers and email addresses and different scattered pieces around. There were so many ways the game could be cheap and copy-paste things, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t just tell you that the Angel City Pods are crowded, it also shows you; it’s full of people even during work hours, trash is piled up everywhere, and there are civilians going about their normal day.

Still, these strong points cannot and do not excuse those things that matter to me the most: This is a game and genre that rely on story and character to keep you drawn in and immersed in its story so you can enjoy the thrill of discovery, and to elicit emotional sensation. The breadth of the world does not forgive its lack of structure and its bad pacing. David Sarif and Pritchard are both well-rounded, flawed characters, and I have a great fondness for Malik, too, though she gets less development and exposition, making her feel a tiny bit like a damsel/utility character, so it’s clear the writers can handle interesting characters – yet for some reason they were unwilling to apply that skill to the character of Adam.

All the best parts of DX:HR are things that should be part of a good game, but the highest praise for each of them is that they’re okay, and each can be compared to similar games doing the same task but better. Nothing about DX:HR, a prequel to a game that was exceptional and special and still stands out today for its depth, is remarkable; it’s all a very subjective matter of if you’re going to like it or not. I’ve compared it to a buffet with good potatoes and bad shrimp, and if you arrive loving potatoes and hating shrimp, it’s great, but if you only like potatoes and love shrimp, or worse, dislike potatoes and love shrimp, the bad shrimp are going to turn you right the hell off.

Look, here’s a really quick list:

  • You can throw vending machines at people to kill them.
  • You can punch through walls to break guys’ necks.
  • The stealth mechanics range from hard to impossibly challenging, but in a way that makes you feel like a real clever-clogs for mapping out and timing your way around the bad guys.
  • Every single weapon has potential to be amazing, if you upgrade it, with even your humble starting pistol being an outright terror when you bolt all the money you’ve collected onto it.
  • There are genuinely dozens of ways to create your character, with obsessive completionists opting for things like node investigation and icarus slowfall.
  • I mentioned the vending machine thing, yes?
  • There is enormous work into providing good backing details and calls forward to the other two Deus Ex games.
  • Adam’s character as not demonstrated in cutscenes is actually very interesting; you can get an interesting, sad reflection of him as a person in his apartment, all done by showing rather than telling, and it’s one of the better moments of almost-decompression you get.
  • Pritchard may not develop much, but he’s honest and curt with you and it helps to convey him as a very practical, pragmatic and – to me – likable character.
  • Occasionally when you try something, the game will pop up a little prompt or reward to indicate that even if they didn’t expect you to do it, they were prepared for the possibility that someone would.

If those are things you like, then bam, this game has got it in spades. The game has scalable challenge and is willing to give you the tools to make it brutally hard as you progress through its levels, even with mini-challenges like the pacifist run (which is, unfortunately, a little bit buggy and will occasionally fuck up and lose your streak through no fault of your own, grr, argh).

Yet all of that is the best that can be said – so what of the worst?

  • The writing, especially in the cut scenes ranges from amateurish to bad.
  • The main plotline of the game is paced awfully, shouting at you to go go go this is urgent while simultaneously expecting you to do all the side quests in order to expand the world.
  • There is basically one point of decompression for the whole game, right towards the end.
  • The game gets worse as it goes on, and rather than building up to a point, the conclusion is truly abysmal.
  • The arguments posited by characters who are meant to be intellectual giants are themselves quite bad, sounding like what a stupid person thinks a smart person sounds like.
  • The boss fights.
  • The remarkably white, male future.
  • The lack of imagination shown in fixing many of these very basic problems.
  • The fact you can play the game incorrectly.

Rather than run those points into the ground, there is one that needs highlighting: I played the game wrong, and the game let me play it wrong. This is a flaw of the game, not some failing on my part as a player. If the point of the game is to explore and immerse, the game’s mechanics only lightly enforce that, and the aforementioned problems with cinematics and bosses exacerbates this: There is a playstyle that works 99% of the time in the game, that even gives you an achievement for doing, but the boss fights can not be taken care of in that way.

DX:HR is not a bad game. It is not a good game. It is a game with some good points and some bad points, and nothing I can recommend on its own face. If you like the sound of a game that lets you explore urban environments and rewards you for obsessively picking through your enemy’s toenail collection, and gives you gear management and a big expansive book’s worth of reading to do and a way to feel enormously clever because you can draw connections between all of that information, then this game will appeal to you. It is a game if you can immerse yourself in it, will reward you for doing so. However, this game is not here to impress you: it’s not going to do anything to immerse you. You have to meet it more than half-way on all fronts. That leve of discipline is actually very impressive, the last game I remember being so strident in telling players to match it was Dark Souls and Devil Survivor, with the attitude harking back to earlier Castlevania titles.

Nonetheless, I cannot call this a good game, not on the level of such greats in its genre like Bioshock and System Shock 2, and the reason is thus: Every single word in the best story of all time exists in the dictionary, but that does not make reading the dictionary fun. It is not enough to have ten thousand things in a pile, one must have them with form and structure. Structure is the difference between a pile of biomass and Angelina Jolie, and how it’s arranged makes all the difference.

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