One of the biggest surprise announcements in the lead up to this year’s E3 was that Eidos were working on a new Deus Ex title, a third game in what you could hardly have previously referred to as a series or franchise because although the first Deus Ex was so widely acclaimed, the sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War was comparatively slammed as a forgettable over-simplified shadow of its predecessor.
For the newcomers, the original Deus Ex was a product of famed designer Warren Spector and one of the first first-person shooters to successfully blend the genre with role-playing game elements - a progression of the gameplay seen in one of Spector’s earlier titles, a little game you might have heard of called System Shock.
Deus Ex not only had this unique gameplay vision but was also powered by the then top-of-the-range Unreal Engine and was all knitted together with a strong multi-threaded narrative and superbly executed (despite some niggling early-bugs that most fans’ nostalgia will have all-but purged by now).
Now it’s 2010 and Mr Spector has since moved on to “Disney’er” pastures with the upcoming Epic Mickey
and the license to the Deus Ex name had long been shelved by owner Eidos. So it caught us by surprise when Eidos’ new owner Square-Enix announced Deus Ex: Human Revolution at GDC 2010, followed by a cinematic trailer
so awesome that it made most viewers not care about the lack of gameplay footage.
Given that all we’d seen going into E3 was this pre-rendered cut-scene (as cool as it was) what we encountered upon visiting the Square-Enix booth is what made Deus Ex: Human Revolution this writer’s pick for E3 2010 single-player game of the show.
We were treated to a 20 minute segment of gameplay demonstrated by the game’s lead writer Mary Demarle who opened the presentation by highlighting the game’s “four pillars” combat, stealth, social and hacking -- the four key elements they’ve identified from the first game that your character can augment in an RPG sense over the course of the game.
It’s the year 2050 and you are Adam Jensen, a cybernetically enhanced human in a cyberpunk dystopian city. Like the original Deus Ex, the storyline borrows heavily from real-life conspiracy theories , conjuring secret societies like the Illuminati and Knights Templar. They’ve taken the real-world island of Hengsha, near Shanghai and populated it with this fictional metropolis.
The result is a fictional hybrid Chinese/English neon city, filled with Bladerunner-esque visuals for which they’ve created over a hundred fictional brands to complete the look. As we walked through the streets, the first thing that hit me was that the art direction was identical to the cinematic trailer. That golden-orange lighting wasn’t just for a one-off flashy CG cut-scene, this is the style of the actual game itself, and it looks incredibly slick.
Approaching a night-club called Hive, the building is lit with yellow honey-comb signage with incredible attention to detail. We’re told that all the non-player characters going about their business in the surrounding area can be interacted with. Many will just comment on their tasks or surroundings but some might provide useful information, backstory for the game or offer side-quests.
On a more sour note, I have to admit to noticing quite a few instances of noticeably lower frame-rate and a bit of visual tearing, but it was made clear that this was still an alpha build of the game so imperfections like that are to be expected. The HUD had also been disabled for the demo so we weren’t given much of an idea of what that interface would look like.
We were, however, shown the dialogue interface and I was impressed to see that they’ve taken a summary-wheel approach similar to the one seen in Mass Effect. The result is very fluid social interactions that allow the player to steer the course of the conversation toward unlocking potential paths forward in the narrative.
Conversation is just one of several ways to move forward in the game as we are assured there is a heavy focus on offering players multiple options around each obstacle.
The first example we met in the demo was the augmented security guard of The Hive. We were led to believe that it would be possible to pay your way past him, however, diplomacy failed and we’d need to find another way around. Alternatives speculated were a possible back-alley or sewer entrance but another solution presented itself when two club bouncers in the area were overheard talking about a lost electronic device that had the club’s basement security code on it; locating this device granted conflict-free progression.
With the social interactions demo out of the way, it was time to get into some action. Once again it’s all about the element of choice. As you can tailor your character’s augmentations in any of the four “pillars” (combat, stealth, social and hacking), the upgrade choices you make will have a large impact on how you play through combat segments. We’re told that it won’t be possible to max out all “pillars” on a single play through so you’ll need to chart a more specialised course.
The choice is yours to run in guns blazing with combat augmentations or to skulk around with stealth skills. In fact, our demonstrator was proud to declare that with stealth skills it would actually be possible to play through the entire game without killing a single enemy (with the exception of boss battles).
Through the course of the demo, we’re shown how depending on the augmentations you have, you can choose either the frontal assault route or other more tactical solutions. A large crate blocking a hole in a security fence can be lifted out of the way with ease if you have a strength augmentation and if your hacking skills are up to snuff you can access terminals to snoop secure emails, disabled security cameras and gain command of security droids.
When you do decide to take the contact approach, plenty of options are still on offer with a variety of weapons and the many special abilities afforded by Jensen’s augments - several of which were shown in the cinematic teaser trailer. Examples shown were a variety of close-quarters take-downs, contextually sensitive if you were attacking from stealth mode or with the three-foot arm-blade augmentation.
A heat-vision augment enables Jensen to see an opponent through a solid brick wall and that cyborg strength comes in handy again with a context sensitive take-down that punches through the wall to grab the poor unsuspecting henchman.
The action from the game is largely first person, but the cover-system zooms the camera out to a third-person vantage, allowing Jensen to peer around corners and blind-fire from behind cover.
Finally we were treated to a bigass cyborg opponent and a well-timed rocket-launcher weapon pickup. The rocket launcher packed heat-targeting and allowed the player to quickly paint an enemy then run to cover and fire a curving missile.
As the curtain drew on the demo, we were once again treated to that worthy teaser trailer and I was genuinely impressed at how well that pre-rendered clip represented what we had just been shown in actual in-game action.
This incredibly slick presentation earned Deus Ex: Human Revolution my personal pick for single-player game of E3 2010, but it’s important to note that it was indeed just a very well presented gameplay demo and this game is going to have a lot more to prove than you’ll be able to taste in a mere 20 minutes.
The AI and frame-rate were a concern, but they’ve got a while to get those sorted. The environments were looking fantastic so if they can hold that standard throughout the game that’s a big tick, but the true test is really going to be how well the story is told, how many options are truly presented to players and just how much those choices will actually affect the game’s outcome. From what we’ve seen so far however, all signs point to “yes please”.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is currently slated for an "early 2011" launch on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.