A continuing look at games that I really liked, but not quite as much as WWE All Stars, in the year of our Lord 2011.
“He’s more machine now than man” – Benjamin Kenobi
The Deus Ex series is about two things: the meeting of man and machine, raising the question of whether developing and getting stronger means losing your humanity, and, famously, freedom. You’re handed a level, one small chunk at a time, and asked how you’d like to approach it.
To use the immortal Terminator 2: Judgment Day as an example – will you be the T-1oo0, infiltrating into your enemies’ homes and then running them through with razor-sharp arm blades? Or maybe an Arnie-style terminator, toting a mini-gun and launching maniacally as you bat away incoming rockets? Or the pacifistic PoNY-3000 (which only features in the version of the film that exists inside my head) preferring to just be friends, avoid the violence altogether… and putting the odd person to sleep if you really, really must?
Like our last game, playing Human Revolution, you can feel the gravity of the seminal original, but in this case it’s a much looser adaption. Deus Ex was, after all, made by entirely different people over a decade ago. Born into our modern world of third-person cover and DRM, where everything has to be a shooter, it was only natural that this would be a very different game.
Still, as much as Human Revolution throws out from the original – it rewinds the plot to the immediate future, ditching the whole cast in the process, trades in the grey and blue colour scheme for black and gold – it holds onto more. The cyberpunk setting, the customisable Six Million Dollar Man-style augmentations, the philosophical leanings. Most of all, it holds onto that idea of choice. Each level has a startpoint and an endpoint, but how you get from one to the other is up to you. There are connecting doors which skip out sections of corridor; ladders which take you to the roof, far above the action; ventilation shafts to crawl in.
So that, then, is the core essence of Deus Ex. An overarching plot about control and loss of humanity, propping up a game that invites you to do what thou wilt. It’s not necessarily the most natural combination. But, for me at least, the way that freedom works is a perfect expression of the theme.
It turns out, given all that choice, something flips deep inside me. I can’t choose – won’t, shan’t – and so end up searching for the most obscure route, the one they’ve hidden behind a series of crates and down a pit you can only access with the augmentation that negates fall damage. Then I’ll backtrack, and find another way I could have done it.
I want to see the puzzle the developers have crafted for me from every possible angle. I have to see everything, I have to interact with everything, hack everything, (for a first-person action game, Deus Ex gives you a lot more possible verbs than just ‘shoot’, ‘jump’ and ‘stand out in the open until you die’), find every hidden vent, pick up every item.
I’m not even a robot. I’m a hoover.
It could be more open, of course. For all those extra verbs I mentioned, Human Revolution still manages to be slightly more limiting than the original Deus Ex, now over a decade old. It turns its attention instead to being slicker. The amount of thought that has gone into making the world futuristically plausible and beautiful, the nicely honed controls, the fact it actually has a story and some characters… there’s a lot of stuff to love here, even for hardened Deus Ex purists.
A good example of this trade-off can be seen in the item glow – any object that can be interacted with has its edges picked out with a fuzzy gold light. It highlights how much scenery is decorative, tied down, and the relatively limited interactivity. No strength rating here. I believe it was mildly controversial, and can be turned off in the options menu, but I see no need. It fits nicely into the game’s aesthetic, makes diegetic sense, and makes it easier to spot hidden items and routes, which is exactly what my lizard brain wants. And it couldn’t possibly break the hypnotic effect a play session has over me.
Human Revolution is one of those games that makes you constantly late. The type you struggle to tear yourself away from, a mysterious substance keeping your hands glued to the controller (…Oh, not like that. Ew. Grow up.) And the team at Eidos Montreal use the compelling systems of the game to immerse you in a sci-fi world stronger, even, than Portal 2‘s playful series of ideas – one which extrapolates headlines, technology, architecture and even fashion into something plausible and enticing.
And, even after I’ve managed to power down the Xbox, a dip into that world leaves me seeing our own a little differently. Like the long sessions of Guitar Hero that translated all my dreams into five-colour blocks, like the week I longed for my own Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. Like… a post-Christmas weekend back home, most of it spent with my nose pressed to the 38” flatscreen, controller in hand. It’s a nice day outside, and I almost feel bad about not leaving the house. Almost. I look out into the back garden, just as the sun clips the top of the fence. Its glow catches the edges of a shirt, hanging on the line, outlines it with a sharp halo of –gold. Ooh, I think. It must be interactive.