It’ll be hard not to turn this review into a discourse on the game’s ideas and source material but I am just as determined as Adam Jensen’s fist.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the third game in an interesting series. Deus Ex is generally considered one of the best games ever made and has a pack of extremely diehard adherents. The sequel, which was more forgiving to newcomers and far more RPG-lite was not treated as well and the whole shebang went back to the drawing board until 2007 when Eidos Montreal, a new studio, began development of Human Revolution. Their mandate was to produce a game that would be true to Deus Ex while still appealing to contemporary audiences, especially the mainstream gamers accessible more than ever due to cross-platform releases and the overall equanimity of tech.

I can’t tell you if they succeeded in that particular mandate. I haven’t played Deux Ex enough to know how close Human Revolution is to it. I can however tell you that they succeeded in making a great game, which is every game maker’s true mandate, and one which seems to be doing very well which suggests the possibility that we will see more in the future. I hope so because, as great as Human Revolution is, there are some problems which future installments could easily fix.

Jensen’s apartment, showcasing the retrofuturism and gold/black color theme which runs through the game.

Human Revolution is a game of atmosphere and details. You’re immediately drawn in not only by the recognizable near-future setting and all the trappings that make it immersive, but also the grim atmosphere of that setting. Through the music, art, and even the voice acting there’s that ever-present suggestion that the world is just as much on the edge as Adam Jensen is.

Jensen is the character you take control of. He’s a gritty-voiced badass with a mysterious past and some significant psychological issues brought on by moral challenges and his emergence as a cyborg. Jensen’s journey to embracing or rejecting a post-human future parallels the overall story of this world, where the UN is on the brink of major decisions involving the newest tech revolution: human augmentation.

In 2027 the research of Hugh Darrow has led to widespread use of beyond-human prosthetics and implanted cybernetics. There are issues involving rejection and the expense of rejection-suppressing drugs which makes augmented humans a sort of overclass as poorer people cannot afford the expensive tech and required medication. Thus, there is a lot of civil unrest and a general feeling of tension. Things can go either way, and Jensen ends up right in the middle of that.

Adam Jensen is severely wounded, forcing his employers to replace over 50% of his body with augs to keep him alive.

As an ex-SWAT officer, Jensen is employed as the security chief of Sarif Industries. Under David Sarif, a charismatic visionary, the company leads the pack in terms of providing cutting edge research and development of augs. They also have a lot of defense contracts, creating new and interesting human-mounted weapons for the DOD. Then there’s Jensen’s ex, Megan Reed, a talented researcher who is on the verge of something major, perhaps the very revolution that Sarif so firmly believes in.

Whatever she’s up to, it attracts the wrong kind of attention and Sarif’s home office in Detroit is attacked by paramilitaries who kill Reed and her team and mortally wound Jensen who tries to intervene. Back to work 6 months later, newly augmented Jensen becomes David Sarif’s personal investigator, a job which will take him around the world and on a rabbit’s tunnel of intrigue, violence, and corruption involving some of the most powerful corporations and people in the world.

Due to its fidelity to the concepts of transhumanism, the technological singularity, and self-directed evolution, Human Revolution’s story was one I was bound to like. These themes are everywhere from the random dialogue of passersby to newspaper articles, emails, and set decor that are absolutely everywhere.

Human Revolution’s environments are some of the most detailed and world-building conscious in any game ever. With one main caveat. They do reuse too many character models and probably should have recorded twice as many “random lines” for the many, many civilians that populate the two city-hubs in game. This is more or less a nitpick, though. You shouldn’t let it bother you any more than I did.

Hengsha is a city built on a city.

Gameplay flow is half in the city-hubs where you run your investigations, often attracting enough attention to wind up with people trying to get your help. The other half is in hostile areas Jensen must infiltrate to accomplish his goals, whether it’s talking to a protected source, saving hostages, or engaging in other forms of espionage. Sometimes it’s difficult to follow the tangled plot, the connections between information and investigation. This is because there is simply so much fucking information in this game. I’m not sure if I’d call this a flaw exactly but I consider myself fairly good at following complex stories and there were times in Human Revolution where I forgot why I was where I was and what exactly I was supposed to be doing there. This may also be due to Human Revolution‘s fairly simple, straightforward plot.

There are times you expect this story to get very grandiose and twisty but it doesn’t. Not quite. In fact, the story is fairly undramatic. Some of the personalities involved have quite the flair for drama, especially the main crew of asshole gunmen that Jensen keeps running up against. They feel almost like they belong in a Metal Gear Solid game. While there are some similarities between the look and feel of Human Revolution and MGS, the former never strays into the absurdly overwrought or operatic the way MGS games always do. You won’t hear any stupid, hour-long monologues in this game. The dialogue is kept mostly to the point, opening up extra shit to player choice in a similar fashion as Mass Effect. Indeed, you have something of the same idea as the dialogue wheel in the ME games present here. It’s a nice touch.

In fact, you might say that Human Revolution feels like a chimera of several games. It has the first-person-to-third-person gameplay of the Rainbow Six: Las Vegas games and the optional heavy environment exploration of a Bethesda game. There are times where Human Revolution feels like Fallout 3 actually. Other times, it feels like Splinter Cell as you scan the layout, enemy movements, and plot the best way to get through either unseen or with maximum lethal efficiency.

And that is the heart of Human Revolution’s gameplay. Each room of a given office, warehouse, or military base is a puzzle. Your job is to figure out how to use your limited resources, your augmentations, and your personal playstyle to solve that puzzle according to whatever particular style you’re into. The game rewards stealth and non-lethal tactics slightly more than going in guns-blazing. You’re encouraged to explore alternate paths, which there are always many of, and check out computers, terminals, lockers, etc. There’s stuff everywhere, not all of it just more guns and ammo.

Your first priority whenever possible should be to get a good vantage point and see what can be seen.

Combat is extremely difficult and there aren’t many games where getting into a gunfight is something you really need to think about beforehand. Of course, by the end of the game the RPG-style augmentation upgrading and your own increased understanding of the game mechanics and how to use your weapons and other tools makes it somewhat easier. Still, getting into a fight should always be a calculated move as you will die many, many times in this game if you’re sloppy with your stealth. That challenge might prove rewarding, however, and presents the player with some fun options due to the wide assortment of different abilities and weapons available. Every gun can also be modded, some with individual mods that add new features. The game wants to give you the resources to be a terminator but it also presents you with the ability to not kill anyone at all in the whole game.

Look out, bosses!

Well, except for the three super-hard bosses. They are a bit jarring and the most Metal Gear Solid element in this game, like I said. When I say difficult I mean you’ll win only through trial and error or luck. I got lucky a couple of times. I also learned to always keep at least one high-powered weapon around even if I preferred silent tactics for the most part. The nice thing about Human Revolution’s more hairy situations is that there are a number of ways to exploit Jensen’s abilities along with the environment to give yourself an edge. When you figure something out, you get that same buzz of discovery that any good puzzle game offers.

You also get to feel like a total badass.

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Now like I was saying, the game’s plot is fairly simple. Jensen buzzes around trying to figure out who killed Reed’s science team and why. Along the way he attracts the notice, or forcibly acquires it, of assorted people with varying degrees of dangerousness. Some of those are the wetworkers who fucked him up and made off with Megan Reed’s research for reasons unknown. One of the issues with this game is that there isn’t much of a connection between Jensen and the tangible villains. There are ideological villains, people pushing agendas you as the player may not agree with (and may not be playing Adam, limited though it may be, in line with). In the end, you do get to feel an impact on this bigger picture stuff. What’s left in the shuffle is any kind of meaningful enmity or dialogue between Jensen and the people directly responsible for what happened to him and to his “people” at Sarif. They are just henchmen, in the end. This is disappointing.

Also disappointing is the lack of follow-through on some of the “mystery” and conspiracy elements of the game. Adam’s centrality to Reed’s research is something everybody will figure out very quickly but it is still compelling to see him trying to retrace the steps of his obfuscated past. He’s a man who really doesn’t know his origins, which frees him in some scary ways. That subplot works and is in keeping with the themes of humanity vs. post-humanity that Human Revolution is presenting. That said, it’s also something that is useful as a catalyst for the timetable being stepped up by the people controlling the technology but little else. It seems like they wanted to do something messianic with the thread but it never amounts to much. In their wise move to stay away from going too broad, they unwisely clipped the wings of that element. We never know what makes Jensen different, beyond some vague allusions to research done on him as a fetus. Okay fine, and I bet the Illuminati were involved but where’s the full scale of that mystery? When does the weight of their huge, complex plan, the weight of what they actually are, ever fall into place in this game? Never. That’s when. They are remarkably toothless given their supposedly incredible power and influence. I suspect there were reasons for doing it this way from the writing/developing perspectives. I just wish they would have committed to the grander elements of the Deus Ex universe just that little bit more required to really stun the player. As is, there isn’t much impact.

The final boss battle is likewise just a bit too inert and uninspired to be as interesting as the others. Though the Barret battle is fairly straightforward, it is also the first boss and the firts time you fight anything that challenging. Barret also foreshadows the “heavy class” enemies that pop up more and more later on. Namir and Her get great set-pieces, make awesome entrances, and are dynamic bad-guys. The last battle? Not so much. You just fight some weiner robots, turrets, and a couple biochip-fried humans. Kinda underwhelming.

The mechanic that most people bitch about most is the energy system which powers most of Jensen’s augs. The way it works is, you have a limited number of cells which must be replenished with Powerbar-type food found in the environment or bought from LIMB clinics. The first cell will always recharge, though the speed is dependent on how you use PRAXIS points to upgrade. I don’t really get this complaint since limiting Jensen’s ability to, say, turn invisible is part of the point and the challenge level maintained by the game. If you could just go invisible all the time, wouldn’t be much of a game there.

The problem with this, though, is that Human Revolution has no hand-to-hand combat without the expense of energy cells. This means that we’re supposed to believe that the act of knocking a guy out costs the same amount of energy as punching through a wall or wrapping your body in a fucking light-bending invisibility shield. It’s a bad decision that breaks the gameplay logic just a bit. I mean, I get why they wanted to limit the ability to just knock people out left and right but it still feels wrong. The lethal melee attack’s similar reliance on energy cells is understandable given that it actually makes especial use of Jensen’s arm-mounted blades.

The Icarus Landing System is the coolest aug and effect in the game. You’ll jump off shit just to see it.

These complaints I have are relatively minor and can easily be fixed in a potential (and I think likely) future game. There’s too much good in Deus Ex Human Revolution to let a couple of gripes mar the experience. It may not be a perfect game but it’s easily the best game of 2011 thus far. It is also one of the best examples of how to update a franchise as well as incorporate a myriad of divergent ideas from other types of games into a singular package that feels fresh, engaging, and fun.

Beyond that, if you’re anything like me and have a soft-spot for futurism and that whole post-human thing, this game will tickle you. It’s like porn for those people who are into these ideas. It’s presentation and discourse range from simplistic to sophisticated in a way that leaves the matter accessible to unfamiliar players while giving the kind of depth that will please the informed. That Human Revolution engages maturely and intelligently in such an important, emergent debate raises its big-picture narrative above that of most games. Looked at under a certain light, Human Revolution may very well be a highly predictive and political piece of pop entertainment. There’s room for all comers here, the Luddites get their say just as much as the technofetishists. Jensen is complex enough a character to exist as a cyborg while also proving impressionable to those against the very existence of people like him. That dialogue of ideas informs too much of the game to just be another excuse for shooting, jumping, fighting, killing, and illusion of choice mechanics.

Human Revolution is all that, of course, but also much more.