Deus Ex: Human Revolution ★★★★½
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a prequel to the classic Deus Ex, set in a future 2027 where cybernetic augmentation technology is changing the world. Like the original, it’s both a first-person shooter and a role-playing game. The original Deus Ex was very much about the conspiracy theory, and the writers did a good job of researching real-world theories to work into the storyline. This game focuses more on the ramifications of human augmentation technologies and how it creates haves and have-nots, though there are still some Illuminati references. You can see some interesting adverts from inside the game at Deus Ex: Human Revolution Asks The Tough Questions.
The gameplay is very good: it supports lots of sneaking around and avoiding guards rather than fighting them, and in addition to a lethal sniper rifle, there’s a tranquilizer-dart rifle for people who prefer their body count to be unconscious instead of dead. (The game rewards this with extra experience points, quieter takedowns, and a “Pacifist” trophy. I wound up tranqing or tasering the head of security for Tai Yong Medical three different times and was wishing there was a way to tease him about it.) Like the original, they put a lot of work into the worldbuilding, and it’s worthwhile to talk to almost everyone you meet to get their individual take on the situation— some dialogue does repeat, but it’s rare. There’s also a completely unrealistic “hacking” minigame that lets you break into computers and security systems, which can get you passcodes for breaking into secure locations as well as lots of in-world detail as you eavesdrop on the e-mail between characters in the game. There are also several “social combat” scenes where you can try to talk people around to your point of view (sometimes getting them to avoid a suicidal choice), which can be aided by a very nifty bit of cyberware called a social enhancer that gives you information on what your target’s vital signs say about what they’re thinking.
The story also works well: the hero, Adam Jensen, is the head of security at Sarif Industries, which is attacked and several top scientists abducted. He is gravely wounded in the attack and given a set of cutting-edge military augmentations, and six months later is dragged back in to work from his post-surgical physical therapy when a second attack occurs and his skills are needed. He then starts peeling the layers away to find out who performed the original attack, and why. On the way, there are a lot of side missions that provide moral litmus, finding out who you’ll choose to help in a given conflict.
I was a bit disappointed by the ending. The original Deus Ex was about power, and ended with a choice: do you turn your back on global civilization, try to put the djinni back in the bottle, and return to a simpler time? Do you leave it to an unaccountable elite cabal to steer the world? Or do you look for a new way forward that actually gives a damn for the ordinary human? I thought they handled the choices well.
This one is similar: an Illuminati plot has gotten the majority of augmented humans to get a biochip “upgrade” that is intended to allow the Illuminati to keep people in check, potentially shutting down their augmentations if they become troublesome, and a rogue Illuminatus has used that biochip to drive every augmented person in the world berserk in an attempt to make people so fearful of augmentation that they will ban it entirely and avoid ever having an augmented/unaugmented divide. There are four choices: spin it so the rogue’s scheme works; spin it so augmentation is brought under strict oversight with the Illuminati steering things behind the scenes; spin it so the blame gets pinned on anti-augmentation terrorists and augmentation research can go on, full speed ahead; or destroy all the evidence so no one knows what happened, and let humanity figure things out going forward.
This frustrated me, because they made the choice about augmentation rather than what it was really about: power and secrecy. (A differing opinion: It’s about DRM.) There was no option for giving people the full truth and letting them figure it out for themselves. It’s pretty clear in-game that Adam Jensen is wired for sound, and given all the hardware crammed into him, it’s not much of a stretch to think he’s wired for video and has a lifelog for the whole adventure. The ending I wanted was to tell the world: “This catastrophe happened because unaccountable elites were allowed to wield their power out of your sight. Media manipulation, corporate warfare, and human experimentation can’t happen without the cooperation of ordinary people holding down day jobs. Augmentation is a tool like any other, able to help or harm; most of the people who made the decisions that have harmed so many aren’t even augmented. The danger here is secrecy. You need to decide how much privacy, how much secrecy, can be permitted to those with power; you need to figure out rules for transparency and whistleblower protection.” And then dump out the whole lifelog onto the Net: the globe-clutched-in-a-fist statue in the secret media-manipulation bunker in the world’s biggest news organization and the internal e-mails showing how they’re manipulating public opinion, the dirty tricks records from the augmentation manufacturer trying to get a monopoly by attacking competitors to weaken them and make them vulnerable to buyouts, the people being shipped in cryogenic containers from China to a secret lab in Singapore where they’re used in lethal experiments. In essence, giving the Wikileaks treatment to the secrets of the Illuminati and pointing people to the real problem, not the pretext for the crisis.