Deus Ex: Human Revolution
I played Deus Ex for the first time mere minutes of a walk from Eidos' Wimbledon headquarters. I was 17, at a friend's house, and partaking in what felt like barrels of the green fairy. Hazy the night became, but the memory of a gorgeous cyberpunk game held on tight, and weeks later it had intoxicated me. It was a masterpiece.
It's the long-term effects of that boozy night that contribute to my only registering the connection as I enter the headquarters today, but memories of the game still stir bright. The deep shooting, the RPG integration, the city's glow against black night, but most of all, it was a game that empowered me with choice from top to bottom.
Usually the resurrection of a previously discarded franchise leaves me uneasy, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution's bustling E3 trailer was something else. It just oozed cool, from its gold sheen to its whirring cybernetics, and the badass, unreal combat set to haunting music. In short, its statement inspired: this is a cyberpunk game.
But a trailer is just that, so it's with caution I look forward to seeing the game in action today. Taking me through two of Human Revolution's missions is Seb Bisch, Eidos Montreal's Communication & Marketing Director, and apparently it's the first time the game has been demoed on British soil: Time for Blighty to judge.
It's 2027 - 25 years before Deus Ex. Hero Adam Jensen stands grizzled in his shades, slicked hair, and shadowy goatee. He grizzles with justification, left so debilitated after a recent attack on his security firm that he needed "augmentation" to survive. These augementations form the essence of life in Human Revolutions. They make up style, the give strength, they simplify life, and they divide opinions. In Jensen's case, he had no choice, so it's a little wearily that he raises a cigarette to the backdrop of the two-tiered Hangsha suburb of Shanghai.
Two rows of gold towers shine upon the ripples of the Huangpu River. Jensen's spiky-haired accomplice Faridah Malik gives him radio instructions on the mission, and he sleeks off towards a club called The Hive, trenchcoat clung tightly to him. The city is detailed to the fault of distraction. It's vibrant, exotic, and its citizens are a lithe mix of showy and subdued. Jensen passes two prostitutes flinging their arms loudly, while a beggar drifts withdrawn against a leaning bicycle. Neon banners glow through pervading steam, shining a mix of Chinese and Engrish - "Got taste, mate?" - and when Jensen finally reaches the club, its lights pulse yellow through a honeycomb design. The echoes of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell are more than deliberate, you name the cyberpunk film or book and Seb and his team will probably cite it as a source, openly and proudly.
Why is it so unusual to see a seedy, technological, capitalist future in a video game? As Seb points out, it's odd that a medium so in tune with cyberpunk and its values hardly features any of the genre's style in its content. Just one look at the dystopian glow of Human Revolution proves that Eidos Montreal wants to set that right.
Even more predominating than cyberpunk in the original Deus Ex was choice; there was almost always more than one solution to a problem, a fact Eidos Montreal is acutely aware of. Shrewdly paying the bouncer to get through the door, Seb reveals the same modus operandi runs through Human Revolution. Jensen could've entered via a number of ways: through a back alley, bartering with other characters, all guns blazing, but to name a few. Choices have short-term and long-term ramifications, some obvious, others less so. It's a proclaimed depth that undeniably intrigues.
Once inside, Jensen props against a bar to interrogate its tender about a hacker's location. This triggers a conversation with him, a scary looking bastard with a thick red mark covering almost all of the left side of his roughed-up face. Dialogue choices pop up in the bottom left, with Jensen's possible responses revealed in full, rather than an abridged and possibly misleading sentence. The bartender is not forthcoming; his gruff voice tinged with impatience, and Jensen needs to find another route through. Interestingly, conversations will play through differently each time, so you'll have to listen closely to what's said - no autopilot for repeaters.
As Jensen passes a couple of bouncers, he overhears them saying there's a datapad that grants access to the basement, and that it's been lost. The reveal is quite natural, although the dialogue is a little forced. Still, it's a good example of how Jensen can pick up useful data just by snooping. Much of Human Revolutions looks to be about experimenting through natural exploration and creative problem solving.
We eventually move on to a more action-based mission. It starts with Jensen sliding from cover to cover, hiding behind dockyard crates under the cover of a gloomy night. As he uses cybernetic strength to lift an unwitting cube out of the way, Seb informs that Jensen needed the correct augmentation to perform the task, alluding to the RPG-like upgrading side of Human Revolutions. While it will be a cornerstone of the game, Eidos Montreal is keeping that behind covers too, for now.
Jensen slips discreetly into an office, taking out an unsuspecting guard with a blade through the torso - right through and then out again. As his victim crumples to the ground, Jensen quickly shuts down a security camera via a hologramatic console - again, one of many routes through this mission - and then slips back out as a plane drifts loudly overhead. He gracefully lifts himself on to a crate to survey the scene.
There, across the yard, lies a poor unsuspecting lackey. Jensen duly picks out a crossbow from a transient weapon selection screen with what looks like four available slots for major weapons, and then locks on to the dude - Boom. Back on the ground, he executes a quick double takedown as blades slip from wrists through necks. Then into an infrared-like vision mode, and echoing the trailer he bursts his fist right through a brick wall, before performing a perfect choke-down on what must have been an even more unsuspecting lackey. Then Jensen flicks a switch to become invisible - two more lackeys hit the dust - before performing a stranglehold to leave one lucky guy only snoozing in the shadows. It's a breathtaking display.
Of course, as Seb explains, Jensen is far more overpowered than he would normally be at this early stage, but Seb still insists this is but a teaser for the breadth of power available to him in Human Revolutions. As if to prove his point, Jensen drops through a roof to land within a circle of guards, taking them out with a Matrix-like slow-motion twirl as around 30 to 40 bullets are unleashed from along his wrists. Seconds later, Jensen stands solemnly, a lone figure surrounded by lifeless bodies.
Putting his marketing hat on, Seb explains that the publishers put the game forward to retailers as "the world of Blade Runner as the action of the Matrix", but he doesn't need to tell me that there's far more to the game than that. Human Revolutions clearly has the potential to live up to the legacy of its predecessor, and it has a shine, polish and atmosphere that make it exciting just to watch. But Human Revolution needs to be challenging and have substance in the play as well as the style, and it's far too early to start proclaiming this as the one to watch for 2011.
But when you consider that I haven't even gone into the renaissance aspects of the style, the inner workings of the story, the depth of the RPG mechanics, and an entire side of the gameplay not shown today by Seb, namely the hacking, then there are more than enough reasons to be positive about Human Revolutions. Then again, expectations are already astronomical following the E3 trailer. If Eidos Montreal can live up to them when the game releases next year, it will truly be something special.