Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Film critic Roger Ebert infamously made the claim that video games are not art. Of course, film itself is barely over a century old, and for much of its life was also not considered an art form, only gaining traction as a medium with the potential for fine art in the past five or six decades. Video games, like cinema, will undergo a cultural evolution. Right now it's the new kid on the block, seen mainly as entertainment for the masses (again, much like early films), but already a few games have leapt to mind as the standard bearers for video gaming as an art form. Shadow of the Colossus, for example, carries as much weight and impact as any movie you might see in a theater today.
For my money, one of the watershed moments in video gaming was the release of Deus Ex. A game that combined excellent play mechanics with surprisingly deep examinations of intensely intellectual themes, Deus Ex set a standard for gaming that has rarely been matched, sadly not even by its own sequel, Invisible War. Now the franchise returns with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Can this game return the series to its trailblazing roots, giving us another champion of games as art?
Sadly, I think Deus Ex: Human Revolution suffers from diminishing returns. Or, rather, Human Revolution is a victim of Deus Ex's influence on the gaming world over the eleven years between the games. When Deus Ex was first released, it was one of the first games where your decisions and actions changed the game as you played it. This was revolutionary at the time. But now many games feature such a mechanic, and some of them, such as Mass Effect, have expanded the extent to which your decisions matter. Some game sequels now even read the memory data of the previous entries in the series so the sequel can open with your decisions and their consequences already in place. Given everything that's transpired, the first Deus Ex game in eight years really needs to be more than the same old mechanics with a new story, and unfortunately that's exactly what Human Revolution feels like.
There's nothing wrong with the basic mechanics of Deus Ex, and Human Revolution does feel of a piece with that title. This is actually a prequel, so don't expect any surprise appearances from JC Denton or Alex D. The story centers around Adam Jensen, head of security for Sarif Industries, a massive corporation specializing in human augmentation. As the game begins, you're overseeing an announcement that will shake the very foundations of science and industry, when mercenaries attack the company and leave Adam for dead. He's rebuilt with extensive modifications and goes off in search of the people responsible.
Of course, this being a Deus Ex game, the story doesn't remain very simple for long. There are plenty of twists and turns and in the Deus Ex tradition, there is a ton of ancillary reading material (in the form of emails, ebooks, and newspapers) that fill the world in and actually clue you in to a lot of things before the main storyline divulges them. I will admit I got a kick out of reading one man's angry email to a co-worker, and then going stumbling upon the recipient's computer and seeing he has forwarded that very email to a friend, along with some scathing comments. Little touches like that go a long way towards making Human Revolution more than just another shooter. On the other hand, the game tips its hand a few times too often in the written material, which makes Adam look like a bit of an idiot, waiting to be shown the next revelation as it occurs in the main plot.
Both the atmosphere and story are firmly in the cyberpunk vein, as were the previous two games. Like those, Human Revolution takes place almost entirely at night, and literary allusions abound. Adam himself looks like he stepped out of the pages of Neuromancer, and a Chinese city looks like it was designed directly from William Gibson's descriptions of The Sprawl. Human Revolution, as you might have guessed from the title, focuses strongly on the question of what it means to be human, and where the human race is leading itself (or being led, depending on your point of view). Again, it's things like this that elevate the Deus Ex series from the pack. Even the flawed Invisible War did a great job of drawing you into its world and making you think about the different opinions it presented.
My problem is not with the ambition, but rather with the execution. To me, far and away the biggest problem is Adam himself. Elias Toufexis does his voice, and he sounds so much like Timothy Olyphant (especially if you've heard Olyphant do his best Eastwood impression in Rango) that I was shocked to discover it wasn't Olyphant himself. However, Toufexis fumbles the performance, delivering everything in the same growly monotone that render the most interesting moments in the game moot. Over the course of the game he encounters people from all walks of life, and often debates with them. Again, great idea, but the voice acting kills it.
Other issues stop me from loving the game. The graphics are not the best of the best. In-engine cutscenes often have poor lip sync, and it's disappointing to see recycled environments even when Adam is meant to be halfway across the world. Also, getting around is a huge headache. Each area is large and open. It's great for roaming around and seeing what you can uncover for yourself, but can be intensely frustrating when you need to navigate to a certain spot for a mission. The map is woefully inadequate, giving you flat layouts of your current location, and maybe you can find the general area where your mission objective is. There's no way to set markers for points of interest, and it doesn't even tell you which locations connect to the one you're in. When I want to get lost in a game I don't mean I want to stop at a virtual gas station to get directions.
Mission objectives are also extraordinarily specific or maddeningly vague. The former is perfectly fine, but the latter is not. I often found myself going around in circles while my objective eluded me. I ditched several side missions because of this very problem. It seems the developers wanted the side quests to take place in spots you may not find if you were roaming free, which is great because you get to see something new. What's not great is that this makes these areas much harder to access than any other part of the game. And given that some of the side quests are almost as long as story missions, anything that makes them longer without providing forward progress is not welcome.
On the plus side, the core gaming experience of Human Revolution will feel very familiar to anyone who's played Deus Ex before, and new comers will get helpful tutorials to get them started. The game is built around the idea that each mission requires a mix of combat, stealth, hacking, and conversation. In general, every part of the mission offers multiple solutions that fall under one of those four categories. You could talk a security guard into letting you pass, or you could find an out of the way air vent and sneak past. You could hack the security door or you could simply go in guns blazing.
As you progress, you gain experience that allows you to upgrade your augmentations or open up new ones. If you prefer to play stealth, you can augment yourself to make no noise as you walk, or even become invisible for short periods. If you'd rather hack your way to success, there are a bevy of augmentations to assist you with that. And for gun aficionados there are upgrades to your aiming ability, your health, and even augmentations to let you shrug off grenades. The various guns you find throughout the game are also upgradeable, allowing for a lot of freedom in the way you play.
If I sound overly harsh, it's because Deus Ex was a real revolution in gaming in 2000, and it disappoints me that in 2011 I'm playing essentially the same game. I know the developers had certain expectations to live up to (and perhaps the less than enthusiastic reaction for Invisible War, which took more chances than Human Revolution does, made the developers cautious), but I think the series' fans would have embraced a new take. I'm not saying we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because there's still plenty of good in the formula, but I wish the developers had looked at what some of the other studios were doing, so they could top it.
That being said, Deux Ex: Human Revolution is an enjoyable experience that in this case may work better as art than it does as a game. And I'll always find room in my heart for a game that strives for more, even if its reach ultimately exceeds its grasp.