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One of the most revered game series of our time returns to rapturous applause after a seven-year hiatus...
Deus Ex's re-entry into the gaming scene couldn't be more timely. In an era when the world's two biggest publishers trash talk each other's impending blockbuster shooters like adolescent schoolboys – games that will once again have us headshotting, fragging, and ducking for cover in a feedback loop of mind-numbing muscle memory - the last stand of the Eidos brand name in an unassuming Montreal studio reminds us all why first-person shooters were once the future. A future, much like that of Deus Ex's own fictional universe, that hasn't panned out quite as bountifully as initial discoveries and innovations had once promised. The dawn of the FPSRPG at the start of the last decade has resulted in very few followers over the last eleven years and only one major disciple in Ken Levine's Irrational Games studio. For such a critically acclaimed genre then, it remains a mystery why so few publishers have managed to wean themselves off the teat of lowest-common-denominator FPS gaming.
You see, Deus Ex: Human Revolution actually makes you think about what you're doing, and the resulting sensation is kind of like the end scene to Ninja Theory's Enslaved. It's as if you've suddenly been emancipated and realise that you were a wilful participant in your own servitude all along. You could almost kick yourself, couldn't you? Here's what you've been missing: first-person shooters that allow you to approach a problem in a way of your choosing, and not in the dual-pillar 'Assault or Stealth' approach favoured by the likes of Far Cry 2 either. Instead, it's crawling through air vents, hacking computers, modding guns, talking your way out of a tight spot (or into one), smashing through weakened walls to find a hidden weapons stash, jumping from a five-storey building and stealth-killing two guards upon landing, or unleashing hell with a gun turret that you've turned upon its owners.
It's all of the above, and then a whole lot more. The real icing on the cake, though, is that none of it is prescribed. You don't have to do any of those things; on almost any given objective facing you, you can choose a multitude of ways in which to complete your task – it's a bit like pick 'n' mix sweets, or bespoke tailoring. Fans of the series' two predecessors will of course know that this makes Human Revolution its father's son, and it's a testament to the brilliance of the original Deus Ex games that almost all of their ideas are loyally updated into Human Revolution's formula. This latest instalment doesn't so much reinvent the framework of what Deus Ex is as refine and contemporise what it was (another piece of music to the ears of hardcore fans, no doubt) but it's the ways in which it's all brought up-to-date that are so impressive.
Take the hacking, for example. Of the multitude of options by which protagonist, Adam Jensen can add 'Augmentations' to his cybernetic make-up, this one is perhaps the most in-depth of the lot with 16 different choices for augmentation in total. The hacking interface itself is incredibly detailed, so much so that you'll be totally confused by it for the first hour or so of gaming. Where the likes of BioShock and Timesplitters opted for a Pipe Mania blueprint in their hacking mini-games, Human Revolution instead uses a system that convincingly depicts the actual process of hacking (who'd have thought it could be conceivably possible?!). There are nodes to capture and fortify, tracers to avoid detection from, uni- and bi-directional ports, nuke viruses to unleash, stop worms to slow down or halt detection, and even spam folders to negotiate. Not since Introversion's Uplink has there been this kind of detailed hacking in a video game, and that game was based entirely around hacking!
This kind of added depth and complexity to the upgrade tree can be seen across the board of augmentations. In fact, the full list is so all-encompassing that a few of them almost seem to take away from the gameplay in its naked form at times. Take, for example, the 'Social Enhancer' augmentation, which allows Jensen to sense what a character is thinking and predict which dialogue choice they'll respond most favourably to. The upshot is that you can reliably persuade other people around to your way of thinking. Without the perk though, key paths of dialogue become an engrossing challenge as you attempt to read the reactions of NPCs and select responses on a hunch. It's a credit to the dialogue system that the game is more enjoyable without the 'Social Enhancer' perk, even if your gift of the gab fails and the quest is made harder as a result. The same can be said for some of the stealth augmentations, which include the standard vision cones, sound sensors, and last known location indicators. Yes, they're all very helpful, but the stealth gameplay is so good that it just feels more palpable; more exciting when you play without using all the trinkets.
But it's not all enhancements and refinements to the classic Deus Ex formula. Seventh-generation gaming comes with a much higher bar in terms of production, and Human Revolution doesn't disappoint here either. Whether it's the slick cover system that moves between third and first-person perspectives seamlessly – offering semi-automated commando roles between objects – or the bronzed colour-palette of the game world, everything wreaks of high production values. What really hits home about Human Revolution is just how immersive it manages to be - we've never had so much fun reading capillaries of back-story in strewn e-books, or piecing together a minor character's life by hacking their e-mails. Beyond all of the superb gameplay, it's just damn good sci-fi at the end of the day. There's a genuinely engaging storyline that rarely falters throughout what can be a plentiful 20-hour playthrough (if you're particularly diligent), and it's all wrapped together through a variety of city hubs that reach up towards the Blade Runner echelon of vivid imaginings. Technically, the graphics won't be setting any new benchmarks, but in terms of how they depict the setting, few games manage to do a better job.
Deus Ex didn't come all of this way only to forget where it hailed from in the first place though. Touches of classic PC gaming pepper the experience (such as an old-school grid system for the inventory), ensuring that this is one legendary PC series that's managed to keep its head while all around it others are losing theirs. Truly, it's a hard game to fault... but inevitably it's not perfect. The AI is, well, astonishingly good actually for the type of game that Deus Ex is, but it's not faultless due to the odd glitch. Likewise, it being such an open-ended game, there are minor exploits to be taken advantage of here and there. Criticisms have also been made of the bosses (specifically that it's impossible to beat them without using violence) and we'll concede that some shots do need to be fired in anger. Nonetheless, there are stealthy way-rounds (very long and sometimes arduous ones, we'll admit) that allow you to defeat each boss with minimal violent actions. Loading screens also take some flak because they happen often and for long periods. All things considered then, why are we giving it a 10 if it's not perfect? Because it's the best FPS we've played in years, and that's enough.