I’m not prone to sweeping statements like this, but I’ll argue that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the most overrated game of the previous console generation.
I realize that’s a hell of a thing to say in a console generation that also had Metroid: The Other M. But while The Other M disrespected Samus Aran and featured some of the worst writing on the planet, it was at least (mostly) fun to play. So why pick on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a revered game in a revered franchise? A game that is, on its surface, about so many big ideas like social prognostication and human singularity. After all, barring the game’s infamously outsourced boss fights, it reviewed as highly as it was anticipated, and sold well.
Then it was quickly forgotten.
I realize, too, that’s not saying much. Its sequel, Mankind Divided, enjoyed a similar flash in the pan moment before being abandoned for the next big game -as are most games- but why doesn’t it, a game with the ideas of Bioshock and the presentation of Metal Gear Solid, resonate the way those games do?
Because it’s shit.
No, it’s not without merit: the “conversation” boss fights are excellent and *should’ve* set the standard for such things, even in Bioware & Bethesda games. Its world feels lived in and complete, successfully transporting the player to a Neuromancer/Blade Runner-style cyberpunk world…
But that’s about where my compliments end.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt a game where I’ve constantly felt the need to give writing notes. Literally everything about the game is hamfisted, inelegant, antiquated, irritating, or just straight up wrong. Some of these things can be explained by discussing how writing works and operates. Some of the issues are in terms of game mechanics.
Right from the get go, I knew something was up. We walk as the protagonist, Adam Jensen, ex-cop and chief of security in a major augmentation tech firm, in a well-trod world, not unlike the opening of Half-Life 2… except that in Half-Life 2, you’re constantly immersed in action. You’re harassed by guards, you’re attacked, you have to make a daring escape… in Human Revolution (DE:HR), you’re alerted to a terrorist attack several floors below, and you’re requested to take care of it. There’s no dynamism, not really a setpiece… just a perfunctory, static feeling to it all. In this tutorial sequence, Jensen can be shot to ribbons by anyone, prompting several game overs (and Christ, get ready to memorize those loading screens). That is to say, it’s not a gentle lead-in, and doesn’t excite so much as confuse. At the tutorial’s climax, Jensen and his girlfriend are apparently murdered by badass cyborg bad guys.
It’s vital to mention here just how bad the writing and voice acting is. Jensen’s voiced by a man who ONLY speaks in menacing whispers, even prior to his tragic origin story. Most of the dialogue is clunky, purple, and inefficient. It doesn’t SOUND clean, and it doesn’t hint character or tell stories the way Bioware dialogue does, for example. Maybe it’s not fair comparing anything to Bioware, but if you’re trying to tell a prestige sci-fi story with gigantic thematic & emotional resonance, you’re standing in their shadow. Big time.
The rest of the game follows like this: endless exposition, a barrage of fetch quests, and fairly static actions within locations. Pick your favorite stealth game, Metal Gear Solid, Batman Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed, Thief, whatever– they all understood if they leaned cinematic or not, and they played into it. DE:HR is attempting to feel cinematic, but is executed the video game equivalent of made for TV. Everything just feels by the numbers.
Adam Jensen: Badass Cyborg?
Jensen awakes a few months later as a cyborg, and this is where the game fell on its face again. Prior to this, Jensen had been a major tech corporation’s head of security, and apparently a badass. He returns to being head of security and apparently a badass black ops solo-mission kind of guy… except he’s completely ineffectual. Jensen’s upgrades have zero purpose and give him no new skills whatsoever. He can still be easily killed by a random minor enemy, he has trouble hacking into things, he’s not terribly strong, and for some reason, it wastes battery power for him to physically fight people.
Now I realize, part of the appeal of Deus Ex is that the player upgrades Jensen as they go, taking him from glass slingshot to wooden cannon, if you’ll follow the metaphor -but he never feels like a badass, despite his mannerisms. Enemies upgrade at the same rate he does, effectively keeping him ineffectual throughout. Issues in the game mechanics (more on that later) mean that Jensen will never be the paragon of human and machine he apparently is, creating a constant sense of dissonance.
So why are we Jensen, former cop, head of security, posturing cyborg, and all-around Mary Sue? Why are we not Adam Jensen, singularly unlucky janitor, who happened to catch a look at the cyborg terrorists, was horrifically maimed by them, and given cyborg implants by his boss to track them down? Then we’d have a reason to start out ineffectual. We’d have a reason to posture as a badass only for that to be deflated. Hell, we’d have a reason for janitor-cyborg to become badass-cyborg. We’d have a character arc. Imagine that.
It’s not like we’re losing anything, as Jensen is a blank slate. Backstory is eluded: a cracked mirror in his apartment signifying his disgust with his cyborg features. We’re told in an exposition dump that Jensen may be a test tube baby. There’s pathos in ideas like this. So why don’t we see these scenes play out? Why don’t we see scenes of Jensen trying to figure out what it means to be Jensen if that’s so important to him? Why isn’t Jensen’s physical journey married to a personal one? And I mean beyond his cliche dead girlfriend motivation. Instead, Jensen just learns that his boss is kind of a bastard -something that was obvious from the start.
Nearly every character sucks.
It’s hard to get invested in a game when nearly every character is painfully unlikable. With the lone exception of Faridah Malik, Jensen’s plucky pilot and only interesting female character, everyone is skeezy, standoffish, and without redeeming qualities. Pritchard, your hacking eye-in-the-eye exists purely to insult you, lay on the sarcasm, and presumably sniff toilet seats. Sarif, your boss, is MADE of condescension and arrogance and is very, Very, VERY clearly the bad guy. Both of these assholes are voiced by preening yuppies, who only make them less likeable.
The villains are baffling. Two of the Illuminati’s best wear ridiculous ruff collars, and as they’re women, they can’t interact with Jensen without coming onto him. The villainous badass cyborgs? What passes for their characterization is 1. A buff man with a Texan accent. 2. A slim, buff man with an Eastern European accent. And 3. A buff woman who doesn’t speak. How am I supposed to care about the villains if they’ve literally no point?
If Jensen’s mission is a Heart of Darkness-like voyage into the moral complexity of cybernetic augmentations, shouldn’t the characters reflect those moral complexities? Say what you will for Metal Gear Solid’s brand of impenetrable exposition, but characters like Psycho Mantis, Sniper Wolf, and The Boss/Joy resonate for being deep, complex characters who serve as facets of an antiwar thesis. You don’t forget them. Meanwhile, Jensen just has a shitty boss. ::yawn:: …But that’s still better than you can say about the minor inhabitants of Jensen’s world.
A Brave New World… of Bigotry
I’m just going to come out and say it: Deus Ex: Human Revolution is racist and sexist. On the surface, it might not seem that way, after all, the cast is a fairly even mix of races and sexes. That’s good diversity. However, after the tutorial mission, we’re taken to the slums of Detroit where Jensen fights through legions of black and Hispanic gangbangers. Then it’s off to the slums of China to indulge in some Yellow Peril. Throughout this, Jensen is constantly able to talk up and help prostitutes, or a police officer who’s going undercover as one. This isn’t third wave; it’s sexual exploitation.
Yes, cyberpunk operates on the ubiquity and criminal abuse of technology, generally in a noir setting, but it generally show’s a diffusion of races, almost to the point where ethnicity doesn’t matter. It doesn’t generally go out of its way to create horrible racial stereotypes as DE:HR does. What’s the point of this? To convey danger though xenophobia? To show that technology hasn’t bridged social bonds or wealth disparity? If the latter, the script and presentation’s doing a piss-poor job. There IS wealth disparity in DE:HR, and hints of gender inequality, but none of it is explored; it’s only there for titillation.
The same goes for its sexual exploitation. Your detective adventure doesn’t NEED to go through a brothel, concern back-alley prostitutes, or even go through a strip club. Sure, you can have sensual elements in your story, but it has to be an integral part of your story instead of just an excuse for sexual objectification. Third wave feminism in media is awesome, so long as agency, context, and representation are carefully considered.
The World Is Bugged
So what IS the message of DE:HR? It attempts to explore the ethical complexities of augmentations in a transglobal society, but even the minor points of this, such as transhumanism are only paid lip service through background news feeds. Effectively, the game has more to do with xenophobia, fear of the lower classes, conspiracy theories about corporations, technophobia, and masculine power fantasies. This is not the genre-defying enlightenment of Bioshock, but pure pulp, with little of value to say.
This will seem like a minor point, but it blows my mind that there are newspapers and radios in this world. Bear in mind, this is a world with tablets, smartphones, technological implants, holograms, and more. Why would there be radios? Why would there be newspapers? Why would there be any kind of differentiation between “Ebooks,” “Pocket Secretaries,” and “Electronic Newspapers?” Why wouldn’t all of these things just be on various devices? The game design answer is “so you know what to expect from objects,” but why should that detract from world logic? Why not have Jensen just scan/hack personal devices and get what he needs/wants from them? I’m not saying that EVERY cyberpunk story needs to display technological and social foresight, but bear in mind, the people designing this game are in the tech sector writing a game ostensibly ABOUT the tech sector. Shouldn’t they have ANY insight or predictions on what’s to come beyond the technophobic “augs are bad… Maybe?” Yes. Yes they should.
But is it fun, bro?
While the above problems would damn most screenplays, the X-factor for video games is whether or not the game’s fun to play. So IS it fun? Is its stealth intuitive? Does it give you effective options for stealth and instead of stealth? Is it easy to navigate the world and select your own path? Do you feel like the badass cyborg saboteur you’re meant to be?
No, I’d say not. Now I’m not invalidating those who’ve beaten the game with a flawless stealth record, nor am I invalidating those who had a good time with the game, but the game is, plainly, unintuitive.
Maybe it’s better on the PC, where you can reassign all the buttons, but why in love of God, is X your confirmation button on the Xbox 360? Why is R3 your sniper scope? Why is L1 your chest-High-wall-connection button? These are unorthodox placements and the source of great confusion.
On top of that, the controls are stiff, making Jensen feel to lurch about. There’s no oomf to the shooting controls, or to the weapons themselves, from a combination of poor sound effects, poor weapon animation, and from the fact that every enemy is a bullet sponge. Jensen never stops feeling clumsy and jerky, compared to Dishonored’s Corvo feeling spritely and elegant, or smooth and calculating the way Batman feels in Arkham Asylum.
It doesn’t help that, as eluded earlier, Jensen’s got a penchant for getting the hell shot out of him. Most regular enemies and kill him with small arms fire. Upgrading his armor barely helps. On top of that, Jensen can’t fall more than five feet without dying instantly, all of which contributing to this sense of klutzy ineptitude.
When you finally invest in aug upgrades so you can fall 5.001 feet without dying, you get a stupid canned animation of Jensen in an energy bubble, radiating electricity, arms spread out like Christ’s second coming. Why? Can’t he just tighten his leg augs or something? Everything’s got a canned animation, like the Typhoon grenade system -which just fires a ring of grenades around you. Jensen has to make a super suave pose, do a little twirl, crouch down, and THEN fire the grenades -all while the enemies are haplessly firing at you. Who was supposed to tell them that you’re in a cutscene and they’re not? All of Jensen’s melee attacks ALSO trigger a cutscene, instead of just, Y’know, playing out. Thanks, game. I WAS an ineffective robot man. Now I’m a pretentious one too. Just what I always wanted.
So what does this combined clunkiness look like in action? You’re a pretentious robot man, sneaking around an identical black-and-piss-yellow enemy base (a pallet shared by the entire game), and because you can combat roll in front of cameras without being seen, but not lasers, for no discernible reason, you get caught. Oh, shit! Time to shoot your way– oh, your bullets are ineffective and they killed you already. “Reload the last save?” The game offers, having you wait through a full minute of loading screens for the umpteeth time. What’s the point of having a ton of sci-fi weapons if they don’t allow you to consistently get out of harm’s way? I was attacked by several bodyguards in tuxedos, and somehow my minigun didn’t drop them before they killed me. Another time, I was trying to snipe my way through a difficult room, but when I Headshot a guard, his helmet absorbed the shot and he alerted everybody else. Three reloads later, I snuck up on this guy and punched him -in the helmet- rendering him unconscious. Guess his helmet was bulletproof, not fistproof.
All of this points to an illusion of choice. Sure, you can build Jensen to be a combat champ all you want, but you’re in a stealth game, and no matter how tough you make Jensen, no matter what weapons you have, you’ll always be outgunned. And despite the fact that there are multiple routes to your objectives, there are often clearly wrong routes -those with patrolling enemies- and clearly correct routes -ventilation shafts. Which are invariably hidden by a couple of the countless random boxes and crates strewn about the world. Oh, you didn’t see the vent because you didn’t think to turn over a nondescript box far off the beaten path? Hope you enjoy being Swiss cheese. Seriously, because these routes are so unintuitively placed, I tended to find them only after I’d done things the hard way.
And don’t get me started on hacking.
The definition of insanity is doing the same action and expecting different results. That is hacking in DE:HR. In this incessantly-occurring mini game, one has to take over data points, working one’s way to a target point. The problem is, every time you take over a data point, you have a predetermined chance of getting caught and failing. That is, this is a percentile, so at any single hacking point, you might breeze through with no problem, or, more likely, you’ll fail, alerting every guard to your presence. And you’ll die. This means reloading your save. Again. And looking at that damn loading screen. AGAIN. There’s no skill involved, no merit of the player, just “did you upgrade your hacking percentile to a slightly more advantageous number?” As hacking is the single most common thing you’ll do in DE:HR, this turns the game into a protracted session of save-reloading and frustration. This is without mentioning how precise the controls and feedback are in-hacking, leading you to think you’ve activated a data point when you’ve only just moved out of it. Is it worth it? When you open up doors, safes, and security systems, sure, it can be. When you open up personal computers, though…
Resident Evil popularized diary entries in games to help flesh out the narrative experience, and since then, audio logs have become staples of video game storytelling, bringing in whole new casts of characters, exploring existing themes, and creating emergent side stories which can enrich the player’s experience and understanding of the game. DE:HR has few to no audio logs but a STAGGERINGLY high amount of email chains to read. Yeah, if I’m a modern-day hacker, I might sift through thousands of corporate emails to find incriminating exchanges, but if I’m a badass cyborg in the middle of a hot zone, why is that my only option? There’s no brevity of cast here, just a barrage of samey emails saying, “Hey, I switched the password to this. Remember it, even if some cyborg guy is going to hack around it because using passwords give no experience points.” While games like Bioshock and Dishonored use audio logs and journal entries to enrich the world, Deus Ex uses email chains as one of its primary means of storytelling, and put simply: Who cares? When every Pocket Secretary just gives you unlocking information, when Ebooks just offer tepid philosophy about augmentations, who cares if a random email has anything to say? I’m sure they could enrich my experience, but I’ve only got so much time in the day.
Old Man Yells at iCloud
So why am I crucifying a game from 2011 when there are so many other games out there? Especially when there’s a new Deus Ex happily flouncing its truncated self across consoles now? Honestly, it seems like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is suffering from the same storytelling flaws and thematic conflations that are held back DE:HR. Acceptable gameplay in a market starved for it, but confusing social statements, poor characterization, an inappropriate RPG system… the works.
Is it a case of the games Industry learning little since the last installment? If anything, the developers learned that Dishonored ruled, so they stole a few moves from that. Is it a case of poor feedback? At the time, most of the rave reviews game from longtime fans of the series, or at least its first installment. Fangasms aren’t conducive to fixing flaws. Or am I just being overly critical? Surely someone will tell me “it’s just a game” or that they “got what they wanted out of it.” As I said before, those are valid enough casual opinions, I guess.
But do sentiments like that advance the medium? Do they help games to become more entertaining and more impactful works of art? Of course not. Criticism, especially harsh criticism, is born from love and investment and a deep desire to see things improve. I love Cyberpunk’s gritty take on the future its big ideas on who we are and where we’re going, even if it’s just as ugly as where we are now. I love how stealth games give you the satisfaction of a perfectly timed takedown, or a pulse-pounding fight out of harm’s way against superior foes. Deus Ex: Human Revolution had the potential to explore cyberpunk’s big questions in a way that was polished, intuitive, and exciting. Instead, it half-assed it, delivering a racist, sexist world of unlikable characters, a baffling conspiracy theory plot, and stilted gameplay. It has nothing to offer.
And that’s the real shame.