While the Mass Effect series sheds its stats and inventories in favor of forging an intelligent, emotionally driven shooter, Deus Ex: Human Revolution examines and embraces the structure of Ion Storm's 11-year-old classic, Deus Ex: Didn't Have a Subtitle. Environments don't exist to funnel you through perfectly scripted events -- they're complicated, multi-tiered stacks of obvious and hidden pathways. And Adam Jensen, a stoic security manager who returns from dramatic near-death as a grumpy cyborg, can warp himself biologically to accommodate those routes. There is perhaps no greater proof that this is a role-playing game, however, than the ability to conclude just about every conversation by punching your quest giver into an unconscious rag doll. If there's one caveat to Deus Ex's strategy-through-augmentation approach, it's the inherent bias towards stealth and hacking. The ability to grow out of it as you upgrade your armor and modify weapons with wonderful things like laser sights and armor-piercing capabilities is definitely one of the game's strengths, but you'll find Jensen to be slow and made of glass if you start shooting with no moderation. It's no great shame, because shooting is easily one of the least interesting approaches to the game's objectives, and the only negative side-effect of Human Revolution's demonstrable confidence in its player.
How many games would allow you to complete mission objectives out of order, or even before they've been placed into the conspiracy plot's to-do list? As you explore an embittered, defeated Detroit City (and later, a Chinese interpretation of Final Fantasy VII's double-stack metropolis, Midgar), you'll discover a restrained sprawl of accessible apartments, sewers, slums and guarded targets of interest. These are not constructed to support individual missions exclusively. They exist long before you get there, and can offer side-quests, bonus experience points and -- yes -- objectives that may be crucial at a later stage. And the game won't break if you hop over a line, because there are no lines.
Human Revolution has too much integrity and subtlety to put a giant DANGER arrow over a hostile area. If you see gun-toting guards marching about, you should know to approach with a lower profile. Beyond some isolated, plot-specific locations, there are no demarcated levels and no sections that go "Shush!" when it's time for stealth. Every element of the game is contiguous to the next and part of a fantastic, coherent whole.
Never mind the mission objectives -- how many games trust you to have the rocket launcher within the first few hours? If you explore and overhear the right conversation, you can find one well before a weapons merchant offers it. Whether you hack your way through a back door to get it, crawl through some air vents, cloak yourself and approach directly, or punch a hole in a brittle wall is up to you and your prosthetic arms. And I repeat: it's not a mission!
Sometimes, combat and stealth can be avoided entirely if you succeed in one of a handful of intense negotiations. In one such scenario, gaining authorization to enter a police station hinges on your ability to mend a grudge from Jensen's past. Your success or failure adds nuance to the storyline and dramatically alters your approach to completing the mission. Talking your way in is the epitome of efficiency, while stacking boxes and hopping over a fence in the back is crude enough to hurt your pride.
Human Revolution's remarkable, coherent vision is impossible to capture without mentioning its vivid depiction of the future, where humanity is torn between those who improve themselves and those who are unfairly left behind. Jensen's positioning as a beacon for human augmentation is a source of personal discomfort, especially since his reconstruction has given him permanent douche branding via in-door sunglasses.
Indeed, Eidos Montreal has gotten a suspicious number of things right in its first game. The art exhibits cleanliness without feeling sterile, the warmly lit, awe-inspiring architecture neatly precludes the obligatory Blade Runner comparisons (for the most part), and the synthesized soundtrack is understated but absolutely essential. In the category of amateurish blunders, however: mediocre, grenade-spamming boss fights that don't do much to reward ingenuity on your part, some sparse checkpointing (save often if you're playing stealthily!) and some serious loading times.
These issues sting less in a game that doesn't coddle you. Eidos Montreal allows you to play freely within its intelligently layered systems, rather than dragging you by the nose through cinematic event after cinematic event. This is the difference between a game that is well made and one that is well designed.
And let's remind ourselves that it is not being judged in a vacuum -- newcomer Eidos Montreal flippantly barges onto the scene and hushes the crowd of streamlined, focus-tested roller coaster games. Human Revolution is an imperfect, complex and ambitious reminder of what a game can be when it's unafraid.
This review is based on a pre-release PC version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution provided by Square Enix. It supports a proper mouse and keyboard interface, and adjusts well for gamepad control.