My thoughts on Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I first encountered Deus Ex: Human Revolution when it came out in 2011 and I saw a friend playing it. He wasn’t doing anything flashy, just walking around a building. But what struck me was that, due to the augmentations in Jensen’s eyes, he could see the infrared light that security cameras were emitting and could therefore avoid their line of sight. He opened the augmentation menu and scrolled through the various upgrades that he could eventually access, and I vividly remember how the game highlighted each part of Jensen’s body and showed how the upgrade would affect his physiology. I was excited to learn I could avoid the stealth and just go straight up combat, so I bought the game and set it on my shelf.

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Seven years later I finally played it, and I have to say it’s aged delightfully. I’m not normally one for stealth games – I’d much rather kill anything resembling an enemy and then explore the world in my own sweet time rather than hiding and being hunted. Thus it was with some bitterness that I learned the promised “action route” was heavily disadvantaged – any time I had to fight more than two people at a time I would be gunned down almost immediately. This changed as Jensen got access to better weapons and armour, but those early levels were brutally hard, and it was out of reluctant necessity that I started avoiding combat and started considering stealth. It was several hours before I came to enjoy the process of creeping past guards, avoiding line of sight, crawling through air vents and discovering which actions would draw attention and which would not. It was halfway through the game before I finally began to feel comfortable in a room full of NPC’s without worrying I’d accidentally agro them and suddenly find myself surrounded by enemies.

In fact, I became so competent that I didn’t use most of the tools the game offered me. I frequently chose harder paths because I wanted more opportunities to test my skills rather than take the easiest route. To this end I didn’t employ most of the augmentations I unlocked (and by the end of the game I had accessed almost all of them), nor used most of the weapons. Nevertheless, there was a compelling sense of progression that made me feel that Jensen was getting better and better at moving through the world, either aggressively or invisibly.

In one memorable section, I emerged on a rooftop and stumbled into a guard who I didn’t realise was there. Suddenly he was calling for backup and there were a dozen hostiles on the roofs and in the streets all trying to get a lock on me. I set up ambush, manoeuvring behind some boxes in a bottle-necked corridor and knocking out out anyone walked through the door. I moved their bodies so that they were just barely in sight, attracting the attention of more guards until one by one I had taken them all out. To deal with the guards on the street who were still looking for me, I leaned over the balcony and used my long-range tranquilliser rifle to knock out most of the others, adjusting the height to anticipate the arc of the darts. Finally there was only one guard left, standing in a sheltered area that was out of reach of my rifle. Using the upgrade I’d just purchased, I leapt off the rooftop, cloak billowing as I landed heavily (but unhurt) behind him. He had just enough time to turn and raise his gun before I knocked him unconscious. Apart from a few startled civilians, I was now free to explore the area and looted the hell out of it.

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And there was so much loot. I probably spent hours in total, running back and forth from the unconscious bodies of my foes to my arms dealer in order to sell them to him one at a time. The whole endeavour was satisfying but ultimately pointless – I finished the game with two or three times more money than I could have actually spent in the course of the story. The real loot of the game were the stories: the emails, the notes, the secrets hidden in drawers and under beds. They brought life to the one-dimensional NPC’s who had, until that point, merely existed as obstacles or enemies as Jensen forged a path right through their world. By taking the time to find and read the exchanges, to listen to the idle conversations of civilians, it gave the sense that everyone had their own story even if they barely intersected with my own.

But my favourite characters by far were named Hengsha and Detroit. You see, it was the cities that were the main characters in the game: dark, mysterious, and a little dangerous. From the pulsing night clubs to the seedy underworld, there was a heartbeat to the landscape, and the streets and back alleys were its veins. The futuristic world of 2027 was full of neon lights, hidden depths, and secrets in plain sight if I just thought to look for them. I couldn’t help but feel insignificant when I walked through those awesome cities, who were greater than the sum of their inhabitants.

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution is not the sort of game I would have expected to enjoy. However once I got adequately skilled at the stealth mechanics and could make informed choices about how I wanted to play, the game had its own exhilarating pleasure. Not just the thrill of a perfectly planned take-down or a cleverly executed slip, but the wonder of discovery as each turn revealed new secrets and new stories to uncover. The game is far from perfect, and yet for all its flaws I can’t help but love it. I hope the next game, Mankind Divided, is just as good! I certainly won’t be waiting another seven years before trying it.

 

EDIT: It was awesome! You can read my thoughts on Mankind Divided here.

My thoughts on Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery

When I first saw that Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery was being developed, I was cautiously optimistic. A fantasy role-playing game where I could live out my dream of attending Hogwarts? Casting spells, brewing potions, finding hidden corridors and pathways? I was thrilled enough to cast expecto patronum.

And my expecto-tions weren’t let down! When I finally got my hand on the game, it wasn’t quite as hands-on as I was expecting, but it was still pretty good! I couldn’t wander through Hogwarts at my leisure, just tap the rooms I wanted him to visit. I could only cast spells when in class, or occasionally when a duel was forced on me. And there seemed to be a large focus on making mischief (and straight up endangering other students) rather than listening to teachers and acting responsibly. But the thrill of the game exceeded my hopes when I got to rub shoulders with the likes of Severus Snape and Minerva McGonagall, who looked upon me proudly as I aspired to be a diligent student in spite of the rules the game forced me to break. Plus the Mystery alluded to in the game, the promised secrets of the castle and the somewhat sinister plot that threatened all of Hogwarts… How delightful!

One of the things I was most looking forward to was duelling, casting spells under pressure and seeing what spells my opponent was going for in order to find an appropriate counter on the fly (ala Voldemort and Dumbledore in the Order of the Phoenix). What the duelling actually turned out to be was a disappointing rock-paper-scissors game, where any time there was a draw the party with lower health would recover some of it. This gave me a 1/3 chance of actually progressing the battle. Nevertheless, it was actually my favourite part of the game, because I never lost a duel and rarely lost any health. In my mind, my character deflected and countered spell after spell, sometimes getting through a fight without ever losing a roll. It felt wonderful to completely undermine someone’s defences and thwart their attacks, even if the only skill involved guessing what style they were going for.

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I had an uncanny knack for anticipating what stance my opponent would choose.

As with all time-gated games, I got really into it. I felt the game progressed simultaneously too fast and too slow – for a while I kind of liked the grind evoking the sense of getting through a whole year of classes. I played diligently every day, getting a few house points here and completing the odd lesson there whenever my energy bar refilled. And yet the game constantly stopped me from playing while I waited for my energy to recharge, which really halted the fun I was having (though it certainly didn’t stop me from coming back every hour and a half). The game wasn’t especially generous with the premium currency either, so to skip a three hour wait or completely refill the stamina bar would cost most of my hard-won rewards.

Ultimately though what began to frustrate me was the lack of variety. In the first year I only had access to three classes, which is not how Hogwarts works. I gained access to one or two more areas each year, but most of the school was frustratingly locked away in plain sight. In the end, the novelty of attending the same lessons over and over again (casting the same spells and brewing the same potions) wore off, and the game revealed itself to be a pretty shallow grind-fest. And the grind wasn’t particularly meaningful – spending a dozen precious points of energy looking for an ingredient? Slipping a note to Rowan? Practicing for the umpteenth time to summon my broom by saying “Up”? Where was the magic in any of this banality?

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There were a lot of “moments” that took large amounts of stamina, but seemed not to have any relevance with actually learning magic.

Once I realised that the game would force me to play those classes over and over again until I had enough stars to unlock the next potion/spell, I began to feel resentful of all the pointless busywork. The secrets I’d found that gave me energy when I clicked on them became routine rather than thrilling, and the conversations I had with friends were all broken records that just required slightly higher stats over time. It was taking forever to level up, and the only real use for all the coins I was collecting was to buy some pretty ugly clothes (compared to the standard school robes).

I decided I’d play until I could at least see Hogsmeade, that magical wonderland where dreams came true, but when I finally got there I was disappointed. It was just a single street with two stores I could visit but not interact with (the rest being locked behind needing to complete more of the story). I even saw that they copy and pasted the same generic character, and he appeared on both ends of the street simultaneously.

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It’s the guy with the chops! He (or his identical twin in the same clothes) appears twice in the same stretch of road.

It was not long into my game that I decided to look up what J. K. Rowling thought of the app. From what I can tell, she has declined to make any comments and the game is “inspired” but not “endorsed” by her. Plus it’s full of plot holes, making references to things that haven’t happened yet or contradicting things that happen in the book. I was willing to forgive the fact that Merula tried to murder me with Devil’s Snare, but I will not stand by while the characters use Wingardiam Leviosa to levitate people when the spell only affects objects.

Overall, Hogwarts Mystery was kind of fun while the pacing was faster and there was lots to see and do. By third-year, repeating the same trite classes (and doing the same absurdly commonplace activities) just to get enough stars to progress the story was so mundane I couldn’t stand it. It was fun to roam the hallowed halls for a while, but not enough to keep me around. Maybe I’ll come back to it if they significantly rework the gameplay in the future, because the story at least seemed compelling. For now though, I’m happy just reading the wiki page.