On paper, Deus Ex can be broken into easily digestible components: FPS shooter, third-person cover system, RPG elements. Yet engage in the game properly and they all merge into one hell of an immersive experience.
We're trying to reason with a man who's using a woman as a human shield. As his gun is cocked against the side of her head, we read his face as closely as we can, trying to reason and empathise with him, the pull of the trigger only one wrong turn of phrase away.
In a parallel existence, he already lies dead, a victim of our choice to fight rather than reason upon entering the room. The woman, Josie Thorpe, is asking us if we've found her husband yet. In another existence, we fail in negotiation and she dies. In yet another, we do not fail and Faridah Malik, her kidnapper and terrorist leader, releases her and leaves the Sarif manufacturing facility room unscathed.
This is the tension-filled finale to our first gameplay session with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The time spent in-game doesn't even clock in at half-day's worth of work, yet the impression the game makes will last well into the next few weeks. We're completely immersed in this sci-fi FPS thriller, hooked as only the best examples of any medium can do.
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An hour before we wrap up our morning session, we're dropping into a small office from an overhead ventilation shaft. We land amid scared workers tied to chairs and disarm a bomb. In a parallel existence, we botch its deactivation and we and the hostages die in a haze of toxic gases. In another, we fail to heed the warnings of one hostage, a man called Thorpe, and hit a tripwire when sneaking into the room through the main doors. We all die.
In yet another parallel existence, Thorpe and the rest of the facility workers are already dead, killed by the bomb we were too late to stop. The reason for our late arrival? We lingered too long in the hallways of Sarif's main offices across the city, putting off our trip to the helipad and the start of our first mission as a security agent to instead explore the office lobby.
That's Deus for you, rolling repercussions into every element of your choices throughout the game. Each parallel existence is another way you could have played out that situation, the opening mission offering multiple microcosms of alternate futures with each gameplay choice.
It's not like we haven't seen this gameplay mechanic before, but Ex's use of it hits with some heft. There's always some painful fallout to your decisions, making you feel more stupid bastard than cybernetic bad-ass. It's thanks to quality of three elements; outstanding voice-work, fantastic narrative and neo-noir atmosphere. It's because of this that the gut feeling of failure resonates so painfully. Even in this short gameplay session, we already know this cyberpunk thriller is one of the finest story-driven adventures of this, or any other generation.
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Flash back an hour, and we're crouched behind a small work station, one of many that make up a larger laboratory, watching an armed terrorist troop by for the third time. It's one a series of rooms we've had to navigate through looking for both hostages (optional) and something called the Typhoon. Think engineered weapon rather than 90s WWE wrestler.
Our eyes flick between him and the on-screen radar, which traces his three comrades just out of sight. Adam Jensen's bent form suggests patience. Our increased heart-rate does not. It's been the same all the way through our infiltration of the Sarif manufacturing plant, ghosting through rooms, corridors and air vents, stopping every few feet, listening for foot falls or idle conversation between patrolling groups. We haven't been this careful or intrigued by stealth operations since the original Metal Gear Solid in 1998.
The Sarif manufacturing facility that serves as the game's first real mission has a limited number of paths through a mixture of larger labs, changing rooms and executive offices, interconnected by the odd corridor. But every area is full of terrorists, and due to the heightened tension of some of those paths (exposing us for long seconds as we dash between cover points and sneak past the back of guards without being seen) you tend not to notice the constructed linearity.
Alternatively we could be dodging between cover points, snapping off head-shots as we go. On the helicopter ride over to the facility we were asked to make a choice of lethal or non-lethal engagements with the enemy, and given a weapon load-out accordingly.
If we choose the latter, and then choose a long over short range weapon, we end up with a tranquilliser rifle with scope. Its use; to pull troops away from guarding entrances as they check on a collapsed comrade across the room. Or, as it's used for the first time, to clear out the narrow alley to gain entry into the facility. Triggering an engagement by being seen, as we find out, is suicide. Deus Ex is a tough game, even on normal, one of the three difficulty settings available.
Yet in that other existence we're making our presence known solely to assemble those guards in close proximity before we unleash a controlled explosion from Adam's augmented body to kill them all in one bullet-saving hit.
The augmentations are one of the most important game mechanics to Human Revolution, and also factor heavily into the slowly emerging storyline. You're at the facility because a terrorist cell of Pro-Human Purists, radicals who believe grafting mechanical body parts and upgrading the human body through cyber-organic enhancers is immoral.
Sarif's the main designer and distributor of the augmentations; Jensen works directly for the head of the organisation David Sarif. Hence the police being told to stand down outside the building as you try and break in and end the siege. There's more to it than that. As we said, hostages aren't even your main priority - but explaining what you're really here for, and thereby reveal important plot points, would only spoil the surprise.
But as a gameplay mechanic, augmentation puts Deus Ex alongside the RPG big boys. With a button press to menu, you open your own human chop shop. Jensen's augmentations are divided into seven sections, cranium, torso, arm, eye, back, skin and leg, with an eight option for social enhancers.
Each section has multiple upgrades to consider, each benefiting a particular play style. Eidos Montreal asked us not to divulge every secret, as the entire stock of upgrades were available to view (most would not be available at this point) but they're tantalising in their descriptions.
So a brief few to tease: Communication disruptors that let you receive in-mission calls that are cloaked from enemy detection, increased hacking skills which are necessary when breaking into computer terminals, retinal enhancements that protect from the effects of flash grenades and torso augmentations that recharge energy cells, your on-screen energy bars that limit the number of physics-defying moves, or lessen their consumption.
Purchasing augmentations cost a Praxis Point each, which are doled out in scant numbers throughout the game. A strict limit with the potential of expansion also rings true of your weapons case.
A design ethic that will please Resident Evil fans and O.C.D sufferers, your inventory case's size is seven squares by eight, forcing you to organise your weapons and grenades to fit. You can in time expand that length to fourteen squares long. Its all part of making you consciously decide how you're going to play Human Revolution: gun-slinging tank or shadow agent.
That's Eidos Montreal for you, offering the choice of how to play each and every engagement. In this infiltration of terrorist-controlled Sarif construction facility, those choices have wilted down to stealth or action, but the developer promises to offers a more elaborate and sublime range of choices as the game progresses.
Further back in our run through of the facility and we're alternating between tapping and holding the takedown button, flitting between non and lethal takedowns. Snores or snapping necks greet each decision.
If you're this close to an assailant, you better be damn sure he doesn't know you're there, and he's alone. Engaging in the attack during a firefight is risky business, with us only pulling it off successfully by taking cover behind the door of a small office and waiting for people to walk by, gun drawn. The same as out in the alley at the start of our insertion, his comrades start calling out to him and sweep the area, following his patrol route. We stay hidden rather than move out, and are quickly spotted.
We're now near the start of our gameplay session with Deus Ex's opening few hours. We've just watched the intro credits sequence, as Adam Jensen undergoes painful augmentation surgery, refitting his broken and destroyed body into a cybernetic superhero, and now are in control of Jensen.
We're strolling through the lobby of Sarif's headquarters, revelling in the intense amount of detail granted each object in the lobby. Vid-screens advertise the company, others run the current news headlines. We touch buttons and listen in on a guided tour of the facility, eavesdrop on a few conversations that skilfully fill in the background of the world, the corporation, of Jensen himself. We play around with the conversation branch system, not realising several hours later our reading of body language cues and our control of conversation will be called into test to save a woman's life.
We explore bathroom cubicles, sneak into the women's facilities, all the while ignoring more urgent calls to head to the helipad and start the mission and instead appreciate the intricate depth Eidos Montreal has gone to in fleshing out this world. As we laugh at a co-worker's joke who spotted us sneaking into the women's toilets, across town a room full of hostages die in a mist of toxic fumes.
We're before the credits sequence now, engaging in an FPS that if it were not for the smaller visual details and engaging soundtrack, would be a fairly rudimentary shooter. We're struggling with the small but bitter taste of disappointment. This surely can't be it?
That's Deus Ex: Human Revolution for you; busting your balls by making you wait for the good stuff to kick in.
The game's opening is decent, but compared to what comes, is completely underwhelming. The first twenty minutes or so of Deus Ex is the weakest, but we understand the need for a basic tutorial. There's so much to take in, it'd be foolish to drop it on you from the start. So you begin with what amounts to a fairly average shooter.
The opening with a basic tutorial prologue that shifts from a partially-controlled walkthrough of human augmentation firm Sarif's main headquarters to an extended firefight back through the facility as it comes under attack.
The walk is a teaser for what's to come as well. For now Adam Jensen, the sunglasses-wearing Sarif security agent with the moody growl of a 70-a-day smoker is relatively human. Your walk through the testing labs working on body augmentations no more than a teaser to abilities that'll factor into your repertoire in...let's see...about twenty minutes time.
By that point you'll have a) met company head David Sarif, b) noted some past history between Adam and his lab escort Dr. Megan Reid, and c) rammed through a window and into lab equipment. A situation that sees your body crunched, sliced and diced in the span of seconds and kick-starts the game proper, as your augmented attacker kidnaps Dr. Reid and disappears.
It's in the moments between point B and point C that you can pick at Deus Ex's bones. The camera control and by extension aiming, feels too slow at first. The troops you fight (you catch glimpses of the augmented soldiers but never engage them) aren't the tactical geniuses we've seen in the likes of Halo, but then, this is only the beginning of the game.
Dying is a rather easy thing to achieve. Only a few successful hits will turn your HUD that dangerous red, and it takes twice, if not three times the length of the likes of Call of Duty to regenerate health and rid the screen of its deathly pallor. Nailing kill shots requires judicious taps of the triggers rather than extended pulls. Deus is definitely a tough game, and we die several times until we learn to respect the fact we're not supposed to be in this for the speed runs.
Aside from a couple of decent design elements, such as emptying a round into a glass containment cell to flood the area with toxic chemicals and wipe out an attack squad, and the crackingly good ambient soundtrack, it's so far, so FPS for the opening section. It's only come point C and post-credits that the game really starts to show its something special.
One place the game does excel in from the off is in the visuals, notably the facial animations and the smaller, finer details of every room you go into, leading to the close examination of every piece of paper and object that we haven't experienced since, well, Metal Gear Solid.
And while we still haven't seen a facial animation system that betters Valve's efforts from its Half-Life 2 series, Eidos Montreal's work easily manages to capture the emotions on every face you meet, something that plays an important part as we try and read Malik's shifting emotions at the demo's end.
Though our time with the game factored not even half a working day and took us only to two locations in all, the immersion in those brief hours is complete.
The staggeringly beautiful rendering of a futuristic cityscape intercut with a trench-coated agent musing on technological enhancements and conspiracies thematically associates it with sci-fi's greats: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Metal Gear Solid. Thought-provoking sci-fi with lashings of body-augmented action sequences.
And while it's near-future to Mass Effect's far-flung epic tale amongst the stars, and gunfights and cybernetic augmentations instead of Dragon Age or Oblivion's swords and sorcery, this world is every bit as immersive, every bit as fleshed out, every bit of a time sink.
Finishing our session and putting our headphones to one side felt like disconnecting from another life entirely. 2027 was a time and place we tried very hard to forget in the following few weeks, yet were eager to return to. We're already worried for our social lives in the weeks after Deus Ex's retail release this spring.
We're already booking time off to play it.
That's Deus Ex: Human Revolution for you: making hermits out of us all.