Who died and made non-linearity king? It used to be that you went left to right and that was it. Later we walked forward instead. Individuals we came across were shot in the face. These days you can't go more than five steps without having to decide where the next five steps will take you. Surely if BioShock taught us anything it's that we're happiest when we're doing what we're told?
Haha of course not. We like choice and consequence - or at least convincing illusions of choice and consequence. So does Eidos Montreal, and judging by Deus Ex: Human Revolution's display at gamescom this week, it is following in popular footsteps with confidence and intelligence.
Conscious that some people on the internet are not yet convinced that the game is upholding the first Deus Ex's values, the developers have chosen to show us a level in which protagonist Adam Jensen busts into a Detroit police station and retrieves a neural implant from a corpse in the morgue downstairs. We're going to see it three times in a row.
Jensen is a private security man for augmentation specialist Sarif Industries. By now you should be familiar with them and the general vibe in 2027, when the game is set. We pick him up around 90 minutes into the game. Anti-augmentation terrorists have attacked one of Sarif's manufacturing plants and Jensen's boss believes the guy in the morgue was a mole in their organisation, so he wants to find out what he knows. Or rather knew.
Entering the police station, Jensen heads straight past the front desk and is confronted by a cop who says the area beyond is restricted. He ignores his warning and goes on through, at which point it all kicks off. The cop pulls a gun, and in a flash Jensen does something clever to disarm and drop him to the ground, before spinning round to shoot the next cop to react.
He picks up a photocopier (he's got a strength augmentation) and repositions to act as cover, allowing him to safely dispatch two more cops rushing in from an adjacent room. He leans out of cover and shoots reinforcements, dives between cover points, then climbs some stairs and uses iron sights to shoot the cop waiting for him on the landing, which overlooks an open-plan office area where more cops are gathered.
At this point Jensen goes into X-ray vision to see where they all are, their glowing bodies clearly silhouetted against the darkened geometry of his surroundings. He spots a gap and jumps the railing, landing in cover. There are quite a few of them so the developer controlling him dips into a menu and attaches an explosive-bullet modification for his gun (other mods can be found or bought), which sends victims flying and ragdolling all over the furniture. Moving into a nearby corridor, Jensen switches to a non-lethal energy weapon, which sends enemies flying but leaves them alive.
By now we're at the door to the morgue, and it's locked, but Jensen has an app for that. He loads up the inventory and drags a frag grenade onto a "mine template", giving him a frag mine to attach to the door. He backs away and shoots it to blow the door, enters the room, kills the coroner without a word and retrieves the neural implant from the body on the autopsy table.
Vidididididooorrrororo. Rewind time. Jensen is back at the front of the police station, before any of this has happened. He goes inside, but instead of going on a bloody rampage he talks to the desk sergeant. It turns out it's an old colleague of his who rather hates his guts.
Wayne Haas has been living under a cloud for two years, ever since Jensen - then a cop, by the sound of it - rejected an order to shoot an augmented child. Haas was next in line and pulled the trigger. He tells Jensen that nobody gets into the morgue. Fair enough, says Jensen, you're only following orders. You were always good at that.
Zing! This does not go down well with Haas, and Jensen's in danger of losing any chance he had of getting into the morgue. But he rescues the situation. The player can choose between three contextual conversation options - in this case crush, absolve and plead - based on the tenor of the discussion. He mounts a convincing and eloquent defence, partly releasing Haas from his guilt and empathising with him as they talk about their past.
In the space of just a few seconds, Jensen has broken through Haas' bitterness and absolved him, and Haas, whose demeanour has visibly graduated to something approaching relief, begins to agree to put it behind them. He lets Jensen into the main part of the police station.
It's been an interesting conversation, but their mutual past was nicely articulated by the exchange, and Jensen's directness - letting Haas know that he is capable of moving past their history, but that right now he cannot afford to stop and go into it in detail - makes it work. The developers tell us that you will be able to buy cybernetic augmentations that help you in these situations, allowing you to monitor pupil dilation, sweating and heartbeat to help decide on a course of action.
Jensen now has the run of the station. He can talk to cops, eavesdrop on their conversations with one another and with people reporting crimes, and even rifle around and steal things or read email. As long as no one spots him doing anything dodgy, he should be alright.
He heads down to the morgue, where the coroner helpfully mistakes him for an official he's been told to expect. He tells Jensen that he has retrieved the neural hub from the dead man, but it appears to have been modified. As with our last runthrough, Jensen exits the morgue and tells his boss at Sarif Industries that he has the goods.
And we're back to the front of the station again. This time instead of entering through the main door, Jensen heads to the side of the building and uses his strength to push a dumpster up against a chainlink fence, which he then hops over. Apparently he could also have overcome this obstacle by finding a hidden maintenance corridor nearby.
He mounts a nearby fire escape and ascends to a service door on an upper floor. It requires a code, and Jensen doesn't have it, so he tries to hack his way through. This door requires a level-3 hacking skill, so we dive into the augmentation menu. Here we see a list of available augmentations, each of which costs XP, and an image of Jensen. When he highlights a new augmentation the image shows where it would go, and each augmentation has its own tech tree. By spending a few XP here he's soon a level-3 hacker.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution's hacking mini-game involves capturing nodes against the clock before a red line representing anti-intrusion measures can reach the first node and trace your location. By acquiring computer viruses and other goodies later on, Jensen can make this process easier, and the developers claim it becomes quite tactical.
Of course, Jensen could always have gone off and found the door code somewhere. He could also have gone in via a manhole, ran around in mazy sewers and found an entrance there. But it doesn't matter now, because he's in.
He's in a maintenance corridor surrounded by bottles of bleach, trolleys, ladders and other paraphenalia. He goes into cover at a corner and peeps round to see if the coast is clear, then moves beneath the green detection beams of a security camera, before switching to X-ray vision to locate nearby cops.
There's one on the balcony, so he carefully moves from cover point to cover point as his unwelcome companion ambles away, half-turning every now and then to heighten the tension. Jensen manages to stay out of sight, but then he comes up against a pair of cops having a conversation.
Fortunately he has a cloak augmentation. It drains energy from a meter in the top left, but it allows Jensen to move around in plain sight without being noticed. As he moves downstairs he darts among desks stealing things like painkillers from under people's noses.
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Approaching the morgue though, he comes up against another meandering cop, and a security camera, and a door with a security system that only appears to open it when a cop walks through. Rather than worry about that, Jensen moves some nearby barrels and climbs into an air conditioning vent, but this brings him to another dead end - a hatch he could kick out, but not without alerting two more cops standing right in front of it.
He backtracks, only to find the original meandering cop at the other entrance. Helpfully, he's facing away. Jensen uses a non-lethal chokehold to incapacitate him, then grabs a foot and proceeds to drag the unconscious cop toward the door. It detects the cop and lets Jensen through in the process.
What's more, rifling through the cop's pockets reveals a PDA with the morgue door code on it. Who needs mine templates? The coroner mistakes Jensen for a military man and gives him the neural implant.
We've seen the demo played through three times, but if you changed the graphics you might not realise it was the same game three times in a row. And whe developers have chosen to stress extremes of violence, pacifism and stealth, you're more likely to mix and match. The important point is that you can tailor your approach to suit your preferences, one of Deus Ex's core values.
Eidos Montreal may never convince everyone that it has the right to create and tell new stories in the Deus Ex universe, but perhaps its latest demo will convince a few more people to give it the benefit of the doubt. If not, well, hey, that's the power of choice and consequence.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in February 2011.