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 camera 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.
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.
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’s the cities that are the main characters in the game: dark, mysterious, and a little dangerous. From the pulsing night clubs to the seedy underworld, there is a heartbeat to the landscape, and the streets and back alleys are its veins. The futuristic world of 2027 was full of neon lights, hidden depths, and secrets in plain sight if you just thought to look for them. I couldn’t help but feel insignificant when I walked through those awesome cities, who were bigger and greater than the sum of their inhabitants.
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: You can read my thoughts on Mankind Divided here!