Deus Ex prequel goes out on limb with storyline, hit-or-miss with graphics

Benjamin Smith

Within the first 15 minutes of “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” you die — in one of the more realistic portrayals of what would actually happen if you got thrown through a plate glass window. You get better, though, and in a few short months return to your job as head of security for Sarif Industries, a biotechnology company headquartered in Detroit (obviously). Resurrection, however, does have its downside, and you, Adam Jensen, are now more machine than man.

The conflict at the core of “Deus Ex” concerns the heated debate over human enhancement technologies, namely cybernetics, a field in which Sarif Industries is considered a pioneer. By 2027, these technologies have become advanced to a point where commercial interests have begun to supersede their medical applications.

Invasive cybernetic augmentations like whole-limb prosthetics are in vogue and the corporations that produce them market their products as little more than plastic surgery. It seems odd that a person would willingly give up a perfectly healthy pair of legs for robot ones — until you consider that these robot legs are awesome — allowing you to run faster, jump higher and exponentially increase your literal ass-kicking power.

The choice of whether or not to augment himself with cybernetic prosthetics is not one Adam Jensen ever had the luxury of making; that decision was made for him as soon as he was unceremoniously tossed through a solid inch of glass. The decision to upgrade those enhancements, however, is entirely his — your — own and works within the framework of the game as a traditional RPG system.

Over the course of a play-through you’ll gain XP towards “Praxis points” that allow you to overhaul or expand on your augmentations, granting you abilities like x-ray vision, dermal armor and invisibility. Some of these enhancements are preposterously cool: such as one that allows you to punch through a wall so you can punch through the guy on the other side or the Typhoon weapon system that unleashes a hail of projectiles from a vest into the immediate area around Jensen in a 360-degree arc of death.

The system is interesting because the narrative of the game tends to warn against it, as each upgrade really separates Jensen more and more from his humanity. One particular upgrade optioned to Jensen late in the game actually has the potential to drastically affect later events. Those who could care less about such things, though, can expedite their trans-humanism by purchasing a limited number of additional Praxis points at “limb clinics” that become available periodically over the course of the game.

If you’re looking to turn Jensen into the kind of cyborg that would make fellow Detroit resident Robocop look like the robot from “Short Circuit,” one thing you’ll have to keep in mind is battery life. Jensen’s badassery is considerably curtailed by a system that requires melee moves and many augmentations to use up battery cells.

You’ll start the game with two of these and can add up to three more, but keeping those energy reserves filled requires the consuming of special nutrients that can be purchased at limb clinics but are otherwise few and far between. The system can be frustrating at times, but really it’s there to force you to play the game with a modicum of strategy, and bending to its will nets you a much richer gameplay experience.

The gameplay in “Deus Ex” takes its cues from a number of preexisting franchises, expertly weaving them together into its own unique brand. Like in “Mass Effect,” “Deus Ex” breaks up linear story missions with open-ended gameplay in city hubs where you can do things like access merchants and pick up side quests. The story missions themselves typically demand a stealthier approach and work within the familiar framework of stealth-action titles such as “Metal Gear Solid” and “Splinter Cell,” with the only difference being that “Deus Ex” plays in first person. You won’t really see anything new here, but the AI is solid, the cover system works and the stealth engine is clean.

The weapon system is similarly sound if not also unremarkable. There’s not a great selection of guns but the half-dozen attachments available for most of them almost entirely negates this.

When it comes to graphics, “Deus Ex” has one foot in greatness and the other in mediocrity. Most of the game looks above average. On the whole, it’s nothing stellar but settings are diverse, the lighting is brilliant and environments are layered. The two main city hubs, Detroit and the Shanghainese island of Hengsha, sit amid beautifully designed backdrops and are each poignantly defined by their distinct art directions. Hengsha in particular looks remarkable, a dual-layered metropolis dominated by a gargantuan platform, the impossible megastructure upon which sits the sleek, sun-soaked upper city and below which the glittery, neon-drenched lower city lies in perpetual darkness.

The graphics really come up short, though, in the character models. Jensen looks good, but outside of the main cast NPCs look horrible, particularly the women. It’s not a huge deal, but having to receive side-quests from some sideshow sporting a bizarrely textured face that looks like it’s been wiped down with Armor All can really put you off at times.

What makes “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” an achievement is its story, with Eidos more than succeeding in crafting a deep and immense world with involved characters and a considered mythology. You’ll pick up e-books reviewing decades in global politics, read emails about the retirement of Stephen Strasburg from a revived Montreal Expos franchise and see news crawls about the cancellation of a television show called “So You Think You Can Dodge Traffic?” “Deus Ex” punishes you for what you don’t know, and while you might not need to care that the Houston Astros are playing the San Diego Padres in the 2027 World Series, certain internal emails, PDA notes and news reports will give you a leg-up in navigating the game world and understanding its narrative.

There’s a lot going on in the world of “Deus Ex,” and to really understand the intricate and provocative themes, you have to spend a decent amount of time exploring it. There are multiple outcomes to every action you take in the game, and its climax forces Jensen to make a decision that will affect the entire course of human events. You could disregard all of this, blast through the game in around 25 hours and make all the decisions of a sociopath, but you’ll probably come away from “Deus Ex” feeling unfulfilled. To really make “Human Revolution” worth it, you’ll have to spend upwards of 40-50 hours with the game, taking on all the side quests and exploring the imposing ideas of trans-humanism and existential conflicts that ask lofty questions about what it truly means to be human. 

Printed on August 30, 2011 as: Prequel goes out on limb with cybernetic story line