THE cyberpunk RPG series makes a big-budget return but can it measure up to the current crop of genre giants?
Human Revolution is a cyberpunk RPG triumph
In the clandestine world of veteran RPG lovers, the name Deus Ex is whispered with unrivalled reverence. First appearing on PC way back in the year 2000, it crammed an entire hard core sci-fi world onto a single disk, telling the story of nanotech-enhanced super agent JC Denton who gets caught up in a vast conspiracy in a near future world. The freedom presented by Deus Ex was mind blowing; giving you the opportunity take the stealthy approach, hack a terminal, try diplomacy or perforate some skulls. It was immense, deliciously dark, a little buggy and sowed the seed for a dozen action RPG’s to follow. After 11 years (and a lacklustre 2004 sequel), Deus Ex is back with Human Revolution.
The RPG landscape has changed immensely in the last decade, as the biggest titles made the economically viable move to consoles, streamlining their approach to appear to the lucrative action market. While clearly conscious of these aims, Human Revolution remains remarkably dedicated to providing the same free-roaming thrills we remember from the first game, with a serious lick of technical polish and some jaw dropping presentation.
It’s 2027 and the world is changing – biomechanical augmentation is the latest craze to sweep the globe, as people strive for cybernetic perfection. But the melding of man and machine remains imperfect, with powerful and expensive drugs needed to retain the symbiosis. You take on the role of Adam Jensen, a former cop now providing security for Sarif Industries who is mortally wounded in a terrorist attack. He wakes six months later, more machine than man and determined to find the people responsible.
After a stunning, scene setting cut scene, Human Revolution begins with a lengthy prologue which introduces you to the basic mechanics before you’ve earned a single augment, making the transition to cyber warrior all the more impressive. Stylish credits show Jensen’s transformation in a blur of oblique gore, and flash frame memories of his former life, with a level of presentation that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster.
For all the sound and fury of the introduction, the first full mission is a rather basic ‘rescue the hostages’ trudge. It gives you a decent idea of the kinds of moral choices you can make and several laboured tutorials but feels constrained, especially if you play it in a run and gun fashion. Earning your first praxis point at least provides a taste of the upgrade system but new abilities require two points to unlock so you’re left with mere upgrades. Save those hostages, talk the leader down (or let ‘em be gassed and put a cap in the fool) and you’ll be ferried back to Sarif Industries for a debrief. Then it’s time to roam the mean streets of Detroit.
It’s here that Human Revolution really opens up, giving you the chance to roam freely through the city as you investigate leads to further the main plot. But as with so many RPG’s, it’s the secondary and tertiary material which creates and sustains the world, which leaves it lingering in your mind as a living, breathing place. Soon, the threads of primary and secondary objectives litter the map, drawing you from one end of the city to the other as you interrogate, infiltrate and sometimes obliterate in pursuit of your goals. These hub levels are the true heart of Deus Ex, and as you progress you’ll earn abilities that make exploring more and more satisfying – like the indescribably cool Icarus landing system which sheathes you in a glowing bubble and lets you safely fall from any height. While these areas could be seen as just a way to stock up on experience points, the missions are often more compelling than the meta-narrative, which deals in shady corporate deals and conspiracies that are writ too large for any real emotional connection. When you investigate the death of your pilot’s best friend and discover the truth behind the cover-up, it’s more affecting than a dozen nicely realised cut scenes.
Jensen visits other hub locations in the game, including the fabulously realised, tiered megalopolis of Shanghai and each holds countless side missions, not to mention copious background material in the form of slickly designed newspapers, ebooks and the ability to scour computers and pocket secretaries for emails.
As in the original Deus Ex, some level of sneakiness is highly recommended if you plan on surviving the main story missions. Enemies are generally well armed and armoured and while a headshot will still take them down, they’re rarely alone and are increasingly accompanied by robotic companions. While a regenerating health system appears this time around, it’s far from forgiving, with a well placed grenade (quite realistically) ending you on the spot. So grills are your friend, as are terminals, access codes and anything you can do to avoid a confrontation.
That said, should you have to take the fight to the enemy, the combat mechanics are better here than ever before. The cover system is robust (and a great aid to stealthy movement) and there’s a range of weaponry to suit every need. Melee combat is a fantastic addition to the series. You’ve probably caught those early videos of Jensen eviscerating two foes simultaneously and it’s a cinch to pull off (if you’ve got the necessary upgrade). Just tap the melee button for a silent kill or hold it for some arm blade virtuosity. There’s a chance you’ll smile a little to yourself every time the camera snaps to third person for a particularly juicy kill. Close quarters combat and other abilities use energy which can be replenished by consumables – an office favourite is the wall punch which can open up new routes or pulverise an unsuspecting enemy. Grab the mod to look through walls for the full Robocop experience.
Inevitably, such an ambitious game isn’t without its flaws and we can’t help feeling they are largely concessions to consoles. While the plentiful cinematics are gloriously directed and filled with cyberpunk style, the transition to in game can be jarring. Careful stylisation and awe-inspiring production design hides most of the flaws but detail is low on character models and the levels can be repetitive – I found the lack of mirrors especially jarring in a 2011 title. And while the hubs themselves are large, the individual districts are tiny, often requiring multiple, lengthy loads to get to your next objective. It’s not enough to spoil the game but it certainly makes the experience less involving than it might have been.
Those minor quibbles aside, Human Revolution is a cyberpunk RPG triumph, drawing on dense and dark themes of humanity and biotechnology to tell an overarching story that’s relevant, exciting and compelling. I want to tell you about everything; from elements like the persuasion system (which releases pheromones to help you change the mind of your quarry), to the tense hacking battles, personal defence systems and the thrumming, Tron: Legacy like score but you really should discover them for yourself.