Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011) ★★

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Developed by: Eidos Montreal
Platform of Record: Personal Computer, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Distribution: Optical Disc, Digital
Genre: First-Person > Shooter, Stealth

Released in 2000, the original Deus Ex reached widespread acclaim for the fact that you could break the game by standing on sticky mines to get to places you weren’t supposed to.  Players and journalists who were apparently unfamiliar with a lineage of action/exploration/RPG hybrid games dating back to 1987’s Dungeon Master praised it for having unparalleled exploration, playstyle possibilities, and world reactivity, while ignoring or being unaware of titles such as Ultima Underworld, System Shock 2, and Thief: The Dark Project that beat the holy hell out of it in all of these regards.

Eleven years later, and “RPG elements” has become a mandatory back-of-the-box feature for any first-person shooter, System Shock 2 and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines have become two of the medium’s most beloved cult classics, first-person open-world sandboxes have become the genre of choice most videogame enthusiasts who aren’t playing Call of Duty, and yet the Deus Ex series stays content with half-assed shooter mechanics, half-assed stealth mechanics, and half-assed “exploration”.  It’s a game where “multiple ways to achieve your goals” frequently means “you can shoot dudes, or you can run up and punch them”, and it’s the dullest cover-shooter you’ll ever play.

There’s a good reason why virtually every single first-person stealth game ever has featured large levels that could be explored in whatever way the player desired, with many paths to get to and from any particular point.  Think of popular images of stealth and sneaking around, such as special ops soldiers taking difficult routes through water and rough terrain, or a cat burglar climbing around the roofs and terraces of buildings and entering through windows or chimneys. Stealth, as a process, generally relies on taking unusual and difficult routes where a person wouldn’t think to look for another person, and a focus on exploration to find these kinds of unusual routes meshes naturally with this.

Furthermore, stealth mechanics really demand bolstering from some other source, since there’s not much room to allow for the player to create multiple interesting outcomes from the mechanics themselves.  The success and failure states of stealth are stiflingly binary, since either you crossed a guard’s cone of vision for a critical amount of time, or you didn’t; this contrasts with most traditional combat mechanics, where there’s varying degrees of success or failure such as winning a tough fight but losing a lot of health in the process.  On top of all of this, the actual process for success is incredibly strict, since the only option a player has is “be out of the lines of sight”; contrast this to a game that is combat focused, where the player will have multiple tactical options for engaging and bypassing opponents, and it’s easy to see that stealth mechanics in general, if handled with level designs that don’t offer a multitude of options, will generally boil down to “wait for the correct moment, go past guard, continue waiting at the next safe point.”

This brings us to where Deus Ex: Human Revolution completely screws everything up — it largely treats exploration as a thing you do in “hubs” between bits of actual content, not as a way you solve problems.  Sure, you can wander around Detroit or China, but when you’re actually trying to get past guards, you’ll find that in the overwhelming majority of cases, you have to walk down prescribed paths of rooms connected by hallways, dragging the game back down to the “wait for the correct moment, go past the guard, repeat” drudgery described in the previous paragraph.  The presence of “alternate routes” as implemented by “ventilation shafts” do nothing to alleviate this.  In addition to wrecking the believability of the world, since the shafts rarely do any actual ventilating, and are apparently large enough for a full-grown man to walk through by just crouching a little bit, they aren’t an alternate path through a particular challenge; no, they simply allow the player to skip the challenge entirely.  They’re a warp-pipe that says “ok, you don’t have to do this next room”, nothing more.

Of course, there was no room for actual exploration in this game’s design anyways, as illustrated by those city hubs.  The art design is one-note enough, with few enough landmarks, that it would be pointless to give the player verbal directions of some sort and leave them to find the next step on their sidequest based on that, so the player is instead just provided with a marker on the map and told “go here”.  This lack of landmarks or sights in the world can’t be laid at the feet of the urban setting, since Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines was able to handle a similar setting with aplomb back eight years before Human Revolution’s release.  It’s simply the lack of imagination and vision at Eidos Montreal that has created a stale world that might as well be a loading screen between levels for all that it adds to the game.

But it isn’t just the integration of non-linear and explorative concepts where Human Revolution fails, because Eidos Montreal also seemed to entirely miss what makes computer RPGs appealing.  Classic computer RPGs intentionally put a wall between player skill and character outcomes in order to allow the player to play as a distinct character, and playing characters with different skillsets should create a vastly different experience for how the player plays the game.  It isn’t enough that there should be some branching dialogue or skill checks that affect the story; the way the player approaches the game’s challenges should be drastically altered by the type of character they chose to create.  Good examples of this include Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, where good and evil characters approach combat fundamentally differently because of the Spirit Eater mechanics; Geneforge 4: Rebellion, where clever agents can bypass combat by solving puzzles and disarming traps, and all characters characters can choose to use skill-boosting “canisters” that come with negative personality traits over time; and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, where sneaky thieves can steal their way through the game, and dark necromancers can avoid long quests for information by simply killing the most important people in the world and interrogating their souls through evil magic.

Action RPGs have to make some compromises here as they seek to immerse the player into the world as much as the character, since in an action game, the player’s skill will always be the ultimate arbiter of what a given character can do, but even in these cases, there are ways to ensure that characters that should play differently do play differently.  In Arx Fatalis, mages frantically draw sigils to unleash powerful magic, rogues snipe from a distance with bows, and fighters engage in first-person hand-to-hand combat.  In Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, gunslingers fight typical FPS battles while melee characters fight from a third-person view with mechanics more akin to a basic 3D brawler.  Controlling a dextrous rapier-wielder in Dark Souls that pokes their opponent to death with weak but low-commitment stabs feels very different than controlling a strong warrior with a heavy zweihander where every strike is ponderous, but can be devastating if it hits.

Human Revolution’s approach to RPG elements is much like its approach to exploration elements — shallow, and only used as keys to doors that let you skip content.  Stealth and combat are largely disconnected from skills aside from some meaningless “accuracy boosters” far up the augmentation tree, and the stealth augmentations are limited to energy-using abilities that ensure that they won’t be used in the majority of situations where the player employs stealth.  No matter how you build your character, it will play the same way — sneak around “in cover” when you can, and if you get spotted, get to cover and pop out occasionally to shoot some dudes.

And unlike previous FPS/RPG hybrids that were short on quality when it came to their RPG elements, Human Revolution doesn’t even try to create the appearance of characters that play differently by creating weapon skills that allow for usage of cosmetically similar but functionally identical weapon-sets.  Skills that aren’t of the “turn invisible for a few seconds” kind are all more-or-less “vent openers”.  Moving heavy objects lets you reveal vents behind them.  Punching through walls lets you skip sections in much the same way that finding vents does.  Falling from high areas without dying lets you jump down shafts to let you skip fights here and there.  Even the hacking skills, which are by far the most interesting in the game, mostly serve to turn a few of your tougher enemies off.  The overarching theme is clear — augments aren’t here to let you approach challenges differently, only to let you occasionally skip some, and even occasionally skipping some doesn’t create any real difference between different characters, since the challenges that one skill lets you skip are essentially identical to the challenges that another skill will let you skip.

Since Human Revolution, despite being a multi-genre game, fails to contain any of what makes the computer RPG genre compelling, and since its “exploration” is utterly cursory and devolves into walking back and forth across “hubs” in between levels, the game lives or dies strictly on its merits as an action game.  There’s good news and bad news on this front — the good news is that this is the most expertly handled area of Human Revolution, but the bad news is that it’s exactly as bad as you’d expect from a game where your reward for levelling your character in certain ways or finding secrets is getting to skip a part of the action.

Context sensitivity has been a necessary evil in many 3D action games over the years, but make no mistake — it is an evil.  It’s negative both from the perspective of connecting the player to the on-screen action, and in terms of allowing for interesting mechanical interactions.  Having a one-to-one mapping of input to character action is better than mapping one player input to potentially multiple things depending on context is better for player engagement in an action game because it means that a single physical action the player takes will always result in his on-screen avatar taking one physical action every time, which creates a player-character connection which is broken in games with context-sensitive controls where the same physical action from the player results in different physical actions from the on-screen avatar, as though a person moving their muscles the same way would result in them doing something entirely different because they’re standing near the edge of a platform.

From a mechanical perspective, context sensitive controls turn what should be analog processes such as movement, with the literally infinite possibilities that such processes entail, into a binary yes/no switch of “pressed the button at predefined start point and moved to predefined end point” or “didn’t do anything”.  One of the reasons why the first-person shooter and the flight simulator were the first 3D genres to achieve prominence is that, due to the nature of first-person games making camera control an actual mechanic and giving the player a natural sense of perspective, they were able to let the player move and interact consistently throughout a 3D world, while the successful third-person 3D games, such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time limited the player to following push-button prompts at pre-ordained places in the world.

So, with the above in mind, why the fuck is Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a first-person game, built around a context-sensitive cover system?

Taking its cues from Gears of War, Deus Ex: Human Revolution features a “sticky” cover system, with button-press pop-ups and button-press “hop-between-cover”.  The merits of such a design are apparent in a third-person game, where it’s largely impossible to determine what would have a line of sight to your character, but in a first-person game, such a design is needless because you are constantly aware of what areas have a line-of-sight to your character because those are the areas that you can see.  The cost of such a Gears-style design is high, though.  For one thing, a first-person perspective will always be the most engaging for moving around a world, both because it corresponds the most strongly to how a person experiences the world, and because the player-controlled limited amount of visual data available means that simply looking around becomes a valid mechanical challenge, while in most third-person games, the visual data available is simply that which the game is coded to present to the player, removing this interaction.  But, even at the level of pure mechanical interaction, as noted above, the sticky-cover push-button style reduces what is literally an infinite number of possibilities (being able to move to any point on a plane) into two possibilities (pop out of cover, or wait).  Furthermore, the fact that it takes a process that happens constantly in real time (moving around on a plane) and reduces it to a decision-point timing mechanic means that it does the exact opposite of what all complexity-reducing simplifying abstractions should do, and slows the game down, adding down-time where you’re just waiting for a chance to hit your “pop out of cover” button.

Unfortunately, not only do the shooting mechanics go through the sticky-cover system, but the stealth mechanics also do.  This is particularly damaging to the interest of sneaking around in the game, since the best stealth games have historically created most of their challenge by forcing the players to make inferences about the game-state based on limited direct information, and the zoomed-out third-person camera means that world state is perfectly knowable around corners and over obstacles.  As an unfortunate side-effect, it means that sneaking around and trying to avoid being seen feels very similar to shooting down bad-guys in a shootout.  In both cases, it’s a simple case of waiting for a certain event — the enemies’ cone of vision to be pointing away from you in the case of sneaking, the enemies reloading in the case of a shootout — and then obeying the button prompt to pop out of cover.

Deus Ex killed off its Laputan machine at the dawn of the new millennium, but the engineers of Jonathan Swift’s flying city apparently saw it fit to try their hand at game development.  Attempting everything and succeeding at nothing, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is much like Gunther — big, stupid, largely useless, and, ultimately, dead.