Human Stagnation

One of my favourite games of all time is Deus Ex. Ostensibly a first-person shooter, it featured RPG and stealth elements, as well as a multifaceted level design, allowing you to choose your own path and play-style.

You can bust through the front door of the enemy stronghold, painting the walls with their entrails; or you can slip in through the back door, hiding from the patrolling guards and running past while their backs are turned; or you can find a security panel, hack into it, and reprogram their own security measures to attack them; or you can find an air vent, and crawl through without anyone noticing; or you can come up with a different strategy I haven’t even thought of.

It was a unique approach to game design. Because up until then, most games were designed very linearly. You had one path, and one goal, and your only option was choosing which overpowered superweapon you were gonna use to take the enemy’s head off.

But Deus Ex was completely different. In fact, you could go through the entire game with only a single kill, and that one kill you could perform three different ways. Either you could kill them at the very first opportunity, with very little resistance; or you could wait until later in the game, where you can either find the secret kill phrase, or just shoot them with your gun.

There are even several forking paths in the game, where your actions determine whether any of your allies die. Which I think is a nice little touch. Three characters that come to mind are saved by staying and fighting an attacking enemy (in a supposed-to-lose fight), finding and interrogating a generic NPC revealed to be a saboteur, and successfully completing a stealth-based side-mission.

Then there was the plot itself. Loaded to the brim with intrigue and suspense. You start the game by working for the law-enforcement arm of the United Nations, before switching sides, and fighting the multi-national conspiracy that you were an unknowing part of. And while it’s basically the wet-dream of a paranoid schizophrenic, it’s still a story I love, primarily because of how interesting it is. They frame it in a way that can kinda make sense, and it makes you wonder just how deep down the rabbit hole one can go.

Of course, it’s entirely fictional, and anyone who says otherwise is an idiot.

But yes, I love Deus Ex. I love the gameplay, I love the story, I love every little thing about it. What I don’t love is what came after. Because such a great game deserves a great follow-up. And that never happened.

The first thing to note about the Deus Ex follow-ups is that the first game had three different endings, each changing the world in drastically different ways. So writing a sequel to that would be insane, since none of those three endings were inherently better than any other. None of them could be defined as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘proper.’ And I’m not even mentioning those characters who may or may not have died. A sequel would have to nail down precisely what happened, or dance around any of the branching plot points. The latter would be annoying, and the former would be offensive to anyone who played the first game, and didn’t follow those plot points.

Now, I never played Invisible War, the sequel to Deus Ex. Partially because of the problems I mentioned earlier, but also because the general consensus of that game is that it’s shit. So why bother?

But I did play the Deus Ex prequel, Human Revolution. And all I have to say is, if this is considered the better follow-up, that can only mean Invisible War shoots hot lead into your eyes. Because Human Revolution sucks!!

You’ll notice I call the game just, Human Revolution. That’s because it doesn’t deserve the name Deus Ex. It’s simply not worthy. To use the name here would be an insult to the original game.

The reason for this is simple. Deus Ex was the whole package, it wasn’t just a collection of gameplay elements thrown together. Most of the game revolved around your nano-augmentations, which you could upgrade as the game went on. But man cannot live on augmentation alone. You also had your skill rollout, where you can put skill points into lockpicking, or computer hacking, or any type of weapon in the game.

This allowed you to truly customize your character in any way you wanted, focusing on stealth, hacking, combat, or what have you.

In Human Revolution, however, this really isn’t the case. Oh, sure, you can upgrade your augmentations (mechanical instead of nano-technological), but the upgrades don’t operate on the same principle that the original did.

In Deus Ex, you could find special upgrade canisters that gave you new augmentations. But each canister would only work on one particular slot, and using it would allow you to choose one of two upgrades. The catch? Whatever upgrade you chose, locked out the other. And each choice you make would depend on your play-style. If you’re a combat-oriented player, you may choose the Combat Strength Augmentation, increasing the power of your mêlée weapons. Or, if you prefer exploration, Microfibral Muscle will allow you to pick up very heavy objects with ease, which can be moved, allowing you to access hidden areas.

In contrast, all the arm upgrades in Human Revolution are available to you at once, assuming you have the upgrade points. You can get the punch through wall upgrade, the pre-animated takedown upgrade, the lift heavy objects upgrade, the recoil suppression upgrade, and the increase your inventory upgrade, all at the same time! That is, assuming you earn enough upgrade points over the course of the game, which really shouldn’t be problem.

I know I should be glad that nothing is locked out to me, but I don’t. Instead, it makes me feel like my decisions don’t really matter. I could focus mostly on stealth, but that’ll only be temporary, until I run out of stealth upgrades to spend points on, and start focusing on combat upgrades.

It’s less like customizing a character, and more like levelling-up, bit by bit. Which doesn’t really fit with the spirit of Deus Ex in my mind.

Then there’s Human Revolution‘s skill upgrade system… there is none. Every available weapon can be used from the word ‘go,’ and every other skill is basically non-existent in the game. There are no swimming sections (which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you look at it), the medical skill is redundant, and the hacking skill is replaced by an upgradeable hacking augmentation, which also replaces the lockpicking and electronics skills.

Now, moving the hacking skill from its own independent system, into the augmentation upgrades isn’t something I have a problem with, since it still fits the spirit of the skill upgrades, the problem I have is combining the hacking, lockpicking, and electronics skills into one upgrade.

Now, some may argue that the hacking, electronics, and lockpicking skills all complimented similar play-styles, so combining them like this probably makes sense. Except it misses the minutiae of the whole system, because each of the three skills actually do complement slightly different play-styles. If you like to break into locked doors, with complete disregard for other people’s privacy, upgrade lockpicking. If you want to deactivate security systems from security consoles and read other people’s email, while breaking into ATMs to get free money, upgrade your computer skills. And if you want to face the security systems directly to deactivate them, without the hassle of finding a console, upgrade electronics.

See, three different approaches, each requiring a different skill-set. Now, a typical Deus Ex player who chooses to go mostly non-combat will probably upgrade the three skills pretty evenly anyway, but that’s beside the point. And throwing all three into the same upgrade slot basically means the player just has to throw everything at a wall to see what sticks. Very little thinking is required. You don’t have to choose which one is more important.

Now, I said that ‘lockpicking,’ ‘electronics,’ and ‘computers’ were all thrown into the ‘hacking’ upgrade. This is because hackable terminals are literally everywhere, and it gets quite irritating. Especially given how easy it is to hack a given terminal. Now, true, the hacking minigame has a bit of challenge to it, which is one of the few things Human Revolution does right. Hacking in Deus Ex merely involved waiting for a progress bar to fill up. In Human Revolution, there’s a little game where you have to capture nodes. That’s a significant improvement. And during these games, you can pick up money and little pieces of software that can making hacking easier. And once a console is hacked, it’s hacked, and you can access it at any time with no difficulty. Meanwhile, hacking in Deus Ex meant you had a limited time to do whatever it was you wanted to do, which meant hacking was more of an expense, if you had the login password.

In Human Revolution, having the login password just means you don’t have to play that fun little minigame that can earn you money. Searching around for the login password doesn’t give you any significant benefits. Not when you can just hack it at no expense. Which is the next problem: you can hack literally every console in the game!

In Deus Ex, lockpicking and the bypassing of electronics were done by using up disposable lockpicks and electronic multitools. Which meant the decision to pick a lock meant there was one less lock you could pick further down the line. So you had to make a conscious decision, and ask yourself if the contents of that room were that important. Because doing so, could cut you off from a room further on that’ll reward you with free money, and more lockpicks. It was a resource management thing. How badly do you want to get past this door? Is it really worth using up a lockpick or two? In Human Revolution, you can get past any door at no cost to you, just by hacking the terminal.

And then there’s the fact that the hacking upgrades are pretty piss poor. There are five levels and each upgrade unlocks the next level of security terminal. The upgrades don’t make hacking easier, or net you more rewards, they just allow you to hack the next level of security terminal. That’s not how it should work! That’s not an upgrade, that’s just a new key I can use. It also doesn’t help that each subsequent level of security terminal is more complex, and more difficult to hack. So just adding something that makes the hacking easier should be all that is needed, instead of simply locking us out.

Of course, there are other skills that went walkabout. Your environmental training, and the environmental suits you use, are now part of your augmentations. And again, I don’t mind integrating it into the augmentation upgrades, but removing the disposable environmental suits was probably a bad idea. Then again, environmental training was one of the most useless skills in the game, since there were so few environmental hazards… and it was also available as an augmentation.

Yeah, so all they did was remove the environmental suits. And in Human Revolution, the poison resistance augmentation activates automatically. Unlike in Deus Ex, where you have to activate it and it drains your energy. Therefore making it a cost to you.

It speaks to a major problem the game has: Everything’s free in Human Revolution.

Case in point: Health. I think Human Revolution might be the very first First Person Shooter I’ve ever played that used regenerating health… and I hate it! If you get shot, you’re not really penalized for it. All you have to do is avoid getting shot for a few seconds, and all your health will come back! It’s not only condescending, it means all that work I might do, hiding from enemies and sneaking around, avoiding taking a single bullet, is pointless. Because someone else can try the same thing, but continually fuck up over and over again, taking several missiles to the head, and be no worse off. All that effort one can go through is completely pointless. You know what that is!? Communism!

And it doesn’t even make sense from a story perspective. You see, the regenerative health system is actually one of your augmentations. So, at least it makes sense in that respect. Yet, in Deus Ex, there is no regenerative health, and I find it hard to believe that mechanical augmentations can heal someone, while nano-augmentations don’t. When you’re dealing with nanites, medical applications would actually be one of the first things you would do with it. Yet, we don’t get that, do we?

Oh, wait, there is a regeneration augmentation you can get, in Deus Ex. And it drains your energy while it heals you. Seems like a pretty piss-poor system, given that the mechanical augmentations in Human Revolution do it for free!

Basically, they’re making the future of human augmentation look like shit!

But speaking of the health system, there is one other change they made. In Deus Ex, health was distributed in six different areas: Head, torso, two arms, and two legs. This was pretty cool, and it meant you could have all your arms and legs blown off without dying. Some may not care, since such an impairment would just cause them to reload their last save like a pansy. But that little quirk is actually something I like. It makes the game world a bit more dynamic and interesting.

In contrast, Human Revolution uses the standard health meter that’s used in every game ever. And honestly, I don’t have a problem with it. I’d prefer the old system, don’t get me wrong, but the simple health bar works and kinda makes more sense from a story perspective. Losing an arm and regenerating it using a medbot makes sense if you’re a nano-technologically enhanced super soldier. But with mechanical augmentation, you’d need to hit up a mechanic, who’d have to order out for parts. Of course, they could’ve still made it work, and have made it a bit more interesting. While you could heal using a standard medbot, actually losing a limb would require you to go to a proper doctor and ask to buy a new one. Which would’ve been cool. And it would’ve given the L.I.M.B. clinics you encounter in every city actual purpose.

One thing I also don’t care about is the redesign of the inventory system. It’s carried over almost verbatim from the first game. The only difference is that your inventory is a bit bigger in Human Revolution, and can be upgraded to be nearly double the size. And I’m not sure I like that. It just makes me horde ammo and guns that I’ll never use, as opposed to Deus Ex, where I often wonder how badly I want that giant rocket launcher. Do I want it badly enough to scrap my sniper rifle? Not really. But in Human Revolution, I can have both, and that’s not an improvement. And what makes it worse is the fact that Human Revolution has so few actual items. In Deus Ex you can pick up chocolate bars, cigarettes, bottles of beer, bottles of wine, cans of soda, packages of food, and vials of illegal drugs. None of which have any real gameplay benefit. They can influence certain story moments. For instance, on the second mission, you can bribe a little kid with a candy bar, and he’ll give you the code for a secret entrance to the enemy stronghold. But other than that, there is no purpose. In fact, in the case of cigarettes, they actually take health points away! These items are only there for the sake of immersion. So, if you want, you can role-play as a morally questionable secret agent who enters all missions drunk!

Human Revolution doesn’t have any of that. Not really. There are bottles of whiskey and wine you can pick up, but apparently they increase your defence, and can significantly increase your health above 100. Why they felt the need to do that is beyond me. Alcohol having significant gameplay benefit is not only counter-intuitive, but completely fucking pointless if you ask me. In fact, given the larger inventory space, I would have been more inclined to carry bottles of alcohol, and packages of cigarettes, even if I never used them, just in case they became useful during a story mission. But they’re not there, and that sorta takes away from the spirit of Deus Ex. It’s amazing how something as mundane as a humble can of soda can enhance a game.

There are a few other interesting differences. Radar and GPS maps weren’t available in Deus Ex, which meant stealthing around was more of a challenge, since you had to see the people you were avoiding in order to make sure they wouldn’t see you. Which made the game much more challenging. In Human Revolution, you just need to look at the radar screen. Honestly, I’m not sure if I should hate it or not, since it is quite useful. But one thing I do hate, most certainly, are the GPS maps and objective markers.

In the original game, you had to follow signs and navigate using your own sense of direction. In Human Revolution, you just had to pull up the GPS map, with a big ‘you are here’ symbol sitting in the middle, which I found a bit insulting, particularly in levels as small as these. You can generally reach your destination just by looking at the signs scattered around each city, which also makes the objective markers redundant. Yes, objective markers! Those things that float in the middle of your vision, screaming at you to ‘go here!’ I actually think these can make sense in a city, since the signs you could follow are not always easy to spot. However, in the smaller buildings that you need to play through as part of the story, they just come off as insulting. ‘Go here!’ ‘Go where, toward that door that’s the only possible location I can go? Shit, I was gonna run into a wall!”

To make things more insulting, every intractable object in the game is highlighted with some weird yellow outline that only you can see. Deus Ex never felt the need to highlight intractable objects, because it assumed you had a brain, and could figure this shit out on your own. Not so with Human Revolution!

The entire game seems dumbed-down to the point of condescension. For instance, I mentioned the lack of items like chocolate bars that do nothing more than add flavour. Another type of item that went walkabout are mêlée weapons! Yes, imagine my shock when I couldn’t get a police baton, or crowbar to knock enemies on the head with. No, instead they have pre-animated takedowns, which are used by sneaking up behind an enemy, pressing a button, than taking a drink while the animation finishes. This is really irritating. Especially when the actual animation starts with the enemies you’re attacking jumping to completely different positions, because that’s where they need to be for the animation. That just takes me out of the experience for a start.

And another problem with the takedowns, is that they’re boring!!! You press the button, you wait ten seconds, and then the enemy is down. That’s not an exciting action scene, that’s just bullshit! Apparently this mechanic is common in modern games. I don’t care, it’s still stupid! Now some may argue that using a crowbar or police baton is functionally the same thing. You click, the enemy’s down. Except it’s not! For starters it doesn’t play the same boring animation I’ve already seen a dozen times, and secondly, it’s possible to fuck-up the use of a mêlée weapon. Either because you hit them in the wrong part of the body, or the enemy was just slightly out of range, or you didn’t aim properly. In Human Revolution, you never fuck-up a takedown.

So, yes. the game is dumbed-down significantly, but there are a few areas where they appear to do the opposite… smart-up, or something.

I already mentioned the hacking mini-game, which I kinda like. But there is also the persuasion minigame, where your dialogue options have to be carefully selected so you can convince a character to help you. It’s actually kinda fun, and I seem to be pretty good at it. But it’s during these minigames where the most uncanny valley stuff happens.

Rather than standing still, all the characters move around and gesticulate while they’re talking. Which isn’t a problem per say… at least at first. But after a few dozen conversations with a few dozen NPCs, you’ll quickly notice something extremely unsettling. They all have the same mannerisms. All the men in the game tend to move their arms the same way, and walk with the same swagger. And on that note, they appear to all have been made with the exact same model. Each of them have large biceps and massive shoulders for some bizarre reason. It really threw me off when I first noticed it, and after that, I kept on noticing it! It was quite disconcerting. Especially with regards to the science staff you have to rescue in one of the later missions. Unless they moonlight as WWE wrestlers, those body proportions make no sense!

Now, in the original game, the NPCs stood perfectly still during conversations. So these animations may seem more natural, but it’s old uncanny valley problem. Having the characters move around as they talk may seem more natural, but having every character make the same movements is not natural, so it just looks creepy.

But the visuals overall are fantastic. Or, at least, an improvement over the original game. I for one, thought they were great. And they could’ve been better if they removed that damn yellow filter!

For some reason, everything in the game has a yellow tint to it, like it’s been dipped in piss. There are a few streaks of red and green, but it’s almost 95 per cent yellow, and I have no idea why! Do other games do this? Is there a reason they decide to colour-code their graphics!? It just strikes me as incredibly odd.

But while all these problems are pretty significant, they don’t make Human Revolution a bad game, just a bad follow-up to Deus Ex.

No, what makes Human Revolution a bad game, is the boss fights.

This is what angers me the most about Human Revolution. Throughout most of the game, the level design still follows the spirit of the original. So, if you want, you can run through the entire game using stealth manoeuvres and tranq darts. Then you’ll get to a boss fight, and while up until this point you never bothered using or collecting lethal weapons, you now have to face an overpowered enemy head-on! That just fucks up the entire game! It means if you decided to take the stealth approach, this is the point where the game says you were wrong! You just finished a third of the game, and it reveals that you’ve been doing it wrong the whole time! You have no heavy weaponry, you didn’t enable any combat or defence augmentations, and you have no experience in combat! And it expects you to attack this behemoth!

Thankfully, after several attempts, I was able to get through this first boss fight by lobbing explosives at him without a care. Then, during the second boss fight, things got a lot more complicated. Thankfully, I was able to get some heavy weaponry from the room immediately before the boss fight, but it didn’t help much, and after several dozen attempts, I gave up and decided to roll back the difficulty to easy. I guess because I’m a fucking wuss. The fight was still a pain in the ass, but I got through it.

Later on, in the spirit of forced combat, there is a section that doesn’t really count as a boss fight, but has the bullshit of one. On your way to China for the second time, your helicopter is shot down, and attacked by several armed mercenaries. You’re able to get out just before the crash, but it’s at this moment the mercs start attacking the helicopter, and the pilot contained within. You have one of two options, run and let her die, or try to fight off the squadron of heavily armed mercenaries with a firecracker, and a water pistol.

I mentioned that there are several points in Deus Ex where characters can die. But their survival isn’t dependant on your play-style. Whether you choose stealth or combat, you can save every one of your allies. In fact, you can save them in several different ways. There’s only one way to save this character in Human Revolution, attacking the attackers head-on. You can try the stealth approach, ensure they don’t notice you. But you’ll run out of time, and the pilot will die!

The closest Deus Ex got to this kinda bullshit was one forced-stealth section, where failure results in a hostage being executed. But this is nowhere near the same thing! If you focused on combat, and got to this forced stealth section, you could still get past it. All you really have to do is sneak in the building, and then quickly switch back to heavy-handed combat, finishing the job! The best part is: You can take your time!!! Can’t do that when the mercs are killing your friend in Human Revolution.

Then, there’s the final boss battle. And you know, never before had I ever had a game literally tell me to fuck off. Because there’s a plot thread earlier in the game, where your augments start to malfunction. Of course the logical thing to do is have it fixed, right? Which you can do by having your biochip replaced. But doing that will disable your augmentations during this final boss fight. There is no indication that this will happen before you have the chip replaced, you just have to know it’ll cause problems later on down the line.

And this is where I stopped. This is where I simply quit the game and never went back. After several attempts at fighting this guy, with no augmentations, I just gave up. Only one chapter away from the end, and I uninstalled the game. Because at that stage, I didn’t care anymore. Whatever the game had left to offer, wasn’t worth it.

It’s true I could go back and ensure I don’t get the new bio chip. But replaying the entire game just isn’t worth it. Not when there’s this much bullshit!

I can forgive the uncanny valley movements. I can forgive the dumbing down of mechanics. What I cannot forgive is the bottlenecking of play-styles, and that frankly insulting gamebreaker near the end.

However, it’s worth noting that a new version of Human Revolution was released this past October: The Director’s Cut! Which apparently fixes the broken boss fights, allowing you to take several different approaches. And, if you already bought Human Revolution, you can get a 50% discount on the Director’s Cut… are you shitting me!?

You admit the game is broken, so you release a fix, and dare to charge me for it!? Imagine if someone sold you a DVD player that you later found out just wouldn’t play the second half of a movie. And in response, the manufacturer said, “Okay, we fixed the problem, and are gonna offer you a 50% discount on our new not-shit model!” You’d be insulted, as I am. If they were serious about fixing the game, they’d offer a free patch, not this shit.

So fuck you, Eidos. Fuck you twice! Once for selling me a broken game, and twice for charging me to fix what you broke! It’s like spreading a disease, and charging for the cure.

Well, at least I know where they got the idea.

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