When I learned that a preview build of Deus Ex: Human Revolution intended for select members of the press had made it to the dark recesses of the Internet, I was faced with a bit of an ethical quandary. Piracy is wrong and this build was not meant for me, but it was certainly intended for press coverage, and, as I have been forced not to join the rest of the TNL crew at E3 this year, it could be my only opportunity to preview early code for TNL any time soon. It is with this asterisk, and a humble apology to Eidos for my transgression, that I begin my preview.
I admit, I've had guarded expectations for Human Revolution. When I learned that Eidos had inherited Ion Storm's stable of properties and would be resurrecting them without their original creators, I saw the move as no more legitimate than Vivendi's treatment of Leisure Suit Larry or Secret Level's revival of Golden Axe. Without the guidance of Warren Spector, any Deus Ex or Thief would be little more than a bastard child.
The atmosphere is thick and paranoid, just as it should be.
It doesn't help that Deus Ex is a bit of a sacred cow for many. One of the most acclaimed PC games of all time, the first Deus Ex combined first-person shooter gameplay with a huge arsenal of abilities and levels designed with creative thinking in mind. With limited ammunition and resources, brute force was not always the best strategy, and hacking, stealth, lock-picking, and an assortment of upgradeable "augmentations" encouraged gamers to look for alternate routes. It was the ultimate culmination of the ideas behind games like System Shock and Ultima Underworld, and miles beyond what's possible even in modern "emergent" games like BioShock.
Deus Ex: Invisible War took the series (and ultimately the developer) off the rails by simplifying much of its gameplay, ostensibly to make it friendlier to those playing it on the Xbox. This play for broader mainstream appeal hurt the series both critically and commercially, and it is perhaps thanks to that fact that Eidos Montreal's treatment is surprisingly reserved in its concessions to modern console game design, bringing the series back closer to its roots, rather than further into mainstream console shooter territory.
Right off the bat, it's obvious that Eidos has nailed the style and atmosphere. Set twenty-five years before the original, and only sixteen years in the future, the cyberpunk world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution still feels very connected to ours. Old buildings stand alongside new high-tech facilities, just as people are becoming amalgams of biology and technology. Unlike the nanomachine and biotech of old Deus Ex games, Human Revolution deals with physical augmentations: artificial limbs, sensory organs, and implanted computers that are giving select members of society superhuman abilities. This is transhumanism on the brink, a critical time in the series' back-story. The atmosphere is thick and paranoid, just as it should be.
While the style is there, it's not as immediately apparent if the developers have gotten the gameplay right, but Human Revolution is a game that grows. The initial level features an oh-so-modern HUD-less view, no inventory, and the regenerating health system from just about every modern shooter. Luckily, only the latter of these lasts past the opening stage. Once your character has been augmented, he'll be keeping an eye on his health and ammo count, and juggling items in and out of his inventory grid like a champ. One has to wonder why Eidos even bothered with the regenerating health at all, as resource conservation is still a huge part of the game. At least health regenerates much slower than in other games, discouraging the kind of reckless Rambo tactics that could ruin a game like this.
A huge part of Deus Ex's appeal stemmed from its freedom and flexibility, and Eidos looks to take this a step further by giving the game a more open structure akin to modern RPGs or sandbox action-adventures. The swath of Detroit that makes up Human Revolution is hardly massive, but it can be traversed freely and the various mission indicators can be tackled in any order. Side-missions are nothing new to the series, but presenting them around an open hub world gives players more flexibility to take them on at their own pace.
Of course trite non-linearity is no substitute for true emergent game design. Levels almost all have alternate physical routes, and are designed to be beatable with stealth, brute force, or even occasional diplomacy. Human Revolution does make a few simplifications. There are no more keys, lockpicks, or multitools, with everything unified under the new hacking interface that plays out with a mini game like in so many other games. This makes almost every area accessible if your hacking level is high enough, as there are no completely unhackable doors that require a code, nor are there doors that can be broken into with brute force.
Despite these questionable simplifications, you'll still have access to the usual bag of tricks that comes with hacking, like disabling cameras and turning turret defenses against your opponents. While the absence of health and unlocking items frees up some space in your inventory, you'll need it since different weapons once again require unique ammo types, and conserving ammo is a big part of the game, as it was in the first.
Although you can play through the game with stealth and non-lethal force (except, perhaps, for a few select boss encounters), you're likely going to be doing quite a bit of shooting. Deus Ex's shooting action was never very good, but it has been greatly improved here, especially once you've gotten your leg augmentations in place. Eidos has implemented a new cover system that switches to a third-person view, perfect for peeking around corners as well as blind-firing while protected. Enemy A.I. can still be a little dopey and nearsighted at times - perhaps a necessary evil for any game with a major stealth component - but is still generally fun to fight.
The preview build cuts off around ten hours in, shortly after a brutally difficult boss fight that seemingly marks the end of the Detroit section of the game. This seems like a meaty chunk of the game, giving us plenty of time to explore the gameplay and work up the skill tree a bit, but Eidos has announced that there are five cities in the game, suggesting we have just scratched the surface of what's to come.
That's an exciting prospect indeed. While not exactly an old-school throwback, Deus Ex: Human Revolution heartily embraces the depth, complexity, and even challenge of the original, while building a living, breathing world that was previously only hinted at. Its plays to broader appeal and accessibility come largely in the form of immersive atmosphere and an easier-to-understand quest structure, rather than simplifications or crutches. This is the kind of game that invites and rewards both exploration and experimentation, and not rushing through to the end. It will be a long few months until I get the chance to sit down with Human Revolution again, but this unintentional preview has made for quite the advertisement.