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30th of August 2012

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

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The original Deus Ex is one of those games I always knew I should try, even if the genre isn't quite up to my alley. I didn't like Daikatana at all but I felt bad for John Romero and his company; at least they delivered one classic game (some say two) before closing the doors for good. But years passed and Deus Ex got too old for me to have much interest in it. Human Revolution therefore comes off as a second chance and when Steam was selling the game for less than 10, I knew my time had come. Even more fortunately, Human Revolution is a prequel to the first Deus Ex, pretty much guaranteeing that I'm not missing much, if anything, by not having played the first game.

The game looks and feels cyberpunk la The Matrix, Blade Runner, etc. but with a strong pre-futuristic tone, kinda like Robocop with its corporate criticism, hi-tech hero and being set in the high-crime hometown of the Red Wings. If The Matrix had a green tint, Human Revolution has gone all yellow, giving it a pleasantly distinct look from every other game on the market. However, overall the game is graphically slightly disappointing. Its character models (with a few exceptions, mainly the protagonist) are even worse than Duke Nukem Forever's NPC models, and during conversations it's as if they're trying to make a Michael J. Fox impression. Some of the skyboxes are clearly 2D images with a few 3d effects thrown in (they're pretty good for what they are though) and some indoor locations are recycled several times. Most disappointingly the game lacks, at least until the very last map, the kind of "wow" moments that'd leave a permanent impression.

That's as far as criticism goes: everything else about the game works, even if there are still a few quirks on the way. The game has one of the best video game soundtracks out there, relying on simple electronic tracks that fit the game's bleakish near-future theme perfectly. In fact, along with the yellow tint the soundtrack is the first thing I noticed about the game. Voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag with some very good performances (again, mainly the protagonist) mixed in with some pretty bad ones (the Chinese civilians for example).

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Human Revolution is of course not a first-person shooter despite its first-person perspective. Its combat is a mix of Rainbow Six and Mass Effect. In a cool move the game has been designed so that you don't have to kill any regulars. At first I thought the game doesn't really penalize you for just shooting everyone and while this is true to a large extent, I started knocking everyone out (rather than killing) just for the fun of it. At its best the game reminded me of those excruciating stealth missions in Rainbow Six where one misstep resulted in a mission failure (the penalty is not even nearly as high in Human Revolution though). Both you and your enemies go down rather easily which is good for balance and forces you to adopt a more tactical approach. Only the game's boss fights degenerated into mindless '90s-style shootouts. You gain experience points for various things and these can be translated into better augmentations. There's a diverse selection of augmentations available for unlocking to suit your particular style of play. I usually avoided spending augmentation points ("praxis points") right away so that I could use them when a specific need arose. For example, at one point I thought it'd be useful to be able to jump off rooftops without dying. As it happens, I was able to purchase an augmentation that allowed me to do just that.

The main attraction is the story, involving corporate abuse, conspiracies and the ethics of human enhancement. After the epicness of Mass Effect the story is refreshingly down-to-earth but with global implications. Radio broadcasts, news reports and conversations between civilians bring the matter of augmentations to life beyond the confines of the main quest. Similarly, sidequests are not disjointed from the main storyline but rather enhance its universe, the politics at the heart of the game. (I did find some of the game's background politics a bit naive, which isn't exactly a wonder considering the game's French roots.)

Conclusion: Human Revolution is a sci-fi thriller that boasts a credible universe and a captivating story. Most of all it's fun to play thanks to a system that allows you to choose between stealth and firearms, and an upgrade system that accommodates your choice. The game does look disappointingly "retro" sometimes, a no small complaint, but with a good soundtrack and a pleasantly distinct overall look the game still manages to have its audiovisual moments of glory.

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