Release Date: 8/23/11 (US), 8/26/11 (EU)
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
ESRB Rating: Mature 17+
With the video game industry increasingly turning towards annual-installment franchise Intellectual Properties, the resurrection of three high-profile IPs from the 90s and early 00s comes as either a refreshing change of pace or a sign of impending disaster, depending on your level of cynicism about game series “reboots.” With the lackluster release of the perennially vaporware Duke Nukem Forever, fans of the other two IPs (Deus Ex and XCOM) had plenty of reason to fear what was coming.
The original Deus Ex (known as Deus Ex: The Conspiracy when it hit the PS2 platform), launched in 2000, ranks among my personal “best games of all time” lists, and was both the first PS2 game I purchased and the last PS2 game I reluctantly parted with during the last console generational cycle. Its sequel, the mediocre Invisible War, effectively killed off the franchise by emphasizing all the wrong aspects of the original, while jettisoning the things that made the original great. I’m pleased to report that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is just about everything one could ask for in a new installment.
[ad#longpost]DX:HR focuses on security specialist and ex-SWAT cop Adam Jensen, beginning with what is arguably the worst day at work anyone has ever had. Brutally mangled and left for dead, his employers rebuild him better, faster, and stronger using an array of cybernetics that would make Steve Austin jealous. Fast forward through several months of recovery time, and Jensen is back on the job in an attempt to figure out what precipitated his very bad day and exact either justice or vengeance (your choice) on the responsible parties, albeit now equipped with snazzy cybereyes, cyberlimbs, and 24-inch ceramic blades in his forearms. The story accelerates from this straightforward premise into familiar territory for fans of the original: insane global conspiracies, corporate espionage, the Illuminati, etc. About the only thing missing from the original game are greasels, the reptilian predator beasties. As a prequel to the original, DX:HR does a solid job setting the stage for things to come, while not requiring knowledge of the original story to enjoy what’s going on. Fans of the original are in for some very nice bits of fan service and a few familiar faces, as well as some more subtle foreshadowing (a ranting street preacher in Detroit who is eerily prescient being my favorite…also the fact that just about everybody in Detroit seems to have a nagging cough — a setup of the plague that comes to devastate America in the original game).
Once you are firmly in the driver’s seat, how the remainder of the game plays out involves a tremendous amount of player choice. Sneak into the factory, or kick the door in with a rocket launcher locked and loaded? Quietly dispatch the sentry with a sleeper hold, or run him through with the aforementioned arm-swords? Tazer or .44 magnum? Tranq dart rifle or 4-barrel minigun? In a nod to the original game’s mechanics, DX:HR plays as much like an RPG as a shooter, with an elaborate tech tree of possible cybernetic augmentations to suit whichever play style you prefer. Just about every objective has multiple paths to resolution, ranging from hacking computers for intel to beating it out of a guard to eavesdropping in air vents to just blowing the shit out of everything in hopes that you get the target you wanted eventually.
The one place that this all falls down, unfortunately, are the seemingly obligatory “boss fights” scattered through the game. Despite total freedom of approach almost everywhere else in the game, the boss fights are of the “two men enter, one man leaves” school of locked-arena deathmatches, which is okay if you’re playing Jensen as a heavy weapons hellraiser, but is a serious disadvantage/roadblock if you’ve been trying to take the sneaky or even non-lethal route through the game. The fights feel out of place, forced, and are without fail against opponents that figure essentially once in the story prior to your encounter with them. They’re the worst kind of scripted roadblock, and feel like they were lifted out of some other game and dropped carelessly in at random points in the story for additional “challenge.” All that said, they’re hardly enough to detract from the otherwise excellent gameplay, and a little foreknowledge will save hours of frustrating nonsense (Pro-tips: the True Name of the Typhoon weapon system is “Boss-B-Gone,” and pick up the electrical immunity augment ASAP — you can thank me later).
Visually, while the game’s character models look a bit dated, the art design is amazingly good. A pallette of golds and greys makes for a game that looks more like Blade Runner than the typical blue-filter approach used for cyberpunk or relentless brown of other sci-fi shooters. It’s a refreshing change of pace that helps DX:HR stand out from an otherwise crowded field of futuristic first-person fare. Michael McCann’s score is excellent ambience that is never in-your-face, with a somewhat retro 80s sci-fi vibe to it. The voice acting is fairly uneven, with Jensen himself doing his best impression of the laconic gravel-voiced JC Denton of the first game to occasionally comic effect. Other voices range from excellent to an absolutely cringe-inducing Stepin Fetchit homeless woman.
Despite a few warts, DX:HR is both a worthy successor to the original and a potent contender in the crowded release schedule of the back half of 2011. With quite a few marquee titles lined up for the holiday season, it may be too early to crown a Game of the Year, but this is certainly a strong contender. As a bonus, Eidos Montreal’s demonstration of their craft and understanding of what made the original Deus Ex great should serve as a bit of hope for those closely watching their development of the awkwardly named Thi4f.