Deus Ex: Human Revolution
November 22, 2010 – In part two of CCC’s two-part in-depth look at Deus Ex: Human Revolution, writer Steve Haske examines the mechanics that govern the game’s open-ended gameplay to get an idea of how effectively the game’s constituent parts work together.
It wasn’t so many years ago that games were designed with the explicit linearity that’s now commonplace in most big-production releases. FPSes required finding keys and flipping switches rather than just mowing down enemies between meticulously orchestrated setpieces; action and adventure games might have required a little exploration. And western RPGs allowed you to roam where you chose, picking quests at will and allowing a certain degree of freedom within the broader scope of a game’s overall narrative mission structure. With the copious checkpoints, continues, and elements like regenerating health, the average face of game design has morphed into something more cinematic, designed almost as much to deliver so-called on-rails thrills while providing you some agency to move forward.
The next chapter of Deus Ex doesn’t exactly do this, nor should it. Since the series is known for its open-ended, multi-solution approach, Human Revolution isn’t a game that’s going to force you down one specific path. Instead, it tries to achieve a happy medium of old and new design principles, and from the looks of what I recently got to check out at Eidos Montreal’s studio, the dev team has done an admirable job in letting you pick and choose just exactly how you want to play through the game.
Much like the Deus Exes of old, Human Revolution lets you choose how you want to develop the traits and skills of the game’s protagonist, Adam Jensen. Jensen is part of a security detail working for Sarif Industries, a biotech corporation that’s embroiled in a political controversy over the development and spread of new cybernetic augmentation technology for humans, a new advancement that allows augmented people to improve their natural physical and mental capabilities. The corporation where Jensen is working is attacked by a group of augmented terrorists in Human Revolution’s opening—an act of violence that almost destroys the corporate headquarters and nearly kills Jensen, who is forced to undergo emergency augmentation in order to save his life. But once Jensen decides to pursue an investigation to uncover who attacked Sarif, why it happened, and what’s really going on, agency becomes the machine that drives Human Revolution forward. Care to go on a killing spree? You can. Prefer to get the drop on your enemies with stealth? You can do that, too. And if you’re feeling social, you can also talk to any number of NPCs, as well as friend and foe alike, in order to get their information. Finally, if you so choose, Jensen can become adept at hacking machinery, rounding out a diverse collection of augmentation skills and upgrades you can choose to use or simply ignore. In order to illustrate the different ways of going about solving your problems, Eidos Montreal demonstrated four scenarios in the game utilizing different methods to gain information or execute attacks.
The first of the two demos showcased by the development team at a recent press event sheds some light on how Human Revolution maintains its linear structure while giving you choices over how you want to go about getting through any given level. The scenario, first shown at E3, followed Jensen in an effort to discover the location of a skilled hacker who could give him a lead on his investigation, specifically making use of Jensen’s social abilities. Taking place on the (fictionalized) Chinese two-story city of Hangsha—though the location is real, it’s just an empty island today—Jensen makes his way to a bar called The Hive, a place similar to the seedy bars seen in Mass Effect 2’s Omega, to seek out the club boss, Tong, whom Jensen believes will be able to tell him where the hacker is hiding out. Early on, the dev team made note that while Jensen paid the fee to get into the club during the demo session, he could have just as easily beaten up the bouncer guarding the place, scouted around town listening to NPCs for clues, or snooped around back to find another way inside. This kind of thing is common in Human Revolution; there’s rarely only one choice in front of you. Once inside the dimly lit bar, pulsing with bass-heavy beats and bathed in a golden light (the place had a bit of a beehive motif going for it), Jensen made his way to a back part of the club where he found a man with a cybernetic arm tending the bar. Much like Bioware’s sci-fi RPG series, Human Revolution also has conversation trees for most social interactions that you can get into.
Interestingly, rather than taking the binary approach of simply making the clear “good” or “bad” choice, the game’s social elements can fluctuate depending on the scenario. Sometimes talking to NPCs is as simple as choosing the approach you want to take with a person, a la Alpha Protocol; other times you can actually choose what you want to say as Commander Shepard would. What’s of particular note, however, are Human Revolution’s so-called social boss-battles—essentially a conversation tree where an adversarie’s responses can change dynamically depending on what you say or how you say it. The way to win these would-be battles is to get whomever you’re talking to agree to give you information; if they refuse, that particular avenue is then cut off from the player, meaning you’ll have to figure out how to proceed without that character’s help. Furthermore, since the “moods” of the AI change (which roughly translates to them addressing you differently each time), you can’t just reload your game and try the same responses in order to get a desired outcome.