Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review - Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Hey, check it, transhumanism! I think Deus Ex: Human Revolution is trying to be an ominous prophecy of the dangerous melding of flesh and machine. The thing is that I don’t know if that’s so much a future thing than a present thing. We’re already being augmented with laser eye surgery, replacement limbs, Taylor Lautner’s hair and other things that cannot be considered natural in any way, shape or form. Are mechanical 2-foot arms concealing 6-foot blades that much more unethical than Tiger Woods’ enhanced eyesight? We’re already uploading our music collections to the Cloud, so is uploading our consciousness to Amazon that far removed? Bring on the mothatrucking singularity, folks!

I have much adoration for Human Revolution in attempting to let players pick sides in the maybe-edgy issue of man and machine becoming one. But the problem with the game’s approach is that the main character is a half-man-half-machine-all-cop who stabs sentries with his humerus knives and conceals sunglasses behind his orbital bone. So the game is already innately inching players towards “augmentations are f#@king badass!” The only rebuttal the game offers to that argument is that your character can only stab as many people as he has charged batteries in…wherever it is he places batteries. Also, he replenishes his battery power with chocolate bars. So if you’re anti-obesity, I guess you’re also anti-transhumanism.

Deus Ex stars Adam Jensen, a security guy for whom emergency augmentation surgery transforms him from generic brooding soldier to generic brooding soldier with Blades of Steel and a giant arrow above his head screaming “I have a shocking secret.” Until he figures out that secret secret, he’s going to help the augmentation company he works for figure out whom was behind the terrorist attack that cost him his boring human arms. I don’t think I’d call the plot itself especially interesting, and anyone that heard a thing or two about a thing or two about Deus Ex 1 already knows what the Big Reveal is.

But it’s the world itself that makes Human Revolution intriguing. This game’s version of the post-machine future is as weird as you’d think it is. Implants are fetishized, machine-based drugs are causing an addiction pandemic, augmented people are hated by the general population due to sheer envy of their awesomeness, corporations are more evil and sinister than ever, and I don’t think the sun exists anymore. It’s fascinating to explore the various settings, see the curious augmentation advertisements, hack into computers and learn the culture of each company. (Hint: people are either angry, scared, or pulling porn spam pranks that were comical in 1999.) You do learn very quickly, that no one in the future is capable of remembering passwords, and must rely on sending themselves and their coworkers e-mails and hoping that their rivals don’t have a Level 4 Hacking skill.

Very critical disclaimer: the Deus Ex franchise has never been kind to me. Deus Ex 1 is such a pure combination of action and RPG elements the likes of which I can never be made to comprehend. When I aim my handgun pointblank at someone’s temple, I feel cheated when a dice roll based on my firearms rating sides with temple. I’m so inept at bizarre stat-based action RPGs, I couldn’t even get into the dumbed down, baby’s first conspiracy thriller in that Deus Ex sequel. Human Revolution’s hardest difficulty setting is labeled as “Give Me Deus Ex”, and I shrieked! No! Please! Don’t give me too much Deus Ex. I’m Deus Ex Intolerant. I could cramp up real bad.

So I set the difficulty to the easiest given choice, “Give Me A Story.” I assumed that the game would dumb itself down enough that I could just breeze through the Deus Exey parts and admire Adam Jensen’s vicious arm blades. However, I quickly learned that I was misled. Cybernetic implants do little to keep my vitals free of enemy lead, it seems, and death is swift and frequent. Really, the one aspect of the game that was noticeably dumbed down was how the number of hack attempts given to break into any given machine would never diminish. So at the least, I felt comfortable that I could take all the time in the world breaking into a laptop and find all the penis augmentation spam ads I desired.

I also noticed that the game presented a more seamless and intelligent combination of those action and RPG elements that made me previously dread receiving more Deus Ex. When I aimed at someone’s head, I was kiiiiiiind of certain that one of those bullets would stay within my aiming reticle, in spite of any and all imaginary dice rolls. Your character isn’t leveling up a series of numbers that loosely resemble one’s ability to swim faster. You are making upgrade choices that have a practical and immediate impact on how you play.

For example, when you decide to purchase an upgrade that lets you punch through walls, suddenly all of these walls begin to glow, and new paths appear. Actually, I was so impressed with the might of my steel knuckles that I would smash through every wall smashable, regardless of relevance to my quest or guards with working eardrums. Most upgrade choices have a very real, practical impact on how the game is played. Suddenly, new paths open, stealth and/or gunplay become more plausible, and there are walls that have no business being left unpunched.

The game’s first few hours are among the most frustrating, if only because so many paths and options are blocked off on account of your lack of iron fists and poor stats. Every Praxis Point spent counts. A Praxis Point spent practically makes you feel like a genius for running into a enemy gun turret that can be hacked or a wall that can be haymakered. (And I was giving many self-high-fives for that wall punch upgrade.) A Praxis Point spent impractically is aggravating. Avoid the “cone of vision” upgrade. Despite what you want to think, this game is not Metal Gear Solid; enemies have a field of vision wider than three feet ahead of them, and stealth requires a bit of thought and luck. Many of my early Praxis Point decisions were spent on trying to make my personal Adam Jenson not suck, in such areas as more inventory space or better hacking skills or such. By the end of the game, almost every area you want upgraded will be covered and you’ll have a mechanical jack of all trades.

Actually, the real worst moments are the boss fights, where you have to deal with superhumans with much more health and munitions than you unloading all of those health and munitions unto your iron pancreas. I had specced my character to be more firearms-friendly, on the easiest difficulty no less, and I was still finding myself cybermurdered repeatedly. I still had to do an awful lot of loading and saving every time I escaped 5 seconds of the boss fight with my head and sexy knuckles intact.

Endings are kind of dull, too.

Still, the biggest shock about Deus Ex: Human Revolution is that I actually found myself kind of half-liking it. There was a great deal of growing pains as I struggled to wrap my mind around the benefits of hacking computers or not murdering guards. But the game did manage to make all of its ideas click, by hook or by cybernetic crook. Not every person should play Human Revolution, but the person who wants nothing handed to them but the opportunity to make several unpleasant gameplay choices perhaps should.