Saturday, September 3, 2011

-REVIEW: Deus Ex: Human Revolution-
a lot like chicken miso noodle soup

Title: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Developer: Square Enix Eidos
Release: Aug 2011 $49.99 (PC) $59.99 (X360, PS3)

Adam Jensen, part man, part machine. Problem-solver, gun-shooter, sweet-talker. Machine part: responsible for problem-solving, gun-shooting, and sweet-talking. Man part: wait, what? Shit.

not intended for human consumption

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of how to cook broccoli in such a way as to maintain its high nutritional content of bioflavonoids, vitamins, and essential minerals and amino acids while avoiding the grueling experience of chewing on cold, ranch-and-dressing-dipped raw florets (which probably undoes much of the good I intend from eating them). It’s an unsurprisingly difficult task; fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K denature quickly at moderately high temperatures, ruling out the boiling which would soften my florets, and simply immersing them in unsaturated fats like vegetable oil won’t do much without enough heat to break down the cellulose membranes which package those goodies. What I need is a hybrid recipe; some kind of panacean cooking technique that keeps the nutritional value intact while making the masticating experience less…unsavory. I don't want to make broccoli amazing, that's impossible. What I want is for the broccoli-eating experience to be as painless as possible so I can find more satisfaction in knowing that I'm doing something good for myself, without having to actually suffer as I so often do when I have to do something good for myself.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution might just be the answer.
Broccoli research, I presume?
 east meets west

For years people have been squabbling over the respective merits of Eastern design philosophies and Western ones. JRPGs vs. CRPGs, beat-em-ups vs. shoot-em-ups, puzzle games vs…puzzle games. The assumption is that one philosophy has an inherent superiority over the other, or that one philosophy produces experiences that speak more deeply to human needs. In all games, interaction is key, but for some the interaction is meant to foster choice, while the other is meant to provide revelation. While many continue to squabble, it seems that Square Enix Eidos have decided to mate.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is being billed as a revival of a classic, and that’s exactly what it is. In a rare display of honesty, Square Enix Eidos have indeed brought back an old game, in most of its oldness. It’s unlikely that the majority has played the original lately, but those who have will certainly agree: this is Deus Ex. From the awkward box grabbing to the transparent dialogue to the mechanical shooting and the interminable urban spelunking, Square Enix Eidos have practically Frankensteined this game from gaming past.

conspiracy theories

You play as Adam Jensen, circa near-future Detroit, where the world is on the brink of a cyborg singularity (impending thermonuclear war excluded). You’re cast as a character in a story, and as it unfolds you not only learn more about the world and its players, but also yourself (that is, the character you’re playing). The narrative is a conspiratorial deathball arena and the questions are queer enough to leave you begging for answers. Luckily, Jensen is a sleuth like nobody’s business, and you’re in the driver’s seat.
Get yo' face outta my business
The dialogue in this case is solid. The material is meant to be complex, but the dialogue about it remains understandable. As much as it would be nice to have deeper or more thoughtful/technical language used, keeping the dialogue straightforward and untainted by technical jargon maintains the fidelity of the character and his perspective. Personally I don’t mind that it lacks a deeper philosophical exposition on the topic of ethics and biotechnology, but some may. Still, it accomplishes its ends admirably: it tells a story about a man’s search for the truth.

railroad pursuits

That’s also the problem though, you’re very much playing as a character. You are not yourself. You are Adam Jensen, and you are making choices for Adam Jensen. To a certain extent you make choices as the Adam Jensen you believe him to be, which is in a sense yourself, but he maintains much of his own personality (and all of his skills and abilities) regardless of you. In a sense it’s a classic JRPG scenario; thrust into a vehicle which has a personality of its own. Steer it as you will, but there are some moments when this vehicle simply can’t transcend the simple jalopy that it is. Sometimes it does, and it’s rather fun. Most of the time though, it just is.
The "Humble" option does not include a bundle of indie games
 The balance of this comes from the choices provided in combat scenarios (or non-combat, as some may choose it), where you control Jensen directly and speechlessly, and in this sense determine whether that jalopy decides to elbow-sword its way down the highway of life or not. This allows for a bit of a disjointed philosophy, where on the one hand Jensen can talk as though he has a complete disregard for life while on the other seems to be entirely determined to preserve it.

like a fungus

In more practical terms, the game is competent. There are few, if any flaws in the way the game wants to be played and thankfully that way isn’t particularly adiverting. Initial impressions be damned, the game grows on you. This is perhaps the strongest compliment that can be paid to the design. As archaic as it is, it grows on you. It challenges and frustrates, but is masterable and in the end satisfying. While it can certainly seem incomprehensibly restrictive, the levels and the scenarios are designed well-enough that you never feel as though the game wasn’t built purposefully.
Consequential gameplay at its finest
 My assumptions certainly colored my experience at first, but the game’s length and depth allowed me to come to terms with its style and its intent, which it never then deviated from. Despite not including an especially smooth stealth experience nor an especially punchy firepower experience, it was still fun and engaging, which drove me to appreciate something that I perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise.

narrative over gameplay

The key point to make is that this game is a story that you play through. All the talk about control and perspective and choice really boils down to the fact that you’re stuck inside a story with a definable (granted, furcative) end. In that sense it isn’t trying to be anything else but itself: its cover-and-shoot mechanic is derivative, but purposeful. Its sight-and-sound based stealth is comparable, but unique. Its upgrade mechanics are simplistic, but meaningful. When looked at piecemeal, this game falls short in comparison to games which focused on each of these aspects individually. But the parts come together to form something…different.
I can read your mind! It is...mustachioed
I hesitate to say this game is “better” than those, because initial impressions will prove that it isn’t. But this game is internally consistent, which is where the fun lies. Of course, immersion in anything eventually leads to the perception of fun (that is, as long as one survives). You must learn to live in the box you’re in if you’ve been led to believe it’s all there really is. The problem with many games is that they fail in their motivations to make you believe. So while Deus Ex is decidedly, nay, nigh objectively mediocre in every respect, its ability to immerse you in the game essentially tricks you into believing that it was a worthwhile experience.
So they've invented the cornerlook, but not the cornershot. Boo.
This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. This is what expansive, narrative-driven, storybook-games actually need. And this is the strength of Eastern design: creating worlds worth looking into. Western games are certainly not devoid of these types, but the Easterners are masterful game storytellers, weaving both significance and insignificance together so tightly that it becomes impossible to tease apart, thereby forcing a desire to discover more. Seldom have I felt such a desire to “know more”. The visual fidelity of the game really completes this package nicely.

the boring stuff 

On the more nutsy-boltsy side of things, the game is unspectacular. It’s actually more enjoyable with a gamepad than with the KB & mouse, but both schemes are done well enough. I played through 90% of the game with the traditional PC controls and found no problems. The UI is simple, but the HUD is dynamic, which is a rather cool experience. Choosing certain augments add more information to the HUD in given scenarios, leading to a different, though at times superficial, feel. Jensen moves rather ably, though not being able to see his feet can at times lead to unintended damage, death, or detection.
Gunplay is competent, if rather bland. There is an agreeable assortment of lethal and non-lethal options, though the scales are certainly tipped in favor of lethality. Stealth implementation, while appropriate, will be frustrating and misunderstood, until it becomes appreciated and mastered.

in the end 

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a good game. It’s not a great game, but it is good. Why isn’t it great? Well, greatness would have required a bit more fun and bit less pomp, a bit more humanity and a bit less computational limitation. It certainly outpaces current offerings in ambition, but it doesn’t exactly do so in playability. It’s a relatively bug-free (save for 2 bugs I experienced near the end-game, one of which CTDed me during a checkpoint save and the other which transitioned me straight into a heavily-breathed blackness that could only be solved by the crudest of keyboard-fu) and consistently consistent experience. Its narrative content won’t make you question your belief system, but nor will it leave you totally unenlightened. Its inclusion of multiple endings is admirable, but can feel cheap if one isn’t completely sold on the game by its end.
That outfit never gets old. Or washed.

If anything, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is daringly old. Everyone is rightfully afraid when dear old dad decides to get a new haircut or jazz up his life with a tattoo, but sometimes these things can work out and dear old mom gets a few extra jollies for the next few nights while everyone else stays uncomfortable. Here, Square Enix Eidos has done this old dog a great service by giving its old coat a new shine, a bit of polish, and a well-deserved wider audience. If you’re a game designer, I’d say it’s something you definitely must play, as it’s a master class in using games to tell a story. As a gamer, I can only say that it’s an old game, so play it, if you like that kind of thing.

As for me, I’ve left the rest up to humanity to decide.
I hope they decide on hugs!