Crikey O’ Riley, it’s been a while. Nine days, isn’t it? More? Kind of puts those first few weeks to shame, when I was deliriously pumping out two articles a day and hardly leaving my desk, knowing that I’d just feel the need to start hammering on keyboards again like a lunatic pianist who’s off his meds.
In my defence, there were a few justifications. Internet was down, I’ve been doing some other jobs, and right now I’m on holiday in sunny Malibu. Guess a good work ethic goes out the window when you start noticing bikini girls and colourful drinks with umbrellas in them… But then given the choice I know which I’d rather have. Admittedly, nearly everybody here is so shallow they might as well be a piece of paper, but then that’s all part of the fun. Not to mention that there’s something endearingly cute about a country that struggles so much with ideas that everybody else has gotten over, like giving equal rights to gay people and not arming everybody within its borders. Of course, there’s a leeway to how much goodwill that offers it, and I’m not happy with either the quality of the TV or the way that all the bread tastes really sugary. Have that sorted out by the time I get back, yeah? Ta.
There is one other reason I’ve been late with this article, and it’s because I’ve been playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut. I admit, I hadn’t played the series before, but I found myself rather enjoying Human Revolution as I chugged through it, and I know that the sequel, Mankind Divided, is coming out soon, so what better time to be ready for that?
Full disclosure: I only finished it ten minutes ago and I like it, but it keeps bugging me at the same time, like having sex in the shower when there’s soap in your eyes. This is good, but we could have taken obvious steps for it to be a lot better, you know what I mean?
Of course, this is mostly down to ambition. Deus Ex as a series has famously aimed higher than most other games around and has usually been pretty successful. The first one was a landmark in PC gaming that embodied the modern RPG, where every skill you learn could contribute to every mission. You could gun your way through the enemy, sneak past them, hack devices to make turrets blow them to bits, etc.That’s a very cool feature and was pretty damn impressive for the time, but Human Revolution keeps forgetting what a good idea that was whenever it comes to boss fights. The game had let me sneak around hacking things for the whole campaign up until then, in fact it’s possible to complete it without killing a single person the whole way through.
Except, as mentioned, for bosses. Alarm bells started when the first boss, a big brute with an LMG and grenades out the arse spawned three feet in front of me with nothing between us and decided to turn my body into a Jackson Pollock painting. Considering I was holding a little stun gun for my non-lethal approach, it could definitely be said that this was not a good thing. Quick-saving in situations like that isn’t just smart, it’s necessary, and to make it worse I’m still not sure why chunky wanted my brains splattered across every wall.
Actually, that’s another issue – the story. Whilst I genuinely like the world building that Human Revolving Door has going for it, the moment-to-moment story beats can seem a bit weird or labyrinthine. The aforementioned boss fights seemed to be pulled from the aether, and the plot is a tangle of various factions, corporations and allegiances all going at each other like the Borgias in an eBay bidding war.
Of course, being confusing is one of those problems that is only ever a problem once, and there’s a lot of story elements I like. The characters are nicely well-rounded and rarely fall into binary good/bad dynamics, adding a tangible sense of moral complexity to a lot of what goes on, and I found myself getting jolly attached to some of them.
But what about the specifics? You play as Adam Jensen in the year 2027, the head of security in a major body augmentation corporation named Sarif Industries. When a mysterious attack on the labs kills his sexy scientist wife, leaves the company in a dangerous position and reduces Adam to a small pile of burnt meat with his bearded head resting on top, Sarif decides to go all Robocop and rebuilds Adam with so much tech in his body that he can probably fire electricity from his nipples. They then spit him back into the world and tell him to find out who caused the attack, or else he won’t get his complimentary can of WD-40.A small quibble here – the game sells itself on saying that any option is possible and it is quite clearly lying. Go stealth or go home should be the tagline, as for all his mechanical parts Adam still gets reduced to goo and scrap metal whenever he gets in a firefight. Thus it usually comes down to creeping around smacking enemies when nobody’s looking and picking them off with a tranquilliser gun, before diving for cover when you get discovered and hoping you can creep away from the ensuing gun battle or blindfire your way to victory.
Mechanically this all works pretty well, even if non-lethal ammo is harder to find than pieces of the true cross, and more pathways and options appear as you level and acquire cyborg superpowers. The areas are large and non-linear, meaning that you get rewarded for exploration, but there are a couple of tweaks that I’d make for the next game, things that kept bugging me despite my best efforts.
Firstly, there needs to be some non-lethal weapon that you can actually use in a straight shootout, because once you get spotted you basically either have to try to sneak away or swap out to old-fashioned bullets and explosives, because the piddly little taser and sleeper darts are horrible against anything that knows you’re there. I was doing the non-aggressive pacifist run and usually just found myself reloading an old save whenever I got noticed, because I was backed into a corner and the only way out was either to start blowing open heads or making the impossible sprint to safety, and I was buggered if I was going to compromise after more than five hours in. The only time I swapped out my Nerf guns for something with actual stopping power was when an ally was trapped by two dozen enemies and I had only limited time to save my friend from joining the dodo in the history books.
Another thing that annoys me is Jensen himself. Adam has a voice like a gravel driveway, wears a futuristic Shadowrun-esque coat and even has a pair of shades embedded in his face, so it’s hard not to think that you’re looking at a character design that had one or two teenage boys involved. He’s also got Satan’s beard, more artificial body parts than a mannequin repair shop and can use any weapon so well that Hawkeye gets jealous. He’s such a bundle of generic clichés that I can’t take the growly twonk seriously.That said, Adam’s visual design is the only one that really ticks me off and there’s a lot of aspects I like. It seems that fashion his moved on to a sort of hybrid of modern suits and Elizabethan finery with elements of classic cyberpunk added in, and this means that the simple act of looking at half the characters is fascinating.
The other aspect that is both a positive and a negative is Deus Ex’s love of choice. I made mention of rescuing an ally earlier, one of the more organic moral quandaries provided. She was stuck somewhere with enough military might to invade Poland bearing down on her location, the implication being that this is an absurd threat that will certainly kill her if you don’t fly in to help. However, they’ll probably kill you as well, so you could use the diversion to sneak away to safety. After all, what kind of madman/hero would face such surmountable odds?
This madman, motherfucker, and I’m doing it through the awesome power of savescumming. Oh, stop judging me. This is always my problem with choices like this, I get too fond of the characters and can’t bear to let them die, but I’m not holding this against the Deus Ex. It’s a credit to their writing that I felt so strongly about the fate of this person, so top marks there.
No, what annoyed me were the choices that weren’t so clearly signposted. The strongest example of this was the very first mission, where I had to go through a base of bad guys in order to take out their boss and rescue a bunch of hostages. But the hostages weren’t displayed on the map, and the patrolling guards with heavy ordinance meant that I didn’t feel like rambling around too much. I figured I’d find them as I went, but that wasn’t the case, and suddenly I was trapped in the concluding cutscene with everybody yelling at me for not getting them out in time. I was trying to, you bastards! It’s not my fault they were being kept in some broom cupboard in the next building over!
On top of which, the ending is an absolute joke. Hit the fast-forward button and skip this paragraph if you don’t want spoilers, you know how it goes, but this is possibly one of the biggest sins that choice-based gaming commits and I want to rail on it for a while. See, when I make a choice, what I want to see is some payoff, something to establish that what I did actually has some weight, but the ending to DE:HR doesn’t have that at all. After killing yet another disappointing boss and getting hustled along a corridor, you end up at a computer with four big buttons that each lead to a different ending. Press one of them, and you’ll get a short movie made of stock footage, with Jensen rasping about why he picked it before getting dumped at the end credits with nary a heartbeat missed, the overall message being… Was that it?
Actually, that seems like a choice statement to summon up the whole game. Remember that I do like Human Revolution, but it makes so many rookie mistakes that the good parts risk getting lost amongst the nonsense, some of which are so frustratingly obvious that you just want to bang your head on the wall and shout at it to think properly for five minutes.
But how could Mankind Divided pick up on this? For a start, I think it should go properly open-world in the style of Skyrim, dropping loading screens off the back of the truck and sticking to one huge sandbox that becomes easier to traverse as you get more robo-powers.
Actually, that would be another thing I’d tweak, making the abilities more fun and engaging to use. Some of them, like the ability to smash through walls and jump like a startled cricket are enormously fun and open up huge parts of the map, but others just seem boring or even pointless. Cancel out the flash from flashbangs going off in your face? I only got flashed once and I just hid behind the wall slamming the takedown button in case anybody came close, I was fine. Why the hell would I pick that over the ability to turn invisible or shoot bombs out of my arms?The Mankind Evolved trailer has shown Adam using a variety of cool powers and I hope they’re the norm when I start to level up, rather than the croutons in an otherwise bland salad. He shoots lasers and turns indestructible, but if they’re too contextual and not as cathartic is possible, I’ll be disappointed.
Honestly though, I don’t think we need to worry too much. By all accounts, the Director’s Cut that was made took a lot of the original criticisms and went a long way to fixing them, so the developers have proven that they know what they’re doing when they listen to the public. All they need to do now is give Adam a Lemsip and we’re golden.