Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
My review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is up now at thephoenix.com. I'll level with you: I don't think it's a very good review. There was so much I wanted to say that I ended up not saying any of it. I tried to explain the game in the broadest terms to somebody who had never heard of it before. I felt like I needed more words. That's what the blog is for.
Part of the problem is that I am still a little confused about what I think of the game. When a game shows itself to be capable of greatness, it is all the worse whenever it falls short -- which DX:HR does, often. It's not like a lot of mediocre games that maintain a baseline of competence the whole through. Those are easy to figure out. This game consists of stratospheric highs punctuated by crushing lows. The mental arithmetic necessary to give it a score, and then call it a day, seems like it's either overcomplicating or oversimplifying things.
Let's start with this: for sustained stretches, DX:HR is brilliant. It is, at heart, a game about corporate espionage, and they've managed to make sneaking around office buildings and reading emails into a genuinely thrilling experience. Part of that is due to the interface. The stealth mechanics are intuitive and robust. Taking cover might make your character a little too invisible, but line of sight works just as well, and you never get a sense that the AI isn't playing fair. Every time a guard spotted me, I knew it was my fault and not the game's. When I was successful -- such as when I snuck past a room full of guards in a penthouse apartment, and waited for the elevator while listening to them talk about how they were going to kill me -- I wanted to find somebody in real life to high five.
And it seems, too, as though the character building and varied playstyles aren't just lip service. I tried my hardest to avoid fights and to build up my hacking abilities. For the most part, it worked. One of my favorite parts was when I entered a new section of an office building, sneaking around as usual, only gradually noticing that nobody seemed to be around. I saw one guard dead on the ground, and then another, and then I encountered a security robot that I had re-programmed several minutes earlier. My own lethal Roomba, puttering through the corridors, taking out the trash.
Then again, sometimes the stealth approach just wasn't happening, and the non-lethal goal seemed unattainable, so I would slowly and methodically murder everybody in the room. If you don't upgrade your combat capabilities, the shooting is clunky, but it still is not an impossible task to systematically pick everybody off with a sniper rifle, especially if you're in a room with multiple levels and numerous back passages. And what's nice about all of this is that there is no sense that the game is guiding you one way or another. The environments, the enemies, the tools -- they are there for you to take or to leave.
But when the game stumbles, it faceplants. To some degree, it's not even the game's fault. I once read an article about air traffic controllers, who work one of the most stressful jobs you can have. For hours, they stare at a screen that is full of hundreds of little dots all moving in different directions, and their job is to know what each one of those dots is doing in relation to all of the others. Occasionally one of the controllers will lose his focus, and suddenly instead of seeing hundreds of planes flying through the air with clockwork precision, he just sees a bunch of manic dots. And then he loses his shit and has to be placed on leave.
This is essentially how I felt every time something went wrong in DX:HR.
There's something to be said for gameplay based on the idea of your careful plans going awry. (This was one of the central pleasures of Far Cry 2.) When this game is humming, you're like the air traffic controller who knows what's up. You know where every guard is. You know where all your cover is. Your weapons are armed and ready. You have a plan for getting through this area, and it's working, and you could not feel better about it. When you get busted, though, it's not fun, and there aren't often clever ways to regroup. Usually you just restart.
If you're playing as I did, it's not worth fighting or running. Since I put no skill points into making my character a fighter, getting spotted meant instant death. Often I just gave up and let them kill me. Occasionally I'd hide in a vent for five minutes, which felt like a moral victory, but was boring and less productive than reloading. And because of the way the game saves your progress, if you die after updating your skill tree or earning bonus XP, you have to do all those things over again when you restart.
This isn't the worst thing in the world; it's a small annoyance that happens over and over. And it's one of those obnoxious things that only happens in video games, which a smart game should have figured out get past. DX:HR feels like it should be smart enough for that. For all its brilliance, it trots out the same old classic tropes that have been stale since the first Deus Ex: crawling through vents, stacking crates, atrocious voice acting. You can emerge from a vent into a locked room, and the people in the room will start chatting with you as though nothing unusual has happened. Oh, and there are the boss battles.
I don't want to be the millionth person to complain about the boss battles, but some things are unavoidable. It's not that they represent sudden, jarring difficulty spikes. It's that the rest of the game is based on player choice, and the boss battles have an Optimal Strategy that you can't deviate from unless you are a masochist. Were the game true to its principles, then there would be a way to hack your way through a boss battle, or to avoid it altogether. Instead, you can pick up the weapons that are helpfully scattered around the room, and then discard them when you're done. That's lazy.
Would I recommend that most gamers play Deus Ex: Human Revolution? For sure. But you need to be prepared to struggle with it a little. Wrestle it to the ground. It is not perfect, but it is not quite like anything else out there.