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October 5, 2011

Filed under: gaming»software»deus_ex

Illuminated

When it comes to Deus Ex, I'm a contrarian: I think the second game was far better than the first, which was an ugly, buggy, tedious mess. Having finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it's probably the best of the three, assuming you skip its bizarre racial stereotypes. That's not just because the mechanics are better--although they are--or that the engine no longer looks like a bad Dark Forces mod. What I find most praiseworthy about Human Revolution is the way it actually engages with science fiction on a level deeper than laser swords and nano-babble.

Fundamentally, this is a game about progress. The developers use transhumanism and human enhancement (not to mention stabbing people with your robot arm-swords) as proxies for the ways that innovation interacts with class, with government, and with culture. This is all pretty standard fare for sci-fi, but it's something few games set in a science fiction world bother to raise. You don't see Gears of War dwelling on the morality of war, or Portal (for all its genius) drawing explicit lines to our relationship with science. Whatever annoyances it might have, I really respect Human Revolution for grabbing a big concept and taking it seriously.

This thoughtfulness extends all through the art design, which is genuinely great--probably the best since Mirror's Edge, in the way that it's both striking and still very much a video game. The visual theme that Eidos Montreal reportedly wanted to emphasize was Rembrandt, which means there's a lot of grainy, gold light bathing the scenes, outlined in clean digital polygons for interactions. The character animation during dialog could be sharper, but the visual worldbuilding is very thorough, and there are a couple of setpieces (like the all-white room late in the game) that are quietly impressive.

The attention to visual detail extends to the costuming, which really carries the Renaissance theme. But this is also a game about people merging with machines, and so mixed in with the capes and the ruffled collars are garments made with a kind of "low-polygon model" structure of tesselated triangles--as if some future fashion designer will be inspired by Battle Area Toshinden. Which is not, honestly, at all implausible, and is a pleasant change from the usual dystopian leather fetish. Even the body armor worn by the soldiers evokes a combination of iron plate and corsetry. Also nice: Adam Jensen's obligatory black trenchcoat is topped by shiny black velvet shoulder panels in a floral pattern, which I think is what all the hip cyborg messiahs are wearing this season.

There's a long history of games that compete visually based on fidelity and/or horsepower, like every iD title ever. And then there are games that go for highly-stylized rendering methods, like Team Fortress 2 or Wind Waker. Human Revolution operates somewhere between the two: it's a mostly-realistic engine, even one that's a little bit behind the times, being used to render a realistic world with a strong editorial style. It has a fashion sense, so to speak, one that helps to pull together its theme and world. I think that's part of why it feels so much more cohesive than the generic cyberpunk of the previous two.

But does it ultimately succeed in making a statement? It's one thing to raise provocative questions, but another to actually pose an argument. I think the real shame is that Human Revolution gets held held back at the last moment by being a Deus Ex title, meaning that it privileges pointless choice over point of view. Late in the game--late enough that it's comically irrelevant to the plot--two characters make their pitches for and against regulation of human enhancement technology. Reach the very end (this is no spoiler) and you'll be given the option of picking one of those plans, or two other equally-unsubtle choices, all of which are literally just a button-press away from your final save point. It is, just as with the original games, entirely cosmetic and consequence-free.

The problem is not that the developers needed to pick a side, but that the final choice feels needlessly reductionist. It comes after hours of stories that examine the costs and benefits of progress from all angles: exploitation of workers, addiction, medical advances, relationships, and scientific ethics. Human Revolution does a surprisingly good job of presenting these with nuance and depth, and then asks you to pass judgement on the whole issue in the most biased way. In contrast, Bioshock set up its political and economic dilemmas, stewed them with a set of rich characters (goofy final boss aside), and then just left them there for you, an approach that's substantially less insulting than "Press 1 to exalt Ayn Rand's values of selfishness, press 2 to embrace socialist altruism..."

In the end, that's why I suspect that RPS's John Walker was right to say that this is smartly-made by smart people, but it's not a smart game. Mechanically, it's sound: I enjoyed playing it much more than I ever thought I'd like a Deus Ex game. It looks great. It presents a complex world filled with interesting situations. And then it undermines much of that credibility--not all, but a large majority--by reverting to Choose Your Own Adventure in the name of nostalgia. This, fellow gamers, is why we can't have nice things.

January 7, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»deus_ex

We Will Lead Them into the Day

Nine reasons why Invisible War is better than the original Deus Ex:

  1. Door Number 3 - For all of its depth and open-world conceit, Deus Ex had the moral ambiguity of a Giuliani campaign ad. MJ12 are the bad guys, you're a good guy, that's the end of it. Invisible War's factions may be a cliche of technocrat vs. religious zealot, morphing into more generic order vs. chaos, but at least they're all viable options. And it milks that ambiguity for all it's worth, which has the effect of giving the game a wider perspective.
  2. Hints from Helios - The AI, oh heavens above, the AI. Enemies in Deus Ex had three animations, and its approach to any situation was to spastically flicker through them. Yet somehow, any action taken by the player would immediately alert them to your location, even if you subsequently moved. For the sequel, the AI still possesses ESP powers, but only for its supernatural hearing. Other than that, they're more realistically stupid.
  3. The Peashooter 9000 - Remember when you picked up a machine gun in Deus Ex, and felt like you could take take out a few guards? Me neither. Most of the guns had the heft and lethality of a gin-soaked papercut, and JC reloaded with glacial speed. Maybe it's because they didn't mean the game to technically be a "shooter." In that case, I would suggest that they make the not-shooting parts of the game less blindingly dull. Which brings us to...
  4. The Six Gazillion Dollar Man - Augmentations in Deus Ex would have been a lot more fun if most of them weren't completely useless, or if you had any real hint as to what they'd do before you installed them. I think the problem is that they thought "how can we solve these specific gameplay-related strategies," and not "how can we make the player feel like an unstoppable ninja cyborg?" Speaking personally, I tend to forgive holes in the former if the latter is successful. Invisible War was criticized for its lack of augmentation options (five slots of three options each), but every single one of them does something useful.
  5. Robot Envy - So JC Denton can't aim, when he does aim it doesn't do much damage, and he never gets the ability to crush someone's head between his fingers. In that case, what's with the whining jealousy act from all the other secret agent cyborgs? You can't go thirty seconds without Hermann or Anna Navarre complaining about being made obsolete, even though they have big robot limbs and JC can't kick over a cardboard cutout without dying from the bruises. I suspect they are actually elaborately mocking him.
  6. Yeah, but check out the nano-pockets on that trenchcoat - I understand what they were trying to do with the inventory system in Deus Ex, but it's still stupid. It was stupid then, it was stupid when they reused it in System Shock 2, and (if possible) it reached maximum stupidity in Resident Evil. Look: no-one wants to geometrically rearrange their entire inventory just so they can carry an extra can of soda. If I wanted to declutter spaces for fun, I have a storage room downstairs that needs some attention. Invisible War just uses 10 multipurpose slots, which is far less realistic, but has the advantage of freeing up my time for playing the game.
  7. The fine line between dead and deadpan - I am still unclear, frankly, on the reasons that voiceovers have almost always been terrible. It's not like there are technical reasons. Deus Ex was more inconsistent than anything else, but it still had too many moments of unconvincing tell-don't-show. JC's film-noir monotone quickly grates, not to mention the incredibly unsubtle foreign accents.
  8. Walt Sent Me - Passwords in the original game were a great opportunity to insert sly references and in-jokes. They were also kind of a pain to retrieve, so I like that Invisible War just remembers and types them for you. Likewise, I don't remember the extra missions in Deus Ex being particularly fun or interesting, but I think I completed most of them in the sequel--possibly because they were dense enough that I could accomplish several in one stroke.
  9. Shmarbucks - The running joke of the warring coffee shops is not only fitting, given the presence of the WTO, but also resolves gracefully.
On the other hand, the endings from the first game certainly has Invisible War beat, perhaps due to the social theorizing taking place in the latter--the wider perspective means that they neglected giving the player a personal reward, and aimed for an ideological one instead.

Future - Present - Past