The videogame sections of this blog can be boiled down to a single long, frustrated lament at everything that’s been going wrong in the industry. I’m sure all of this will sound familiar to you: Gameplay has gotten simpler, games have gotten shorter, stories have gotten dumber*, and DRM has evolved into new and increasingly hideous forms with each passing year. Art styles have become muddled and brown, and terrifying sums of money have been spent on an army of bump-mapped, motion-captured, Uncanny Valley denizens who have dialog that is too stupid for human ears. It would be one thing if this vexing of consumers and murder of quality was being perpetrated in pursuit of some money. I can understand that, even if I don’t respect it. But for all of the damage we’ve witnessed, studios are going out of business and big-budget titles are losing money.
* Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that smart games have become rarer. In either case, it’s dragging down the average IQ of gaming.
As I’ve staggered through this wreckage, taking notes and pointing out the egregious failures that have brought us here, I have struggled to figure out which part of this mess infuriates me the most. Probably DRM. But a close second is the recent habit of taking old beloved franchises, hollowing them out, stuffing them full of crap, and selling them to the hapless fans of the original. Calling BioShock a “spiritual successor” to the open-ended, skillpoint-building, free-roaming, exploration-driven, cyberpunk-flavored System Shock 2 was probably the worst example of this. A close second would be whatever this THING is that they’re hilariously calling “XCOM”. This is an awful practice, and I am not amused.
Which brings us to this, a revival of the beloved classic Deus Ex, a game from another era. Before sticky cover, before bump mapping, before crazy DRM, before console-driven simplification, before the Brown Age. The only question in my mind was, “Just how badly can they mangle this masterpiece and still call it Deus Ex with a straight face?”
You can see what this game will be like without even installing it: The entire world will be the color of a dirty gun, comprised mostly of closet-sized military installations. Five minutes into the game you’ll meet a complete jackass who is wearing a sign saying, “HI. I’M THE BAD GUY. YOU WILL FIGHT ME AT THE END.” The moral choices (if any) will boil down to “rescue kitten” or “eat kitten”.
I didn’t want to be duped by this game, so I fired up the old Deus Ex and played for a couple of hours. The classic was as good as I remember, and it helped me to calibrate my expectations so that I wouldn’t be blinded by spectacle. After that palette-cleansing experience, I played three hours of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I think I’m ready to talk about everything this game gets wrong:
- The loading times are a bit long, I guess.
Sorry, that’s all I’ve got. The truth is, this is a really good game. Here, let me emphasize that for you using boldface type: This is a really good game.
|I realize it seems absurd to lead off with a picture of a mop bucket, but this is an important part of creating and maintaining versimilitude. This setting feels like a place inhabited by human beings because of little touches like this, and the world is full of them.|
I don’t know how this happened, but Human Revolution is exceptional. Not just by today’s standards of brown blandness, but in the broader, historical sense of games that pulled me in and delivered a thrilling experience. The world is vibrant, filled with rich detail, and littered with little interactive touches. The level designers didn’t just make a bunch of rooms for shooting dudes, they made a space and set about trying to convince me these were real spaces, filled with purpose.
And the gameplay. I don’t even know how to describe it. I mean, just look at this:
That’s an inventory screen. A real one. Not one of those “you have five slots, each of which can hold either a bag of chips or a rocket launcher” deals that we usually get. This is a grid of stuff that you can pick up, modify, arrange, discard, combine, and consume as needed. They even retained the “hotbar” of the original. The icing on the cake is that you can even spend skill points to expand your available space, which wasn’t possible in the original game. Did I just claim the inventory is more robust than the one in Deus Ex? I think I did.
Yes, this is a cover-based shooter. You will not be circle-strafing your way to victory in this one. I’m not really qualified to rate this sort of combat, but I will say as a fan of old-school run & gun: I don’t hate this. It works, it feels right, and I don’t find myself getting glued to random surfaces like in Kane & Lynch, my last cover-shooter. Cover-shooter aficionados can let me know how this stacks up against other titles.
The story is fitting. It starts slow, with a walking intro that reminds me of the Half-Life tram ride. (In a good way. I know the tram ride intro has been frequently and badly immitated in the past, but this is one of those cases where it works.) You can gawk and fiddle with the environment while the characters do a bit of tight exposition. No, the writers aren’t so crass as to pull an info dump on you. They gave me just enough background to keep me curious, without trying my patience. (And yes, they made sure to drop 451 in the tutorial.)
The main character hits the right notes. Jensen is gruff enough to fit in a cyberpunk future world, but human enough that I can relate to him. I actually like him better than JC Denton. He certainly doesn’t look like the guy who got kicked out of a boy band for being too sensitive, which was a problem last time they tried to revive this franchise. His delivery is a low brooding murmur, reminicient of Walton Simons from the first game. In my review of Invisible War, I said:
It would have been far better to keep the premise and throw out the story. Start over with a new mix of conspiracies. You could even keep the character of JC Denton, but drop him into a different reality this time around. Instead of working for UNATCO, maybe he starts off as a cop or a bodyguard or a secret service agent. Instead of a plague, society is dealing with some new designer drug. Or weapon. Cyborgs. You know, whatever. The foes would be different and their goals would be different, but the process of unraveling a series of escalating conspiracies would remain the same. The first time you uncover the Illuminati is fun. The second time through, you begin to wonder how these guys ever kept their organization a secret in the first place.
They actually did this. You’re not ANOTHER nano agent, or a UNATCO agent. You’re a private security guy working for a corporation.
The setting is slightly (but forgivably) revisionist. The original Deus Ex felt very “close future”. The building, technology, and clothing styles all felt pretty much like current-day stuff. Human Revolution is supposedly a prequel, which means it should be even closer to present day, but the clothing and technology suggest something a little further into the future. This does not bother me. As I said in the quote above, I think having continuity between world-spanning conspiracy games is asking for trouble. I’m here for tone and style, not game-to-game continuity. (Although I do want each game to stand on its own, continuity-wise.)
Of course, I’m only a few hours in. Maybe the story falls apart or the third act will be a dull slog of mandatory combat or whatever. But based on my first date with Human Revolution, this is a game built with love and respect for the original, made with the best of intentions, and beautifully realized. As further proof that this is a game from some alternate dimension where videogames haven’t gone straight to hell in a series of overpriced handbaskets: The game doesn’t seem to have any of the recent DRM horrors attached. My review copy is through Steam, and there were no other shenanigans between myself and the fun. No CD keys, no account creation, no activation, no day-1 DLC, nothing.
I am overjoyed. I haven’t felt this enthsiastic about a game since Portal 2. This is a real thing. It’s happening. I’m actually feeling guilt playing this review copy. I need to go out and give people money for this.
The Best of 2011
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.
If Star Wars Was Made in 2006?
Imagine if the original Star Wars hadn't appeared in the 1970's, but instead was pitched to studios in 2006. How would that turn out?
In Defense of Crunch
Crunch-mode game development isn't good, but sometimes it happens for good reasons.
Project Button Masher
I teach myself music composition by imitating the style of various videogame soundtracks. How did it turn out? Listen for yourself.
Let's ruin everyone's fun by listing all the ways in which zombies can't work, couldn't happen, and don't make sense.