By sear 1 Comments
The recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution defied a lot of expectations by being, at the end of the day, a worthy successor to the original Deus Ex from over a decade ago, although it deviated significantly from the ideals held in the original Deus Ex in some fairly remarkable respects. I initially reviewed the game following its release, and at the time, gave what I still feel are some solid thoughts on the game's strengths and weaknesses.
Since then, however, I've spent more time with the game, am finishing up my third play-through, and my opinions on the game have shifted towards the more analytic. Of course, a game review is also perhaps not the best place for a critical deconstruction and breakdown of the game in meticulous detail. In light of this, I've decided to collect some more well-considered thoughts in the article below, as well as suggestions for how Eidos Montreal can more effectively capitalize on the ideals of Deus Ex in the future, without giving up their core vision for the new franchise.
Advance warning: I have not left anything unsaid, or design aspect un-critiqued. In short, this article is long. Also: minor spoilers within.
Player choice & recognition
One of the ideas most crucial to the original Deus Ex was that it allowed players to approach a wide variety of scenarios and complete them using the toolset given to them by their skills, augmentations and abilities - sometimes in ways that the game's developers never anticipated (including occasional exploits of the game's scripting and AI). While part of this game out of the fact that the game was, understandably, less technically sound and open to certain forms of abuse by dedicated players, in almost every situation, Ion Storm went to great lengths in order to ensure players always had reasonable, logical options available regardless of gameplay style.
For the most part, this philosophy has been retained in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Objectives during missions often feature multiple stages and allow for many options and outcomes. The fortitude of the game in this respect is extremely impressive. Early in the game, for example, the player must negotiate with a terrorist leader who has taken a hostage. While the game's options explicitly present the options of negotiating the release of the hostage, allowing the terrorist leader to leave with the hostage, and simply entering into combat for a lethal or non-lethal takedown (which normally results in the hostage's death), there is some additional nuance in the decision that the game actively recognizes. During my third play-through, rather than negotiate or allow the terrorist to escape, I tried something else: I fired a tranquilizer dart at him immediately upon drawing my weapon. Rather than watch the hostage die as the temporarily-invulnerable terrorist executed her, as I'd expect in so many other games, instead he simply fell over unconscious. Not only did the hostage live, but so did the terrorist; later, I encountered him held in prison, and even later in the game, he ambushed me after escaping the prison.
This sort of detail is a subtle one, but it adds an incredible amount of meaning to the player's experience. The outcome I received was not one that the game telegraphed, and it was not one I expected to be possible - and yet it was, due to my quick reflexes. In a sense, I felt as if I "broke" that scene, and Human Revolution simply shrugged and said "yeah, you can do that". In many ways, this situation parallels the famous moment in the original Deus Ex, where the third unstated option of killing an ally in what is presented as a binary choice leads not only to the player's surprise at the success of the act, but the characters in the game itself seem to be equally surprised, even as they desperately come up with ways to cover up the player's actions.
It's a powerful sort of choice and consequence, the type that isn't explicitly exposed to the player, but can be inferred with some simple reasoning. In every other game, these choices would have been presented as a binary A or B, locked into a dialogue sequence or forced combat encounter, with a single button press in a menu screen determining the outcome. In Deus Ex, the nature of the gameplay itself allows for the player to make a choice, and the game is equally cognizant of that potential outcome. To be fair, in both games, there are plenty of situations where this outcome isn't possible, mostly because it'd simply break the plot progression in severe ways; it's hard to come up with a solution for this save for building dozens of different consequences for actions, but even so, a handful of situations like this, especially early in the game, are more than enough to reinforce the game's reactivity to player decisions. This is something that no other game I've seen has done before, and it's fantastic to see the trend continue in Human Revolution.
However, there are many points in Human Revolution where this illusion breaks down far more than it should. While the early game is very good about rewarding the player's decisions, and commenting on actions (as much as an homage to the original game as for any other reason), the middle and late game leave a lot more to be desired in this respect. At one point in the game, it's possible to outright slaughter the entire present police force of Detroit - and nobody, save for the officers in the building, blinks an eyelash. Not even your boss comments on your lack of subtlety in breaking in and leaving a trail of corpses behind. Two other times in the game, Jensen comes face to face with plot-critical characters, ones who he may very well have fought his way to... and those plot-critical characters are utterly invincible - you can shoot them as many times as you like, they won't even flinch. Heck, I butchered one of these NPC's nightclubs, complete with staff, patrons, security forces, and trusted business associates, and a minute later, speaking to him, I entered into a nice, friendly conversation with him, even as a corpse was draped over his bar counter.
These kinds of situations are sometimes hard to design around, but they are avoidable with a variety of techniques, even if it's just to make that plot NPC so powerful that the player will never win in a fight against him or her. There are many more smaller issues like this throughout the game, little decisions that one can make but aren't recognized, or "fixed" with the brute force of an invisible wall, and it's not fun when that happens in what is otherwise such an open game.
Level design: freedom vs. funneling
Another place where Human Revolution takes after the original game is in its level design philosophy of providing multiple routes to facilitate different styles of play. However, Human Revolution's design approach differs significantly from the original Deus Ex's in a number of ways... and I'm not convinced it was the right choice.
In Deus Ex, levels weren't so much corridors to crawl through as they were large open hubs or spaces to navigate, featuring multiple zones, levels of elevation, indoor and outdoor areas, multiple floors within buildings, alternate routes from all angles, etc. To visualize a Deus Ex level, one has to think of it more as a maze with a central objective point in the middle and dozens of potential routes in reaching it, open-ended rather than predetermined and fixed. Consider one example from early in the game, the NSF warehouse break-in:
1) Arrive on a rooftop elevator and hop along rooftops and fire escapes to reach the warehouse, then infiltrate from the top-down.
1b) Same as above, but climb down the fire escapes and ladders near the warehouse to find an alternate point of entry via a window on the side of the building, leading straight to one of the objectives.
1c) Same as above, but instead sneak through the apartment buildings along the way, which themselves provide ways to both the roofs and city streets.
2) Climb over alley fences on the city streets, bypass explosive charges set and guard dogs, and eventually make it to the front door for a first-floor infiltration.
2b) Same as above, but sneak around to the back door and go in that way.
2c) Same as above, but get through a hatch to the basement and navigate through a complex maze of tripwires and sentry turrets to reach the main warehouse floor.
2d) Same as above, but find a sewer entrance and swim to the warehouse (dependent on Aqualung augment or a rebreather item).
Of course, there are probably far more options that I've missed out on, and exponentially more depending on how the player might combine these approaches and explore further. While all of these options include two basic points of entry, they can deviate in radical ways very quickly. I still find new things when playing this part of the game ten years after I originally did, and that's true for just about every other environment in the game.
One might say "well, Human Revolution also offers lots of opportunities in a similar vein", but I find myself strongly disagreeing. If you examine the options above, you'll likely notice that few of the choices provide clear advantages or disadvantages for certain characters - while you might choose to take the rooftops or the streets, there's nothing about these routes that favors a stealthy character over an action-oriented character, or a hacker over a bruiser. While some might suit your specific play-style, there's nothing about them that says "this is the route you want to take if you are sneaking" or "this is where snipers want to go". The level design provides choices, but they aren't choices between absolutes - only degrees of freedom in what is effectively a sandbox for the player to operate inside.
Contrast this with the level design in Human Revolution. In most cases, the player is given two or three obvious paths, which ultimately all converge at checkpoints - there might be a ladder on one side, a vent on the other side, and a front door. All of these present choices, but given the way they're arranged, they almost always appeal to a very specific type of Jensen - the vent is for the stealthy Jensen, the upper level is for the sniper Jensen, and the front door is for the bruiser Jensen. When combined with the generally linear design of most levels, with the player moving directly from point A to B, this means that the game takes on a very constructed feel, and rarely provides the space for improvisation or freeform play that Deus Ex did. Rather than large game spaces with multiple dimensions to them, instead Human Revolution offers straightforward game environments which let you take the right door or the left door. The closest analogue to this I've seen is Splinter Cell: Conviction, and while there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the design, it lacks a lot of the replayability and sense of discovery that Deus Ex had... if all paths go the same place and converge with one another after ten seconds, there's little exploration or creativity to be had in going through the game. At its worst, it completely undermines the decisions the player makes, because no matter how one plays, the destination is very often the same... and if it's not, it can usually be reached with a five-second walk down the hall. Consequence indeed.
Another major downside of this more structured, more pre-designed approach, is that it takes away from the specialness and uniqueness of discovery and different play-styles. In Human Revolution, it is exceedingly rare to come across a situation where your version of Jensen can't reach an object, or can't break down a wall to swipe a hidden cache, or can't get through a locked door. While some designers might say that it's a good thing to allow all characters to reach all parts of the game, just in different ways, I have to strongly disagree with that proposition. Part of what makes playing an open-ended game like Deus Ex so much fun is the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from knowing that your skill set, augmentation choices and play style were what enabled you to find something... if you're instantly able to look at the same scenario and realize "oh, I could have just thrown a grenade and the outcome would have been the same", it diminishes the accomplishment - it makes it feel a lot less special.
The tyranny of XP
One of the most controversial design choices in Human Revolution was to change the way character upgrades were handed out: rather than found in canisters within the game world, all augmentations are built into Adam Jensen, and instead you merely switch them on when his body has become strong and fit enough to handle them (expressed as XP). To understand the true impact of the impact of XP, though, I first have to go into a discussion about augmentations.
Augmentations in the original Deus Ex were special. Found in containers within the game world, they would need to be held onto and installed at any convenient (or inconvenient) medical bot. While I don't really care much as to whether augmentations are physical items or magical points that unlock new abilities, it's that sense of exploration that really made finding augmentations fun and rewarding. Exploring in Deus Ex was a risk, especially on harder difficulties - enemies were deadly, and while late in the game the player was more or less a walking tank, clearing out a level entirely to search every nook and cranny was no small task.
The risk-reward dichotomy was very obvious, and made all the more so compelling by the fact that those rewards were, for a change, actually very significant, resulting in potentially game-changing abilities. Get the Silent Running augmentation, and all of a sudden your stealthy character can get to and from cover at speeds previously impossible. Aggressive Defense Drone allowed for a completely reckless style of play against strong enemies. Aqualung enabled even more exploration, often opening up brand new sections of levels that would be completely impossible for other players to find. When you found a new augmentation in Deus Ex, it was a big thing, and it was made all the more enjoyable because as a player, you made a conscious choice to take a risk - and when it paid off, it paid off big, and in appreciable ways.
Another advantage of this exploration-driven model is that augmentations could be placed by hand by designers rather than selected by the player on a whim. While this might sound like limiting player freedom, in reality it just meant that designers could have an understanding of what abilities the player might have at a given point in the game, and design levels around that - while at the same time being able to anticipate precisely the kinds of augmentations players would feel compelled to look for. Additionally, by including augmentations as items within the game world, they could easily be given to the player during story moments, without being forced upgrades - put it on the table in clear view if you want, but the player can still choose to pick it up or not.
Human Revolution completely lacks much of the subtlety of the original Deus Ex, and it's entirely due to tying things to the XP system. For one, the risk/reward of exploration has been completely stripped away. While exploration in Human Revolution is still fun, it's rare to come away from a hidden cache of items with anything special - maybe a weapon mod or an early rocket launcher, but considering how easy it is to acquire many types of weapons throughout the game, and that upgrades can be purchased from merchants early on, it's questionable whether or not these feel like significant rewards in the first place. The fact that so often your reward for your persistence is more XP and more money, suggests that the designers simply decided to give up - "why should we bother to create compelling, hand-crafted exploration for players when we can just stuff them full of generic rewards and call it a day?" It feels like the kind of one-size-fits-all reward you'd get in an MMO, not an intently-designed, tailor-built single-player experience.
Another problem stemming from its design choices comes in the fact that the XP system encourages certain types of play over others. While everyone likes to see the numbers go up when they're playing an RPG, I think that Eidos Montreal may have took that a little bit too much to heart, as XP bonuses are gained for doing just about anything, no matter how trivial - poked your head in someone's closest? XP bonus! Climbed into a vent? XP bonus! Furthermore, they made the decision to equate certain play-styles with certain levels of challenge, and thus made the call to reward them differently. What this ultimately means is that certain types of players in Human Revolution end up with a massive amount of XP over others - often as much as five times more, simply because they wanted to play as one type of character.
In reality, this assumption about challenge and reward isn't true - different players will play the game in different ways, yes, absolutely, but because different players have different skill sets, there is no real reason to reward one style of play much more than another. I fancy myself a stealthy, sneaky sort most of the time, the kind that tries to get through the game without a single casualty, and avoiding direct confrontations where I can - and I realize I'm better at it than others, and that my skills as a player might be more suited to it. Why should I be earning more XP than another player who decides to play the game as a straight shooter, even though her level of challenge might be identical to mine? Eidos Montreal presumed a great deal about the difficulty of their game and various play-styles, and then made some decisions in response to that presumption, without realizing the impact it would have on the game.
Moreover, the XP system leads to an unhappy snowball effect for certain types of players. While it's a good idea to reward those who explore, Human Revolution does so so often, and so disproportionately, that those who invest in certain skills early on will find themselves literally drowning in upgrade points by the game's end. I do not exaggerate when I say that my stealthy character was missing all of about 6 potential upgrades by game's end, whereas my action-hero lunkhead version of Jensen was missing much closer to 30. Even though action-hero Jensen could complete the game just fine owing to his huge arsenal, there were some very real limitations left over in his character build, gaps in his play-style that couldn't be filled and had to be worked around. Stealthy Jensen had no such problem - not only could he sneak, but he was actually just as versatile and powerful as action-hero Jensen because his incredible excess of XP had allowed him to purchase just about every upgrade. In the end, there was really no distinction between the two characters, save for the way I decided to envision their personalities - LARPing, as I tend to call it. The simple fact is that this is a massive imbalance in the game's augmentation and XP system, and it is almost the direct result of trying to reward players who played the game "the hard way". Instead, it created a strong divide: players who played the game "the right way" and those who played "the wrong way".
Skills and augmentations
This point gets into slightly more esoteric maters, but I think they're still very important to the design side of the game. In Deus Ex, there was a very defined line between skills and augmentations - while augs were additions to JC's physical body that would provide him with super-human abilities, skills were simply JC's ability to perform certain tasks based on his own mental and physical aptitude. JC might be able to use his augmentations to modify the molecular make-up of his feet and walk silently, but if he has no idea how to use a stun prod, then he's going to have a heck of a time trying to knock someone out with one. Skills, especially with regards to weapons, were a little bit crude in the original game as far as implementation went, but the division between the two was there, and it made perfect sense within the game world.
This verisimilitude aspect of augmentations versus skills is extremely important to Deus Ex. The entire threat that augmentations pose to the world isn't that people can be better than they are on a broad, general level - it's that it literally creates a type of person who has abilities that others do not, and can never have. "Being able to fire a gun really well" isn't an augmentation - it's a skill that takes years and years of study and practice to hone, and not everyone can do it well. Although humans, theoretically, might be able to become masters of all activities they might attempt, effectively "maxing out their skills", the threat augmentations pose is that, no matter how good you get at doing something, someone with augmentations will always be able to do better, or even make what you're skilled at irrelevant.
The gameplay justification for skills versus augmentations is equally interesting. Augmentations in Deus Ex are designed in such a way that they're actually not geared towards particular preset play-styles - sure, you can pick up Run Silent and Spy Drone, and those might augment a stealthy player's play-style well, but they were just as viable for action-oriented players who simply wanted a tactical edge. Because of this, skills were presented as a way to really define and bring out the nuance in your version of JC Denton - by making a master hacker rather than a master sharpshooter, that version of JC had a clear difference in ability that could not be made up for by augmentation, and it more firmly cemented the player's potential within the game world, as opposed to relying on imagined barriers (see LARPing above).
In other words, not only does Deus Ex feature a strong divide between what skills and augmentations are, it's skills which, in a sense, give meaning to the player's journey through the game and what enable augmentations to be used in certain capacities. Think of it a bit like the more traditional skills versus equipment difference that other RPGs have - you might have some great armor, a health potion, and a Storm Scepter of the Heavens +16, but if you don't know how to use the scepter's magic powers owing to your low intelligence, you're going to have to settle for using it as a club instead. It's those skills that inform and structure our understanding of the game world.
Human Revolution steps away from this model and envisions augmentations and skills as the same thing. Eidos Montreal have attempted to compromise on the matter by effectively turning certain skills into augmentations - now, augmentations have taken on the ability to steady the player's aim, or hack into computers, or sprint for longer periods of time. The clear division between those super-human abilities and the ability to use distinctly human skills is no longer present - and I feel that the impact of those augmentations has been undermined. Augmentation and the incredible advantages it gives to people is a strong theme throughout Human Revolution, yet it's rare for Adam Jensen to ever really exhibit that ability - sure, he can cloak, and fall from great heights, but very few augmentations feel like they truly expand the fundamental capabilities of him as an individual. For all the discussion of posthumanism, there's very little post- to be found in Adam Jensen.
What this means for gameplay is that, in order to reconcile certain design choices with regards to combat, hacking, stealth and so on, the number of actual augmentations available to Jensen is severely limited in comparison. There are really only four, five or six if you count a couple of the passive ones, many of which are completely mandatory right from the beginning of the game, such as health regeneration. One, the Typhoon, is a single-use weapon that could have been reconceptualized as a grenade type or handheld device. Another, Smart Vision, is really just an extension of the player's radar, which comes by default. And yet in the meantime, hacking has been given a full two-dozen or so levels, weapon handling skills have been reduced to a measly two upgrades, lung capacity/sprinting has about six, and so on. There is a severe imbalance between different augmentations, their usefulness in the game, and their costs, especially when compared to the genuine augmentations, which all generally fit into one or two upgrades. It's poorly considered and balanced even when discounting the matter of skills, but when you think back to how skills influenced Deus Ex, it's very clear that in Human Revolution, many of the problems stem from rolling those skills and augmentations together. That it also comes at a cost to the verisimilitude of the game world, and that it strips away certain narrative implications is perhaps of secondary concern, but considering all the problems, this is a case where a stronger sense of the role and capability of augmentations in the game would have avoided a lot of issues that have really just been patched over.
The sad death of melee
Melee combat tends to be treated one of two ways by designers. For some, it's merely backup, an "oh shit" button for the player to hammer on when things go sour and there isn't enough time to fire off a bullet effectively; in other games, like Left 4 Dead, it forms the basis of crowd control and gives the player breathing room, but ultimately it's still a backup mechanism. The second way to approach melee combat is to have an entire mini-game system built around it, with combos, and timing, and different types of attacks and moves, dodges and blocks, etc., though of course, this shooter/brawler approach is quite rare owing to its complexity.
Where designers seem to have formed more consensus is on the value of melee as a utility option. In games where environmental interactivity is a big part of the experience, the addition of a crowbar to whack crates open, or a wrench to smash through windows, melee is pretty important to have, and many games are designed around the fact that the player is going to have some sort of reliable melee weapon on hand for the sake of puzzle-solving and general utility, as well as when dealing with the inevitable "you've been captured and sent to prison, but the guards forgot to take your chainsaw" level. Simply put, melee provides options and function, even if ultimately the divide is more aesthetic - sure, there's no reason to hide items in crates except to make the player smash those crates open, but there's something satisfying about it, and a certain "piñata effect" to it that adds a sense of expectation and anticipation.
Deus Ex took the utility value of melee to a new level. In addition to a level of environmental interactivity that was far greater than most other games of its time (or our time), it hid most of its items in storage lockers, supply crates, and other generally logical locations - plus, crates are cheap to render and provide a sense of scale, depth and detail to the world, so giving them an added use only helps to make your game world feel more compelling than BoxWorld.
On top of being able to smash things, melee served a huge secondary function as an alternate to a lockpick or LAM. Got a door you need to get through? Turn on your super strength, and smash it down with a crowbar, or better yet, a sword! It seems like a simple addition, but the ability to literally avoid an entire aspect of the game (lockpicking and/or explosives) by providing an alternative with its own trade-offs (reliance on bio-energy for super strength, inventory space, lack of lockpick resource management) adds an entire new dimension to play and gives players a completely different way to get through the game and prioritize their skills and augmentations. This is a good thing, not just because it's choice for the sake of it, but because that choice is meaningful and relevant within the context of the game, where lockpicking and explosives are a finite resource with their own associated skills.
Of course, melee was also effective in combat - while it required a degree of prioritization and put the player in harm's way, especially when enemies began to self-destruct and use other high-powered close-range attacks, the weapons were no slouches, and it was definitely not a backup tactic. Moreover, it provided a range of non-lethal and lethal capabilities, just like most other weapons, creating an even more granular choice in play-style, where the most powerful weapons were also lethal, and players would have to decide if they were morally comfortable with, say, killing innocent and well-meaning people even if it provided a tactical advantage to kill rather than knock out. You can play through Deus Ex entirely in melee, and while it's hardly the best melee combat ever, the fact that it is surrounded with so many other methods of playing the game, it gains a level of meaning through the context it's placed in.
There is no melee in Human Revolution - or that is to say, melee has been replaced with one-button, cinematic takedowns which freeze time and grant the player temporary invincibility while the animation plays out. An augmentation exists to allow for the option to take down two enemies at once. Beyond this, the game has a distinction between non-lethal and lethal takedowns, which mostly just amount to different animations and different achievements. While takedowns reward more XP, they aren't necessarily more efficient or effective, because the stun gun and tranquilizer rifle allow for near-instant non-lethal takedowns from a greater distance, and still reward a sizeable XP bonus over just killing. The takedowns are flashy, but lack skill to perform, and don't fit in well with the augmentation system - considering they can become the player's entire arsenal throughout the entire game, the lack of upgrades for them is extremely concerning, as is the fact that they are equally effective against all weapons save for robots (for that you have another 100% effective weapon, the EMP Grenade, though at least it's more limited in use).
What's more, because there is no melee combat or melee weapons, there is no utility value to be found in it. While it's still possible to break through windows and doors, this must be done with explosives or firearms, even if it is colossally impractical and implausible to shatter a wooden door by firing twenty pistol rounds into it. All weapons and equipment are left lying in plain sight to find, which makes one wonder just why there are so many crates all over the place if there's apparently nothing in them. The loss of melee isn't in itself game-breaking, but it is a disappointment considering the additional dimension to character-building melee adds, as is the generally unsatisfying quality of takedowns, which are guaranteed to work in every single instance. The focus on takedowns as the most rewarding way of dealing with enemies, coupled with their gratuitous and easy nature to perform, tells of a developer so in love with one game mechanic or idea that it didn't stop to consider the effects of the change would be on the rest of the game.
And now we come to it, the hacking discussion. There's no getting around this: in Human Revolution, hacking is the skill that players must get to fully enjoy the game. Hacking is absolutely everything, and it provides a benefit far in excess of every other skill in the entire game. While accompanied by a generally well- but over-designed mini-game, it also quickly grows repetitive, to the point where it's easy to feel like half your time in Human Revolution is spent on hacking. Unfortunately, there is a very good reason you'll be doing so much of it: because it's so completely integral to fully enjoying the game, in the worst way possible.
In Human Revolution, hacking has many uses:
1) Opening doors. While it's possible to bypass some doors by crawling through vents or smashing through walls, and others can be broken down with your (finite) resources, hacking represents a limitless resource (save for time), and it needs to be performed in many, many situations where there is no alternative. While I haven't tried counting them, I'm certain there must be outright dozens of places and things you won't see, items you won't receive, and several upgrade points' worth of XP you won't get if you avoid hacking.
2) Reading computers. A good deal of Human Revolution's well-developed backstory is stored in the personal e-mails of various computers in the game world - some might even say too much, as sometimes you'll feel you're spending 20 minutes during a mission just sifting through inboxes. However, the information you find, as it relates to the plot and characters, as well as the game world, is invaluable. Unless you're replaying the game, there is no way anyone would want to skip this stuff.
3) Unlocking safes and keypads This is less common than the others, but even so, hacking frequently enables access to safes and other containers with useful goodies inside, usually money or some rare ammunition. Players who are able to hack will get more free equipment, and that alone would make it worthwhile.
4) Disabling security systems. Turrets, sentry bots and security cameras are some of the greatest threats in the game - which is why the easiest way to bypass them in many cases is to simply disable them, or better yet, turn them against enemies so that Jensen doesn't have to do an iota of work himself. Many of the toughest fights can be trivialized by reprogramming security, or better yet, by carrying a turret around and watching it mow down enemies and even bosses.
5) Narrative consequence. There are some quests which require hacking in order to finish. These are all side-quests, but some of them are interesting and enjoyable... and hinge on what should be an optional skill, requiring the player to invest points into it even if he or she doesn't want to. Often the best outcomes in quests can hinge on the player doing an extra hack to get more information or additional items, so if you're here for the story and want to see Jensen do the best of jobs, hacking is absolutely critical.
6) XP and monetary gain. Hacking grants huge amounts of XP and money via "datastore" nodes and regular bonuses, equivalent to thousands upon thousands over the course of the entire game. Hacking alone is enough to fund close to a dozen additional upgrades for the player, meaning that it actually more than pays for itself even a short ways into the game.
As we can see here, that's a pretty long list... far too long. Compared to other augmentations, like the Rebreather, or the Jump Enhancement, hacking outshines them all by providing an extremely wide range of game functions - even with a proportionately higher cost (though in reality the player only really needs to spend 3-4 points), hacking gives far more benefit than any other skill in the entire game, and it is more cost effective than any other, not to mention that those benefits are of various natures that other skills have no way of covering. Where's my quest that requires me to breathe in toxic gas to save the day? What about the kitten stuck up a tree that only I can jump up and reach? Hacking is forced upon the player, and then the player quickly learns it is the most important "augmentation" in the entire game. How is this good game design in what is supposed to be a game that lets you play how you want it?
I initially spent a lot of time wondering why the augmentations in Human Revolution felt poorly balanced, why some were more useful than others even though logically you'd want to use them all the time. After some more careful examination, I've decided the problem isn't that the rest of augmentations in the game are unbalanced - they're just fine, for the most part. The problem is that hacking overshadows all of them so prominently, to the point where it is enough to fund several other augmentations over the course of the game. It's a cost-free proposition, with the only downside playing that mini-game all the time... and "making the player do an annoying task again and again" is not a good way of balancing things out.
One thing that would have instantly improved the hacking situation is to break it up into two different augmentations or skills. The divide between lockpicking, multitools and hacking in the original Deus Ex wasn't arbitrary - it existed to help better establish the two functions in the game world, it tapped into the lore by suggesting that not all old world ideas and technologies had gone down the drain, and it acted to make sure that one aspect of gameplay never became too powerful in relation to the others. While there were still some very obvious benefits to hacking, they weren't overpowering to the point where it infringed on the other aspects of gameplay - you could get through the game and never hack a single computer if you wanted to. What's more, tying the act of lockpicking and use of multitools to disposable devices added in a level of resource management and risk/reward that is completely lacking in the Human Revolution implementation of hacking. I'm sure the design process is never so simple that a suggestion like "just put this back in!" works as smoothly as it sounds on paper, but the design ideas behind multitools, hacking and lockpicking in Deus Ex worked well, and they worked for a reason.
And yes, for what it's worth, the hacking mini-game is well designed. It's by far too complex and repetitive for something that you'll be doing hundreds of times throughout the game. While it doesn't reach BioShock 2's level of elegant simplicity, it's engaging enough on a regular basis that at least it doesn't become a complete and utter chore. Moreover, I prefer it to the simple skill check and time limit of the original Deus Ex, if only because I don't have to shut down the computer and wait every two minutes when I'm reading something interesting. I don't think this at all makes up for the problems above, however.
The good parts
I've been hard on Human Revolution, I know, but with good reason - it's a game that I enjoyed, one that took me back ten years and reminded me that developers were still capable of creating complex and interesting games even within the mainstream, and weren't afraid to shy away from challenging ideas and lengthy, replayable single-player titles. However, the simple fact is that it's harder to talk about the good things than it is about the bad, simply because there's more nuance to critique than praise (or at least in my ability to think about things, there is). So in order to help make up for the lengthy stream of bile above, here's a list of some of the things I thought Human Revolution did really well:
1) Characters. Although the characters in Human Revolution are hardly the best and most memorable I've seen in a game, the social battles that one has with so many of them do an incredible job of fleshing out their personalities and adding subtle degrees of depth and, for lack of a better term, humanness to them. Tong, Wayne Haas, Hugh Darrow, David Sarif, they're all brought to life with incredible effect owing to the social battles the player has with them. I have never been able to look at a videogame character and mull over what he or she is thinking based on the subtle facial, body language and verbal cues, and actually try to respond to them as human beings rather than dialogue trees. Phenomenal acting, writing, and animation work overall. This is a major triumph even if it is a limited aspect of the game, and I'm surprised it hasn't got more attention than it has.
2) Weapons and shooting. The original Deus Ex had a great selection of weapons, but it was let down by some tepid shooting mechanics that were more or less a result of its design limitations. As much as I hate to see skills go, the combat in Human Revolution isn't just satisfying; it's some of the best first-person shooting short of an arcade shooter or military sim I've had in a while, at least within the action-RPG genre. The weapons all have character and substance, they feel powerful, they fit the game's artistic and design sense, and they're all well balanced and effective. There are no throwaways, and the weapon mods ensure that they continue to remain effective throughout the game. Combat truly now comes down to personal preference and ability to use a certain type of weapon, rather than picking the best gun.
3) Art and sound design. This goes without saying, but Human Revolution has a fantastic visual style and a strong, nostalgia-filled soundtrack to go with it that does an excellent job of keeping you immersed in its game world every single second. It's rare to see a game with a strong, original, consistent visual identity within the mainstream, rather than just more shaders and normal maps, and I think Eidos Montreal deserve every bit of praise they get for Human Revolution's aesthetic. We pay a lot of attention to graphics and sound in games, but rarely to what they mean, what they are evocative of, and the neo-Renaissance style in both visuals and music in Human Revolution is something that deserves serious consideration and study.
4) Quest design. It's very common in games these days to be strung along on quests that feel like they're just filling up space and padding out the game time. Even though Human Revolution rarely deviates too much from the standard "go somewhere, kill a guy, and take his stuff" formula, the number of optional components to these quests, genuinely inventive solutions the player can take, and overall relevance to the story and game world is very refreshing. In Human Revolution, there are no quests that exist "just because"; while some are more relevant than others, they always help bring out a character, political situation, etc. in a new way. Oh, and it's possible to fail these quests too, if you really mess them up. About time a game let me do that again.
5) Stealth. While Human Revolution isn't really Metal Gear Solid or Thief, as a stealth game it is surprisingly tense and effective. I don't think it has the perfect depth or balance to number it among the greatest, but this is an action-RPG with stealth that is functional, challenging and fun, with reasonably good AI that responds well to the player, not to mention environments that are built with stealth in mind rather than just equipping the player with the "crouch button of invisibility" that is so common in games these days.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is fantastic, but it suffers from a lot of perplexing and sometimes outright bad design choices that, in many cases, were done better in the original Deus Ex, and done better for a real reason. I hope that this article hasn't come across as an appeal to nostalgia, a blind "Deus Ex is better because I like it" sort of rant, but rather, has served to illuminate a lot of the design choices in Eidos Montreal's game, and explained precisely why they do and don't work, not to mention how they can be improved. If you've got this far, thanks for sitting through and reading to the end. Deus Ex is a game close to my heart, and I enjoy both playing it and thinking about it from a design perspective; I'm thankful for the opportunity Eidos have provided me in completely refreshing the pool I'm able to draw from, and I hope that you've enjoyed reading this as much as I have writing it. With any luck, they'll even take some of these ideas under consideration in the future.
Originally posted at Gamasutra