Deus Ex: Human Revolution   Leave a comment

A militant 24-hour orgy, but no bestiality allowed.

As threatened. I’ve written about it before, in a post dated the same day as Skyrim’s release. So guess what happened? Yeah. I came back to it after Christmas knocked me off Skyrim, though, and played it for most of the weekend, so more words.

It’s still excellent. In fact, having played both about the same amount of time (Steam clocking roughly 40 hours each), I’d say I’ve enjoyed this even more than Skyrim, so far. It feels a bit more solid than Bethesda’s game, although true to the original (which, if you haven’t, and you care about games at all, you should buy and play right now), it’s filled with its fair share of flaws and glitches.

And like Mass Effect 2, the fact that the game is otherwise excellent makes the problems stand out, and makes me want to rage about them so much more. The slightly gloopy interface to the hacking puzzle (that still shouldn’t be so random), for instance, that makes it just a bit more awkward than it needs to be. Grr!

From here there will be spoilers, so if you’ve not played the game (and you really should), and care at all about plot details being revealed, probably best to go and play it instead of reading on.

When everything works right, and when you manage to press the buttons in order, it’s brilliant. Last night I took out four besuited baddies, all standing within a few feet of each other, without any of them noticing until they were unconscious. The first three were in an alley; I cloaked, activated silent movement, and jumped out from my hiding place, landing behind two of them, and bashed their heads together. Then I turned around and walloped their friend, before sneaking up on the guy they were guarding in the garage and choking him until he passed out. Then, because they were bad, bad people, I quietly shot their unconscious forms in the head with my silenced pistol.

Proper ninja stealth assassin, right?

Well, except for the twenty seconds I spent twiddling my thumbs, waiting for an energy cell to recharge, between baddies three and four. Happily, baddie four helpfully obliged by standing and prodding the safe he was trying to break into while we waited.

The energy recharge system is a peculiar design. You have between two and five cells, but only the first will recharge of its own accord. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense; you can, fully upgraded, recharge that one cell once every twenty seconds, but you can stand around for five minutes and none of the others will charge at all? Why not? Maybe Jensen’s just got rubbish wiring, I don’t know. Anyhow, to recharge the other cells you must gorge yourself on energy bars like a bolemic bodybuilder. So your energy-recharge snacks are a jealously hoarded resource, and unless you absolutely need more than one energy cell to get something done you just wait around until the recharging cell is full before you do it.

Which means that, all too often, the clever toys at your disposal go unused; you need a full energy cell to perform a melee takedown, so without chomping a choccie you can’t combine that with your cloak or silent running/falling skills. And as non-lethal takedowns get you the most experience per baddie, you really want to save your energy cell for the clobbering.

I’m sure they thought about it, and playtested it, and so on, but it seems that letting all your cells recharge would mean players could have more fun with the augmentations (and, therefore, the game) by executing more convoluted, well, executions (or knock-outs). It’s not really a resource management issue, either; I always have a heap of energy snacks in my inventory, but because there’s no free way to recharge, and I don’t know that I won’t need the snacks later (and there’s no way of budgeting them), I rarely actually use them. If I used them up doing amusing things, I might then wind up in a situation where I really need them to get past it. So, effectively, by not letting your energy cells recharge, they’re rationing fun – and do you want to ration the fun a player can have with your game? Augmented enemies seem to have unlimited use of their powers, so it’s not even a fair limitation in that regard.

However, waiting, watching, and carefully, silently taking out roomfulls of baddies one-by-one without being spotted is lots of fun. It’s reminiscent of the best bits of Batman: Arkham Asylum, where you lurked on the gargoyles and strung up thugs when their friends were looking the wrong way. But some of the takedowns are, perhaps, too brutal. One animation in particular makes me wince every time; Jensen clobbers the guy to his knees, bends his arm backwards (crack), breaks it (crunch), and then smacks the guy around the head to finally knock him out. Ugh. Was that really necessary?

Spoilers really start now. Main plot ones and everything.

The bosses are the game’s greatest enormity, as I mentioned before. Amusingly, if you have the jump upgrade the second can be killed (and you have to kill the bosses, unlike anyone else in the game) by hopping on the lockers surrounding the battleground and then, well, doing what you like; she gets confused and stuck. Popping the power-generators then finishing her off with pistol shots to the head worked fine for me.

It’s been said that the bosses are a way of throwing you into a situation where you’re not in control, and don’t get to decide the rules of engagement, ie. like your first trip to fight club, you have to fight. Unfortunately, this is a rubbish way of doing it because (especially at the start) the game gives you only a limited number of upgrade points, and if you don’t spend them on combat upgrades (and why would you? There are plenty of other shooty games; playing this one like a shooter would be a waste) you’re pretty much doomed without exploiting glitches. It also ignores that the whole rest of the game is about choosing how to approach situations, and always gives you the option not to kill your enemies.

About half way through the game, you’re in Hong Kong. You have to find a hacker who’s hiding in a pod hotel, then bring him a MacGuffin to reprogram. When you do, a cutscene plays, and by the end there are baddies patrolling the hotel, and all the civilians (bar, as far as I can tell, the hacker) are dead. Wouldn’t it be a more interesting way of throwing the player out of their comfort zone by, instead of doing the massacre in a cutscene, the baddies break in and then leave the player to his own devices and conscience whilst it takes place? Let them sneak out if they want, while all the civilians – and the helpful hacker – are being killed. Or maybe they’ll decide to try to intervene, even if they usually avoid combat or killing people. That would be a more interesting way of removing control of events from the player while, importantly, not imposing a certain play-style on them. Yes, you managed to get out without being spotted, or without killing anybody yourself… But at what cost?*

Now for the game’s second group of enormities, and they’re only not the first because, unlike the boss-fights, they only take one go each; philosophically, both are identically terrible. The game really likes its rendered cutscenes. I know it’s published by Square Enix, the frustrated film-makers of Final Fantasy infamy, but considering they look like the in-game assets, but slightly blurrier and rendered in a lower resolution, what’s the point? It seems they would’ve saved time, effort and storage simply by playing them in-engine, if they absolutely must have big chunks of film in the middle of their game for some silly reason. And quite often they’re just the standard travel-scenes of the helicopter, or a quick bit of exposition, so fine. But sometimes…

Still in Hong Kong, just after the hotel massacre. You’re going to have a friendly chat with the boss of the local augmentation firm. My plan A: break into her office, get her to tell you what you need to know, then quietly execute her for ordering mercs to go on the rampage in a hotel. What actually happens: you open the door, and a cutscene plays. You don’t have any control over this – you might do something wrong and upset the designer’s masterplan – so sit back and enjoy. Does Jensen act like a professional? Does he keep his target sitting down, outside arm’s length, with a gun pointing at her at all times? Or does he suddenly lose all ability to foresee the blindingly obvious, and let boss-woman come up and act all flirty before she gives him a shove, hides in the safe-room and sets off the alarm?

Dear Square Enix, the role of cutscenes in videogames – begging the question that they have one – is not to force the “player” character to act like a useless tit. Taking control from the player and forcing events to unfold in ways that are obviously stupid and equally obviously preventable will only bring about frustration, and in a game which is all about player choice and control deliberately – malevolently – taking it away at important events is rage-inducing. Even in a film that sort of behaviour gets people shouting at the characters for being idiots. Yes, players might not do the most dramatic thing at any given point, or might want to do things that would lead to the story being other than the one you want to tell, but you know what? Deal with it. You’re developers in an interactive medium, and if you can’t cope with interaction you should go and make films instead.

So that’s seventeen hundred words in my second post of ranting about one of my favourite three (possibly even higher than that) games released in 2011. Of course, if I didn’t like it so much, and if it didn’t do so much right – and it really does get what made Deus Ex good in the first place, while improving many features dramatically (the shooting’s good, the cover system generally works well for sneaking, the upgrades are more interesting (although I’ve a few problems with the experience system promoting the play-perfect-or-reload style), the plot’s more grounded in plausibility, and so on) – I wouldn’t care about its flaws that much. Poor developers, they can’t win, can they?

* EDIT 2011-01-15: I’m still playing this, and later on in the game something very much akin to my suggestion actually happens, when your helicopter crash-lands in Hong Kong. Hurrah! So why didn’t they do it in Alice Pods, too?


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