Generally, when a game is going to be bad, I can tell. Even a year away from release, I can usually spot a stinker a mile away, as there are certain things that time simply won't fix. Bad design decisions, poor gameplay flow, a lack of creativity. These are all things that jump out and bite games journalists in the face. You hope things will change, but, 95% of the time, they won't.
With "Deus Ex: Human Revolution," I had no clue whether it was good or not until I played three hours of it last week. The last I had seen of it was at E3 2010. What was shown was a very action-heavy demo where the developers spoke about player choice, but didn't do a very good job showing it. In truth, it was a way to show the world that "Deus Ex" could appeal to the "Halo" crowd. As a fan of the previous games, all it did was make me worried.
Last week, I took a trip up to Eidos Montreal to play the first three hours of the game. This, indeed, would be plenty of time to determine whether the last four years of development time was well-spent.
A ROUGH START
To be honest, the first fifteen minutes had me a bit worried. The game starts with an extremely linear prologue with no player choice, no character customization, no nothing. It played like the first level of "Halo: Combat Evolved." Things were popping out, I was shooting them, but that was basically it. Where was the multi-path gameplay I was promised? Thankfully I didn't have to wait long.
After that initial action-packed prologue, the game shifts dramatically. Certain events transpire and the game's hero, Adam Jensen, is forced to get cybernetically augmented to keep him alive. The game picks up six months after the prologue, as Jensen is returning to his job at a place called Sarif Industries.
Suddenly you're in a large, three-level office building filled with people to talk to, offices to break into, computers to hack. Suddenly I was playing a "Deus Ex" game. For fans of the original "Deus Ex," Sarif Industries is your UNATCO. It's entirely combat free (for the time being, at least) and entirely optional.
Your boss radios you and tells you there's something urgent he needs to see you about. Many players will likely bee-line to the boss's office, get the lowdown, and head off on their next mission. That whole process might take 5 minutes. I spent about 40 minutes exploring. Every single NPC had something different to say (usually about them being surprised I was back so soon and trying to ignore the fact that I had metal eyeballs now). Conversations clued me in on possible side-missions which lead me to offices which had computers with emails and passkey codes for other offices which had vents and credits hidden and so on and so forth.
For those that appreciate this sort of deep-dive exploration, "Deus Ex: Human Revolution" will not disappoint. The developers even said that this sort of open environment was small in comparison to some of the city hubs later in the game. If you want to follow just the main mission line, you can. If you don't, you're going to have plenty of other things to keep you occupied. Suddenly I was beginning to understand why this game took more than four years to make.
Amusingly, it was my quest for knowledge that ended up costing me. After about 30 minutes, the boss radioed again to say that I had dawdled too long and that hostages had died. When was the last time a game told you to be somewhere quick and actually meant it? There was no timer counting down, no phony gameplay elements. Urgent in "Human Revolution" actually means urgent, and showing up late will result in repercussions.
Once the hostages were dead, though, there was less of a rush, so a cruised around for another 10 minutes before meeting with the boss. Thus began the first true mission of the game, which showed the real gameplay flow that would exist throughout.
TAKING YOUR TIME
Here's what I'll say: This game is slow. But not in a bad way. Really it just requires more thought, especially early on when ammo is at premium and you don't have very many powers at your disposal. Watch the video at the top of this post and you'll get a sense of the pacing. That section they're showing off? I died about six times. Three guys with pistols in "Human Revolution" can leave you dead real quick, so you really have to use the environment effectively. I didn't.
I had picked a tranquilizer rifle at the beginning of the mission, but the guards kept waking up their buddies when I knocked them out. My plan to attempt the mission without any causalities (something you can do for the entire game, save for the boss fights) was down the tubes at the first encounter, as I ran out of ammo, melee'd a guy to death, stole his pistol and exploded a nearby gas can. So much for my Nobel prize.
The rest of the mission slowly taught me the right way to play this game: Be patient, be thoughtful, look at your surroundings. At almost every encounter, I would notice two or three different ways to handle it (usually right after I had done it the most clumsy way possible). Stealth is always an option, but why not hack a turret against the guards instead? Out of ammo? Hurl a heavy box at someone's head to knock them out. Like any good "Deus Ex" game, "Human Revolution" gives you options.
A TALE OF TWO DEMOS
The number of options really became apparent when I noticed that another member of the press, sitting right next to me, took about half the time I did to get through the demo. It wasn't because I'm terrible...it was because I wanted to take my time, I wanted to try to be strategic with my encounters, to explore every nook, to read every piece of email. If I wanted to run and gun, that option was there (though an easier difficulty level would've been required), but my path took twice the amount of time and I feel like I digested twice as much of the world.
The game is scheduled for five months from now, and there's definitely still work to be done. Apparently I was working off a build that was three months old, and the controls (which did feel a bit swimmy and loose in my playthrough) have been tightened. There's also been another lighting pass which should hopefully clean up some of the starker-looking character models. But, all things considered, these are relatively minor issues compared to the core. The core, I'm happy to say, is "Deus Ex" to a T.