No matter the time period in which it exists, the human body, and all of its intricacies, is easily one of this world's most spectacular marvels. Able to repair itself, adapt, sense, produce, host—our bodies are wonders we don't fully understand even though we inhabit them, interact with them, live with them. They aren't without their limitations, however. Just as naturally, our physical forms are as equally fragile, imperceptive, sometimes unwittingly and unknowingly malicious. For all that our bodies are capable of, and although anomalous examples might suggest otherwise, there are boundaries beyond which they can't thrive or function.
This doesn't mean we pacify our frustrations from these facts by accepting them as absolute. Our bodies are restricted by the tangible and concrete, but our minds exercise an imagination in a space where limits are only perceptions and feedback. Conjured aspirations, in turn, create a need to supersede what should be normally impossible or improbable. Thus, a mere thought can soon enough manifest into an apparatus to overcome. It's the transformation of human will.
When and how does this basic need to outdo ourselves become ultimately fulfilled? Surely history would prove the process to be on-going. Switching the time frame to the contemporary doesn't seem to provide a deadline either. For the time being and on through an unknown future, we as humans are in a constant effort to do more than we ought to be able to accomplish. “Pushing the boundaries” may be a popular, if not cliched, slogan for a reason.
Take for example Oscar Pistorius. Despite amputation of both of his lower legs, Pistorius has qualified to sprint for South Africa in the 2011 World Championships with the use of prosthetic, carbon-fibre limbs. His triumph simultaneously destabilizes the concepts of “able-bodied” and “disabled.” What shouldn't be possible by normal conventions has been achieved, leaving disbelief and controversy in the wake. The predominant focus settles on whether or not his artificial legs make him superhuman and causes suspicion amongst those of muscle and bone.
The thought is these faux appendages must give Pistorius an unfair edge, yet no one discredits the athlete who's inherent physiology is outside of “normal” thresholds; they have an innate skill, a natural talent. Yet, as I have concluded, if our predisposition is skewed to personal betterment and achievement, why do we askew that which has (possibly) taken the next step in evolving that which could be considered inferior? In one breath we congratulate and praise certain advancement, but in the following bellow we condemn another enhancement. The logic is flawed, but it remains commonplace.
It's this curious duality of the idealized natural order versus the inspired tinkering of evolution that creates such an intriguing backdrop to Eidos Montreal's prequel-reboot, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Chronologically taking place almost three decades before Ion Storm's heavily revered Deus Ex, Human Revolution has a veritable mountain of expectation and legacy to live up to—not the easiest of tasks for a brand new studio. In a sense, it would almost be easier for the Montrealers to drop the ball, but what's been created actually turns out to be a strongly renovated foundation on which the series can be built. It's not a flawless re-do, but Human Revolution uses the strengths of its themes and design to show why most modern day first-person shooters are little more than decorated hallways and recycled elements.
I say “first-person shooter” for a very specific reason. Conceptualizing the game as anything else makes the experience of playing it contort into a fairly unsatisfactory mixture of cherry-picked genres. Along with the dominant FPS structure, there are elements of role-playing, stealth, and action, but “elements” is the operative word. Not each of influential style contributes as much as the popular gun-on-the-screen standby, but its their piecemeal additions which create an almost exceptional shooter.
The fiction puts you in the first-person role of ex-SWAT turned private security supervisor Adam Jensen in the year 2027, at a time when humanity is able to augment itself with bio-mechanical enhancements for vanity, personal preference, or needed aid. The cost, however, is the body's inability to accept its prostheses without the habitual use of compensating drugs. Private corporations are at the forefront of these efforts while the world waits for safer alternatives. Well, part of the world, actually; the other part rallies to keep humans from venturing further into the rabbit hole of unnatural deformity.
The shooting and sneaking begins the night before Jensen's employer, Sarif Industries, is about to announce they've found a way to safely bind augmentation with human host when their main lab is attacked by a terrorist group. The science facility is razed, core researchers killed, and Jensen is nearly killed in the fight to save them. Following up 6 months later, the remainder of the game takes him from Detroit to China and on to Antarctica in an effort to uncover who initiated the attack, thanks to some upgradeable, life-saving augmentations.
The Sarif-sponsored enhancements make up one classic incarnation of RPGs by allowing you versatile options of gameplay. Through the expectant means of acquiring experience points (dispatching enemies, exploring the world, and otherwise doing things that require extra effort), these unlock Praxis points to spend on various skills aligned with play styles. Bullish cowboys can add better armor, aim more efficiently, open up more inventory space for bigger guns, and punch through walls; coy sleuths, on the other hand, can opt to hack computers and locks more securely, jump and run higher and faster, and coerce their way through the game. Most anti-FPS of all, however, is the stealthy operative who takes the Solid Sam Hayabusa route, sneaking past patrolling sentries while sucked up against a wall (and in a third-person perspective), keeping tabs on their prey with X-ray vision, killing or knocking out enemies in quicker order, and finding alternate paths out-of-sight
Of course, these disciplines can be mixed and matched, which uncovers why Human Revolution is such a strong shooter. The options are there and its your choice to how you play through the game. A couple of hub worlds create structured environments to practice your craft and earn extra Praxis points by way of side-quests, while linear missions always have multiple paths catering to your specialization—but in both cases, unless you don't have the requisite skills, you're not pigeon-holed into a set course of action. One corridor might be easier by hacking a side door, that then leads into a room where bypassing guards is the most practical solution, that finally opens into a courtyard where sniping enemies at from a distance is most pragmatic. Throw in turrets and bots that can be turned on their operators and you're left with scenarios where you didn't even pull the trigger.
Surprisingly, no matter how I chose to go about my investigative business, there didn't seem to be any absentminded design traps. Not only does every critical path have multiple solutions, but even when trying, I couldn't get stuck in a fenced enclosure or out-of-the-way compartment.
This availability of player choice also means blood needn't be shed at all. Beside knocking out hostiles with stun guns or choke holds, key conversations and other interactions with augmented pheromones can difuse potentially hostile situations, producing optimal outcomes. These tactics allude to another tenant of the RPG without going full-bore into protracted fetch quests and undesirable grinds for characters who ultimately mean nothing. For the most part, major conversations usually lead to some kind of reward or penalty later on in the playthrough. Admittedly, plucking off headshots might prove easier in the long run, but patience and consideration to line-of-sight and the volume of sound makes Human Revolution a shooter not fully dependent on big explosions or fast-paced executions.
Just like choosing how to deal with another character in dialogue sequences, there's a consequence for a new studio tackling such an ambitious revival project. The franchise may be over a decade old, but Eidos Monreal is a fresh studio without the convenience of previously iterative content to work with, besides what they themselves have played. As much is evident. While we're afforded the opportunity to sneak up behind an adversary or disregard them, their scripts are nearly transparent and their paths unvaried. If alerted to you and attacking, their A.I. is even more single-minded as they track right towards your location. A second time through the game might let you try out a different way to reach a goal, but without any gadgets to toy around enemies with, their overly reliable patterns only allow for so much experimentation.
If you go the “silver tongue” route, choosing to chat it up for most of the game, you're left witness to some disappointing animation and lip-synch as in-game cutscenes feature stiff movement and uncoordinated mouth movements. Textures and objects, though flat and recycled throughout, appropriately set the scene and artistic flair is evident, but the inhabitants in the environments of the not-so-distant future come off as soulless and expressionless. Perhaps L.A. Noire has jaded my reception to how characters should express themselves, but if a game like Enslaved can do it without burgeoning technology, should Human Revolution exhibit anything less?
Things become a little muddled when also examining to the audio side of the code. While nothing extraordinary, the script contextualizes a world torn between the two sides of the augmentation argument. Corporate and bigger-picture conspiracies keeps the game in-line with the series, and serve their purpose to propel the drama; unfortunately, it takes uncovering hidden text to get the full-story effect. What's mostly directly played and experienced are the conflicts erupting from more interesting, deeply seeded power struggles.
Moreover, the dialogue and the performances never really drew me in. Sometimes characters even react outside of how they initially are realized, while other times their delivery is (insert generic “phoning it in” remark here). Otherwise, a Mass Effect-esque soundtrack appropriately sets the mood even when ancillary world chatter annoyingly repeats itself throughout levels and in hubs.
Perhaps Human Revolution's biggest disappointment, however, is its complete departure from player choice when handling boss battles. Besides four engagements, it's entirely possible to go at the game as a pacifist. It's honestly refreshing. The idea of attacking a spacial challenge in various, non-confrontational ways is so atypical of today's first-person shooters it's hard to damn the game for anything else. Nonetheless, being forced to tackle bosses with nothing but brutish, headstrong tactics goes against the rest of the experience. Not to mention, if you've avoided augmenting your Jensen and weaponry appropriately, these sequences create more frustration than thrill. Like their underlings, each (with the exception of the final) will charge directly at you without tact or illusion of thought. A tranquilizer gun and inability to effectively traverse side-to-side in sparse cover doesn't match well against psychos with speed and riotous full metal jackets.
Taken as an RPG, Deus Ex: Human Revolution lacks the character development so closely associated with the genre to take it seriously; it doesn't play as a quintessential stealth or action game either, without accessories to tinker with and a wealth of snooping moves to employ; and neither is it a pure first-person shooter where a bullet sponge totes around big guns. As a shooter that borrows just enough from each of the other genres where and when it counts, however, it's a game filled with appropriately devised branching paths and choice in action to make it worthy of the preceding lauded legacy. Here and there it's in need of some attention, but as a first attempt from a new studio, at a crowd favorite nonetheless, the groundwork is certainly there to build upon.
You can't deny Deus Ex's mark on the gaming landscape, but we all weren't there the first time around. Where are you coming from with Human Revolution's launch? How would want to be augmented? Let us know on Twitter @gamers_hell