Brownish Area. With Points.
It’s easy to be glib. To criticize. To mock. That’s why there are so many more commentators in the world than there are producers; any number of morons can pick up a Crayola and a roll of Charmin and squat over someone else’s work, cowering behind the immunity of the non-creator, which (they think) somehow shields them from reciprocal criticism with the passive-aggressive notion that their “work” lies beyond the measure of critical analysis.
“Pot? Hi, this is Kettle. How you doin’?”
Once I recognized that the defining attribute of most critics was abject cowardice, I stopped holding commentary as my creative standard and stopped doing reviews. Things have been pretty quiet around here lately, but I sleep much better, so the ensuing silence suits me just fine.
There are a few issues, though, which must be made right.
I’ve Made a Huge Mistake
Three years ago I wrote about the heretical news that Deus Ex 3, as it was then known, was purported to have regenerating health. In typical smarmy commentator fashion, I was convinced that this would ruin the experience of the original game, and that any developer who employed such mechanics sought only to maximize profits at the expense of art, and so forth, ad nauseam. I implied that it was a cowardly, derivative, marketing-based decision that had no place in a game that would call itself an RPG, much less a game that would sell itself as the latest progeny of the venerated Deus Ex lineage.
After playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution almost exclusively for the past four months, it’s a matter of justice that compels me to publicly admit (as I publicly criticized these design decisions three years ago in my condescending rant) that Eidos Montréal have spoon-fed me my own ass. With club sauce.
When I say that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the best game I’ve played in the last ten years, keep in mind that I do not make such proclamations lightly. I liked it more than BioShock, more than Fallout 3, more than The Elder Scrolls III and IV, Morrowind and Oblivion, respectively. I liked it more than Skyrim, and more than Mass Effect and its sequel, and finally, inevitably, I liked it more than Deus Ex.
If I gave half a hammered turd about maintaining a readership, this is the part where I’d follow such blasphemy with much bowing and scraping while I begged you to keep reading, to hear me out and keep an open mind, as I attempted to justify my statements with a bunch of circuitous rationalizations and subjective assertions. Astute readers will know to expect a full repeal of the Patriot Act before this happens, but everyone, including fellow die-hard Deus Ex aficionados, should shoulder on for an explanation. Or don’t. The choice is, of course, all yours.
The effectiveness of the mechanics in Deus Ex (that is, the original game) can essentially be reduced to an exercise in inventory and/or skills management. The potency of the skills in which you invest your experience points depends largely upon the number of inventory items available for said skills; medicine is useless without medkits, electronics is useless without multitools, lockpicking is useless without lockpicks, and so forth, with the lone exceptions being pathfinding skills such as swimming and computers. As such, the core mechanics rely not so much on the ability of the player, but on the foresight of the developer in including a sufficient number of resources to cover all play styles.
This is not the case with Human Revolution, as all but one augmentation (Typhoon) can be used without a corresponding element of inventory management. For example: Pumping all available skill points into one of the four available hacking augmentations will never result in the player having wasted these skill points because of a lack of resources. Because of this, the reins of authorship are handed more completely to the player than in either of the preceding Deus Ex games, and the experience of player expression becomes much richer for it. In Human Revolution, there are no moments of, “I am the StealthMaster, yet I’m finding it difficult to display my clandestine virtuosity because the Gods in the Machine have not provided me with sufficient resources,” or, “I ran out of medkits and now I’m stuck,” both of which frequently reared their disfigured craniums in the first two games.
Another area in which Human Revolution shines brighter than its progenitor is in the matter of feedback. Deus Ex rewarded the player with skill points, which could be used to upgrade ten various skills, but it did so primarily by means of story progression and location encounters, not through player skill, as is the case with Human Revolution. For example: If you pop some bozo in the head in Human Revolution you get twice as many experience points as you would if you’d simply Swiss cheesed his ass from across the room. Additionally, if you take someone down by non-lethal means, you get four or five times as many experience points, depending on the method; the stun gun and tranq darts net you 40 points, while hand-to-hand takedowns are worth 50.
Additionally, if you ghost your way between objectives, alerting no one and setting off no alarms, a progression-based skill bonus of 750 points awaits you. So regardless of the way you play, your skill is rewarded within the context of the gameplay. This is the essence of good design, and represents the perfect integration of the human player’s skill and the player-character’s skill; there is never any barrier placed between your ability (which, as a gamer, you’ve probably been developing far longer than you’ve been developing any other entertainment-oriented motor skills) and your success in the game. Shots do not magically and wildly careen in any direction as they leave the barrel of your gun, in spite of your steady aim with the mouse, simply because the player-character’s skill with a pistol is shit. (Fallout 3, stop it!) The augmentations and upgrades in Human Revolution exist to, ironically enough, augment your own hard-won skills as a player, not to artificially hinder them in order to create the illusion of character development and progression. This means that you won’t see your sights wavering back and forth as you try to snipe somebody from fifty miles away, either; if you’re good enough, he’s eating lead, and that’s the end of it.
Even If It Means Me Taking a Chubby…
And on the matter of regenerating health, well, I’m just going to have to suck it up on that one. I was wrong. Keeping the player’s progression through the game entirely dependent on the developer’s foresight in including sufficient medpacks is a shitty way to ask someone to spend their time, after they’ve already spent their unrefundable money on your game. Expecting them to reload a previous save and replay a large portion of their progress just so that they can continue to receive the full value of their expense might have been acceptable in June of 2000, but today it’s just a shortcut to obscurity; there’s too much other shit out there to risk losing people (their attention, not necessarily their money) to the sound-bite gaming experience of iOS, or even something as relatively accessible as Minecraft. Gaming has become so ubiquitous that developers who stand on decades-old design principles, who do not change their philosophy to reflect the metaphysical realities of today’s industry, are (as my dear old grandmother used to say) fuckin’ suicidal.
Perhaps the most eloquent testimony for Human Revolution’s respect for the player can be found in the fact that I was able to complete a non-lethal play-through on the highest difficulty without once using a weapon or grenade. (All bosses were defeated using the Typhoon, everyone else got the Instant Takedown treatment.) When a game thinks highly enough of you to permit your ability to inform the adventure, satisfying itself with the simple, elegant augmentation of your skill, it becomes the very definition of the player-authored experience.
The essential design principle of Deus Ex wasn’t that you could heal yourself from the player-character’s inventory with the use of medkits, but that you, the human player, lived and died by your own decisions. This design concept has been preserved, respected, amplified, and improved in Human Revolution, but Eidos Montréal have taken care to never invalidate the player’s ability by subjugating it to their design. Instead, game design and player skill are two seamlessly fused components of the same glorious machine, so that the developer-player relationship is truly collaborative, rather than adversarial, for the first time in the series.
If this is the benchmark that Eidos Montréal have set for themselves, I’ll gladly own up to being giant-sized commentating blowhard every time I spend $60 for one of their games, which will be often. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has redefined the standards of what I expect from a game; never have I been so glad to have been proven so unequivocally wrong.