Note: some spoilitos for all three Deus Ex games lie within. You have been warned.
When Deus Ex was released I was thirteen years old. Now, maybe that’s not an appropriate age to play Deus Ex, some may think. I don’t know many early-teens who could appreciate the freedom and breadth of storytelling that game provided. It was the first game to ever truly blow me away. It was the game I couldn’t shut up about. Long before the cake was ever a lie, I was spouting “I wanted orange! It gave me Lemon-Lime!” at my console gamer friends, to their utter bewilderment.
Deus Ex hit with the force of a revelation, seemingly from nowhere. It has parallels to System Shock and Thief, understandably, but the storyline, steeped in conspiratorial lore and existential questions about the true nature of humanity. There’s an old internet saying that every time someone mentions Deus Ex in a forum thread, someone will reinstall it and play through again. I’ve lost count of how many times I gazed through the nano-augmented eyes of J.C. Denton, cutting through the labyrinthine schemes of the Majestic 12, the Illuminati, FEMA, even sentient computers with their own conflicting goals. I have never played the game the same way twice, and I doubt I ever could.
When I first heard that a newly-formed studio, Eidos Montreal was to take the reins and make a sequel to a game that borders on the sacrosanct in the pantheon of development, I scoffed. We all remember what happened when Warren Spector left the team and Invisible War was rushed out the door, the first installment in a hallowed PC franchise to truly, with no disrespect to my console-playing brethren, be “dumbed down for the console ‘tards”. I knew they’d fuck it up, it would be akin to the Jonas Brothers trying to write a literal sequel to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Invisible War’s endings were all so dystopian and bleak that you not only wondered why the hell you played this mediocre sequel but why you didn’t take your character and go dancing in a minefield, instead of screwing the world up.
Against all odds, however, Deus Ex: Human Revolution manages to not only prove worthy of the name, but even takes steps toward redeeming Invisible War’s many faults.
For those who don’t know, DX:HR places you in the surprisingly stylish floral-print trenchcoat of Adam Jensen, a gravelly-voiced ex-SWAT leader now working corporate security for Sarif Industries, a leader in the science of biomechanical human augmentation. In the years leading up to the game’s events in 2027 the world has seen some changes, perhaps none more significant than the semi-renaissance brought about by the radical advancement in prosthetic design, for the first time allowing people to replace their natural body parts with improved biomechanical versions. The transhuman has arrived, and not everyone is thrilled at this.
The fundamental moral question that Human Revolution asks of Jensen, and of the player, is “What defines human to you?” After nearly being killed at the hands of radically-augmented supersoldiers, Jensen himself is brought back from the brink of death with all the hardware that the bleeding edge of technology at Sarif Industries can muster. Like previous Deus Ex protagonists J.C. Denton and Alex Denton, you didn’t have a choice in becoming more than human. Unlike them, Adam was born a regular man.
The gameplay has been criticized by some for lacking the total immersion of the original, though realistically, the alterations to the formula that people complain most often about are simply the result of progress in the art of design. A third-person cover system allows the stealthy player to remain more aware of their surroundings. Takedown animations are just bloody cool, as are the deployments of the Typhoon and the Icarus Landing System. The visual style of the latter two jaunts into the third person are especially evocative of The Matrix, slowing to bullet-time so you can see the augments fire in all their splendor, and who can blame them? I defy you to drop from a ledge into a pack of enemies, your Icarus suite slowing your descent and violently throwing your enemies backward, seeing them stumble to their feet just in time for Jensen to drop down and fire an explosive hellstorm from his back, only for the camera to pull back in so you can view the results of your devastating assault and not feel like a transhuman badass that would shame the trenchcoatiest of the other trenchcoated cyberpunk badasses in the world.
My criticism goes straight to where all the true criticism goes. The boss fights. I don’t mind having to kill, even in a game where you could potentially play without killing a single person other than a boss. I know that sometimes a situation arises in which it truly is kill or be killed. The problem arises in how these fights are executed. Every single boss fight takes place in, and stop me if this sounds at all familiar, a square or circular arena with various pickups strewn around for your convenience, some chest-high walls and other sporadic cover elements, against an antagonist you know next to nothing about.
It is the last part of this that really gets to me, because Deus Ex had boss fights of its own, as did Invisible War. Sure, in Deus Ex you could run away, or win without firing a shot, simply by uttering the phrase “Laputan Machine”. Those are things I miss and I’ll get to the technical faults with the boss fights next, but the biggest problem is that you are not fighting characters. Gunther Hermann was a character, over-augmented and spiteful over the obsolescence that the nano-augments like Denton promise to bring. He’s human. He likes orange soda and thinks the maintenance guy has it in for him because he keeps getting lemon lime. If you dig around enough you even find out that he’s right. He genuinely cares for his partner, Anna Navarre, and he doesn’t attack you for betraying his organization, he attacks you for killing his partner. He’s enraged, he’s tired, he’s a bad speller and goddamnit he wants a skull gun!
Likewise, Anna Navarre is a ruthless agent who genuinely believes that the ends justify the means, and that what she is doing is right, despite being horrifying. She’ll applaud you for efficiency and lethality in the field, and lament your incompetence if you take your time and resort to non-lethal tactics. She’s in your face and when the time comes to fight her or not to fight her, you have to make some pretty tough choices. Walton Simons is a snake-like manipulating bastard from the very opening cutscene, as the game progresses you hate the guy more and more. Bob Page is most complex of all, the prodigal mastermind whose humanity has all but entirely slipped away. These are people, people who you feel something for. Lets take a look at the bosses of Human Revolution.
First comes Final Fantasy VII reference, I mean Barrett. Guess what his main weapon is. This gun-armed good ol’ boy waits for you to walk into the Arena and have a good old fashioned fight to the death, with guns and grenades aplenty. He is also the only boss in the game it is possible to beat without attacking directly, as you can, with patience, circle-strafe around his constant grenade throwing and let him kill himself with the splash damage. We know nothing about him as a person, we have no reason to care who he is or what he knows other than the fact that he was part of the attack on Sarif HQ.
Yelena Federova, or as I should say, Mohawk Girl because the only reason I know the character’s name is I looked it up on the damn Deus Ex Wiki, is the second boss. This is a woman you’ve seen kill innocents, and yeah, she probably has this coming. Does she get any dialogue? None that I can remember. Her death is like the turning of a key that allows an altogether different character to provide you with assistance. This is the only reason you fight her.
Namir, Creepy Muscle Guy, is the third and penultimate boss fight. His character design may as well have been taken from BODIES – The Exhibition, which I have no doubt is the one and only place where his designers looked for inspiration. I can at least give a minimal amount of praise to the atmosphere of the arena in which you fight Namir, as it does mimic his art design and aesthetics, even if Adam does come off a bit thick for not noticing the one muscle-sculpture with Murder-Augs all over him is posing directly over his right shoulder while he has a nice chat with Token Evil Bitch. Namir has some interesting dialogue that could potentially humanize him, and create more conflict in Adam’s life, but all of this is immediately forgotten as soon as you loot any gear you want and leave the room.
The final boss is the only one with whom we have had any genuine interaction with over the course of the game. Sadly, however, it is a bit of a rehash of the ultimate showdown in Deus Ex 1. There isn’t any particular reason for it to be and there are some more missed narrative opportunities with the (insert sinister machine project name here).
I’m only giving them so much shit because they were outsourced from the main developer and there game is built entirely around systems that would allow you to potentially avoid Always Fighting On Their Terms. Jensen never once has the tactical advantage or fights in a place of his choosing. The first boss in particular is said to be moving around the entire level while you are progressing. A stealthy player might be able to find a hidden perch from which to snipe his escorts, and even him, from a distance. A hacker could lock down doors to direct him to a different confrontation room, one where that same hacker might be able to turn some sentry turrets against the boss and win the fight while hiding behind a desk. All the bosses in the game have similarly simple ways that they could be outwitted.
Thankfully the rest of the game is a spectacular showcase of art design, characterization, tension, and concludes in an ending that is more brilliant than most will ever give it credit for. Deus Ex is one of the first games to really embrace the “Multiple Ending” design. the first game had three, Invisible War and Human Revolution both have four. They all have one thing in common, you, the protagonist have sole power over what the entire outcome of the scenario that has just unfolded will be. And this is the brilliance, its been here since Deus Ex 1 but it took Human Revolution’s gorgeously simple method of choosing the outcome to truly make me see it.
Heavier spoilers after the jump.
Deus Ex is part of a latin phrase, Deus Ex Machina, literally translated as God from the Machine. Given the transhuman nature of the storylines, and the consistent theme of humans playing god, or trying to become gods themselves, it is an appropriate title. What was less obvious was the real reason. A Deus Ex Machina is a literary device in which a “God from the Machine” will literally step out onto the stage and decide the ultimate outcome. In modern day it is looked upon, and rightly so, as an antiquated and lazy method of story telling. The character in the third Matrix movie that handwaves all the problems in away is actually credited as the Deus Ex Machina. It is the ultimate way to write yourself out of a corner.
In the Deus Ex games, however, you are thrust into the role of the Deus Ex Machina at the end of each game. You, and you alone, have the power to decide the outcome. You can weigh the pros and cons of different groups arguments. Three endings always echo the three of Deus Ex, one in which Transhumanism or indeed Posthumanism is embraced, with the march of technology overriding all. Someone will always attempt to reverse the progress of technology, someone who believes humanity has lost its soul, perhaps. This is a path you can enforce as the Deus Ex Machina. A third party will always want control, order, and maintenance of the status quo.
Human Revolution gives you a fourth option, one denied to you in Deus Ex and its sequel, and that is to reject entirely the role of Deus Ex Machina. To walk away, acknowledging yourself as unqualified to make such a great decision for the whole of humanity, and instead place your faith in the human spirit to find the right way collectively.
Having played Deus Ex 1 and 2, I know what Adam Jensen doesn’t. I know that no matter the choice he makes, there will be others who must make far greater choices. I know that nothing I do will prevent the disasters that befall humanity later in the series. As a player, it is a heavy burden to carry, knowing that you can do so much, have so much influence, and still, ultimately, make very little difference. The moral and ethical quandaries posed by the burden of choice in all three games far outstrips the Manichean morality systems of many modern RPGs and action RPGs. The pros and cons of each ending, of each path, can be debated endlessly with no real winner, and that is what ultimately makes Deus Ex great. It is a world cast in shades of grey, a foreign world with strange technology and shadowy power brokers behind the levers of society, and yet it is one that reflects our own. A world in which there rarely is any right or wrong . We all live in shades of grey. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like its legendary predecessor, highlights this in a way no other game ever has, or maybe ever will.
Eidos Montreal, you have earned my trust. Now make another one. And to all you readers who haven’t played Human Revolution, this is one you need to play.