The idea of making the next Deus Ex game was quite popular around Ion Storm and Eidos, but for a long time all plans went nowhere. In 2007, Deus Ex 3 was finally announced. Four years later the game got released under the title Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Given how disappointing Invisible War was, it was easy to see this game as an another dumbed down sequel – especially given that it used the always controversial regenerating health and cover mechanics – but surprisingly, the final game was actually good. While Human Revolution includes many elements of the modern shooters and action-RPGs and while it isn’t as complex as the original, it does bring back some of the complexity removed in Invisible War and even has some interesting ideas of its own.
Human Revolution is a prequel to the first Deus Ex, set in the early days of augmentation when the implants where not yet based on nanotechnology but on mechanical engineering (see: Anna and Gunther from the first game). It’s this technology that is the game’s main focus – that is, the technology itself and not its relation to global politics (that is not to say that the political dilemmas are completely absent from the game – they’re just not given as much focus). Human Revolution could be described as a transhumanist game as it deals with the relation between human and machine on the physical (augmentations surgically implanted in people’s bodies or salavaged from their corpses and repurposed by the subculture of harversters), psychological (addiction to the augmentations) and social (the need to afford anti-rejection medicine, the anti-augmentation movement) level. The eponymous human revolution isn’t a change in political power – it’s a change in the understanding of science and technology (compare: neolithic revolution, industrial revolution) as the line between man and machine is blurred by the augmented humans, emerging artificial intelligences and even the computers made from humans. There’s also a strong theme of bioethics not unlike the real-world debate about genetic modification and cloning.
All those issues are presented in the story of the game’s protagonist, Adam Jensen – an ex-policeman working as the head of security for the biotechnological company Sarif Industries. After getting wounded in a terrorist attack during which several top scientists (including his girlfriend Megan Reed) are killed, Jensen’s life is saved by an emergency surgery which replaces damaged body parts with mechanical augmentations. During the course of the game, Jensen needs not only to find the truth behind this attack (this being a Deus Ex game, nothing is what it seems and there are conspiracies involved) but also to learn to live with the augmentations – not only were they installed without his consent, they’re also immediately visible (unlike the inconspicuous nanotechnological modifications from Deus Ex) and might provoke aggression from the anti-augmentation crowd. That’s not to say that they’re only a source of problems, as not only is he basically unstoppable by the end of the game, but also gets sunglasses that retract into his skull.
Human Revolution takes place mostly in Detroit and Hengsha (in the real world an island that is a part of Shanghai, in the game a large city with multiple districts). These locations are big, inhabited by a large number of people, freely explorable and mostly peaceful, giving the game a more open-world feel even though the structure is not too different from the previous games. Eventually, more hostile characters get placed in them as the game progresses, and near the end they’re abandoned them altogether in favor of combat-heavy areas. Like in the first game, all of the areas are well designed, allowing for many different playstyles, but it is the mostly peaceful cities that are the most interesting with their dark alleys and tall buildings, slums and shops, workplaces and night clubs.
While Human Revolution doesn’t have as many literary references as the previous Deus Ex games, it has plenty of Deus Ex references. While it’s completely possible to play the game without knowing anything else about the series, a lot of things gain new meaning if you know the first game. Some of it is just namedropping, but a lot goes beyond that, never explicitly stating but often heavily suggesting how certain characters ended up in their position.
As was mentioned before, Human Revolution uses many modern mechanics: Bioware-style dialog wheel, regenerating health and energy, and cover-based shooting (complete with a third person camera when in cover). The former actually gives the player more option, as Deus Ex games rarely had dialog choices. When there were any, there’d be two of them as opposed to Human Revolution‘s four.
The new combat mechanics are less fun, as third-person cover-based shooters with regenerating health usually come down to boring trench warfare of waiting for the enemy to reload and occasionally dodging a grenade. The third person camera, combined with a radar, also makes stealth less challenging as there’s no need to lean out of cover to see what the enemies are doing (and thus risking getting spotted). Still, while the combat is a bit dull (although technically well-executed), the stealth is given an even bigger focus than in the original and generally works very well. Even the choice between pacifism and violence comes down to more than just choosing different weapons, as knocked-out enemies can be woken up by their allies.
The augmentations work in a different way than in any other Deus Ex game and more like a traditional level system: players get experience points for defeating enemies, hacking, completing quests, exploring areas and succeeding in special challenges (e.g. completing a level without being spotted). A set amount of experience is converted into a “praxis point”, which allows improving augmentations. The augmentations once again allow for different playstyles by improving combat abilities (damage reduction, steady aim, taking down multiple enemies at the same time, “typhoon” weapon), stealth (invisibility, silent movement, improved radar), hacking, and even diplomatic abilities.
Diplomacy is especially interesting, as the player can read the character’s personality type (alphas like to feel in charge, betas like if you’re nice to them and omegas respond to aggression) to see if the chosen persuasion methods are working and release special pheromones to help with more stubborn debaters. It is possible to fail in dialog, although this being Deus Ex the mistake can be fixed sometimes – when failing to convince a character to provide tapes that incriminate one of Jensen’s coworkers in the early game, it’s possible to help him in another sidequest or just punch him in the face and take the tapes.
Human Revolution is not a very long game, although the open world areas have a lot of optional content, quests and secrets for those who like exploration. Players who preordered ‘Augmented Edition’ received, in addition to standard bonuses like a soundtrack, an additional mission in Shanghai about saving the son of a local criminal, Tong Si Hung (who spends his time on a boat called The Tracer, heavily hinting that he’s a younger Tracer Tong from Deus Ex and Invisible War). Available for purchase by anyone is the DLC “Missing Link”, a challenging (Jensen starts with no equipment and only basic augmentations on an unfriendly ship) and interesting expansion taking place between Shanghai and Singapore, that unfortunately pads its length with a lot of backtracking. Both missions were combined with the main game in the Director’s Cut, which also (slightly) improves the boss fights and brought the game to Wii U. That version has a slightly different interface when compared to other Director’s Cut releases, as it is designed to utilize the touchscreen controller.
The boss fights are really the game’s biggest flaw. Only four are present in the vanilla version, and three of them are simply fights against enemies with a lot of health and even more firepower that can’t be stunned, tranquilized or defeated through a takedown. The final boss is better, as it is more of a puzzle than a straight fight. The boss fight added in “Missing Link” is the most fun – it’s a room filled with enemies who need to be defeated, with the actual boss hiding at the opposite end, but not immune to non-lethal attacks and takedowns. It’s the one fight that really plays by the game’s rules and utilizes the same skills as the rest of the game. The Director’s Cut improves the other bosses by enabling players to hack the defense systems to make it easier, but the lack of non-lethal solution is still disappointing.
Another disappointment is the endgame. Here, patrolling enemies get replaced with large groups of zombie-like crazy workers, and avoiding them is not something the game was designed for, while fighting them with firearms is extremely easy to the point of removing most of the challenge.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a great looking game, although not without occasional problems with takedown animations or slight clipping issues. The game’s look is not all about the technology, though, as Human Revolutionhas a distinct, instantly recognizable style. The first thing to note the colors: The game eschews the always popular gray-brown color scheme of modern shooters and the blue tint that is nearly synonymous with science fiction in favor of a warmer palette of yellow and gold (less prominent in the Director’s Cut). It’s an interesting choice and also one that makes sense, given the game’s less paranoid and sometimes even optimistic mood – the game’s world is, despite all its flaws, at its peak. While this means that it will inevitably go down and become the dystopia of the other games, it’s still possible to enjoy the view.
In addition to the colors, the style of Human Revolution is defined by certain recurring elements. Fusion of human body and mechanical parts is the most obvious one, but there are others: large computer displays, simple geometric shapes (the iconic triangles, the beehive-like hexagons in The Hive club, even the occasional shapes formed by lasers you need to avoid), spacious and minimalist interiors (at least outside of the slums), modern art, skylines of the cities illuminated by the rays of sunlight shining through clouds (interestingly, this can only be seen through the windows in buildings that are separated from the outside by a loading screen – in the city, it’s always night). Those things don’t appear throughout the whole game (there still are a lot of futuristic corridors and rundown apartments), but when they do, they’re very memorable.
The soundtrack by Michael McCann combines the typical orchestral incidental music, analog (or at least analog-like) synthesizers and occasional heavily reverberated female vocals. The music takes inspiration from the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis and the previous Deus Ex soundtracks: There are even direct references, as Sarif Industries music samples the UNATCO theme, while those who stick past the ending credits will not only see an additional short cutscene but also hear the main menu music from Deus Ex. The vocal parts are reminiscent of Dead Can Dance and similar ethereal darkwave bands. It’s consistently great and atmospheric while having enough variety to be more than just sounds in the background.
Probably the best audiovisual experience in the whole game is the boss fight against Namir, but only when doing a certain stupid thing that makes it necessary to defeat the enemy without augmentations. As the game interface acts the same way as when the player gets hit by an EMP, most of the HUD disappears, the radar shows wrong readings and error messages pop all over the screen. Through a blurred vision, the player can see lights and the strange moving statues of men without skin. The distorted audio and the sound of weapons being fired gives a harsher, more industrial feel to the music, which combines high-pitched, melancholic violin sounds with tense, rhythmic drums and synthesizers. Somewhere, the enemy can be heard taunting Jensen, but it’s never obvious if that thing at the edge of the field of vision was him using an invisibility augmentation or just a visual glitch. It’s really an incredible moment, even if from the gameplay perspective the fight is not that great (Director’s Cut makes it solvable through hacking – but only with working augmentations).
From a technical standpoint, Human Revolution is a very good game, although the console versions have a problem with long load times. It’s a AAA game with AAA quality – a phrase that might have lost its meaning in the recent years with all the buggy, unfinished releases, but that was not yet the case for this title. It is a high-budget game in which the budget went to actually creating a good experience in all aspects: gameplay, graphics, music, voice acting (yes, mostly good voice acting in a Deus Ex) and story.
Overall, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a great game and a very good Deus Ex title. Some of the design choices might be a bit questionable and it’s obvious that the first Deus Ex is a longer, deeper and more complex game, but Human Revolution shows how to modernize a series without it losing its soul. It improves upon the mistakes of its predecessors (especially Invisible War, although it has better graphics, better usability and much less bugs than Deus Ex) and while it’s not as great an experience as the first game, the gap between them is not that big.