Monday, January 14, 2013

Video Game Review: Deus Ex Human Revolution
One part of this game's knockout soundtrack.

Deus Ex Human Revolution was very interesting to play. I've not played the original, or at least not a lot - I'm pretty freakin' awful at it, and the game's graphics (at least on my computer) are way too damn dark. I've neither played nor looked at the sequel, I don't even remember its name. I didn't even read a plot summary before booting up the game.
Actually, weird story. For at least a year, I simply COULD NOT make the game run on my computer. It wasn't a spec issue, my computer was fully capable. I tried everything we could think of to make the game start. I was capable of starting the separate DLC The Missing Link (though at this point of writing, I haven't played it yet anyway), but for some reason the main game just refused to go. Skip ahead a year now, and it still won't start, but I go through another round of experimentation and finally get it right! Novemeber 2012, I can finally play a 2011 game.

Speaking of "2011 game," I should describe DXHR. Released in 2011, the game is a science-fiction (cyberpunk) first-person cover-based action game developed by Eidos and published by Square Enix. I intentionally didn't call it a Shooter. See, the genius of DXHR's gameplay is that it is variable. Not, like, variable levels of difficulty (though there are difficulty levels; for reference, I played on whatever silly name it made up for easy mode), but variable in the different WAYS you can play the game. A lot of games like to advertise that you can build the type of character to fit your playstyle. This is a big function of The Elder Scrolls - build a magic focus, build a weapon focus, build a stealth focus, etc. In DXHR, there are three main methods of playing, though only two are really that effective. Your choices? Essentially, you have "guns" or "stealth." Technically you could try a "melee" path but without stealth you're just gonna die if you do that. What's different in this game is that, in 90% of circumstances, this is NOT a false choice. In TES, if you don't focus on something combat based, you're dead. In the Metal Gear Solid games (moreso the last three, the first two there's not even any semblence of choice) if you choose to focus on combat and ignore stealth, you're dead (and an idiot). But in this game, if you choose to focus on combat, you can win. If you choose to focus on stealth, you can win. If you choose to focus on hacking, you only need a bit of the others. The entire game really hinges on this ability to play in different ways, and every level is actually pretty artfully designed to accomodate all playstyles. It reminds me of the Assassin's Creed games, especially Brotherhood and occasional spots of III. In the AC games, EASILY the worst bits of the game for me (aside from when the controls run away from me) are the forced-stealth segments because they force you into a single playstyle that lacks some degree of fleshing out - a real sad thing with the full synch system providing a much better path to inspiring stealthy gameplay. As a quick aside, Assassin's Creed 1 is almost entirely freeing, allowing you to stab a dude pretty much however you wanted, stealthy or action-y, without penalty. I think the perfect inverse of DXHR's mutliple paths idea would be Uncharted 2. UC2 is ALSO a game that includes multiple subsystems in the game - guns, melee, stealth. Unlike DXHR, which in general you can solely focus on one path, UC2 is INTEGRATED. Avoidance isn't really possible, so stealth can't go on its own. The game puts enemies in hard to reach places, making pure melee difficult. You CAN do the game as solid guns, but you're REALLY at a disadvantage if you do. I'm not judging one game as better based on this, just really talking about the different ways a game maker can approach game-building - focus on multiple near-exclusive paths (DXHR), focus on multiple integrated paths (UC2, TES), focus on a single primary path that the game does well (MGS).

I'm done talking about that for now. Something the game does in stunningly good fashion is the level-up system. Levels aren't statistic bonuses, but points you can invest in upgrading or installing Augmentations (cybermods). The interesting difference of this versus, say, Elder Scrolls (the only other example from above that has an advancement system), is that DXHR's system is actively and constantly giving you cool new things to do. Yeah, TES does it with Perks too, but in less-constant fashion. Upgrades like the Icarus Landing System or the Punch-Through-Walls or any of the eye-affecting augmentations are strong gameplay elements in that they increase the variety of things you can do and see and keep things fresh. Probably the only one I can think of that was intrinsicly boring in the way of other games's statistic boosts (boring in the sense that they're simple numerical upgrades - you might be seeing my RPG design philosophy here, numbers aren't interesing) is the Dermal Armor, which is just a health/defense boost. Maybe the battery/recharge-rate ones too. The other nice thing is that everything feels necessary and helpful, always. When I had Praxis (level-up points) I always felt conflicted about what to take because there were so many cool things I wanted to get, there was never an obvious "oh yeah, this one is far more important" situation.

That said, one of them IS more important due to the fatal flaw of the game, the single issue that vastly hurts the game, and that's the boss fights. Within the game, there are three significant ones. Now, boss fights can be good, even in a stealth game where you're avoiding combat - just look at MGS, it has some really interesting ones, MGS3 in particular did a great job with the freakshow bosses. The problem in DXHR is that they entirely forgot their guiding design principle of multiple-paths. The boss fights are solid gunplay. Stealth will not help you. Melee will not help you. Non-lethal will not help you. You need to take out big guns and shoot them until they fall down and hope you don't fall down first. There is no other way to do them really, though I'm sure true pros can disprove me. Here's a problem for me, because I mostly played stealth and non-lethal when I could. After the first boss fight and hearing that the others were all serious gunplay, I immediately began sinking all my Praxis I could into the Dermal Armor. From then on, I never left my shotgun with the burst-round system (essentially a two-bullets-per-shot mod, with double ammo cost) at home. That, my super-modified (especially silenced) 9mm, my stun gun, and my tranq rifle never left my pockets if I could help it. But seriously, the boss fights are a pain in the ass, and if you are forced to play a shoot-y game then the other paths are NOT really viable until you've got those augments under your belt.
Let's talk about the individual bosses. The first one, Barrett, actually isn't too bad. I didn't have combat upgrades at that point and still won on, uh, I think I MIGHT have died once. You can just kite him around cover while you recharge your health. The second one is a HUGE bitch, but there are some clever tricks you can do involving shooting the hell out of the wall consoles to electrocute everyone (including you, unfortunately). The shotgun is great for that, breaks 'em fast. Lots of kiting her around while recharging, and the vision mod that lets you see her while she's cloaked is pretty helpful at times. The last one is a trick boss. I sure hope you didn't get that LIMB Clinic upgrade chip when the glitching was happening, the game was trying to trick you. I knew it was a trap, but I got it anyway. If you did, you get no HUD and no Battery and no Abilities for this fight and your vision is all wonky. He's a huge bitch. It's fortune + kiting to win, plus being accurate enough to not run out of ammo like I kept doing. He's also FAST and skips over walls, you need a big gun but not one that's slow to fire or is inaccurate. Basically, you need to be damn accurate with your combat rifle (the seeker-rounds mod is super-helpful - yes, you can still turn your gun mods on! The game won't tell you that, but you CAN!) or have your shotgun at the ready (I keep typing "shotfun"...). Good luck. Apparently The Snake is a joke if you didn't get the chip.
Blam. Blam. Blam. I'd like to put the guns down now thanks.

Stealth is decent. My big issue is that, once caught, you're not gonna be un-caught really. My other big issue is that stealth PLUS non-lethal is really really not great, because you can't keep watch over people to make sure they don't get woken up by their friends and then you're on high alert and all of the enemies are there. So you essentially need to be perfect the first time or it's time to switch to combat mode. Understandable I guess, but I'm used to games being a little more forgiving than that. However, there's a lot of opportunity in the game to not get caught, and I'm pretty impressed by that. Very well thought out.

Hacking is a lot of fun. I'm not so sure about the difficulty curve (it's either too hard or too easy depending on the moment and the augments you sank in - don't bother with Analyze or Fortify really). However, despite that, it's fun. Seriously. And hunting for passwords for systems you MIGHT be able to hack but but think the password is sitting around the environment somewhere is really cool and one of the best things I recognize from the first game.

Here's my biggest issue with the game: despite the availability of various game systems, the game isn't particularly conducive to a non-lethal run. See, there are three avenues to doing a non-lethal run. First, avoidance. As already mentioned, this can be problematic because one notice and you're fucked. However, this is also the best method overall. Second, non-lethal weaponry (the stun gun and tranq rifle). The tranq rifle doesn't have great accuracy and is hard to use, but the stun gun is really effective. However, the game has a very nasty habit of not giving you a ton of ammo for these guns. Lastly, there's melee - when you do a close range attack, it's one buttom click, held for lethal or pressed for non-lethal, and it's perfectly effective. The problem there is that in DXHR, you have a limited number of batteries. From empty, only one recharges - more than one, you're going to need to use consumables to fill 'em up. How does this relate to melee? Well, apparently, punching a dude drains a whole battery. This is not good. I do not understand the sensibility of it, and next to the boss fights it's the most infuriating thing in the game. Another, more specific problem for doing a non-lethal run is one of the final levels, which mostly consists of fighting mindless crazies who just rush you and come in swarms - turns out single-shot non-lethal weapons and battery-stealing melees are bad for swarms, and discipline is hard to maintain when you have an automatic-fire combat rifle in your pocket that would be SO much easier. The game really does everything in its power to make a non-lethal run hard, but also infuriatingly boring.

Social gameplay! The game knows what it's doing, that's for sure. It's the most robust social system I've ever seen in a game, especially with the CASIE implants (which I highly recommend, they make the game significantly more fun). DAMN good. If more games can do a social system with this level of depth, it will be a step forward.

So, let's talk real quick about the other three facets of the game.
Plot: The plot is actually quite good. While the way it comes on at first made me think it was going to be a pretty heavy-handed story about growing corporatism, I was surprised. Yes, the situation is a bit heavy-handed. But it's not judgmental really - the game takes several sides of a real issue, exaggerates them, and then presents the arguments both for and against each of those sides. I ABSOLUTELY believe that that conflict would come up about that way if Augmentation technology eventually reaches that degree (which I believe it will, but that's a different day). Things got overblown in the game, and directly calling things the Illuminati was pretty ridiculous, but the basic conceptual debate is good.

Graphics: The visuals of the game fall into two categories, cutscene and in-engine. The cutscene graphics are pretty damn gorgeous - I'd expect as much, since Eidos let their publisher Square Enix do 'em, and if there's one thing Square Enix knows how to do, it's make cutscene graphics. Theyre pretty astounding, but I don't quite think they have the STYLE of the engine graphics. The in-engine stuff is frankly AWESOME. See, despite a relative lack of technical perfection, it has something that the video game industry thrives on - art direction and style. The places are memorable, even if they're not perfectly rendered. The game puts this yellow glow on things (supposedly the HUD from your cybereyes) that looks really good. I'm not doing a great job of describing it, but I'm unbelievably happy with the graphics for this game. It's one of the most interesting to look at games in recent times, by quite a bit.

Sound: In-game sound effects? Pretty standard. Soundtrack by Michael McCann? Fantastic. I featured it originally in February Songaday, but more significantly I featured McCann's X-COM Enemy Unknown soundtrack on October Songaday Day 24 and linked a bunch of DXHR songs. It's really good, and you should check out that page for some samples. It's easily accessable through the Music tab up top!

That should be pretty much it. Let's conclude:
DXHR is a very well-built game with a lot of refinement and some well-thought out design choices, marred by a couple crippling little flaws that exist too close to the core of the game for comfort. This is still a triple-A title and is absolutely worth a play if you're a cyberpunk fan, or even just a sci-fan fan in general.
Score/Grade: 93/100, A.

End Recording,

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