There's an adage that many of us are familiar with, that when someone mentions Deus Ex that inevitably someone re-installs it on their computer just to play through it again. This is because it's a powerful and great story to tell, and one that I certainly have returned to on a few occasions, though I cannot help but somewhat cringe when I have to deal with the mechanics of the 2000 video game era...
+ Show Spoiler [Dx UNATCO Theme] +
In approaching the world of Deus Ex again, I was both full of excitement and trepidation in hoping that they took the time and paid attention to the obvious intricacies that made the original so spectacular. For the most part this thankfully became the case, though there were times that I was either invariably infuriated with or just looked on, dumbfounded that they had made such a silly decision. So with that I would like to present my thoughts on what I thought really worked well, what did not, and what the...?!
With my disposition and history and love of stealth games, I of course immediately went the stealth route, but as I always have done in the Thief series, I took it to it's realistic conclusion. In a world of dummy corporations, puppet masters, and covert political and corporate warfare, the best operatives are the ones that don't exist, and so I took it upon myself to traverse the world without touching a soul. Yeah, that means I made it a point to never knock out anyone, and this usually results in a dramatic increase in difficulty, and my enjoyment of it (being gosu by making arbitrary restrictions that the game doesn't demand of you ). The same could be said of the Thief series, just try to get through those games without knocking out anyone, it's super fun I promise.
While I did gain a lot of enjoyment from this path, unfortunately it often times revealed a very ugly side to the gameplay mechanics that I will discuss a little further down. However, I should also mention for historical context that the original didn't exactly have the best mechanics either. In fact, comparably to Thief II (released in the same year) had a much better control over the system and manipulation of that system. But let's be honest, we don't remember Deus Ex for its gameplay mechanics, it was the story that made it so spectacular.
WARNING: I will be discussing all of Dx:HR, so that means major spoilers will abound from this point on with regards to both Dx:HR and the original.
I want to discuss a bunch of different topics and I think a really good starting point would be my first love, music.
Music: A mildly referential treatment and ambient collage
Much of what I really enjoyed with HR was the cohesiveness to the soundtrack, and its ability to adapt to heightened areas of tension. This is a typical trope seen in video game music, that when the tension or nervousness of the player is supposed to be high, that a more pulsating, and frenetic quality tends to assert itself. Here I thought that it was usually a very organic growth out of the baseline, and that made it more effective in transitioning to the intended effect.
The timbral choices were quite varied, but never deviated too far from the core sound world. Now this is both a pro and a con, as the more I heard the music, the more that I got the impression that it was slightly one dimensional. To extrapolate, the effect in any musical work to bombard a listener with the same, or relatively the same stimulus is not looked upon as a good thing, because a number of bad things happen, the most important one being that our ears begin to reject, or tune out that music as we become oversaturated with the same stimulus, and it becomes detrimental to your purpose. This is a time sensitive issue, and largely is unnecessary when talking about movies and the like, but when you inject someone into a 20+ hr sound world, these things do begin to matter more and more. The question then becomes, how does one stay varied enough, but not stray too far from the core idea? Mass Effect 2, a strong game in its own right suffered from the latter, as can many multiple party collaborations. The numerous musical ideas, while producing a much larger array of styles, when not communicated between composers, become very segmented and eventually detract from the core ethos that you're working towards .
I can't not talk about the allusions to the original. Here is where I thought Michael McCann did very well. He never outright shoved in your face Alexander Brandon's original score (save for two paces I think?), but often made discrete allusions, either in timbral choices, or overall generative directions that I thought were very effective. There were some oddities as well, where sometimes I thought I was playing F.E.A.R. or was traversing Omega again, but largely this was an intelligent decision of his (oh and there's definitely a Nolan Batman film vibe going on as well with the whole I-VI thing).
I do need to mention a few things about the sound in general. Mostly well produced, but either it was my game (steam) or something that made both the levels and ambient effects flounder. The audio levels for dialogue were erratic, sometimes fine, sometimes waay to loud, but usually the latter (my poor ears). This was compounded when adding their environmental reverb into the mix...the gain is to offset the effect on the level, not overcompensate for it.
The Story: or, how I tried to stitch it with the original
I never like discussing the general story because I'm assuming that if you're reading, that you've already experienced it, so for brevities sake, I'll stick to things I thought are important to discuss.
In all honesty, the overall story here was very well done. You begin with knowing a little about Augments and their development, and slowly delve into corporate and international intrigue and espionage. I can only imagine what people were thinking throughout, having never played the original and knowing nothing about it. While the effectiveness was really high, there were some really annoying cracks along the way that marred my experience somewhat. The first one was in the form of Adam Jensen.
Yeah, you know you look conspicuously like JC and Paul Denton, with the shades at night, and the long black coat, so of course I'm thinking hmmm, connection? duh? It's Deus Ex? Then I find out within the first couple of hours that there's this 'Patient X' yahoo, and how this person is singlehandedly re-defining the augment business with his genetic makeup. That kind of raised a red flag, you know the one that's waving in the air and says "IT'S YOU, YOU F*CK!" Anyway, that reference was painfully obvious from the get go, so the reveal later had zero impact, other than Megan and Sarif were finally being straight with you. I'm not sure exactly what they could've done to alleviate this issue, but the unfortunate result was that I went through most of the game, with the jig being up already. I'm thinking that it's because of my foreknowledge that this issue is present. If I didn't know about the world or the Dentons, how quickly would I have made the connection?
While I'm on Jensen, I originally thought that when I found out that my parents weren't my parents that I was grown in a lab, especially when I read the whole White Helix/VersaLife connection. I was pretty close, but regardless, it was exceptionally effective, and primarily because I found that out for myself through sleuthing. Oh and, I did appreciate the attention to details on the connection to the Dentons with the slightly raspy voice with both Adam and JC. After all, they do share some of the same genes.
Much of the rest of the story I thought worked well, thought I think it would have behooved the team to pepper in a little discussion about AI a little more prominently, just so that the setup to meeting Eliza was a little more impactful. What I mean by this is that there hasn't really been much discussion about computer development and AI experimentation, mostly just augmentation, so just having a slight bit of knowledge on perhaps where the dev cycle is on possible AI might have made a stronger impact when you find out that one already exists.
There were two other things that did stick out like sore thumbs however, and unfortunately they were right at the end..
The first was the bio-chip insanity angle that Darrow forces onto the world. This was particularly one of the better moments for me, but the aftermath wasn't handled well. You first see everyone go insane and start attacking everyone and everything on camera, so when you actually get to Panchea, seeing all the dead bodies is surprisingly effective. Then, for gameplay sake (oh god), they introduce insane people that you have to avoid in order to get to the broadcast, but theres a glaringly major flaw in this design. Didn't all the insane people just kill each other like ravenous lunatics? err...why then do we have a pack of ravenous lunatics, just hanging around eachother? ...?!?!?!!?!!! Needless to say that this was poorly handled, and actually pretty disturbing, considering the care with most of the game. Thank god I got this far, but this was my first literal facepalm moment. No, sorry my first one was when I saw the boat, did they really have to obviate that it was Tracer Tong, I had kind of had inferred that already.
The second came with the introduction of the quantum computer...The quantum what? Where has this technology been? Why do we have human slaves that look like Atma from FFX plugged into this machine, and why the heck is Madame Zhao 'ahem' Trinity plugged into this matrix (and while I'm on that, for f*#ks sake it's 2011, its ZHAO, not ZAO)? Maybe I should read THIS to get a better idea... Anyway, I've certainly known about quantum computing for a while, but as the game goes, this was definitely from left field.
What does this have to do with anything? Is this the beginnings of Morgan Everett and Deadalus, or was supposed to be, and because of the destruction of the facility it is no longer? Obviously the Majestic 12 and Bob Paige have something to do with Picus at some point, perhaps in an eventual hostile takeover, or perhaps Eliza is the template for Deadalus (I think that is pretty certain at least) once Paige gets his hands on her? Either way the quantum computer leaves me somewhat confused, unless it was supposed to be the housing of some super AI such as Deadalus...Oh wait, I got it, it's a boss! Simple.
Mechanics: mostly good, but why are you getting in the way again?!
I should preface this section by stating again that I played as a ghost, I don't touch people, I don't exist, so much of my experience comes from that angle. Also, I usually play at the hardest setting from the get go, so that is also a factor.
First things first, god I love my PC. I wish that more companies would think about games with keyboard control in it. This may seem a convenience issue but I would argue that adding these controls add a layer of interactivity and depth to the world, as if you are touching it, if by proxy. The main thing is both hud navigation and world interaction. The most obvious one being keypads. It's such a little thing, but being able to actually use my keypad to type in a passcode is seriously cool. I wish more dev's would think of this interaction more.
When stealthing, time is always an issue, and when hacking , this is even more important. The more interconnected the system is, not only the more effective, but the more immersed the player is. I was always feeling that my hacking skills were just too darned slow. I'd always make it by the skin of my teeth, but I really wished that I had the option to use the F keys, or something to either capture or block, or fortify points. Not only would this have made navigation and interaction both easier, but more meaningful, which is the end goal.
My brother brought up a decent point about hacking while I was describing the system to him. He commented that he wanted a mini game to try to approximate actual hacking, involving the keyboard to a large extent. While the problems with consoles are pretty obvious, I have yet to see a mini game that is a close approximation. The closest one I can think of off the top of my head is ME2. This wasn't so much a problem as a wish for developers to try to simulate the experience more authentically.
The cover system, I thought was fairly well done, though it had a few flaws. First, there were times where I was in cover, but if I wasn't in cover, I was in direct line of sight and should have been spotted. I understand the whole idea, but dealing with line of sight should be more important. There were times where I was just barely in cover, and I'd have an enemy looking right at me, and just stroll away as if nothing was wrong. It made me sad, because part of the excruciating difficulty with playing the way I played is that you have to constantly be moving in order to stay hidden, add security cameras and it becomes even more difficult, but at no point did I ever feel that the system was making me work really hard to stay ahead of them. I'm not saying that the system is bad, just that in a realistic setting, these things matter, a lot.
Regarding line of sight, I also noticed that NPC's had a somewhat difficult time using their sight. There would be times where I would literally walk right in front of them, at a distance, and they wouldn't react. Unless they were looking at the floor, they should have noticed me in those cases. I can understand really far distances, but if you are close enough to see that I'm not a guard, well... Another piece of this issue was that NPC's rarely noticed minor things out of place, like cameras turned off, or doors left open, or other security features disabled. Obviously this is a problem because it just means the AI is plain stupid. This might be the single most important thing in playing like a ghost, because it's these minor things that tip off guards, and are the hardest to keep track of as a player.
For example, if a guard notices that a door is open, and no one else is around, or patrols the area, that should kind of be a flag. They did investigate when they were close by and you opened a door, so that's something, but man these guards were obtuse. Another might be if a security camera is disabled, that they immediately are more cautious, or even call it in to their superior. It's a more intricate scenario, but should be noticeable events in a top-secret compound. The same could be said for moved objects. If an object is moved, and you didn't move it, and no one normally does, then someone else did and that should be suspicious. It's like back in Thief 1+2 where you would turn out the lights, have moss arrows everywhere, doors open and not a single guard would deviate from their normal pattern, but, that was 2000.
As an aside, these AI issues make me somewhat wary of Thief 4, Montreal's next project, as that game created the stealth rpg, or whatever you want to call it, making these issues exceedingly important to be aware of. *crosses fingers*
One last comparison might be to the Hitman series. Pretty much all the time, if you weren't supposed to be somewhere and weren't disguised, the civilians would usually freak out just as much as the guards would. That's not to say that it wasn't present in HR, but the civilian NPC's displayed an even worse tunnel vision than the guards at times most times, never moving from one position even if you were right behind them, next to them. In a sense they were more visual props than actual people, and you can see why that's undesirable.
You're probably saying to yourself these things are pretty minor in comparison to the whole experience, and you would be right, but as I've chosen to play at the hardest difficulty it should be a real challenge, right? This leads into the biggest problem when playing stealth, boss fights.
So obviously there are boss fights, and as typical boss fights go, half the time you're trying to figure out how to fight them before you actually know how to fight them. The problem arises that for a stealth player, most of your augments go into stealth. For example when I got to Barrett, I had put everything into hacking. This became a problem because I all of a sudden hit a brick wall of difficulty
The visual is pretty effective in portraying the difficulty jump that I felt (imagine baseline gameplay as the x-axis). I was going along on one setting and every time I would get to a boss, the level would jump tremendously. I actually got fairly frustrated with this as the disparity really detracted from the impact and effectiveness of the fights. This is not to say that the bosses are impossibly hard, just that there is a serious disparity between the games difficulty and the boss difficulty.
While I have been very critical of my experiences with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I really have gained a lot of enjoyment out of the whole experience, even if I was fighting it sometimes. The characters and the plot have proven, for me at least, to be an impactful experience that I will likely revisit a few times. Maybe then I'll fully digest everything as well. I'd also be really interested to hear what other people thought on these things, your reactions, etc...