Modern of the Month: Deus Ex Human Revolution

Posted by Swifto on 2 May, 2012 at 08:13AM

Tags: Modern, Deus Ex, writing, technology, details

Modern of the Month: Deus Ex Human Revolution

I will admit to being a bit jaded and ornery when it comes to the games I like.

There are some games that people expect me to love, and yet I'll have only a few good things to say about them. And yet, other games that even I wasn't expecting to like, I absolutely adore. In cases like that, it's usually some indefinable quality that I can't put into words that makes all the difference. I'll say outright the flaws to be had in the game, and yet confess undying love for it regardless. I notice a lot of the time that what sparks a lot of those feelings is good writing throughout the game. [i](wut a thurprise)[/i] One example to give there would be the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War series. More notably, the first one and [i](most)[/i] its expansion packs. There's a strong sense of setting in those games, and so much of it is communicated by the writing. Either by what the units say, what everyone says in the cutscenes, the little descriptions of every map, or even the fluff of the weapons and armour. For what could have been a half-assed Real Time Strategy game based on Warhammer 40K ended up being an excellent foray in the entire universe it portrays simply because of how much extra bits of great writing was put in. (and is, in my humble opinion, why the second Dawn of War and its expansions just don't interest me near as much, gameplay differences between the two aside)

But I like to think that there's something else to some games that inspire me to put my time into playing them for long hours beyond great writing. (Because let's face it; I'm enough of a whore for good writing as it is)

What I find that so many games fail to accomplish is to add facinating little bits of detail to their games. The merely good games can be seperated from the fantastic by this simple factor, at least in my eyes. Back in ye days of olde, when video cards were a new fangled idea, the game industry was wholly different than the beast it is now. I would even hesitate to call it an 'industry' when describing what it was back then. Rather, it seemed much more like a fun hobby than anything else. A select few people were devoted enough to pour their careers into the creation of them.

Naturally, I can't be sure of this. At the time, I was scarcely sentient enough to read Garfield books, let alone know and care about the state and mindset of the workers in a budding industry that I could barely comprehend the products of to begin with.

However, I'm finding that some developers are getting better at it as time goes on, but the simple fact that video games are an industry all to themselves now, rather than a fun hobby, means that, in general, few modern developers can manage to put the time and effort into something they created compared to the amount of love and soul put into some of the games of olde. There's too much money to be made in making something quick'n easy that sells than to make a memorable piece of gaming that remains popular years down the line. (Though the latter case is probably why Double Fine is still going fairly strong, god bless'em)

So imagine my surprise when a modern game comes along that has so much damn detail and love put into every tiny nook and cranny that it almost overwhelms me.

But first, some backstory. Some time ago, I was debating between purchasing one of four games. One was Duke Nukem Forever, which before it was released, I had some hope for, despite it being... What it is. [i](or was, I suppose, since the beast we imagined is different than the beast it is)[/i] Buying a piece of legend like that almost seemed like a duty for me. (I still haven't bought it) Another was Aquaria, which was decribed to me as a story-driven Metroid-like game set underwater with some haunting music. It piqued my interest highly just from that, and thanks to the Humble Bundle folks, I have it now and am working through it. The next game I was wanting to get was Universe Sandbox, which interested me at the title.

The last game I was thinking to get was Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Despite it having the highest cost point of them all, I took a chance and decided to pre-order it.

A year later, in retrospect, I realize that I could not have chosen better.

I'd like to say that this game has been an inspiration to me, brought ideas to my mind that scarce few other games have, but it's done more than that. It has... hm... It's hard to bring about the proper words for this...

Let's go with an example. Fairly early in the game, you're free to wander about the city of Detroit and do some sidequests. Standard RPG fare, right? Right. Wandering about the city, getting used to its twists and turns, relying on the map less and less as I become more familiar with the landscape, absorbing the ambient music and noticing every little change the denizens of the city made... I'd almost describe the experience as transcendant. There were moods at work on a level I couldn't quite fathom.

And for someone like me, that loves him a great setting, that was like ambrosia to my senses. There was a place, in a video game, that was starting to feel like a home I was living in. All the stressed citizens I was getting to know, the forboding tall buildings, the gangs, the hookers, the honest and upright citizens, the good of the city, the bad of the city... I accepted all the factors and welcomed them. Simply walking around this place made me happy.

So imagine the emotions brought up when, a fair bit later in the game, a huge riot breaks out and some sections of Detroit are cordoned off for safety reasons, with police wandering all around in a state of near-martial law.

I actually started feeling scared. Not in the sense that a good horror game might, or a simple "Boo" of surprise, but... Concern for my safety and life were at play. Just hearing about the riots when flying into Detroit from far away, I could scarcely be more afraid had I heard news that riots and mobs were going around my own damn home city in real life. It made me start to think what if I actually was living in this version of Detroit. I started to wonder where my girlfriend would be at in the city, and hoping against hope she would be safe. I wondered where my friend would be at, if he was at work, and if he and his wife and son would be safe. Friends and family, whether this far-reaching mob of violence had reached them or not, and how extensive the damage was to a place I called home.

And then I realized I was playing a damn videogame. So I shut the game off and went for a walk outside, hoping that the feeling would dissipate with fresh air.

So like I said; Human Revolution brought about emotions and moods that no other game has ever done for me. All through details. If the city was a staunch and blank scape of buildings and NPC's, as it may have been had the game been made as Deus Ex 2 (instead of that silly Invisible War thing), when technology was much more limiting, I don't believe it would have worked near as well.

But then, Human Revolution is a game with extraordinairy timing as well. If it HAD been made as Deus Ex 2, back in what, 2003, the state of the world was very different then. Back then, the economy was a tad bit stronger than it is now. (as of writing in early-2012-ish) There was a bit more hope than before, and it was still only during the FIRST term of the Bush Administration. Things and life in general weren't as... Oppressive? No, that's a bad word choice. Hopeless? No no... Dismal?

I'm not sure. Either way; there was a different collective mindset of the world then. There were much more people that were looking up into the future, rather than downcast and worried about it. There was a bit more hope in the world. (how much of that is true and how much of that has to do with me being much younger at the time, I'm not sure) The internet wasn't the all-encompassing juggernaut it is today, and technology was certainly a fair bit simpler. For the first Deus Ex, so much of the technology seemed like stuff that would be around far in the future. It was purely in the realm of sci-fi. Our suspension of disbelief was going strong, and the technology involved could have belonged in any Star Trek or other such far-future movie or TV show.

With Human Revolution, being a prequel to the first Deus Ex, the technology involved started to become a little more close to home. Not only had our own advances in technology progressed so much in the ten or so years in between the two games, but the Deus Ex universe in general was younger. The far-flung cyberware that was so incredible in the first was just in its relative infancy in Human Revolution. As such, it felt so much more realistic. While this could be a debated fact, I daresay our suspension of disbelief was barely engaged at all. Nearly all the technology being seen in Human Revolution were things that seemed completely possible. To those of us that pay a lot of attention to science news, everything in Human Revolution seems just on the cusp of being possible, and many of the simpler advances were indeed very possible these days. The impact of the technology being used was brought into much greater focus, because finally we can truly understand so much of what is being seen. It wasn't so much sci-fi cyberware, but actual, real-life possible robotic prosthetics.

And as if the smaller technology gap wasn't enough, the social differences between our life and Human Revolution is, again, a much smaller bridge than with Deus Ex. Human Revolution was made in a time where the internet has been in full use by nearly every single living person on the planet for everyday tasks. When Deus Ex was made, the internet was still a fringe world, with so much growth and exploration still to be had. It would have been near impossible for them to predict how the common opinion and mindset would have changed from the prolific use of a single piece of communication technology.

Ahh... Good to get that off my chest. I've had those thoughts on my mind for a while now. (ever since Extra Credits did an episode on Human Revolution, which I admit to parroting a little. They put a lot of my thoughts into legible words, though, so I couldn't exactly help it)

Now, to give the game itself a bit of attention... The graphics are amazing. It was worth getting a video card upgrade on my computer solely to run this game on its maximum settings. So much detail is jam-packed into every nook and cranny that it's unreal. The sheer amount of raw thought that had to go into every damn piece of this game is astounding. Having the graphics power to properly view said details is almost essential to truly enjoying the game. Though some of the character animations seem a bit fidgety, they still look great, and exceptionally moreso in certain scenes where every movement is hand-crafted to the finest detail.

Granted, there's a lot to enjoy from the gameplay itself. It's not all just story fluff. True to the Deus Ex experience, every encounter is approachable from nearly any method you could want. Guns blazing, sneak and kill, sneak and knock out, just plain running past everything... All approaches are possible and viable. The level design accounts for these approaches, and rewards you for exploring every angle and corner. Though, the infamous boss fights are a different story...

While I enjoyed them, I'll be the first to admit that they could have been done better. The first boss is just kinda frustrating, especially since he kinda comes out of nowhere, and if you had been going with a non-lethal weapon loadout, you'll be in for a damn difficult time. The bosses improve with time, but the fact remains that lethal force is NEEDED against them. There are workarounds about how it's delivered, such as having explosive barrels lying around in the room, but all of those bosses need to die, even if you didn't kill any of the mooks throughout the entire game. For the open-ended approach that the game was going for everywhere else, these bosses are quite the blunder. (I personally smell developer shinanigins, but then, I always do) Should you play Human Revolution, just pack around an upgraded 10mm pistol or Combat Rifle and you should be able to handle the boss fights fairly well. (oh, and some EMP grenades. Those things are hella handy on the cybernetic baddies)

On a happier note; the music is amazing. Perhaps I'm just a sucker for ambient and atmospheric music, but my GOD every single tune fits the level perfectly. Each one. I'm not near as much of a fan of the higher-paced combat music, but that's when I listen to them outside of the game. In-game, when bullets start flying, those songs are just the punch needed to get a bit of adrenaline going.

Alongside that, many of the characters are great as well. They're all have fantastically written dialogue with the protagonist, and amongst each other. Each person you come across, be they plot-important people or joe-blow employee NPC, are perfectly believable.

In fact, I would contest that the worst-portrayed character in this game is Adam Jensen, the protagonist himself. This is by no means a mark against the character himself; in terms of written dialogue, he's very well realized. But while every other character in the game has a voice actor that portrays them excellently, Jensen... Kind of doesn't. His voice is what I like to call "Christian Bale Batman" gruff and rough. It sounds like he'd been smoking a pack a day since he was six. Certain moments, where it counts, he does a very good job. (he even turns in a surprisingly touching performance in one little sidequest, where you're talking to a mentally handicapped older woman) But in general... I feel like the voice actor is trying much too hard to make Jensen sound tough, especially when his character seems like it would demand a more smooth-talking, charismatic voice.

It all mixes wonderfully, though. While not faultless, there is much, much, much to love in Human Revolution. If I haven't 'sold' you on this game yet, then i'm afraid nothing more I say will. Whether you play or not, doesn't matter much to me. I just wanted to get my thoughts out there.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and on PC via Steam. The PC version is likely the cheapest, and easily the best version. (mostly to do with loading time on the console versions)