Wednesday, October 19, 2011

REVIEW: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I've reviewed Deus Ex: Human Revolution twice now: from a secular perspective for Games Magazine and from a religious perspective for Catholic News Service. This review combines a bit of each.

When a playwright in ancient Greece found himself with an irresolvable plot problem, he would have a pagan god appear to set everything aright. Athena, or perhaps Apollo, would be lowered onto the stage by a crane (in Greek, “mechane,”) as though descending from the clouds. This “god out of the machine,” or “deus ex machina” as it came to be known in Latin, was regarded as a cheap trick even then.

In the modern industrial age, however, the idea of a deus ex machina takes on a new resonance, as men exploit rapidly advancing technology in an attempt to synthesize the creative and destructive powers of God himself. The nightmare of eugenics is already a reality; transhumanism -- the use of technology to fundamentally alter the human body -- is not far off. This is the dystopia proposed by the Deus Ex games, and Human Revolution shows us where it all begins.

The Deus Ex and Bioshock series are both the offspring of 1997’s System Shock, one of the most important titles in the history of computer gaming. All of these game share a few common traits. They allow players to customize their characters with various kinds of biotechnology; they provide a flexibility of play that enables gamers to approach problems through wits, stealth, or force; and they engage complex ideas in a depth rarely seen in the medium.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution takes place in 2027, 25 years before the events of the first Deus Ex game (released in 2000). Biomechanical augmentations, originally developed to replace limbs lost on the battlefield, are becoming mainstream accessories used to enhance human abilities. They can make you stronger, faster, smarter, more persuasive, invisible, and deadly, and not everyone is happy about it.

Sarif Industries, a leading producer of augmentations, is under intense pressure from political leaders, activists, and militant anti-augmentation groups to slow down and consider the implications of a world in which human evolution is altered and accelerated in such a radical way. David Sarif is not a typical evil CEO. He believes he’s helping humanity, and may well be oblivious to the shadowy forces seeking to exploit his technology for their own reasons.

The plot is heavily populated (perhaps overpopulated) with conspiracies and double-crosses. Rival corporations, crime lords, and even the Illuminati are attempting use this new technology to control people as a means to power. Meanwhile, a fringe group of anti-augmentation activists wages a guerilla war in order to end this new age of augmentation.

The game begins with an attack on Sarif’s headquarters that leaves Adam Jensen, head of security, in pieces and near death. Although ambivalent about augmentations, Adam awakes to find himself heavily augmented with the latest Sarif technology. The game allows the user to shape Adam’s character through his reactions and responses. He can be reluctant and unhappy about the alterations done to his body without his consent, or fairly pleased about his new superhuman abilities.

The gameplay itself may unfold in myriad ways depending upon the preference of the player. Although the core experience resembles a standard first-person action role-playing game, the element of choice allows players to tailor the approach that best suits them. It is possible to pass through the entire game as an unstoppable killing machine, but it’s also possible complete the game without killing anyone at all, aside for a few select set-piece battles.

This is accomplished by allowing players to choose their augmentations by spending “Praxis points.” Praxis can be purchased, discovered, or earned by leveling up. These points allow you to enhance computer hacking skills, physical features, stealth abilities, or any combination of these elements. There is a huge amount of hacking in the game, so a minimal hacking level upgrade is essential. Most players, however, will find a balanced approach works best. Someone who has placed all their points in hacking will be at an extreme disadvantage in certain parts of the game, as will people who put all their points into combat or stealth.

Combat is still a part of the game, but it doesn’t have to be a huge part. You can play the game all-guns-blazing and wind up with an experience not unlike any other first-person shooter, but that’s hardly an ideal way to approach a game with such a rich level of content. The game actually rewards the player more for leaving an enemy alive than for killing him, which makes the inclusion of several set-pieces (known to gamers as “boss battles”) rather mystifying. These battles always end in the death of an enemy, with no other option. At one point, Adam is asked if he will save the life of a defeated foe. Adam says he’ll think about, and then leaves her to die.

There are two problems with this. First, you are encouraged to develop a character with no combat abilities at all, and then placed in a heavy combat encounter. Second, Adam’s choice of mercy may be exercised throughout the game, but not at some of its most important moments. This is simply a missed opportunity.

Human Revolution is a game with serious issues on its mind. With a running time of about 30 hours—and more if you explore all of the sidequests—it has a lot of space to develop these ideas. Cinematic sequences, writing, animation, and voice-acting are all top-notch. Adam Jensen sounds (and looks) and little like a young Clint Eastwood, and his quiet authority and strong character provide a strong grounding for the game. As the world starts to come apart and powers realign themselves, you start to get a sense of how the landscape of the original Deus Ex was shaped, and wonder how much worse it would have been if not for Jensen’s efforts.