It's 2027 and humanity is at a turning point. Mechanical augmentations have become de rigeur the world over. Some see augs as the next step in evolution, while others denounce them as dangerous, contaminating the purity of humanity. This theme permeates Human Revolution, but keeps the debate sufficiently grey. There's no right or wrong, but everyone has their own viewpoint across the entire strata of society. Be it the politicians and businessmen in their ivory towers, or the working girls and gang members that patrol the streets.
It's a fine world that Eidos Montreal have built. A sprawling and divided version of Detroit with gold neon skyscrapers towering over the smoke-filled slums of the have-nots. Human Revolution is not an especially good looking game from a technical standpoint, the animation is awkward and character models strangely plasticky, but its aesthetic blend of cyberpunk and baroque is intoxicating, Blade Runner designed by Bernini.
At the heart of Deus Ex's cyberpunk milieu lies a fascinating contradiction. It's a game of empowerment, of the titular human revolution, bodies of flesh and bone augmented with technological enhancements. Robotic arms that can punch through walls, eyes that can scan and evaluate. But for a game that's so obvious in building your character as an unstoppable machine of synthetic craft, you rarely feel as vulnerable. Or as human.
You are Adam Jensen, security manager for Sarif Industries, a major player in the augmentation arms race. Jensen starts the game unaugmented, but a brutal attack on Sarif Industries leaves him an inch from death. Saved by his colleagues and rebuilt in the Sarif labs, Jensen finds himself literally augmented up to the eyeballs. A weapon.
What kind of weapon is largely up to you. The key to the augmentation toybox is handed over early and. using your hard earned experience points, allows you to power up Jensen as you see fit. Turn him into a walking tank, with razor sharp gun skills, heavy dermal armour and a ballistics system that spits out explosive ball-bearings in a devastating area attack. Turn him into a stealth operative, with a cloaking system, elite hacking skills and optical tracking system. Or dabble in a bit of everything to construct a well rounded soldier. My first Jensen was a suave, stealthy type, preferring to talk people down and lurk in the shadows than cause unnecessary noise and bloodshed. Your Jensen might be wildly different... or he might not. Human Revolution packs in some wonderful gadgets, but the augs are not as sprawling and expansive, nor have the same micro-managed minutiae as the original Deus Ex.
The great thing is that each option is entertaining in its own right. The conversation system asks you to genuinely assess your subject, subtly shifting the talk in the way you want it to go. It's excellent stuff that manages to show up even LA Noire in all but facial animation. Hacking is a thrilling riff on Introversion Software's Subversion, carefully linking nodes against the clock. While shooting is, well, shooting. As an FPS, Human Revolution is quick and deadly, you are as vulnerable as your enemies and ammunition is scarce. Illogically so, in fact. Why the guards of a heavily armed conglomerate fortress are wandering around with a single bullet in their assault rifles, for example, is quite the brain teaser. Especially when they open fire with an unlimited supply of lead.
This tactical to-and-fro is as defined by your weaknesses as much as your augmented power-ups and weapon enhancements. You have the modern video game crutch of recharging health, but it vanishes so quickly under fire that a momentary lapse can leave you perforated. Meanwhile, nearly all of your intensive actions, down to the brutal melee attacks you can dish out to unsuspecting guards are restricted by battery life. Your energy is slow to recharge, and only a small amount of power will naturally recharge if you use the lot. It means that you need to plan your power use carefully. If you engage your cloak to slink past a security camera unseen, it's unlikely you'll have enough juice to take out the guard at the other end of the hallway, possibly leaving you dangerously exposed.
Thankfully it's all enabled by a fluid control system. Hold down the left trigger and the viewpoint will shift from first to third-person as Jensen attaches himself to cover. Purists may scoff at this concession to the Gears of War generation, but it does allow you a clearer view of the field and the implementation is slick enough that even the most sceptical might grow to like it.
What exacerbates the pointlessness of these encounters is that none of the bosses are developed as characters. They form part of the black ops squad that decimated Sarif Industries, but only crop up at their predetermined points with no backstory or development. It's part of a wider malaise with Human Revolution's main storyline that leaves it feeling oddly detached. It doesn't help that Jensen is a bit of a bore and few characters truly stand out, despite some decent voice acting and dialogue.
It's the world and your actions that keep you truly invested in Human Revolution, then. Exploring the city-hubs exposes you to the society that augmentation has built, side-missions investigating cover-ups and foul play casts an image of a sick species. E-books and newspapers lie scattered around for you to read, a record of humanity's inevitable implosion. As a piece of fiction, Human Revolution extrapolates the fears of today into a future imperfect, of economic collapse, of riots in the streets and the gulf between rich and poor widening to critical levels. It's a startlingly relevant piece of work, marred by the most benign and unnecessary of flaws. But in this age of scripted rollercoasters and linear bug hunts, the thinking man's freedom of Deus Ex provides a fabulous example of interactive entertainment, if not quite the revolution the title promises.
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