It's the year 2027. You're in Hengsha, China. It's here that you see the energetic nightclub called The Hive. The club clearly embraces its insectoid inspiration: black cell walls branch across the golden exterior, creating a honeycomb pattern saturated in the rich colors that permeate all of Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
I'm fascinated by this place, as I often am by futuristic clubs in games and film. When I explore The Hive, or Mass Effect 2's Afterlife, or Anachronox's Club Foot, I am intrigued not just by the pulsing neon lights and the cleverly named cocktails, but by the trendy patrons, who I imagine embody all that is cool in this place and at this time. I don't like it because I feel at home, or because I have a sense of belonging; I don't even feel that comfortable in a real nightclub. I love being here precisely because it is so foreign. It is a place filled with people I don't quite understand in an alternate future that makes me glad I live in the present.
Of course, this isn't my first trip to The Hive. Human Revolution was released for other platforms in 2011, and it was then that I came to know Adam Jensen, the star of this action/stealth/role-playing hybrid. Adam is a security expert for Sarif Industries, a biotech company that manufactures mechanical augmentations that allow us to see better, to think more clearly, to jump higher and fall further. Company head honcho David Sarif would have you believe that such synthetic enhancements are the next step in evolution, and that lucrative military contracts are a means of funding more peaceful applications of the tech. Perhaps he's right. And perhaps he's not.
Adam knows a thing or two about augmentations, having been augmented himself after an attack on Sarif Industries left his researcher girlfriend dead and Adam close to it. I feel as disconnected from Adam as I do from The Hive, yet it's this cold detachment that so fascinates me. As I follow leads from Detroit to Shanghai, Adam does his best Christian-Bale-as-Batman impression, rarely letting real emotion creep into his voice, even when his words express empathy or rage. It's the right characterization for this man. Adam is as much a machine before his surgery as he is afterward. In a game that asks us to consider how much metal we can fuse to our skeletons before we lose our humanity, we must wonder how truly human Adam is to begin with.
Human Revolution sets you free into its world and gives you the tools to succeed.
It's Adam's inexpressive demeanor that makes him such an effective proxy for our experiments in his world. Human Revolution is about choice. You move about in a first-person perspective, moving out to a third-person perspective when you slide into cover. From here, you might decide to stay hidden and sneak your way to your destination, or maybe you'd prefer to just pop your head out and let the bullets fly. The game lets you choose for yourself, and provides an upgrade system that encourages you to enhance those choices. If sneaking is what satisfies you, go for upgrades that allow you to move more silently. If your trigger finger itches, choose augmentations that steady your aim.
The Jensen I envision is a hacker. He infiltrates by locating ventilation shafts and following them to corner offices. He crouches behind desks and bypasses computer passwords by connecting network nodes before the security system shuts him out. Tapping into a higher-level system can be a strenuous race against the clock as you furiously tap the Wii U's tablet, activating nodes while nervously eyeing the countdown timer. The tablet doesn't always improve the gameplay--I grew tired of having to look at the tablet screen when looting bodies to see what goodies I might pilfer--but hacking is improved by the addition of the tablet. I didn't feel like a real hacker, but the kind you see in movies--the kind that pulls up digital displays you've never seen loaded with data you can't visually decipher.
The colors recall the brightness of modern machinery and the darkness of Detroit's alleyways, and evoke the works of Botticelli and Da Vinci.
Human Revolution sets you free into its world and gives you the tools to succeed. In combat, this means wielding guns and grenades; when sneaking, it means performing stealthy assassinations and activating temporary invisibility; and when exploring, that means punching through concrete walls and breaking into storage facilities. It's possible to be entirely nonlethal, or to approach most circumstances with a shotgun, but I have always enjoyed mixing and matching, following whatever path I first stumble upon, and relying on my skill to succeed, even when the predicament seems hopeless. (I don't recommend getting too aggressive in a well-staffed police station.)
On their own, individual systems don't always stand up to scrutiny. While "improved AI" is listed as one of the Director's Cut's bullet-point features, I saw no sign of improvement. When blasting your way through offices and sewers, enemies think nothing of wasting dozens of bullets by shooting the wall that separates you from them, and have no qualms about standing in front of comrades, taking one shot after another in the backs of their heads. It isn't the individual mechanics, but the sheer diversity of gameplay styles that enthralls me. I can follow my whims should I encounter a hidden entrance, or I can bend the game to my will if I stubbornly insist on progressing my way.
Hacking aside, this all sounds more or less like Human Revolution's original incarnation, but the updated release makes meaningful additions and improvements, and includes hours' worth of developer commentary, a sad rarity in video games. The developers offer warm, sincere, and sometimes funny insight into the game's making, sharing how a designer's initials found their way into the name of a fancy hotel, why Adam's posh apartment building was erected in a rundown neighborhood, and what Adam and Clint Eastwood have in common.
More interesting are the retooled boss fights, which you can now complete without firing a shot. The original release's boss fights tainted the experience by forcing you to comply with one specific kind of gameplay. The encounters are still similar, but there are new avenues of victory. In the first boss battle, for instance, you can get defensive turrets to do your dirty deeds, but if you just want to take aim and fire, the redesigned combat arena requires you to work for that kind of victory by hiding a big ammo stash behind a locked door. My favorite boss encounter is the spacious, predatory confrontation that closed the original Missing Link add-on, which has been inserted into the Director's Cut with relative ease, and provides the game's most personal and emotionally resonant story detours. Another addition is a powerful one: an augment that reveals vital information about the people in your vicinity, such as their armor grade and the trinkets they carry with them. This is an invaluable skill if you seek computer passwords but prefer to avoid hacking and wish to keep casualties at a minimum.
What makes Human Revolution on the Wii U special aren't the additional features, but that which was already constructed. The game draws remarkable contrast between the sterility of the corporate world and the grit of the city. Office interiors feature clean lines and metallic surfaces; in trash-ridden street corners, the homeless huddle around flaming barrels for warmth. Conversing with these folk, or any folk, introduces harsh angles to the fluid world building, however. Stiff facial animations and disproportionate character models often prove distracting. Several characters--a cop with an attitude, a Sarif employee with a secret--have weirdly small heads attached to their weirdly bulky bodies, and it's hard to develop an emotional bond with a waxy grieving mother whose limbs flail robotically as she confides in you.
But it all comes back to that gold and that black. The color combination rivals teal and orange for its known visual appeal, but the color palette's impact goes beyond its attractiveness. In China, the term "black gold" refers to political corruption and corporate greed, key narrative elements in Human Revolution. The colors recall the brightness of modern machinery and the darkness of Detroit's alleyways, and evoke the works of Botticelli and Da Vinci, who ushered in a renaissance, just as David Sarif hopes to lead the world into a new era of enlightenment. There is so much meaning in this single detail. Human Revolution's mechanical particulars don't always withstand deep examination, but its symbolic details are beyond reproach.