Most of my playthrough of Human Revolution was bloodless. Most. It was one particular mission in Hengsha that finally broke my resolve. The bad guys and I were both looking for a hacker. Naturally, I found him first. Unfortunately, the bad guys weren’t far behind.
Just as hackerman and I completed our business, the apartment complex he was staying in was assaulted. And, from a balcony on the third floor, I watched as the bad guys put a bullet in the brain of a civilian that just happened to be in their way.
When the cutscene ended, hackerman asked me to give him a fighting chance. I gave him a shotgun and told him to run. And although the mission objective required that I simply escape the ambush, I had something entirely different in mind.
See, the bad guys had slaughtered every single inhabitant in the complex. Civilians, all of them. There wasn’t a single pod that wasn’t bloody. Not a single floor that wasn’t littered with corpses or black from smoke. And I was pissed.
So, for the first of only two times in my playthrough, I broke my no killing rule and took it upon myself to unleash hell.
But killing people is noisy business and I didn’t want them to know that I was there, or that I was coming. Death does not announce his arrival, after all. He simply is.
So I knocked them out. One by one. I snuck up on them, put them to sleep and then, when the complex was finally silent, I went to each unconscious murderer and put a bullet in their brain. I double checked the corpses to make sure they were all corpses and then, satisfied with my handiwork, I left.
Human Revolution is tremendously immersive role playing
Human Revolution is a first-person, role playing game which – like its predecessors – are essentially the gold standard of how to do powerful, moving, story-driven games. That isn’t because the story itself is especially extraordinary, but because of how Deus Ex invites you to bury yourself in the world and then makes that world react to (almost) everything you do.
Early in the game, I snuck my way into the Detroit PD’s armoury and cleaned it out. Near the end of the game, I stumbled on some cops talking about it and how they hoped the press didn’t get wind of the mess. At around the same time, I sweet-talked a former colleague into letting me into a restricted area. He got fired for it and confronted me at my apartment later. And at a point in the game, when all hell breaks loose, I found myself wandering through the streets of Detroit, just listening – to a frantic crowd asking cops how they were to get home if a train wasn’t plying; to a woman filing a report over a missing purse; to a group of people nervously discussing the events of the day behind barricades, watching madness unfold from a safe distance.
It was chaos. And I really felt like I was actually, physically, in the middle of it.
Human Revolution is 9 years old and while the visuals show their age, the atmosphere is nearly unmatched. At the very beginning of the game, because I got my hacking skill up quick, I went around Sarif Headquarters – the starting area – opening locked doors and rifling through people’s stuff. When I came back to the building later in the game and checked my email, I was equally surprised and horrified to find an email from someone grumbling about the thefts in the office, saying that people were complaining about missing stuff. That email came to me, by the way, because the game’s protagonist, Adam Jensen, is Sarif Industries’ head of security. The irony is not lost on me.
It is such a small thing. One single email which is the game’s way of saying, “Hey, you did this thing twenty hours ago, when you thought no one was looking but it mattered.” Take the idea behind that email, that attention to detail, that emphasis on action and reaction, the determination to show that your choices have consequences, and then apply it to the entirety of a videogame – and then you’ll have Deus Ex.
It’s also very flexible role playing
By design, like its predecessors, Human Revolution is sandbox-y. Your character, Adam Jensen, is an augmented human, meaning that some of his fleshy bits have been replaced by mechanical bits. This, in turn, means two things. First, that you get a lot of personal insight into the game’s overarching conversation about transhumanism – simply because Jensen can do things that no normal person would be able to do. And second, it means that you get to do a bunch of really cool things.
As an example, as you acquire experience and level up, you can unlock skills that allow you to pick more complex electronic locks, ignore the effects of toxic gases, jump really high, punch through solid walls, see through solid walls, go invisible, and shoot tiny bombs out of your arms. And the entirety of the game is designed assuming that you can have any of these options available to you at any time.
Each of those abilities represents a different way to progress through a level, and each is perfectly valid – do you pick the lock on the door, for example, or do you punch through the wall beside it? Do you want to sneak your way through the game, or fight your way through, or sneak until you find turrets and robots that you can hack to do your killing for you? Do you like using guns or do you just want to pick up vending machines and throw them at people?
Every single mission is a fascinating puzzle, a chance to use some or all of the tools at your disposal to get to wherever it is you need to go.
And it’s just very satisfying role playing
I found it very, very easy to dive headfirst into the world that Human Revolution sets up and then allows you to play in. There’s tons of information scattered everywhere that paints little, interesting pictures about the state of the world and the people that live in it – from emails and ebooks, to newspapers and snippets of overheard dialogue. It often feels like there’s just so much going on that it’s hard to keep up, very much like life itself at the time of this writing.
It’s easy to read emails between folks in a media company and be repulsed by the conversations; to overhear snippets of conversations between people about augmentation and empathize with their arguments. It’s easy to forget for a little while that this is just a videogame, and to be completely and utterly absorbed in the fantasy of it all, even when that fantasy is horrifying.
And while the bulk of the game is like this, there are a few moments when Human Revolution feels like it stumbles. The ending is one of those times. Not in the quality of the narration or in how it concludes the story beats, but in the way it’s executed.
All said and done, it felt rather anti-climatic. I made my choice, a cutscene played, the game ended. It felt a bit like a wet thud after the incredible amount of agency that I had been given in the many hours that led me to that point.
Fortunately, those times are few and far between.
The end was dull to me only because of how much I enjoyed getting there. There were moments when I was genuinely, personally invested, where I was angry, and frustrated, and upset, and wanting revenge, and cooling off, and coming to my senses – and that emotional connection is a big part of what role playing is about.
For a little while, you inhabit a character and a world and a story. And if you’re really lucky, if they’re really good, you’ll find that you’ve lost yourself in a character and a world and a story. Fortunately, 9 years later, Human Revolution is still very, very good.
So, to sum this up …
Human Revolution is a game that can and will be different things to different people. It will be an RPG for some, an FPS for others, a stealth game for someone else – but, no matter how you choose to play it, Human Revolution invites you to suspend disbelief for a little while, to walk around in Adam Jensen’s shoes and ask yourself: what does it mean to be human?
It aims high, succeeds in many areas, falls short on a few but is consistently and without fail a great deal of fun. If you’ve played Human Revolution before, this is as good a time as any to dig it out once more. And if you haven’t played Human Revolution before, 2020 feels like a hell of a time to do it. Because it’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.