Following up on last week's retrospective on the original Deus Ex, Zero Punctuation reviews Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
If video games are to be taken seriously as art, then it has to start asking big philosophical questions, and not just, "What does the princess see in Bowser's thorny, proletarian cock?" But it's Deus Ex that's leading the pack on this one. The first Deus Ex tackled the philosophical quandary of whether it's possible to wear a trenchcoat and sunglasses without looking like a ponce, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution centralizes the debate surrounding transhuman augmentation. "Would you", it asks, "supplement your body with machinery?" (beat) What do you mean, "would I"? I already wear spectacles. And a wristwatch. And I always carry a phone, which I'm currently in the process of duct-taping to the side of my head. Anyone who talks about technological development being "unnatural" deserves to be abandoned in the wilderness wearing nothing but a fig leaf. But even if I weren't biased, if there's a conflict growing between a group of people with ocean liner pistons for forearms and a group of people who insist that everyone should be forced to be as shit as they are, I know which side I'd rather be on. Hey, I've got a better name for the pro-humanity movement: The Sore Losers' Club!
And as with Deus Ex 1, Human Revolution explores this dumb issue from the perspective of a single dude in the centre of it, namely Adam Jensen. Ooh, a potential father to a new wave of humanity is named Adam - bet that was an all-night brainstormer! All right, shut up! Adam is chief of security for a major biotech firm developing human augmentations when he's severely wounded in an attack on the labs by mercenaries. His company then puts so many bits of machinery inside him that he technically has to hold a heavy goods vehicle license before he's allowed to walk down the street. They even implant sunglasses directly into his face. I'd like to see them explain to the medical insurance people how that was a necessary procedure, unless he plans to go undercover at the solarium.
Adam 2.0 must then get to the bottom of the attack and discover the nature of the inevitable conspiracy behind it all. Since this is a prequel, Adam is presumably a precursor to the obsolete mechs from Deus Ex 1. Which seems odd because Adam's augs are all really sleek and Gunther Hermann looked like he'd spent a few years banging his head on the Large Hadron Collider.
Initially, I was impressed by the way Human Revolution captured the spirit of the original. Yeah, there's cover-based shooting and pre-baked cutaway finishing moves, two inoperable cancers of the modern action game. But the stealthing works well and has that impish appeal of picking off patrolling guards one by one and arranging their unconscious bodies into compromising positions on the floor of the broom closet. The levels rewards exploration with multiple routes to each objective, virtually every computer, drawer and sofa cushion can be dredged for more flavour text to flesh out the world and the characters; but more importantly you can pick up every vending machine in the building and pack them all into the office of your least favourite co-worker.
In some ways, it surpasses the original. Certainly visually, even if sometimes, characters animate like they're held together with elastic bands. The hacking minigame is now more than just a fucking progress bar. And the non-lethal weapons are actually worth a squirt of piss, even if finding ammo for them is still harder than playing Angry Birds on a phone that's been duct-taped to the side of your head. The occasional L.A. Noire-style dialogue puzzle isn't particularly unwelcome and unlike L.A. Noire, if you fail, you could at least comfort yourself by stealing all the subject's possessions or throwing a vending machine at their head.
But (and this is a big stinky but) last week I said there was no way it could be as deep as Deus Ex 1, and didst thou think this the idle braying of a Luddite? It's simple fact - with all the expensive golden pixels modern graphics have to be built from, there just aren't enough hours in the day or memory on a disc to have a game as big as Deus Ex 1, whose engine was basically fashioned from polystyrene and sackcloth. So Human Revolution is significantly shorter. Also, by last week's definitions, Human Revolution is an action game with RPG elements rather than an Action-RPG. There's no weapon specialization; Adam could dig a Flenagian pulse rifle out of a crashed UFO and instantly know how to use it, and you get enough upgrades to be skilled in pretty much everything. So the gameplay becomes not so much, "finding the route that works for you" as, "taking whichever one's quickest, then going back to loot all the others for ammo and Mars bars." Some upgrades are literally useless. Strangest of all is a hacking upgrade that shows you the probability of setting off an alert, apparently unaware that the minigame already does that if you just click on the node. I'm guessing one or two Post-it notes fell off a programmer's monitor somewhere down the line.
While disappointing, none if this is a deal breaker. Where Human Revolution makes its biggest misstep into the gorse bushes is in the boss fights. I don't know how many more times I have to say this, but I guess at least once: a boss fight is not just a random enemy who's eaten three times as many protein bars as everybody else. A boss fight is supposed to be a final exam for everything we've learned up to that point. Ideally, Human Revolution would have given the option of gunning the boss down, but also maybe hacking some turrets to fight for you, or sneaking away up into the rafters to drop pianos on their head. But no, all you can do is shoot them. And considering I was going for the nonlethal pussy run, my tranq rifle and stun gun were a fat lot of good against a bloke who appeared to be occupying the same space as a combine harvester armed with a gun that shoots exploding furniture that kills you in two hits, so I basically had to quick-save every time I successfully made it to the other side of the room before my internal organs did. And in Deus Ex 1, when a boss character fights you you usually have a grasp on who they are and why they hate your aluminium ass, but the entire characterization of all Human Revolution's bosses could be summed up with one word that rhymes with, "glass hole."
But generally speaking, games could certainly do a lot worse, and indeed usually do. But it must be said that Human Revolution really falls apart at the end. You know the drill, spoilers, put a metal bucket on your head and bang it with a spoon if you don't want to hear them. After evading a bunch of totally ineffectual enemies who have basically turned into the sploicers from Bioshock in a completely incomprehensible thing I hesitate to call a final boss fight when it seems more like the kind of nightmare Philip K. Dick might have while being spooned by H. R. Giger, Adam is then hustled to what I like to call the "Ending-Tron 3000", a big machine with four huge, conspicuous buttons, each of which gives a different ending. But all four endings are just spliced sequences of stock footage with a voiceover from Adam talking about what an awesome dude he is for making that choice. There's no payoff at all, no glimpse of the world our choice created or what became of the characters, no word on whether your techy support guy ever managed to dislodge that tree branch from up his bum. It's possible they're saving that for DLC, but anyone who pulls that shit deserves to have their hands cut off and sold back to them for 1200 Microsoft Points.
- Adam Jensen's voice coach and tobacconist: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Personally I've called myself a cyborg ever since I got the silver crown fitted on my front tooth
- I never say no to a day o' sex