The original Deus Ex (2000) is one of those classic PC games considered sacrosanct by the community. Many 'Top 100 Games of All Times' lists put it at #1 and a lot of PC gamers evangelize it at every opportunity. I admire Deus Ex for what it accomplished - It was arguably the first game to successfully pull off a blend first-person shooter and deep RPG mechanics - but I wasn't ga ga over it myself. Deus Ex tought me that when it comes to action games, quite a bit more care has to be put into how the RPG elements are handled than in turn-based games. Action games have to be fun to play before skill points and level-ups are awarded; and yet so many begin as a chore to play.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DEHR; 2011; Eidos Montreal) is a prequel, set in a near-future where cybernetic technology is becoming available to the general public. While the medical benefits of replacement limbs and organs are clear, many people fear a future in which wealthy people will gain even more of a competitive edge over plebes by implanting 'neural-stimulator chips' or synthetic muscles, etc. You take the role of the chief of security for one of the major manufacturers of cybernetic technologies when, on the eve of a major government hearing on cybernetic regulation, your company is attacked by terrorists. What follows is a quest to get to the bottom of who the terrorists were, and what they thought that they would accomplish (hint: it's a Deus Ex game, which means that it's going to be filled with conspiracy theories).
A digression. Unlike review sites, I tend to pay only the most lip service to video game stories. As I've said before, this is because most of them don't hold up to comparisons with any other type of media. Let me reiterate this: With only a few exceptions, the best that the vast majority of game stories can claim is that they're comparable to the pulpiest of pulp fantasy/sci fi novels or cheaply produced television shows. Some people get really offended when I say this, but I'd challenge them to go out there and read some books, watch some great classic movies, and then come back and tell me about how 'original' this or that game's story really was. Here's a paragraph from PC Gamer's review of DEHR:
The full story is vast and complex, crammed into every corner of Human Revolution’s world. Every apartment you break into, every secret room you find, every rooftop you clamber across has little scraps of personality and history to read and interpret. It’s a story-junky’s blissful overdose.
While I agree that there's a lot of fluff to read in the game (too much), we have very different definitions of 'vast and complex'. If you were legitimately surprised by the 'twists' in this game, I'm sorry for you. The foreshadowing is so clumsily heavy-handed that some characters may as well enter the stage for the first time wearing devil-horns1.
The game's dialog system is quite good, with one caveat: There's an absolute must-buy ability (it should be your first upgrade) that allows you to sense the NPC's mood, determine whether you're pursuing the right conversation choices, and ultimately influence their behavior. Given how important influencing others is to this game (it gives you massive xp rewards and perks), it's a bit ridiculous that you can actually accidentally ignore this upgrade.
With that out of the way, I was genuinely impressed by how much DEHR stuck to the formula and feel of the original. The layout of the worlds feels very similar in style, and the way that you can approach challenges from various angles (sneaking, shooting, hacking, etc.) cleaves very close to the best intentions of the first title. I say 'intentions' because I think that many reviewers forget that there's a huge difference between intention and execution, and it's in the latter that the game stumbles.
DEHR is perhaps the worst-balanced game that I've ever played - at least when it comes to titles published by professional studios. What a mess. Where to begin?
Take the upgrade system - it's terrible. For starters, at least in the early game, upgrades are very expensive (all upgrades have the same point 'cost'), and you're given a surfeit of uninterpretable choices: This upgrade protects me from poisonous gas... Is there a lot of gas in the game? (no). To make matters worse, there are entire upgrade trees that are completely useless. Seriously, go and read upgrade guides to see how they spell out why this or that 'feature' provides no benefit in the context of how the game actually works. When points are scarce, accidentally wasting them on useless upgrades is a massive drag.
Another problematic feature is the combat balancing: the main character is very, very weak, whereas some of the enemies are quite strong. Looking broadly at the skill trees, it's pretty clear that the game really wants you to lean towards stealth (annoyingly, you also get more experience for non-lethal takedowns so there goes that whole 'play any character you want to' thing). Inexplicably, however, the game forces ~4-5 'boss' encounters where you absolutely have to fight. Every review agrees that these fights are handled terribly, and even more so if you've invested all of your points in stealthy abilities. The developpers seem to have realized this as well, so they included a very cheap upgrade that gives you a limited-use instant-kill attack called the 'Typhoon'. Realistically, you may only find about 40 cartriges for this thing in the game, but it kills anything in 1-2 hits, including major bosses. I only used the ability about 8 times in the whole game, but 4 of those times were to instantly skip the awful boss fights.
I'm not a big graphics person, but given how terribly this game runs - with frequent frame-rate drops - I'd expect it to be a lot better looking than this. The character models are particularly stiff and bland, with flat textures. For comparison's sake, I can run Skyrim, a contemporary title, with all options maxed and no frame-rate issues at all. I've seen a lot of complaints about this on the forums, so I know it's not 'just me'.
Finally, I want to point out that this is yet another example of a game where you have to upgrade your character a number of times before it's actually fun to play. The basic character can only run for 2.5 seconds (some super-soldier, hunh?), dies from a single shotgun blast, and sneaks like he's trailing a dozen empty tin-cans behind him on a string. You're constantly presented with alternative routes that you'll need this or that upgrade to take, so the game world feels like an endless series of limitations rather than 'opportunities'. I wish that more devs would make the basic game fun to play and use upgrades as 'perks' rather than necessities.
I kept playing DEHR because many people were very positive about the game and I wanted to be able to criticize it from a knowledgeable perspective. Yes, the black-and-gold cyberpunk aesthetic is cool and the Blade Runner vibe is somewhat refreshing in the sea of overused military/space marine settings (I'd argue that the original Mass Effect did an excellent job with this same vibe). But none of this elminates my feeling that the game just isn't any fun to play. Compared to other sneaking games (e.g. Metal Gear or Splinter Cell) it leaves much to be desired, and as a third-person shooter it's too clumsy2.
When a game's fundamentals fail on so many levels, I don't understand why so many people feel compelled to stick around for the setting or story. There's so much better stuff out there to waste your time on.
1Simply understanding 'The Law of the Economy of Characters' makes it very difficult for overly simplistic 'twists' to have any impact.
2The enemy AI is absolutely abysmal. For instance, foes can spot you through glass windows, andwhile this will trigger the alarm, they'll just stand there and shout at you. No enemy will actually bother firing at you until you shatter the window yourself, allowing you to line up a great free headshot, grenade toss, or rocket strike before you're even threatened.