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Archive for September 2011

If Deus Ex 1 were made by Eidos today

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The highest praise for Human Revolution over the past few weeks has been that it ‘does the original justice’ and that it’s ‘a worthy followup’ or whatever.

But it’s not, and it takes some pretty dramatic Deus Ex 1 revisionism to claim that it is. While Human Revolution has some surface similarities it’s a drastically different kind of game in many ways, made by a team that either didn’t properly understand Deus Ex, or willfully ignored what made it special—preferring instead to ‘modernise’ it into an unholy union of Metal Gear Solid and Mass Effect 2.

Things that made Deus Ex a special game, one fondly remembered 11 years later:

  • a great deal of player freedom at any moment
  • a great deal of player control, never taken away except in conversations
  • a consistent world, governed by elegant rules, that behaves in logical and expected ways
  • large and open maps that can be approached in many different ways
  • movement through and interaction with the world that feels organic and self-governed
  • a bunch of other shit not so important to this post

Things that Eidos ignored, discouraged, or otherwise mishandled:

  • all of the above

Reasons why all of the above are poorer in Human Revolution:

  • poor level design that funnels players through small area after small area, each populated by a small number of enemies which do not pursue the player out of their designated area
  • a lack of consumable items (ballistic armour, thermoptic camo, hazmat suits, and so on) that give players options at any time
  • a reduction in player abilites like lockpicking and multitooling
  • boring augmentations, most of which don’t interact with other game systems in meaningful ways (though there are some nice exceptions)
  • handholding in the form of objective markers on the radar
  • game design that routinely takes control away from players, either briefly in the form of the snap to cover system or the tedious Icarus landing system, or more drastically in the cutscenes in which Jensen usually acts like a blundering idiot
  • stealth gameplay that takes it cues from Metal Gear Solid and is more about problem solving (which crate has the level designer placed here so I can avoid this guard?) rather than organically hiding in the environment

The best way to explain the differences is to show them, which someone has already done with this amazing mod that parodies modern game conventions and Human Revolution in particular. As well as ridiculing the cinematic takedown rubbish, it nails the poor level design. While the maps in HR appear large at first glance, they are stream loaded and enemy AI is restricted to small areas. The effect is that each play space is actually quite small, with a main path and some all-but-signposted alternative routes through a vent or through, maybe, a different vent. You complete one area and then you’re funneled through a door or a corridor into the next. Along with the other problems, it reduces the gameplay possibilities and results in a game that feels far more directed, controlled and restrictive than the original Deus Ex.

I can’t make a mod, so I’ll stick with words.

Here’s Liberty Island if it were made by Eidos today.

You start on the dock, and that is the first map segment. A cutscene shows JC arriving by boat and blundering over to Paul. The camera lingers on JC’s face because that’s usually what happens in the movies. Paul waxes lyrical about his and JC’s augmentations, and eventually gives you your objective. The game puts a marker on the radar leading you to a point 20 metres away, off the dock. There’s a gate at the dock entrance that serves as a streaming load point. You open it and walk though, the next segment is fully loaded up, and the radar updates to direct you to the front door of the Statue, with a secondary objective marker to go meet Harley Filben at the other dock.

The island outside the Statue is divided up into, let’s say, four different segments which you pass through in a linear order, and the enemies are restricted to those segments. The segments are separated by, say, doors or gates that funnel you into the next segment.

It’s probably daytime too; there’s no benefit to making it nighttime because the stealth isn’t light-based and the gold colour scheme makes slightly more sense this way. Actually let’s check Blade Runner. Night or day in that movie? Mostly night. Okay it’s nighttime then.

You move through these segments, which have far more crates in them than you would expect, all lined up handily to accommodate the cover stealth system. You take down a few NSF and are awarded more XP for being nonlethal and for using the 3rd person cinematic takedown ability. Along the way you deviate and head to the other dock to meet Filben. He seems evasive, so the game enters a convoluted persuasion minigame in which you pick a few conversation options from a dialogue wheel and the game displays a graph showing how persuasive you are being. You don’t listen to a word Filben says because the graph is all that matters. Anyway, he gives you the front door code so that must have gone well.

As you progress through the map you stumble upon a ‘secret’ back entrance to the Statue, but it requires Hacking Level 2, and you spent your first augmentation upgrade on making your inventory slightly larger than a match box. This is obviously The Hacking Path and you haven’t upgraded yourself properly. Don’t worry, there are probably two or three vents behind those glowing yellow boxes over there. Feeling patronised, you decide to take the front door anyway.

The game loads up the interior of the Statue. The Statue itself is split into three levels, each its own segment with its own enemies who will not wander from their assigned levels. Alex appears on your infolink to tell you Gunther is being held prisoner in there and the radar will update to show you his precise location. You exchange a few jokes with Alex (Fiction Writing For Dummies says that builds an emotional bond) and then head off to find Gunther. You cinematically take down the guard outside Gunther’s makeshift prison cell. When you enter the room there is a cutscene showing JC walking awkwardly over to him and the camera does the slow foot-to-face closeup reveal of badass Gunther. Then it enters an in-engine conversation with another inappropriate persuasion minigame where you can try to wrangle some extra information out of him via choices in the dialogue wheel. Gunther discusses at length the difference between mechanical augmentation and nanoaugmentation. You don’t have the option to give him a pistol and follow him while he guns down NSF, because the engine can’t support the AI crossing between segments like that. At the end of the conversation he turns away slightly from the camera and when you have control again he’s just gone.

Then you ascend the statue level by level, either snapping to cover behind the dozens of boxes lying around conspicuously, or moving through the vents which are everywhere. There are 27 computers in this map which you can access with the passwords that are lying right next to them, and all of them contain the same quirky email about employee rights and responsibilities. About 7 or 8 also contain a joke Nigerian banking spam mail.

Then you reach the top of the statue and find a door. You Use it and a cutscene begins revealing the NSF leader who is threateningly waving a gun. JC casually walks up to the terrorist leader, ignoring the gun pointed at him, and in fact turning his back on it several times. After a lengthy discussion about the Ambrosia haves and have nots the game reverts to an in-engine conversation with another persuasion minigame, featuring a graph showing how persuasive you are being. At the end you are given some options on the dialogue wheel: empathise, antagonise, or fight. If you choose fight (let’s go all the way with this) the game enters a Setpiece Boss Battle and dumps you right in front of the boss and he starts shooting before you can even fucking react. Seven reloads later you win and you watch a cutscene showing JC standing over the bleeding boss as he mutters a dying line of dialogue out of a Dean Koontz novel. You get 2500 XP for Getting Things Done and are rewarded with the Defending Liberty Steam achievement.

Well done.

Written by John Pike

18 September 2011 at 1:05 am