Not as good as Deus Ex.
Oh, alright. It’s definitely Deus Ex. There were many moments here when I sat back and thought “Yes, I am playing a Deus Ex game!” which means it’s already more successful than Invisible War. The problem is it’s Deus Ex with about a million fiddly, pointless and ultimately teeth-gnashingly frustrating elements added in.
You might argue that this is partially my fault for playing it on the hardest difficulty setting with non-lethal weapons only, but you have to remember that that’s a playstyle the developers specifically point out and endorse several times during the tutorial level. The very first question I was asked in the game – and a deliberate callback to the original – is what sort of weapon I’d like to start with: lethal or non-lethal? A helpful tutorial screen informed me that there were two different types of takedown, one deadly and one not. The game gives bonus experience for non-lethal “kills”, and until two-thirds of the way into the game the non-lethal weapons were the only truly silent ones I had access to so they’re pretty much essential for any kind of sneaky character. There’s even an achievement for playing through the entire game without killing anyone (albeit with some significant caveats, as we shall see) so I don’t think the developers can really complain when I attempted to do something they’d deliberately built into the game.
At first it was fun. More fun than I’ve had in a while, in fact; on the hardest difficulty setting Adam is so fragile he basically dies as soon as he gets spotted, so the challenge lies in never being spotted. I started the game methodically plotting how I’d take out entire rooms full of guards without raising the alarm. As time wore on this became impractical due to the feeble nature of the non-lethal weapons and their extremely limited supplies of ammo, so I switched to simply avoiding the guards, only resorting to violence when I ran across a guard in a position that I absolutely, positively couldn’t bypass without taking him out.
This was a very refreshing, almost Thief-like experience, aided by the development of a sophisticated stealth suite (quite literally since they were powered by chocolate bars) of augmentations – better radar, better hacking, cloaking, and so on. I trundled on through the first third of the game quite smoothly like this, happy in the knowledge that the game was keeping true to the spirit of the multiple-paths nature of the original. And then things ran headlong into a brick wall. A huge, monumental brick wall labelled COMPULSORY BOSSFIGHTS.
(Deus Ex had bossfights too but it’s famous for giving the player the ability to completely bypass the first two with the killphrases if they don’t fancy shooting it out. The only person you have to fight is Walton Simons, and even then you can just toss a couple of LAMs in his face on Realistic and blow him into meaty kibbles.)
Picture the scene. I’ve been serenely ghosting my way through this covert facility, hacking computers, turning off cameras, occasionally tranquilising the odd guard – just generally being as invisible as I can. Then, suddenly, a wild cutscene appears! Adam walks into a room in pretty much the un-stealthiest way possible before getting sucker-punched by some big fucker with a minigun for an arm (note: said big fucker has had like two speaking lines in the entire game so far, so the buildup for this bossfight basically consists of “we’re a third of the way in and we think we should have a bossfight so here you go”). I then regain control to find myself locked in a room with the big fucker who is spewing hot lead in my direction at a fairly alarming rate. All I’ve got to fight him with are a taser (actually turned out to be moderately useful but only had five charges), a tranquiliser gun (useless) and a 9mm pistol (almost useless) that I was using to set off mines (because the game never explains how you’re supposed to remove the damn things without physically detonating them unless you look at one in your inventory). THESE ARE NOT GOOD ODDS.
Oh, and the game saves the best fuck-you for last. After several dozen reloads where I alternately darted forward to taser Big Fucker in the balls before retreating to shoot him in the head fifty times with my pistol from across the room, I finally triggered a cutscene in which Big Fucker collapses to the ground oozing blood from several orifices. Adam questions him on the Plot, and Big Fucker delivers a line of Exposition before Trying To Take Adam With Him! Adam leaps away, but not before spearing Big Fucker through the head with his non-pointy wristblade thing! Thanks, game! It wasn’t like I’d been going out of my way not to kill anyone up till that point or anything!
(And yes, I did reload to see what’d happen if I landed the finishing blow with a non-lethal weapon and the answer is: exactly the same thing. This guy is hardcoded to be killed by Adam no matter what the player does, which is why the non-lethal achievement carries the rider “Not counting bossfights!”)
This is the most egregious example of how Human Revolution screws up what should have been a fairly straightforward continuation of the first game’s design philosophy: it allowed me free reign to play things how I wanted 90% of the time, but it has this bizarre reliance on traditional cutscenes and bossfights to mark progression of the plot/game during which all control or choice was taken away from me and I was tossed in a pit against my will so that I could fight it out with some ludicrously tough enemy. These are two design philosophies which are completely anathema to each other and here they are both in the same game.
It makes me sad, because most of the time Human Revolution is a joy to play. All the missions and sidequests have at least three ways to complete them, and usually more; the sidequests in particular are very, very involved multistage tasks that are far more varied and developed than I expected. I also enjoyed the persuasion mini-missions – they weren’t particularly deep or anything, but they were an interesting take on the conventional RPG conversation mechanic. Augmentations…
…are mostly good, on the face of it. Unfortunately there’s a couple of problems with the hacking mechanic in Human Revolution which have their root in the hacking implants the player can buy1, but nearly every single augmentation is obviously useful from the get-go which is quite the achievement. Some of them also allowed for rather unorthodox solutions to some of the encounters the game presented me with; for example, another rage-inducing moment was when the game tried to make me fight off several waves of soldiers while I was waiting for an elevator (hnnnngh) when all I had were seven tranq darts, but after a couple of reloads I realised the Lift Heavy Shit augmentation would let me block off all the entry points with vending machines beforehand and prevent the baddies from ever gaining access to the elevator room. There was another occasion where there were a couple of baddies patrolling an approach point covered by a turret; I couldn’t get to them while the turret was active and I couldn’t shut down the security grid while the guards were patrolling, so I solved the problem by stealing the turret while their backs were turned and pointing it at a wall.
No, the real problem with augmentations isn’t the augs themselves, but rather the way the developers have chosen to limit the player’s use of them. Augs are powered by the ubiquitous energy bar; Adam starts the game with two blocks on his energy bar and can upgrade to five, as well as boosting the recharge rate. But in one of the weirdest design decisions I have ever seen – right up there with Far Cry 2’s malaria – Adam can only regenerate the final block of energy from nothing. He’ll regenerate the others if they’re partially depleted, but once they’re gone they’re gone forever unless Adam eats some chocolate. The supply of chocolate in Human Revolution is limited and the chocolate can take up a fair amount of inventory space, with a jar of nutella (the best energy item) occupying a whopping four blocks, for which it will fill just three energy bars. And the nutella doesn’t stack, either.
At a stroke this one gameplay mechanic sabotages others while placing some extremely artificial limitations on the player. It ensured that most of the time I was operating with only the final block of energy available to me since that was the only one that regenerated on its own, with the other four blocks I’d purchased being permanently greyed out until I found some more chocolate. That renders pretty much the entire line of energy upgrade augs completely useless as there’s no functional difference between having five blocks and having two blocks if you’ve only got the last one filled. It also meant that any aug which required manual activation (thankfully there aren’t many of these) was automatically crippled; in theory the max level cloak meant I could turn invisible for thirty-five seconds with a full energy bar, but in reality I had just seven seconds to play with. Oh, and the energy bar is also used for takedowns so there’s often a thirty-second wait in between eliminating guards while I waited for my solitary energy block to recharge. What exactly was stopping Adam from plugging into a power outlet and getting the energy that way? I don’t know, and I suspect the developers don’t either; I certainly never saw the leet augmented mercenary squad having to stop to munch on a chocolate bar so they could keep their cloaks up. Again, the only reason that mechanic is there is because they wanted to limit my options in a game that’s supposedly all about choice.
Another issue with the augs is that Adam is almost completely incapable of performing basic FPS tasks if he doesn’t have them. Without the leg upgrades he can’t jump more than a foot in the air. Without the lung upgrades he can’t sprint for more than 2.5 seconds. Even with them – and this requires four or five skill points – he can only sprint for 7.5 seconds. I can sprint for longer than that. An arthritic old man could sprint for longer than that. Yet the extensively modified Adam Jensen – who is more machine than man and who has cybernetic legs - runs out of go-juice after eight seconds. This is not the bright transhumanist future I was promised; it’s intensely disheartening to try to leap from the roof of one building to another only to get about three inches of horizontal clearance and then plummet to my death from the dizzying height of two storeys because I didn’t have the Falling Off Things augmentation.
While I’m talking about augmentations I should probably spare a word or two for their visual design, because it is fucking awesome. In Deus Ex mechanical augs looked like real limbs with a coat of silver paint; here, though, they look like genuine working prosthetics with a twist. There’s even a noticeable differentiation between the augmentations available to the general population (nasty, harsh, overtly mechanical), combat augmentations (sleek and state of the art but still obvious), and augmentations worn by the rich and powerful (flesh-toned and/or decorated versions that most closely mimic real limbs). Here at least the artists and animators have done a fantastic job; the constant excellence of the visual design went a long way towards removing the sour taste of the odd gameplay screw-up.
The last thing I should mention is the level design. By and large it’s excellent; there’s been a lot of thought given to providing alternate routes for people who have certain augs – here there’ll be a weak wall I can punch through for a shortcut, here there’s a deep shaft I can jump down if I have Falling Off Things, here there’s a door blocked by heavy things I can move if I have Lift Heavy Shit. Aside from the bossfights I never felt like I had to fight the bad guys; in fact it’s a game I could have quite happily played without confronting a single one. However there are some design elements repeated so often they become full-blown idiosyncrasies. The ubiquitous presence of ventilation shafts is basically what Deus Ex is all about, so I’ll let it slide even if I do question the wisdom of having a man-size air duct connecting an upstairs office with a downstairs toilet. No, it was the constant concealment of the vent covers with one crate stacked on top of another that got to me. It got so that I could identify alternate entry points through a twisted kind of Pavlovian response; any time I saw two crates stacked against a wall the designers might just as well have put a sign there saying VENTILATION SHAFT ENTRANCE HERE. Similarly the Build A Crate Bridge Over Electrified Water puzzle was cute the first time I did it. In the original Half Life. Over thirteen years ago. I don’t really think it’s good enough to warrant cropping up no less than five times in Human Revolution, though.
This review may sound like a long laundry list of complaints. That’s because it is. From it, however, you might get the impression that Human Revolution is a terrible game, and that’s something it most definitely isn’t. It’s Deus Ex updated for the modern age with everything that entails. Some of the new additions and changes are straight improvements. Some of them aren’t so successful. The latter group are the ones I’ve given most of my word-time to here because criticism shouldn’t really focus on the elements of a game that perform as expected. Most of the time, Human Revolution performs like Deus Ex. I said it at the start but it’s worth repeating: Human Revolution is Deus Ex, and that I’m able to say that about it is by far its greatest achievement even if – ultimately - it doesn’t quite reach that same lofty pinnacle.
- Namely that whether you succeed or not has nothing to do with the hacking minigame and everything to do with how many Stealth Hacking upgrades you’ve bought. Also certain features – like the ability to control turrets and robots – are locked out until you spend a point apiece, so to get the full range of hacking abilities you need to spend, at minimum, ten skill points. This is roughly a third of all the skill points you get in the entire game. Also I had to hack far, far too often, which reduced the experience to frustrating, repetitive, braindead clicking on nodes and occasionally hammering the spacebar when the RNG decided I’d triggered a trace early. ↩