Thursday, November 24, 2011
Games: This year’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution was quite a title in many ways, and I'm sure that it will be the subject of much discussion when the time comes for everyone to start comparing their GOTY lists… my personal take on the game is right here, but as a special treat tonight, I invited my friend Seb Wuepper to ramble at will and jot down a few words of his own.
Seb is a great guy, and quite amusing to follow on Twitter… he also blogs at Angry German Dude, which you can find right here.
Without further ado, take it away, Seb…
As a prequel to what was my favorite game of all time, this year’s Deus Ex Human Revolution had a lot to live up to. In general, it is a pretty solid and mostly enjoyable game for someone who has been waiting for a contemporary developer daring to tackle a modern take on this formula. While it’s largely well and competently executed, it is far from being a game without flaws.
Unfulfilled promises are at the core of my problems with the game. By tying it into the Deus Ex franchise, Human Revolution promises a multi-layered story with a lot of meaningful choices and how to approach them, a lot of exploration, and gameplay that lets the player chose the solutions to the problems the game throws at him.
The game starts out all right. The first missions are ripe with options and open ends. But by the time the first boss battle rolls along, I sense that something has gone terribly wrong in this game’s development. The bosses were featured prominently in the hype-inducing CG trailers, yet they are completely absent from the main game -story wise- until they start killing the player over and over again. Apparently there is a tie-in novel that gives those empty shells of disjointed gameplay moments some background, but none of that background has made it into the game.
The other characters inhabiting the game are a bit lacking themselves. Especially the antagonists. The literally elusive dragon lady is a paper thin mishmash of cringe inducing Asian clichés at best, and not an inch more in terms of character and motivation. Which feels weird since a lot of other, less important characters are much better developed, even if none of them would win the game’s authors a creative writing award. In a time when games of the caliber of DXHR have come up with quirky, believable characters of Andrew Ryan’s size, this is just not enough. And it’s not like the game hasn’t had enough space for a similar form of characterization with the tons of emails, newspapers, newscasts and other snippets of offhand information the player can stumble upon.
Another thing is the game’s mechanics. They are serviceable most of the time. However the problems only come into full view after the player has spent a good amount of time with them. I am not a fan of simulation and this is not a critique of the game’s lack of realism. But the game world tends to lack internal logic. Case in point, the distinction between “normal” and “heavy” enemies. Normal enemies go down after a few shots, heavies take a few magazines. However both can be taken out by a single round of “nonlethal” ammunition or attack. This is basically a balancing issue - after all nonlethal ammo is very scarce in the game, however in some cases the distinction between normal and heavy enemies is gratingly arbitrary, only marked by slight variations in texture and the weapon they carry. One of the qualities of the original game was that enemies tended to run out of ammo. In DXHR they don’t. Ever. Heavies don’t even seem to have to reload. The game world’s rules work differently for normal people on the street, for enemies, for heavies, bosses and the player character. All of these operate on different levels. Of course those different levels can be learned and applied as such, however they fly in the face of any attempt of the game world at feeling organic.
As does a lot of the AI’s behavior and the “rules” of stealth. Sneaking into a super high level security facility, I can openly murder one building’s staff and security without much of a repercussion in the surrounding area or the building next door. I accept this since it is a videogame trope and this critique is bordering on a demand for simulation, yet I can’t help but feel that in this day and age we should get these things in more convincing ways. Hell, Metal Gear Solid 2 did a better job of upping the ante if a player screwed up being stealthy 10 years ago.
Then there is the unraveling of the main plot. Near the very end of the game, one of the game’s main players pushes a button, and everyone in the world carrying augmentations goes crazy. The cutscene in which this happens is heavily inspired by a similar witnessed in the opening chapters of Metal Gear Solid 4, of which it is known that the lead producers of DXHR were pretty fond. But for once, this scene itself was executed much better in the Metal Gear game, and also this event - a major part of the world’s population suddenly going insane and berserk - is something that flies in the face of the franchises continuity, since such a horrific happening surely should’ve been mentioned somewhere in the games that are set later in the timeline. Of course that’s not the only thing. There is Eliza, the newscaster AI, which seems far more advanced than the AI encountered in Deus Ex. But that is just a minor point.
The main story lacks significant punch. The climax and conclusion happen too fast. A lot of the game’s smaller stories and side missions are well crafted and interesting on their own, but their leading into the main plot feels a bit clumsy in execution. Basically, DXHR excels at being an episodic story about augmentations, but those episodes lack a common plot linking them all together.
The last chapter(s) almost feels rushed. Especially the final level is something of a multi-layered disappointment, as the gigantic arctic research station had been teased all through the game’s pre-release campaigns as well as throughout the game itself. But when the player arrives on site, the game suddenly transforms into a glorified corridor shooter. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the player there is pretty much forced to mow down hordes of augmented people having been driven crazy by the aforementioned event. There is no reprimand, no judging the player’s action when he decides to rather murder all these basically innocent people who could be restored to sanity when the player’s mission succeeds.
What a lot of the game’s levels feel like are missed opportunities. Panchea, the arctic research station, would have been a lot more interesting as a level if it had been built as a final test to the player’s mastery of the game so far. Instead all the level does is pit the player against what’s basically a horde of zombies, rushing him towards the game’s final boss encounter. Which mechanically is the best boss encounter the game is offering, only the aesthetics rubbed me the wrong way, as the look and feel was a bit too much anime inspired for my taste. But that’s only me.
The hub levels suffer from the AI being useless when idle. Of course there are a lot of possibilities to engage in side missions, but the everyday civilians never do much except walking around idly, which contributes to the hubs feeling like huge, pretty but essentially empty spaces. Also, and this is probably the fault of this generation’s consoles coming to their limits, there are just too few people around most of the time. The cities of other contemporary games manage to put up a lot larger crowds of people. This is especially felt badly inside the Hengsha level’s Hive Club, which although being praised as one of the most popular spots in town has only a handful of people around any time the player shows up. I’ve not gone and done a headcount, but the feeling I get is that the Hive club has fewer patrons present than Deus Ex 1’s Lucky Money Club had ten years ago.
A rather minor point is that some AI barks are off. Especially little attention has been given to the game’s police officers, whose vocabulary in addressing the player seems awkwardly limited. “Go away! You don’t belong here!” is what the officer throws at me when my character is wanted by what amounts to the Hengsha level’s police, while walking in my direction. What he should be saying is “Hey you! Sir! Come here, I have some questions!”
Another thing is that the game has a lot of beautifully designed levels. Huge city hubs with a lot of pretty sights, back alleys, stairwells, multiple levels. What I was missing through all of the game was a good cat-and-mouse section, with a powerful force of enemies being on the lookout for the player. Actively. A section where the player has to traverse a huge part of a level without being seen, utilizing the area knowledge gained so far to the best advantage. Something similar does indeed happen, but the police are not actively looking, not sweeping the streets. Avoidance is too easy.
This ties in with another critique about the game’s level design in general. The designers just don’t too awfully much with the levels they got. There are a handful of examples where a friendly space turns into a hostile space, but those are few and far between. Most of the time, the hostile spaces are entirely separated from the friendly ones, and worst of all, this dedication towards one or the other shows. Once the player has traversed the main body of the Alice Garden Pods hotel and has made his way into the cellar, the level design rapidly changes from an open space with a plethora of approach possibilities into a narrow, long winding corridor, the possible approaches limited to a handful at best. Worst of all, this makes the game world feel disjointed and unnecessarily artificial where it should feel organic. I would have much liked to see more levels re-purposed, akin to the second visit to UNATCO in the first Deus Ex game.
Another - minor - thing that irked me was the game’s tendency to have texture only doors turning into working doors later in the game. It’s really just a minor thing that makes the world less organic. There are better ways to wall off not yet visitable places in an open game world than to just deactivate the doors that are in plain sight for any player adventurous enough to discover them.
Probably the worst offense is the very conclusion, offering the player a room with four buttons to push to decide the fate of the world. Not only is this a space that has no other purpose than being a glorified menu screen to choose one of a number of cutscene endings, it also reduces player input to, well, the push of a button. Meaningful interaction and choices with consequences reduced to that - maybe that is a commentary on a certain mode of gaming itself. Push a button to see a video sequence.
While I may have pointed out a lot of the flaws of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, that does not mean that either I dislike the game, or that it is without merit. Quite the opposite actually. Human Revolution features high points that very few other games in recent years were able to deliver.
It is the contrast between those high points and the lower ones I mentioned before that makes the worse decisions the game’s designers made stand out even more clearly.
The Hengsha hub level for one, is one of the best looking, most believable open world-ish futurepunk city levels that gamers could explore. And there is quite a lot exploring to be done there. It’s thematically very interesting, the gargantuan upper city literally overshadowing the entire level. It’s the sort of sci-fi vision that’s seen rarely with this level of intricate detail in gaming. Also, Hengsha offers the highest density of “Deus Ex moments” - the Court Garden hotel with its multiple points of entry, the ramshackle Alice Garden Pod hotel, to name a few highlights.
The adjacent Tae Yong Medical facility mission also stands out as the best designed mission level of the game. Lots of different possibilities, of which few feel too forced, too video gamy. In this level it is actually quite hard to break suspension of disbelief, though I once did that by lopping a huge vending machine around, gazed upon by sheepish onlookers, to reach a higher up balcony.
The strongest suit of the game is creating believable environments. The random AI might not be up to much, the crowds in the cities might be too small, but the stages themselves are designed and decorated so well and there is so much to do and discover in them that these minor flaws don’t matter much. The hideouts of the very poor are damp to a degree that they almost smell beyond the screen. The lairs of the very powerful so intricately decadent, that they truly are a world away from the lower ranks of life.
Once the capacity of the AI is properly understood, it can actually be played with quite well. Combat works if the player is set out to really go toe-to-toe, otherwise, combat is best avoided completely, with the occasional nonlethal takedown - these are silent and instant, nondiscriminatory between heavy and normal goons. Once it is understood that a half-assed approach doesn’t work by far as well - and is much less fun to play - the game really comes into its own.
Another thing is platform. The console version I played first had very long loading times which really hurt a game like this, where saving right before a tight spot and experimenting in approaches is a given. Now that I played the PC version, which really doesn’t have this problem, my overall experience was very different and much more enjoyable.
The best parts of the game are indeed those which offer a multitude of approaches, and there are quite a lot of those instances. The way they are set up forces the player to utilize all tools given, even if other games might have implemented this in a better way. Compared to BioShock, DXHR just isn’t designed with quite as much player agency in mind.
In conclusion I have to say, DXHR is quite the HD upgrade to the formula established by the original game eleven years ago. Eidos Montreal hasn’t changed much of this basic formula for better or worse. There are some deep flaws in the game, not just limited to the boss fights, but grating as those may be, they don’t bog the overall experience down enough to make the game not a very enjoyable experience. Seeing how well DXHR sold, I do hope it signals the industry that there is in fact a market for games using this almost forgotten formula. I also hope that Eidos Montreal gets another shot at the franchise and I am now - after my second playthrough - quite intrigued what their take on Thief will look like when that game sees the light of day somewhere in the near future.
Many thanks to Seb Wuepper for the guest writeup, and be sure to follow him on Twitter (@SebWuepper) and when you stop off at Angry German Dude, tell him I sent you.