Version tested: Xbox 360
The original Deus Ex was a lot of things to a lot of people. In fact, that was pretty much the whole point: it was a game where you could save the world by shooting all the bad guys, but it was also a game where you could save the world by hiding in vents. The levels all had lots of different paths through them, and the gameplay systems were designed so that you could combine and experiment with them to make progress. Whether or not you played it, Deus Ex was responsible for a lot of the good things that you have spent money on in the last decade.
Sometimes, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is just the best Deus Ex tribute act ever. You can still save the world by crouching behind desks and hacking into people's email if you want, but it doesn't judge you if you want to do something else for a bit. In fact, it rewards you. It gives you an XP bonus for not being seen, but it also gives you an XP bonus for brutally incapacitating two guards on patrol with the same takedown.
There is no wrong kind of progress, there's just success. It would be nice if more of the games that wished they were Deus Ex treated us like that.
Sometimes, though - probably enough of the time that die-hard fans won't hold it up as high - Human Revolution doesn't quite live up to its ancestor. It gets the hub cities right, letting you crisscross streets, alleys, vents and sewers gathering information before going into your main mission; but it only has a couple of these hubs, and sometimes you're just flying between a sequence of levels in a dropship. It also has a few terrible boss fights where you are forced to use direct confrontation, and (on console at least) the load times are horribly long.
But Human Revolution is its own game too, and it doesn't take long before you're scraping the bottom of every hackable inbox to find out more about its global conspirators and the debate on bio augmentations, and scavenging as many credits and as much XP as possible so you can buy more of those augmentations to jump higher, punch harder and hide for longer. By then, you've stopped playing spot the difference and you're just writhing in the thick mud of chaos and conspiracy, and having a lot of fun working out how to wiggle your way through it.
You're playing as Adam Jensen, chief of security at Sarif Industries, a leading augmentation company and the target of all sorts of corporate jealousy and militant activism. Following a break-in at the start of the game in which you fall through some glass and get both your arms amputated (hang on, what?), you wake up to be told that your ex-girlfriend, a leading scientist, has been burned to a crisp and that it's your job to go around the world with your new robot arms finding out why.
The systems that underpin everything are all great. Dialogue and interrogation are like boxing, full of ducks and weaves and - if you buy the right augment - vital signs and physiological tells upon which you win or lose exchanges. Stealth is based on line of sight and the cover system is perfect, allowing you to hide and move with confidence in every situation. Direct combat is brutal and difficult, but once you think beyond the assault rifle and start mixing it up with various kinds of explosives and projectiles, you can really master your environment.
Hacking is my favourite, though. There are computers, door panels and security systems all over the world to break into using a mini-game where you have to take over nodes one by one without being noticed. If you are, then it's a race against time, or you can pull out and try again using viruses and augmentations to try to remain undetected. Most hacks yield bonus cash and tools if you probe the right regions, too. It's always about risk versus reward rather than just puzzle-solving.
And that's just on the hacking screen. Outside the system, in the real world, you are exposed to any patrolling guard, robot or panning camera while you hack, so the sense of pressure can be doubly acute, and once you're in you can often disable systems or turn them against their owners. One of my favourite things to do in really dense facilities is to find the security control booth and use it as a panic room - if I'm detected then I race back there, mine the doorway, build a wall of boxes and turn the robots against their masters. Once everyone's dead and the alarms die down, the game rewards me for rescuing the situation rather than giving up and reloading.
Some augmentations are things that other games take for granted - for instance, a lot of the stealth options are things like being able to see cones of vision on your mini-map - but while it sounds boring on paper, it's quite the opposite in-game. I have never lusted after something so simple as the ability to lift bigger boxes or jump over a fence as much as I have while staring up at the tempting fire escapes in Detroit alleyways, nor wished for a cooldown timer as much as I do while panicking behind a cardboard box in a hangar full of stompy robots going mental.
Besides, there are plenty of more outlandish augmentations, and their unifying characteristic seems to be that everything helps you do everything. Temporary invisibility is good for passing by cameras and through laser fences, for example, so it's a good stealth ploy, but if it gets you into more weapons caches and security offices, it's also good for blowing stuff up.
The world around you is exactly the sort of place where all of this makes sense, too. Caught somewhere in the thematic crossfire between Blade Runner and Metal Gear Solid, every person, discarded eBook and billboard poster is obsessed with augmentation, and every architect is obsessed with latticeworks of underfloor ducting, vents and open-plan offices overseen by walkways. It's one of those video game worlds that's so comfortable being a video game world and so good at it that it feels confident enough to mock itself from time to time in a stray email or fragment of incidental dialogue.
The story at the heart of the game fits as snugly as Jensen's wrap-around retractable sci-fi sunglasses, too, thickening and twisting like cream cheese in a ditch being attacked by a gang of angry hammers. Side missions that flesh things out further are strongly signposted and give you more insight into Jensen's past as a Detroit city SWAT leader and his early life. If you're one of those guys BioShock creator Ken Levine calls 'archaeologists' who like to turn over every stone and then rub it against your brain, you won't be disappointed by what you find hidden around the edges.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is probably not as perfect as I'm making it sound. Some of the rules about what's interactive and not seem quite arbitrary, which is a pretty blatant failing in a game which tries so hard to make you feel like you're not being restricted, and while the level design is clever and varied, the interior design definitely is not, and there's also a lot of repetition in the incidental details. Sure, it's important to hear some of those looping news broadcasts, but maybe make them longer than half a minute or record variations or something.
But the important point is that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of those rare games that knows you can't be perfect all the time, and that you have the right to change your mind about your actions later. It just wants to be played with and enjoyed - and when you finish, you just want to play with it again.
9 / 10