When a video game publisher revives a derelict franchise and hands over the reins to a new crew to find out if there is any gas left in the tank, the usual result is a game inspired by its predecessor, but one that refuses to allow itself to be defined by the past. Sometimes the result is something spectacular, as in the case of Fallout 3, while other times the aftermath is best left forgotten in the sales bin, as recently happened with Dungeon Siege.
So, it would be no surprise to say that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is inspired by its roots with occasional nods to a now eleven-year-old game, but that it also rejects the inflexibility of the original game's purists and applies the lessons of more than a decade of video game advancement. That’s what you would normally expect, unless of course it were precisely those inflexible purists that were put in charge of the franchise. If that happened, what you might get is a game so obsessed with trying to be its predecessor that it never really becomes itself.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what Deus Ex: Human Revolution becomes; a rare reboot that desperately wants to fool you into believing you are playing its great grandfather.
Occasionally, as I worked my way through the fourteen hours I’ve so far put into Human Revolution, I found myself thinking about the 2006 Superman film reboot, Superman Returns. I remember watching that movie and puzzling over how it said in the credits that Kevin Spacey was playing Lex Luthor when clearly he was playing Gene Hackman. I remember thinking that Brandon Routh was wishing so hard he were actually Christopher Reeve that at least half of his salary must have been laying at the bottom of wishing wells.
Human Revolution is like Superman Returns in that way. It isn’t just that the game occasionally winks at fans of the series. Rather, it explicitly evokes the previous game to the point of near distraction. Wandering the streets of Human Revolution's cities, you are as likely to encounter a person whistling the theme to the original Deus Ex or stumble across some oblique reference to a minor character from the earlier game as you are an actual, relevant plot point.
The problem, of course, is that Deus Ex is a true PC classic, perhaps one of the best games of all time, and you can’t just pretend your way into being that. Human Revolution is simply not one of the best games of all time.
For one thing, the actual game itself suffers from a number of performance issues and bugs. On my mid-range system at recommended detected settings I experienced desktop crashes and framerate issues that left me spending the the first hour or so in the company of online tech solutions instead of augmented bad guys. Even after surfing forums, tweaking settings, rolling down options, turning off Vsync and searching through Windows event logs, the game ran for me finally in DX 10 medium settings at something I might liberally call “acceptable enough.”
Furthermore, regardless of whether you play on PC or console, there are some extraordinary load times in this game. Though you aren’t required to load as often as you were in the highly segmented Deus Ex: Invisible War it’s still hard to ignore a 20-30 second load time even at the best of times, much less just after you've died and are waiting to retry a section. And what precisely is the game spending so much time packing away, because it’s not as though the visuals are so spectacular that the load times and performance issues can be easily forgiven.
The relatively confined spaces of the game have their moments certainly, but Human Revolution is clearly more invested in mood setting than any kind of advanced visual wizardry. Characters in particular, augmented or otherwise, are wooden and awkward, never feeling like people in a real space so much as Chuck E. Cheese animatronics that at any moment might pick up a banjo and wish a five-year-old happy birthday.
And, if you’ve heard that the boss fights are disproportionately difficult , frustrating and out of character to the rest of the game, then let me assure you that you have only the slightest inkling of how unpleasant these boss fights actually are. Particularly if you have modeled your character down a pacifism and stealth path, prepare to find yourself dying, waiting about 30 seconds for the level to reload, and then immediately dying again. Even after turning down the difficulty level, it still took me a good six or seven tries to get past the first boss.
There are other complaints I could levy at this game — things that begin to devolve into minutia. The game lacks the really strong secondary characters that the original had to provide a kind of counter-point and alternative view of events. There isn’t really enough sense of augmentation or activating powers to help shift the balance of power. The plot gets a little silly over time. There are all kind of little cracks that constantly remind you that, while you are playing a game that wants to be Deus Ex, you are definitely not playing Deus Ex.
So I feel like I am entitled and well within my rights to be intensely disappointed with Human Revolution and brand it a game that at best pretends to a classic’s throne. But, I’m not disappointed. In fact, despite all these complaints I might have, I am absolutely and genuinely loving my time with Human Revolution. Let me break this out and emphasize for those merely skimming and who may be mistaken into believing they are reading a negative review.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution, despite all its very real flaws, is an excellent game and not to be missed.
While, I think it’s true that this is not one of the all-time classic games, that’s a mighty extraordinary yardstick on which to measure. This may not be the best game of all time, but its a damn good one and it would be a mistake to let its flaws get in the way of the otherwise excellent effort from Eidos Montreal. In fact, to truly love this game I think you have to embrace its shortcomings, because somehow the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and those flaws that should be game breaking merely add character. Besides, it’s not like Deus Ex was without flaws at its release, some of which it shares with Human Revolution like awkwardly animatronic characters and a story that is prone to wandering into the absurd.
For whatever Human Revolution may lose for not charting its own path, there are more advantages it picks up by relying heavily on the foundation built by the original game. Developers Eidos Montreal seem to understand what made the original Deus Ex great in a way that the people behind Invisible War never seemed to — which is interesting, because it was Warren Spector and Harvey Smith at the helm of that sequel, and you’d think that if anybody would get it, they would.
This is a game thick with atmosphere, and while its identity isn’t really its own, it pulls off its homage with delicacy and reverence. Unlike that tragic Superman reboot I mentioned earlier in this article, Human Revolution never devolves into unintentional parody or cheap mimicry. The attention to detail where it counts most — in the gameplay, the sound, the aesthetic and in the world building — make this a place you want to invest your time.
Odds are that halfway through the game you’ll already be plotting out how you’re going to approach the game the second time through, and will barely notice the blemishes that would distract in a lesser game.
No, Human Revolution is not the original Deus Ex, but it's come far closer than any game before it, including Invisible War. A long game that is less hotel bar cover band and more honest tribute, when it counts, when it is all most on the line, Human Revolution hits the notes that a fan of Deus Ex is likely to care about. And, as a game completely out of the context of its predecessor, it still manages to stand on its own as an engaging stealth action shooter.
This is a flawed but beautiful game, and somehow it’s made all the better by its shortcomings. Make no mistake, there are real problems with Human Revolution, and you shouldn’t go into the experience expecting any less, but this is one of those rare gems that rises above the kind of bugs and shortcomings that would sink most other titles. It rests in the hall of games like Oblivion, Half-Life 2 and even its predecessor as an experience that is imperfect and somehow inexplicably better for it.