An accolade that will soon (read: never) rank with the most prestigious and coveted awards in any entertainment medium, I have given the first ever Fraudience GOTY award to Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Also winner of the Fraudience Pointiest Chin in Gaming Award 2011.
Modern videogames are in danger of becoming too prescriptive. My flatmate recently told me that, when playing the single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, he ventured into an area before the game wanted him to, and was immediately riddled with bullets, coming seemingly from every conceivable direction. He was instantly killed, with the NPC uttering a curt remark like, “we’ve been spotted!” This was like a dictum issued from the game developers themselves, and was code for don’t get clever, minion, do what you’re told.
So it’s refreshing to play a game like the dystopian sci-fi body bending bonanza Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game where player choice is a fundamental design principle. It is made clear from the beginning of the game that you won’t be able to augment Adam Jensen’s body with every ability you’re presented with, so you must commit to a playing style and the upgrades that suit it. I went for a very stealthy, clinical playing style (as many do, so I’m told) – killing silently but only when necessary, using the invisibility and silent footstep augmentations to avoid out-and-out firefights. Others, I’ve heard, have played it a bit more gung-ho, turning Jensen into a walking gun turret, dispensing bullet-based justice from pretty much every orifice in his body.
Seriously, that’s one hell of a chin.
The point is that you can play the game however you want, and the game design accommodates whichever playing style you opt for. Human Revolution has some of the best level design all year, and one of the great joys of playing the game is navigating your way through its hazardous environs. Such a wealth of options to complete a level are offered that every area is like a puzzle to be solved, which is such a nice feature. But it’s what makes the game’s worst feature – the oft-discussed boss battles – such a shot out of left-field, because they feel like the very antithesis of this design philosophy. As a person who went through Human Revolution like a robot ninja, being forced to go head-to-head with a boss – even though I had minimal weapons or combat upgrades – felt like punishment for how I had decided to play the game. But then again, that’s what happens when you outsource, isn’t it, Eidos? Let that be a lesson learned.
Bonus complaint: ambiguous villain gender.
Some people will say that games like Skyrim give you a greater degree of control over shaping your character and more freedom to do what you damn well please. But I’m not really one for meticulously honing the flare of my character’s nostrils, or pathologically perfecting the exact shade of summer lilac my avatar’s eyes need to be. Nor am I one content to spend four hours collecting daisies in a field half the geographical size of Wales instead of completing the main quest just because I can. I require a little more direction than that, I need to be nudged along a little bit, and Human Revolution stands out for me because it gets the balance between narrative focus and freedom to explore just right.
Structurally, the game works a little bit like Mass Effect 2, dumping you in game areas with enough additional stuff to see and do that you can explore at a leisurely pace, but not so much that the main story loses momentum and becomes lost in a sea of distraction. Eidos Montreal actually displayed a huge amount of discipline by not choking the game with a glut of unnecessary fetch-quests, and all the side-missions feel necessary in a thematic kind of way.
Scary fact: you can actually buy one of these jackets in real life.
One of the reasons why the side-missions feel integral is because they usually culminate in a crucial decision that forces you to confront your moral disposition towards something. It’s rare for me to make a choice in a game because I believe it to be morally right (with all the relativistic stumbling blocks those that come loaded with), rather than just because I thought I might get a cool augmentation out of it or because I thought it would be funny to appear out of nowhere and punch a dude in the face. Maybe I’m a closet feminist, but I was so sympathetic to the plight of the Shanghai prostitutes, forced to augment their bodies to thrill their slimy clientele, that when presented with the option to either frame or kill a pimp making their lives difficult, I killed the man because I believed he deserved to die. That’s a moral minefield, to be sure, but Human Revolution has this knack of constantly investing you in the decisions you make, to the point where you feel like you’re not just shaping the body and abilities of Jensen, but shaping his morality as well.
What is most captivating about Human Revolution is it’s a game that’s actually about something. Science fiction nowadays means laser battles and space-opera, but Human Revolution is truly visionary sci-fi, dealing with weighty concepts like transhumanism, hubristic scientific research, and the future of the evolution of our species. Like the best examples of the genre, it uses its futuristic setting as a prism through which to interrogate the present, and the game asks us uncomfortable questions about the morality and ethics of enhancing the human body with technology. In an age where stem cell research, biomechanics and nanotechnology are literally on the cusp of totally redefining how long we live and what our bodies are capable of, the game might prove to be very prescient in its vision of how these advancements will affect our society.
Kicking your ass. With science.
It’s rare for a game to so expressly confront politics, and the game is intelligent of its portrayal of the political battleground surrounding augmentation. The game begins with an imminent National Science Board hearing into whether the augmentation industry needs regulation, and very quickly we are introduced to key players on both sides of the augmentation debate. Futurists like the Hughsian biotech pioneer David Sarif and pro-regulation lobbyists like the staunch moraliser Bill Taggart are significant players in the narrative, and in many ways Adam Jensen is a tool to advance Sarif’s political agenda. Such rich context adds a great deal of depth and texture to the game world, and goes well with the espionage-thriller flavour of the plot.
Ultimately, what impressed me so much about Deus Ex: Human Revolution was the fact that it was such an unbelievably rich and compelling game world. Eidos Montreal really thought hard about what they wanted their game to be about, meticulously brought it to life, and were gracious enough to allow you to explore that world however you wanted. Human Revolution is not perfect, but it is the most compelling videogame experience I had all year, and it is such a pleasure to play a game that, rather than insulting your intelligent, is unafraid to make you think.