A figure lies, mostly unconscious, on a hospital bed, as snippets of frantic conversation swirl around him. Brief glimpses of medical tools, syringes, gears, and other machinery flash across the screen as moody music with an industrial twist drives the scene forward. We have interrupted what appears to be both a lifesaving procedure and a living nightmare. Far from the usual video game opening sequence that is either expository or filled with scenes and characters from the upcoming game, the Deus Ex: Human Revolution opening cinematic would be at home as the beginning of a well-made science fiction movie. This focus on quality visual design rather than simple graphical excellence is an example of how the Eidos Montreal team is approaching all aspects of the game's development, which I had the opportunity to learn about during a preview given at Eidos Montreal by Producer David Anfossi, Director Jean-François Dugas, Narrative Game Designer Mary DeMarle, and Audio Designer Steve Szczepkowski. Featuring a talk about the game's design, about an hour of gameplay demonstration by the team, and a screening of the opening cinematic, this preview left us with a great deal of information about the upcoming game.
Set in 2027, a generation before the first Deus Ex game, Human Revolution focuses on the recent development of biomechanical modifications, which are creating a new class of powerful people who are more than human. The protagonist is Adam Jensen, a mercenary who is working for a biomech company in Detroit. When the company is attacked and Jensen nearly dies, he is given biomechanical augmentations in order to save his life and is thrust into the middle of the controversy surrounding this new technology. The story of Human Revolution follows in the Deus Ex tradition of exploring issues of scientific ethics, social upheavals, and global conspiracies. As Jensen investigates the attack on the company, he begins to suspect that somebody is controlling events from the shadows, pulling strings in order to force human evoluton in a particular direction. The developers promise that as Jensen completes his globe-trotting adventure and discovers what is going on in the world, the players themselves will acquire the power to choose how humanity evolves. They will also choose how Jensen himself evolves, as character development involves installing biomechanical augmentations that support the player's choice of gameplay styles.
Human Revolution's action-based gameplay has four basic pillars: the major pillars of combat and stealth, and the supporting pillars of hacking and socialization. All levels will be able to be solved by a combat-heavy or stealth-heavy approach, while having discussions and hacking systems will open up new opportunities for advancing through the game's levels. In order to demonstrate these pillars and the open-ended nature of the game's levels, the development team presented a portion of an early level that they played in three different ways, one revolving around combat, one involving a social approach, and one relying on sneaking through the level. In the level, Jensen needed to access a police station morgue in order to fetch a computer chip that had been implanted in the brain of a now-dead spy.
In the combat-focused playthrough, Jensen ignored the police officer who warned him that he was heading into a classified area, which of course resulted in him being immediately attacked after heading through the doors, and having to fight his way to the morgue. The developers took this opportunity to show off various kinds of weapons available in the game, including several with player-selected upgrades. Jenson can use a wide variety of guns including the ever-popular sniper rifle, plus a ton of other weapons of both the lethal and non-lethal variety. He also made extensive use of the game's cover system, ducking behind obstacles to avoid enemy fire and confuse the enemy. At one point, he used a copy machine as mobile cover, grabbing it and rolling it in front of him. He also demonstrated a combat augmentation that allowed him to spin around and fire a hail of bullets from his arms, and showed off a modified heat-seeking rocket launcher that allowed him to lock onto a target, then duck behind cover and fire from a safer location.
Here is a taste of the gameplay in a different mission, on the double-decker island of Hengsha.
The stealth-focused playthrough demonstrated the stealth approach in detail. In this playthrough, Jensen snuck around the back of the police station and hacked through a locked door in order to enter the restricted area. The developers pointed out that there were two other possible ways to sneak into the station, including going through the sewers or entering via the roof. The routes available to the player depend on the skills and augments chosen; the route we saw involved hacking, and another required an augmentation that allowed Jensen to lift heavy objects. Once inside the restricted area, Jensen snuck around in order to avoid direct combat. Though much of the
"This focus on quality visual design rather than simple graphical excellence is an example of how the Eidos Montreal team is approaching all aspects of the game's development."
game is played in first-person, players switch to a third-person view when using the cover system. Thus, stealthy players have a good view of their location versus enemies when hiding behind things or peering around corners. The game also features a takedown system, in which Jensen can quickly dispatch an enemy either lethally or non-lethally if he can sneak up behind them. Of course, stealthy players will want to hide bodies to avoid drawing suspicion, climb into those familiar air ducts in order to take shortcuts and overhear important conversations, and use augments such as a cloaking device to help during times when sneaking is difficult.
In the socially-focused playthrough, Jensen walked over to the desk sergeant on duty in order to negotiage entrance to the restricted area. It turns out that Jensen had a rocky history with this particular character, and entered what the developers call a "social boss battle" for the purpose of negotiation. In a social boss battle, the goal is to pick the correct responses in order to gain the desired information or assistance from a character. A Mass Effect style dialog wheel appears with three possible choices appropriate to the conversation at hand, in this case, "Absolve," "Crush," or "Plead." Another conversation featured "Advise," "Insist", and "Pinpoint." Social boss battles have a failure state, and if the player fails to "win" the battle by choosing appropriate responses, Jensen will need to find another way to progress through the level. For the purposes of demonstration, Jensen worked through his history with the desk sergeant, who then agreed to pull some strings and allowed Jensen into the morgue.
From the demos presented, the gameplay looked interesting and satisfying in all three cases, and it was nice to see a variety of gameplay elements being used to solve problems, even if a player has a primary concentration on a specific gameplay pillar. Of course, a number of unknowns and possible concerns could not be addressed without a playable demo of the game. Although I personally like that the game switches from first- to third-person when Adam is using cover, it's not clear how jarring the transition will feel while playing the game, or whether the point of view changes will cause frustration during frantic fight sequences. Also, while the example levels appeared to have a reasonable amount of room for exploration, the game's levels may not be as expansive as some fans of the first game might like, especially considering the balance between the high graphical quality of the game and the limitations of console technology. Finally, although the social boss fights looked fun, normal conversations appeared to have no dialog options, leading to the possibility that the game's social system isn't as deep as the other main pillars of gameplay. These concerns will have to wait for playable demos and pre-release review copies in order to be fully addressed by gaming critics.
This trailer shows off the game's slick visual style.
The visuals and sound for Human Revolution are quite impressive. The team has focused on building a world with meaning behind its design rather than going for hyper-realistic graphics. The basic palette for the game is black and gold, with black representing the dark and gritty state of the world, and gold representing the hopes of the people who believe that new technologies will allow humanity to reach a new pinnacle of evolution. A great deal of attention has been paid to building the world, including creating the fashion trends of 2027 and developing over 100 fictional brands that appear on objects in the world. Levels are cluttered with both ordinary objects and futuristic devices, creating a very plausable and immersive-feeling atmosphere. For music, the developers chose a soundscape over a score, creating feelings and moods over distinctive melodies. The soundtrack was inspired by cyberpunk and industrial-style sources such as Blade Runner, the scores in John Carpenter films, and Nine Inch Nails. For voice acting, the developers tried to find actors with distinctive voices so that players will be able to easily identify and keep track of the game's characters. The voice acting that we heard in the demonstrations was high-quality and did seem to feature easily-identifiable voices.
Thus far, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is looking quite promising. The enthusiasm demonstrated by the development team comes across as quite genuine; the enthusiasm of experienced professionals who have done solid work and are excited for their game to be experienced by players. That enthusiasm is backed up by clear explanations of the decision-making process that went into the game's development, and by high-quality demonstrations of the game itself. I came away from the demonstration with a very positive impression of the game, and am eager to have the opportunity to take the game for a spin myself.