Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Sometimes it is hard to start writing a review. When it comes to something you love, you really want to have every part of it grip the reader. Part of the fun in writing reviews comes from that desire to hold the audience spellbound, to convey upon them that, “Yes. You should buy/read/watch/play this,”. Not because you are some sort of advertiser or marketer, but because you honestly want others to enjoy and experience what you have, even if their own journeys turn out differently.

I almost didn't write this review. The fact of the matter is that my respect and adoration for Deus Ex: Human Revolution is so immense that I worried that I couldn't do it justice. I have the same feeling for most things that I love. I have probably mentioned my favorite book, Blade of Tyshalle, a dozen times in this blog, but have I reviewed it yet? No. Instead, I lamely review the prequel and sequels surrounding it, as if admiring it from afar.

Hence, I go into this review with some trepidation. It is the same fear that comes from showing something private to a stranger. You want to have them appreciate and love that which you love but, when it comes to the question of, “Why should I?”, you don't know where to start. So, more than probably any other review before this one, I've thought this over, turned upon it repeatedly in my mind, pored the internet for the best pictures that I could find, and then settled down to write this, no matter how awful it may turn out.

Technology's Dominance in the World of the Future – The Augmentation Debate

Where else could I start but with the setting of the game and the quintessential question behind it all?

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a game set in the near future of 2027, a time where corporations have superseded the power and influence of governments. The world is dark and urban, reminiscent of Blade Runner. Technology, and the advancement of it, is paramount, and the world is captivated by the invention of biomechanical augmentations and their effect on society. It is hard to overstate how powerfully the debate on augmentations affects the story of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Incredibly, the plot and backstory are so well written that we are given a wealth of information and perspectives on the technology. And the arguments are so persuasive on all sides that it becomes genuinely hard to determine what is the right path.

The first perspective we see is that of Sarif Industries (your employer) and other corporations who build the augmentations and distribute them to the public. They provide the argument that augmentations are the next stage of human evolution. Through mechanically enhancing ourselves, we are better able to seize our destinies and improve life in general. This has merit; we see time and time again that augments are used to easily replace limbs, enhance/replace eyesight, delay aging, fight lung failure, and more. And it is no surprise that the use of augmentations is opposed; most new technologies receive a fair share of demonization before people are used to the change.

But there are also those who hate the concept of augmentation and believe that the human body is perfect as it is. This manifests in different ways. There are some who regard the body as a divine vessel that shouldn't be tainted with machinery. There are others who believe that augmentations are too dangerous and can be misused. This gains credence when you see how dangerous augmented soldiers can be when the technology is militarized. And then there are others who point out that augmentations are affordable only for the rich, thus making the gap between rich and poor even starker.

In between, we have those who believe that research and distribution of augmentations should be encouraged, but only under the weight of strict regulation so that it isn't misused or manipulated by those who have the power to do so. In their defense, the pro-augmenters point out that the technology can only help humanity and that the regulation of it will prevent realization of the technology's full ability to take us to places that we've never dreamed of reaching.

As you go through the game, the characters you meet and the places you go subtly press the perspectives surrounding augmentation upon you. And all of it comes to a head in one of the most brilliant endings I've ever encountered in a video game: a confrontation of ideas where you influence the direction of the entire human race in a selection of different possible options where there isn't a wrong answer. It is one of the most difficult choices I've made in a video game and, if I were to talk about it, it would take up pages by itself. It is the purest realization of the saying, “Knowledge is power,” and easily proves that video games are capable of talking about immensely complicated and deep social issues.
Adam Jensen
Plot and Characters – Corporate Espionage in a War of Shadows

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you control Adam Jensen, the head security chief of Sarif Industries, one of the main producers and innovators of augmentation technology. Within minutes of the game's start, the corporation's headquarters are attacked by an unknown faction. Jensen investigates and is nearly killed trying to stop augmented mercenaries. The only thing that saves him is months of surgery and the willingness of his employer, David Sarif, to insert Jensen with enough biomechanical parts to keep him alive. From here, much of the plot is finding out why Sarif Industries was attacked, discovering why many of the scientists were killed, and realizing that there are immensely powerful players and factions at work whose objectives influence you, your companions, and the entire world.

The story of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one primarily of corporate espionage, operating in the shadows, and investigating people and businesses when and where they least expect it. In this, the game succeeds brilliantly at being somewhere between a dark science fiction and crime noir novel. Much of the time, you just don't know what is going on, and one of the best parts of the game is discovering one small piece of information after another that gives you a better concept of what is happening. If I were compare it to a movie, I would compare it to Quantum of Solace, that most recent Bond movie where we, as the audience, don't quite know who or what the enemy is or how to stop it. That same disturbing realization that there are powers at work beyond your comprehension permeates the atmosphere of Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
David Sarif
Along the way, you meet a wide cast of characters who help, oppose, or operate independently from you. They have their own motivations, complexities, and quirks to a degree that you rarely see in a video game. One of my favorite relationships in the game is between Jensen and Frank Pritchard, head of Sarif's cyber-security team. Throughout the game, especially in areas where you are on your own on an infiltration mission, Pritchard's is the only voice you hear through your receiver. And the guy is a prick. Seriously, the moment you meet this guy, the first thing you want to do is reach through the screen, slap him in the face, and call him an asshole. But, despite it all, you work together and are on the same team. Thus it is interesting to watch that, even though Jensen and Pritchard are annoyed to high hell with each other most of the time, they have a mutual respect and, on some level, an attachment and caring for one another. It is a measure of nuance that I didn't expect to see, and was pleased to encounter it.

These nuanced sorts of relationships are everywhere and help turn a good plot into a great one. You and your employer, David Sarif, have a peculiar sort of father-son relationship. Your confrontations with Bill Taggart, a spokesman for the anti-augmentation movement, take on a baiting quality that illustrates that Taggart respects you while simultaneously reveling in attacking your personal positions on the augmentation debate. Jensen's relationship with Faridah Malik, his pilot, is one that slowly takes on the quality of feeling like two people clutching to each other in a storm that they do not understand. Hell, just talking about the depth of this game's characters and story makes me want to stop writing about it and just play it again!

Gameplay – Choices Beyond Measure

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is designed to provide an enormous amount of player choice. Aside from the different endings that you can choose from, the game offers a vast multitude of ways that you can play the game. To fully illustrate this, let me create an example for you:

At one point, you infiltrate a competing augmentation corporation in search of sensitive files that will help tell you what their overall goals are. You have snuck inside and now you have a number of choices regarding how you want to try and search the facility. Before you choose, though, you look around the corner and see cameras, a concealed security turret, a half-dozen patrolling guards, and, in a corner office, a scientist typing away at a keyboard.

At this juncture, you have a number of possibilities:
  • You can run at the first guard, dispatch him with the razor sharp blades hidden on your forearms. You then take cover and gun down the remaining guards while tossing an EMP grenade to dispatch the turret.
  • You can observe their patrol patterns and silently approach each guard in turn, knocking them out one-by-one and dragging their unconscious bodies into areas or cubicles where they won't easily be discovered. You can then watch the tracking of the camera and sneak past it when it's faced away from you.
  • You can do the same stealthy observation routine and just sneak by everyone without knocking out anyone at all.
  • You can discover a nearby ventilation shaft which you can crawl through in order to bypass the entire area or attain a better vantage point.
  • You can look for a security console in a nearby room, hack into it, turn off the cameras and fiddle with the turret's safety measures so that it can't distinguish friend or foe. The resulting firefight could either take out the guards or provide a distraction enough for you to bypass them.
  • You can sneak into the scientist's office and persuade him that you are: A. A guard who forgot the access code into the next area, B. Someone who he really doesn't want to piss off right now and thus should give you his computer passcode so you can read his emails and perhaps retrieve the information you're looking for, or C. Appeal to the fact that he really hates his job and has no loyalty to the corporation and thus should help make your corporate espionage easier.
  • Knock out or kill the scientist and get access codes from his cell phone.
  • Any combination of these options.

And I haven't even mentioned the possibilities that open up from the augmentations that you can use. One augmentation enhances your ability to lift things, thus allowing you to, if you wanted, pick up nearby vending machines to hurl with incredible force at the guards as if they were bowling pins. Another augmentation enhances your jumping ability, meaning you could jump to the second floor and bypass any need to access the stairwell, if that was a concern. You can punch through a weak wall and make your own entrances. You can activate a short-term cloaking device to roll from cover to cover. You can implement your rebreather/oxygen supply augmentation so that you may scatter gas grenades everywhere and then walk casually through the coughing and soon-to-be-unconscious guards. And a whole slew of others.

But what was perhaps most impressive to me was the inclusion of what are essentially persuasion boss battles. This is where you run into someone who you need to convince of something (it could be someone threatening to kill a hostage or someone considering suicide), and you have to try and gauge how best to persuade them to do what you want them to do by reading their reactions and trying to understand their perspectives. You can choose to confront, redirect, appease, accuse, and on and on... And the decisions and choices that you make truly matter. If you choose to threaten to expose a cop's drug addiction in order to get him to do what you want, he will lose his job, show up at your apartment, and try to kill you (this happened to me, and I was so surprised that he actually succeeded and I had to reload). If you successfully persuade someone that you are trustworthy, you might get information about what's going on to a degree and extent that you wouldn't have received otherwise. It's hard for me to convey how unique and immensely satisfying it was to convince a dying man to take on augmentations to save his life, even though he loathed augmentations with every fiber of his being. I basically had to turn around his entire life's philosophy by reading his reactions as he was dying in front of my eyes.

Conclusion – Go Play This Game

All in all, Deus Ex: Human Revolution offers tricky social concepts, incredibly interesting characters, a perfect cloak-and-dagger plot, and gameplay choices beyond count. It has themes on transhumanism, intelligent references to mythological tales such as the story of Daedalus and Icarus, and blah, blah, blah. This game is amazing. You know I think it. If any of this appeals, then you are missing out if you don't check out this game. It's definitely worth your time and is one of the best and most comprehensively awesome games I've every played.

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