Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an absolute triumph, and one of my very favourite games. Faced with the task of creating an entirely new game in the Deus Ex franchise, after a disappointing sequel (Deus Ex: Invisible War), a spin-off that span so far off it eventually left the canon entirely (Project: Snowblind), and multiple failed attempts to keep the franchise going, as well as the near-insurmountable task to produce a successor to what’s often considered the greatest PC game of all time, the extraordinarily capable team at Eidos Montreal nonetheless proved themselves capable of the task, and delivered one of the most enjoyable video games I’ve ever had the fortune to play.

[Note: The review is largely spoiler-free, the farthest I really go being describing the game as having multiple endings that are pro or anti a certain issue. All but perhaps the strictest spoiler-phobes should be fine. Also, I’ve reviewed all the transmedia offerings surrounding this game, so you may be interested in their reviews here: Deus Ex: Icarus Effect (a novel), Deus Ex: Fallen Angel (a short story), and the confusingly-similarly-titled Deus Ex: Human Revolution (comic series).]

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The game works perfectly well standalone; playing the original game (let alone Invisible War) is most definitely not required. Rather than attempt to justify its existence as a prequel through blatant tie-ins to the original game, Human Revolution carves out its own niche some 25 years before the events of the first game, and the majority of its worldbuilding is original. The only real notable connections to the first game, beyond implication and thematic material, are in shadowy scenes at the very beginning and end of the game, featuring Bob Page, the antagonist of that original game. For the most part, the game is self-contained. Thematically, it has an entirely different focus than the first game. Long before the nanotech dystopia of 2052, the developers of Human Revolution envisaged a “cyber-Renaissance”, where the dawn of mechanical augmentations – cybernetic enchantments of human body parts, from prosthetic limbs to neural implants – was giving rise to a new age in society.

hr1.jpgThe cyber-Renaissance is complemented by another chief focus of the game, the Greek myth of Icarus. The myth sees Icarus and his father Daedalus imprisoned, with seemingly no hope of escape. Daedalus, through his intelligence, comes up with the idea of creating makeshift wings out of feathers, wood, and wax. He succeeds in making two pairs of wings, and fits both himself and his son Icarus with them. Before attempting their escape and flying away, Daedalus warns Icarus to not get too confident and assured during their flight and fly too close to the sun, as that could cause the wax in the wings to melt, and plunge him to certain death. They make their escape, and wondrously, it works, the two of them flying successfully away from their imprisonment, and over the sea. But Icarus grows too ecstatic in flight, too self-assured of his abilities, and forgets his father’s warning. Icarus flies too close to the sun, and the wax indeed melts, leaving Icarus to plunge to the sea, to his death.

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The Icarus myth pervades the game, with visual touches like the Sarif Industries (a leader of the burgeoning augmentation industry, and the employer of the player character Adam Jensen) logo being a wing, the augmentation that allows humans to fall great distances without being injured is called “the Icarus Landing system”, and the creator of the augmentation technology explicitly stating he feels like Daedalus. But the chief reference is clearly that mankind (personified in the trailer linked below by player character Adam Jensen) in its pursuit and use of mechanical augmentation, technology that gives the power of self-controlled human evolution into people’s own hands, is “flying too close to the sun”, going beyond its limits, and headed towards appropriate disaster. The game also alludes to the myth of Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind, with augmentation in place as the fire of the gods, giving humans godly powers over themselves.

Having such a strong thematic focus does the game wonders, really giving it a strong sense of cohesiveness and drive. The environmental and visual direction is possibly the strongest element of the game. Art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête states in the introduction to the game’s artbook that “our visual universe had to be particularly consistent and believable; not photorealistic, but homogeneously credible….We wanted a distinctive flavour, and this is where different aesthetic elements came into play: the stylization, the Renaissance and Baroque influences, and the Icarus myth. These ingredients became a lens through which the visuals were designed, thus creating the game’s signature….Art direction in videogames shouldn’t only be about making thing look pretty, it should also be about communicating ideas”. JB unarguably succeeded in his aims there, and the many successes of he and his fellow developers has led to such interesting analyses as an image series analysing solely the ceilings of the game, and a many-hours-long YouTube series where a professional analyses the architecture of the game. Such focus and depth behind the visual direction of the game led to the game having gorgeous, meaningful visuals, that contribute to the extremely expressive holistic cohesiveness of the game, with every level – visual design, environmental and level design, writing, music, etc. – working in tandem to tell the players a story about transhumanism and offer players a game in which they can explore the issue and ultimately make their minds up on it in  the ending.

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While on the topic of aesthetics, the game not only has fantastic visuals, but fantastic music and sound design as well. Sound design is one of those things in games where it’s usually done pretty well, you typically only notice it if it’s done poorly, and it takes a really special game to make you notice it being done particularly well (I see DICE often paid compliments for their excellent sound design in the Battlefield games, for example). This is definitely one of those games with such excellently done sound design that you notice it. On the topic of music, the original Deus Ex game has an incredibly memorable soundtrack, with musical cues like the main theme, the unforgettable UNATCO motif, the Hong Kong motif, and many others, still sticking in my head years after first playing the game. Composer Michael McCann opted for a less catchy-motif focus, instead focusing more on deeply immersive soundscapes, again tying in with the general holistic cohesiveness of the game (I should congratulate Jean-François Dugas, the director of the game, for presumably being the one to unify these elements so well).

The main theme of the game, “Icarus”, is widely remembered and referenced still today, and is indeed a very impressive track, but my personal favourite track is the one that accompanies the opening credits. The opening credit sequence is one of the absolute most impressive parts of the game, from a musical standpoint, a visual standpoint, and a thematic and story standpoint, as it forms a sort of genesis for the game, showing the potential of transhumanistic augmentation, the plight of protagonist Adam Jensen, and raises the issues that the player will spend the game questioning and exploring, both thematic (what are the costs of augmentation, is augmentation a good thing or a bad thing, does it impact a person’s humanity, augmentation as rebirth, augmentation as a medical saviour, augmentation as a confining trap, non-consensual augmentation as violation or salvation) and narrative (Adam as the biblical “Adam” of augmentation both mechanical and potentially nanotechnological, why does Adam bond so well with augmentation, why did David Sarif push so many augmentations onto Adam).

The protagonist, Adam Jensen, is an ex-cop turned security officer for Sarif Industries, a world leader for mechanical augmentation. Adam split with his ex-girlfriend, Megan Reed, some months ago, but they both work at Sarif Industries, and have a mature, cordial relationship still. The opening of the game sees Sarif Industries attacked, vital research of Megan’s that was going to somehow allow every person to access augmentation cheaply and safely stolen, Megan seemingly killed, and Adam injured terribly enough that Sarif has to augment him extremely heavily in order to preserve his life, as seen in that opening credits sequence. The main narrative of the game follows Adam being sent on missions by David Sarif, to try and track down the research and find those responsible for the attack on Sarif Industries. Along the way, Adam visits his home city of Detroit many times, as well as the Chinese island of Hengsha multiple times, with both primary city hubs changing reactively on every visit. Multiple other locations are also visited by Adam and the player, such as Montreal and Singapore – as in the first game, it’s a globetrotting espionage thriller.

hr3.jpgAdam’s boss, David Sarif, is earnestly pro-augmentation, believing it can truly improve humanity, the world, and lives in general. Sarif is voiced superbly by Stephen Shellen, who delivers a nuanced, truly unique performance perfectly emulating the somewhat-Michael Scott “I’m a chill, friendly boss man!” vibe of Sarif, but also is perfectly capable of delivering the more nuanced character moments. Adam Jensen is voiced by Elias Toufexis, who also delivers a memorable and iconic performance, a sort of Clint Eastwood-esque rasp where an undercurrent of emotion simmers beneath a rasp (note Toufexis’ performance when Adam is angry – rather than yelling, words become tight, clipped, and stressed – as an example of how the performance is often understated).

The voice actors of the game get to deliver their best work in “social boss battles”, debates in which the player and an NPC engage in a discussion or argument. The player has access to a social augmentation that analyses the other person’s body language to identify their mental patterns, as well as offering a psychological profile from which the player can accordingly coach their responses (which also varied, with options like placate, refocus, defend, condescend, etc.) I found each of the social debates to be boss battles in their own right. They’re climatic moments of gameplay, where players have to work particularly hard, and the stakes are higher than normal – certainly feel like boss battles to me, just not falling under the gameplay tenent of combat, instead under dialogue. The writing is strong enough that in these debates, the NPCs feel like real people, not gameplay abstractions where I just have to continue down a certain dialogue tree to “beat”, and I must congratulate lead writer Mary DeMarle as well as any and all other writers on the game for their fantastic work in these debates. The writing in them is strong enough, and the gameplay supporting it nuanced, cohesive and well-developed enough, that in these moments, the game succeeds in transcending the typical constraints of the medium into something brilliantly compelling. Below is a clip of Adam Jensen and David Sarif engaged in one of these “social boss battles”. It contains plenty of spoilers, so be warned of that. It showcases both the excellent debate system, as well as the great performances of Shellen and Toufexis.

Storytelling elements like those who are augmented requiring the drug neuropozyne to prevent their body rejecting the augmentations to possibly lethal extents add much verisimilitude and realism to the world, and really deepen the questions the game explores. Someone who augments themselves solely to keep up in an increasingly competitive workforce that’s been increasingly leaving them behind, fails to secure a promotion, and is left with a dependency on an expensive specialist drug…while such situations operate under high-concept science-fiction conceits, they feel all too real, and bring to mind the ugliest aspects of what’s often now termed “wage slavery”. The game does what best science-fiction does; using genre concepts to mirror and explore very real feelings, questions, ideas, and situations.

The narrative of the game is compelling enough, especially for a medium that usually features less-than-stellar narratives, but the game is more focused with theme than plot. The game spends the entirety of its time presenting scenarios where the player is confronted with the issue of human augmentation. Over the course of the game, the player makes choices regarding issues surrounding augmentation (such as how to help near-poverty prostitutes that have been forced to augment themselves in order to maintain their job, deal with ex-military mercenaries taking advantage of a piece of legislation offering free augmentations to the ex-military as a way of escaping veteran poverty, save women who’ve been kidnapped and horrifically forcibly augmented against their will at a black site in the middle of the ocean, etc.) in side quests and parts of the main questline, but the player’s thoughts on the issue will also develop just from the general worldbuilding of the game as it’s presented. The game is all about exploring the issue of human augmentation, the morality behind it, and this culminates in an ending where the player must finally make their own moral judgement on the issue, in choosing how they will have Adam react to an extremely important and volatile world element, where his actions can shape the future.

hrr.jpgThe ending is largely self-contained to the final mission (that is, gameplay decisions made earlier in the game have no direct effect, just the indirect effect of influencing the player’s worldview). This is oft-criticized, which I find baffling – the first game, and Deus Ex: Invisible War were the same! All three have endings that eventuate in the player going to a different spot in the final worldspace, performing an action, and then a final sequence playing where the player’s judgment on the state of the world culminates in a sequence showing the effects of your choice . None of the games offer post-game play in worldstates changed as a result of your choice. The ending is where the player makes their statement on the game’s theme. The endings offer great closure, as the player finally makes their moral judgment on the issue of augmentation, and are shown a corresponding sequence reflecting how their moral judgement, exercised through the action Adam Jensen performs, affects the world, and reflects their morals. I found the sequence particularly affecting in how it uses real-world, live-action footage, much of it stock footage of actual events. It made the game, the thematic exploration the game provided, and the gravity of my ultimate moral judgement on the issues the game raised much more immediate, solid, and stirring.

On my initial playthrough of the game, in 2011, I chose the pro-augmentation ending, and felt fairly strongly about it. I’ve played through the game probably six or so times by now, and these days find myself agreeing much more with the, shall we say, “fourth” ending, so as to preserve spoilers. Not the pro-augmentation, anti-augmentation, or pro-”regulation” ending, but the one that takes the choice away from Adam and the other figures present at the location of the ending of the game, and instead attempts to give the choice directly to the people, as an attempt of subverting the control of power players and the media over people’s thoughts and decisions. Any of the four endings can be a fitting act of thematic closure to the player, depending on how they’ve played the game and how their moral development on the issue frames their experience with it, but I feel more drawn to that more subversive ending these days. I find it extremely fascinating how, in the five years between my first playthrough and now, my personal growth and development has led to me feeling differently about the issues of the game. The game succeeds in being literary in a sense, as it explores issues with nuance and accommodates various thematic reflections, rather than just being an attempt to be a fun time or anything like that.

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The gameplay is similar to the original game, being very reactive, very open, very free, truly catering to the player in offering them the freedom to approach situations from a myriad of ways. The chief gameplay pillars are self-described by the developers as being stealth, social, combat, and hacking (I’d describe that order as descending in terms of how much time and effort they invested too). The gameplay is generally of a very high standard, with a wonderful synergy between the extraordinary environments the art team and level designers created and the freedom of the player to explore worldspaces as they see fit. The only real incongruous gameplay elements are the much-derided boss battles, where the player is forced to act in a very combat-heavy style. These were outsourced as a result of lack of developer time, and it shows.

They were “fixed” in the “Director’s Cut” re-release of the game, but I don’t recommend that version of the game, as it removes the iconic “yellow filter” of the game, thus introducing noticeable incohesiveness in the visual elements of the game, and also re-introduces many technical issues the original release of the game didn’t have. It also incorporates the DLC “The Missing Link” directly into the main game. The DLC is a compelling story set just before the third act of the game that tells a good story in its own right, sets up a lot of the story of the third act, and also sets up a lot of the elements that come to play later in the franchise. In the original release of the game, you had to play the DLC as an entirely separate program/game, but the “Director’s Cut” remains the resulting irritating gameplay abstractions – like your aug progress being reset – so I don’t really see the inclusion as that impressive. The DLC is definitely worth playing, at the point in the game where it occurs story-wise (right after Jensen enters a pod for transport), but I see no issue with just opening it up as the separate piece of content it was originally released as.

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One of my main issues with the game is that it sets up such a potentially rich character story for Adam Jensen. The premise of his story is very strong, the opening credits are a fantastic character genesis moment, and his character backstory is told staggeringly well through the environmental design in his home, which is one of the absolutely best examples of environmental storytelling I have ever seen. The smashed mirror, the e-mail about his dog being put-down because his co-workers thought he was as good as dead, the various cereal boxes strewn around showing both his depressed state (messiness, lack of care for his home) and his endearing character quirk of loving cereal, books and a workstation showing how he’s become an obsessed mechanical clock hobbyist in his six months recovering from his augmentations (just another character quirk and way to pass the time, or perhaps an attempt at understanding and grasping machines, of which he is now one, in a way?), the various drugs in his bathroom showing the rough state he’s in both physically and mentally…I could go on and on. It’s a brilliant case of environmental storytelling. Adam’s character is set up so well!

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And yet…the game largely squanders it. It’s a story told at the seems, through implication and the rare cutscene, rather than in any detail. There’s so much potential in his relationship with Megan (how and why did they break up, what was the nature of their post-break-up relationship, how does her apparent death affect Adam, what do later story revelations regarding her make Adam feel like and commit to, etc.). There’s so much potential in his non-consensual augmentations, which gave rise to the iconic phrase “I never asked for this”, and is somewhat addressed in the endings (I’d maintain that that’s more a case of the player making up their mind about augmentations and using Adam as an avatar to enact the appropriate ending, rather than a culminating character moment for Adam, but that’s fairly semantic), but is largely relegated to the rare dialogue choice with little resulting impact. There’s so much potential to tell the story of this man utterly broken down, rebuilt with foreign technology, who has to build himself back up mentally, and how he achieves this. So much rich backstory regarding the Mexicantown massacre (excellently deployed in the “social boss battle” with police officer Wayne Haas, which can potentially result in a brilliantly reactive encounter in the lobby of Adam’s apartment late in the game). Adam has so many rich character facets that could be explored, but it’s so lightly touched on, which is a grand shame. The writers certainly seemed more than capable, but the great, fulfilling character story that could have been told with this great character they built up, largely wasn’t. This is a common issue with the original Deus Ex game I really wish they hadn’t quite emulated so well!

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I truly believe the game transcends the medium, not just once, but multiple times throughout. From the incredibly visual and environmental design, to the extraordinarily compelling “social boss battles”, to moments where gameplay conventions are broken and cast aside for realism (such as the player being able to non-lethally subjugate a huge taskforce of enemies trying to kill a fan-favourite character late in the game, or an early situation where the player taking their sweet time in the first real mission, between Sarif Industries and the plant where a terrorist group has taken hostages, actually resulting in the hostages being killed as a result of Adam not responding quick enough – a case of a game not catering to player enjoyment, but truly trying to emulate a complex and time-sensitive scenario), there are many such brilliantly-realised moments. The game isn’t flawless, but to my mind, it’s unquestionably a triumph.

I give it five boxes of cereal, and a neuropozyne pill.

 

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