It took me some 22 hours to complete Deus Ex: Human Revolution. With all the restarts and the ridiculous boss fights, maybe all told 25 hours. That’s a long time to expect anything to feel fresh, but if a game that’s presented as a linear narrative takes that long to complete, I do expect it to try its very best.
Preface: I like the game quite a lot. Up until the halfway mark. Once you’re done with the second hub area – the Asian city with an overhanging second level – it starts to get old fast.
For all its focus on player choice and multiple ways of handling things, it gets very samey. The problem is the way it separates all those choices and options in gameplay. If you look at something like Far Cry 2, where you have a big open sandbox and a number of simulations and systems running, which can influence each other in endless ways, that doesn’t get old. Halo combat doesn’t get old. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a case of a formula having been applied to a level design and then just copy-pasted as many times as it takes to reach a convincing amount of content, and then made as pretty as money can buy. Once you’ve seen the formula, you’ve seen it all.
You know that where there is a camera or a turret or a robot, there is a security computer nearby. That security computer can only be reached by hacking the door, sneaking past guards with challenging patrol routes, or by finding the certainly present ventilation duct that leads into the room.
The problem is that the way powers are laid out, they’re very binary. In order for the punch through walls power to make sense, there are a number of punch through walls in every level. They can’t be mandatory, because you might not have that power. What happens is that usually they’re trivial. Same goes for the rebreathing stuff – there’s always one route you can only use if you’ve got that power.
In the end, you have a level with a path through it, and a number of optional paths you can use if you have the requisite powers. Because the way they’re signposted is so obvious, the powers don’t feel empowering – they feel like keys to color-coded doors, harking back all the way Doom.
Consider the wall-punch power – how much more interesting would that be if you could do that to any (or at least most) walls, incapacitating any guard patrolling on the other side? Or punch a quick route through more or less anywhere, but you would alert most guards due to the noise. You get the idea – you should have systems which interact with systems. As it is, likely due to production realities (time and money), Deus Ex does its damndest to keep all the systems separate, and is much weaker for it. I would’ve preferred fewer systems with more interplay.
The game also suffers from quality issues towards the end. The locations just aren’t impressive anymore. The NPCs start to get ugly. The level design is based on straight corridors. Unsurprisingly, at this point I started to hope it would just end soon. There were still two boss fights to get through, and a lot of running in corridors (around 4-5 hours). At least the challenge of incapacitating ridiculous numbers of civilians without killing them was novel, and I did spend a while thinking about the final choice. For the last couple of locations, I couldn’t bother with the sneaking and stunning any more and just efficiently took out all guards in my way. That was kind of a novelty, having held use of force in check up until then, but that having resulted from boredom surely wasn’t the objective.
It’s hard to accept why Jensen needs to run to and fro the various quest givers. This isn’t a problem when your quest logs are still full, and there just happens to be someone you should talk to nearby, but after you’re done with the two hubs, it’s just running back and forth. It makes you wish somebody had invented the cell phone. Effectively, once you’ve got most of the side quests covered, the game becomes very spoon fed, linear, and predictable. If they had found a way to maintain that variety and choice in how you spend your time even at the end, it would’ve been a much stronger experience. It would’ve been interesting to see if they could’ve built the entire game within the two hubs, maybe just closing with an action movie finale in the final location.
Oh, and for all its wanton imitation of Hollywood, videogames spend an awful lot of time in inventories and looting bodies. Action heroes in other media do not loot bodies or go through bookshelves and dressers. It makes me feel like I have to clean my apartment when I go from body to body and cabinet to closet to dustbin after every single encounter. That isn’t dramatic in the least.