There are a couple of things that one must say about Deus Ex: Human Revolution up front to assuage the fears of the faithful.
"It is true to Deus Ex."
"It feels like a PC game."
So there you go: both of those things are true. I've spent the past week playing the pants off of the game (I'm past the 20 hour mark of the PC version and it feels like I'm about halfway through the final act). As I near the end of Adam Jensen's big adventure, I thought I'd get a bit more specific about a few of my favourite things in the game. Let's get into it, shall we?
Coldly Gorgeous; Gorgeously Gold
While looking at screenshots and trailers for this game, the most noticeable thing about the art direction wasn't the art itself, it was the colour scheme -- gold on black on gold, with a side of gold. It was hard not to worry that it might be too monochrome.
Fortunately, that is not the case. The colour merges seamlessly with Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete's art design to create something distinctive and beautiful, with a silent, cold grace that feels at once noirish and futuristic. In a terrific interview over at Gamasutra, Jacques-Bellêtete (who, incidentally, is a well-tattooed gentleman) articulates how hard he and his team worked to make the art of DXHR stand out:
The style is very homogenous in the game; it's not a very photorealistic game. It's a stylised game because I truly believe that, if you have a proper stylistic visual language, that actually makes the world more credible -- not photorealistic, but credible -- because everything fits within the same visual language.
If you have a head that looks super photorealistic but then the texture behind it is not, to me there's a discontinuity there. But if everything fits within the same stylistic language, it feels more credible. Anyway, that's one of my theories.
The monochrome style really does call to mind Metal Gear, particularly MGS4 (the story's themes are very similar, too). But that's a good thing in my book -- particularly seeing as how for all its strengths, the original Deus Ex was an ugly, ugly game. The game's style also recalls Minority Report, which, so much the better.
More than anything, there is a sense of place and purpose to the art in DXHR, scads of cool details and environmental storytelling -- the clockworking tools in Adam's apartment, or the stack of air conditioners filling an alleyway in China (screenshot is at the left). You see something like that, and you wonder: why are the air conditioners there? Who stacked them like that, and why? Are they broken, were they taking up space? It's this sort of understated detail that makes the environments in DXHR stand out.
The Stealth Mechanics Are the Real Deal
Just as in the original Deus Ex, it's possible to play Human Revolution guns blazing, wasting everyone in sight; to turn Adam Jensen into a whirlwind of flying lead, arm-swords and rockets. But as far as I'm concerned, it's a stealth game through and through. And the stealth in DXHR is exceptionally well-done. Enemies are smart and alert, and even the simplest environments have a huge number of branching pathways.
It's not as forgiving as the other more predatory games I wrote about last week. But for the truly hardcore, know these two things:
1) Sound is a factor, and patrolling enemies can hear you.
2) You can drag unconscious bodies and hide them. And you'll have to, if you don't want to get caught.
Many of the game's most memorable moments involve walking deep into a complex before being ambushed and having to sneak or fight your way out. Part of that is because…
The Hybrid First/Third-Person Perspective is Fantastic
While playing DXHR, I was reminded (in a good way) of Rainbow Six: Vegas. I'm not certain whether that was the first game to use a hybrid first/third-person cover mechanic, but it was the first one I played, and it just worked. The moment I started playing, I thought "Ah-ha! Here it is! The first truly good cover mechanic I've ever encountered!"
The cover in DXHR works much the same as R6:V -- press the right mouse button (or left trigger) and the camera pulls out to a third-person view of Adam crouching behind cover. It works well, and the transition is seamless and never disorienting. Furthermore, it neatly solves one of the difficulties of first-person stealth -- namely, how to look around corners.
Classic PC stealth games like Thief and the first Deus Ex had a dedicated "lean" button, but the third-person perspective offers a cleaner, more enjoyable method. Using the spacebar (or A button) to roll between cover and holding it to corner works seamlessly as well, recalling the enjoyable cover-hopping in Splinter Cell: Conviction (whose creative director Maxime Béland was also CD on Rainbow Six: Vegas).
Non-sticky cover is another vital part of the equation -- there's nothing worse than seeing a guard turn and begin to walk your way and being unable to quickly navigate into a new hiding spot. But in DXHR, cover is smooth and fun to use, and allows the game to hybridise first-person roleplaying exploration with third-person cover combat and stealth. And it feels really, really good.
The Hacking Minigame is Way Fun
Human Revolution's hacking minigame is fun, tense, exciting… it's all of the things that a minigame like this should be. By the time I hit the final third of BioShock, I was so sick of that pipe-dream puzzle, I dreaded every new camera and turret. But after hour upon hour of playing, I have yet to tire of DXHR's hacking. The whole thing is based on quick risk-reward action and quickly burning countdown timers; it's over in a few seconds, so it never overstays its welcome. It also works best with a mouse and keyboard, which is neat, and it's just fun, simple as that.
So, So Many Emails
I think this gets at the heart of what it actually means to say that the game "feels like Deus Ex". Maybe it's just me, but I frickin' love reading emails in games. It's the weirdest thing. I get so many emails in life, emails on emails… this fabled "inbox zero" thing that I hear my friends talk about sounds like some sort of unattainable state of grace. And yet all told, I've probably spent the better part of an hour in DXHR reading emails.
There are so many kinds of missives on hand -- company-wide notes that give some insight into the corporate culture, personal messages that give insight into the motives of the various characters in the game; nods to past Deus Ex games, and vital information like passcodes, item locations and network logins. And of course, gag Nigerian email scams.
But it's not so much the content of the emails as their volume -- it speaks to the level of care and work that went into Deus Ex: Human Revolution and they're an excellent nod to one of the more charming characteristics of the first game.
It All Comes Together
There's more to say about the game; it does have a few shortcomings, and I need to take more time replaying it to get a sense of just how far the nonlinearity can go. But the immediate truth remains that each of the things I've talked about here comes together in a satisfying harmony. You find yourself sneaking through a burnished, golden office parlour. You silently take down a guard and drag him into a storage closet. Afterward, you'll hack into a computer and read through a number of emails, one of which gives you the passcode for the armory located on the building's upper floors.
It's Deus Ex. It feels true to its PC gaming roots. And it's damn fun to play.