This is Not Your Older Brother’s Deus Ex

First of all, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is not a bad game. In fact, I find myself looking forward to getting back to it. Which means it’s a pretty good game, in the grand scheme of things.

However, it is also not Deus Ex.

I can’t help but feel that DX:HR is a game made by a group of people who had a feature list from Deus Ex, who had tons of reference for Deus Ex in terms of video and audio, but who never actually played the game.

On the surface, it feels like Deus Ex. The art and sound are spot-on, and they are what grab me the most. The somewhat questionable voice acting trigger my nostalgia for days when games didn’t have giant budgets for star-studded voice casts. The music is close to perfection; I’ll have to find a way to acquire the soundtrack.

Where it breaks down, however, is the gameplay itself. On the surface, it’s well done. It has a hacking minigame which hearkens to Shadowrun on the SNES, and puts the original Deus Ex’s hacking progress-bar to shame. The stealth and cover work as well as you could expect for current games. The levels are well laid out, and it’s like second nature to move through a space while avoiding enemies.

But that’s where it ends. Because the more you explore and stretch within the game, the quicker it breaks down. Your reward for exploring spaces early is to find story areas which are not yet enabled. Later on, when you encounter the mission related to that space, the game completely fails to acknowledge or reward your earlier curiosity, and instead, forces you to go back to those areas, triggering either a mission completion, or to find that some item that was previously static and non-interactive has been enabled. To me, this is close to unforgivable.

Then, there’s the static world. The vast majority of objects in the environment are non-interactive. I see a baseball on my desk in my apartment, and I want to pick it up and throw it against a wall. But it’s non-interactive level art. Almost all boxes in the environment are immovable, with the few you can move highlighted in a garish yellow, with a solid outline. Disabling that feature highlights how sparse the environment truly is, as there are a hundred things in a given space you may want to interact with in order to complete your mission or achieve some side objective, yet most of them are not available to you.

And to top it off, I’ve seen absolutely no evidence of any kind of emergent gameplay. I can’t lure an enemy through a locked door in order to have a chance to get through it. Enemies never seem to run for alarm panels. I can’t use gadgets in unexpected ways to boost myself over a wall to shortcut an area. Enemies are bound to their areas in order to prevent them from being lured in to traps. Perhaps this kind of thing will materialize later in the game, but from what I’ve seen so far, I doubt it will.

If my opinions change, I will update this post. But as much as I’m enjoying my time with the game, I still don’t feel it truly lives up to its predecessor. My enjoyment may simply be the case of water for a man dying of thirst in the desert.

Ultimately, I feel that this game is a sad commentary on games today, and where they will continue to go in the future. A game which is pruned by focus tests, data gathering, and the compulsive urge which seems so prevalent in the game industry of making sure the player can see and do everything. Deus Ex is from a time when it was okay if the player didn’t find something, and it was possible to completely miss parts of the game. The game didn’t lead you around by the nose; it was up to the player to discover the possibilities.

Playing the original Deus Ex, I was sure for a long time I couldn’t save Paul. When I found out it was possible, something opened up in my mind, and made me realize, this┬áis the the strength that games, as an interactive medium, offer. The ability to do something again, but to get it right this time. But Deus Ex is one of the few games that really attempted to make choice and player agency the primary focus. The game industry seems to have forgotten that, and so we are left with games where every player has the same experience.

I never expected Deus Ex: Human Revolution to remember its roots, but I am still disappointed to find out that I was right. Games have the power to let us do things differently next time. So why do so many of them fall in the trap of forcing everyone down the same path?

2 thoughts on “This is Not Your Older Brother’s Deus Ex

  1. Sean

    Good points, and definitely takes the shine of DXHR for me a bit. However, while not hitting the original’s open nature of engagement with each area, i think it did present a number of choices that reached closer to DX than any FPS i’ve played since. The most stand out example for me is like Paul ordering you to get out and save yourself in the original, in DXHR Malik similarly tells you to run while her helicopter is ambushed. It is possible to choose to stay and save her, much as you could with Paul in the original.

    The level of interactivity with your environment is on par with the original, i believe. Perhaps i’m mis-remembering, however it seems to me that while you may have been able to interact with 100% of the objects in the DX world, there were much fewer objects. Meanwhile in DXHR, the design aesthetic was to be cluttered and old, so while the number of interactive objects in a given space may have been the same, they were outnumbered by atmosphere-enhancing non-interactive objects.

    If DXHR had made every object interactive (and by that, i simply mean able to be picked up and thrown against a wall), surely it would likely have been to the detriment of the technical issues such as framerate?

    I think Eidos Montreal did a terrific job balancing interactivity and freedom against the technical limitations on creating a convincing enough game world. The fact that the linear boss battles (developed by a separate but certainly capable studio) stood out so badly i think speaks well to the core elements of the game.

    All the best,

    Sean

    p.s. great blog, btw!

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