Deus Ex: Human Revolution Hands-on Preview

The story of Adam Jensen changes drastically between when players plug in the Deus Ex: Human Revolution disc and when the opening credits finally roll. After the attack on Sarif Industries, which we detailed in our First Look earlier this week, Jensen was pretty much dead — except Sarif saved him.

Jensen was previously on the fence about human mechanical augmentation, but in order to survive his injuries, he had to be rebuilt, Robocop-style. A bullet to the head means a portion of his skull was replaced; his arms appear wholly mechanical; and mechanisms can be seen under his skin and, in some places, coming through.

Three months have passed since Jensen nearly lost his life during the terrorist attack at Sarif’s Detroit headquarters, and a number of other people involved in the attack did die. Among them is Jensen’s former girlfriend, the brilliant Sarif scientist Megan Reed, and the loss of her and others has created a palpable change in the people of Sarif Industries, especially its leader, David Sarif.

We get to control Jensen from a third-person perspective as he walks in through the front doors of Sarif Industries for his first day back after the attack. The place has been rebuilt, but it’s not a done job. Employees mill around the huge lobby — itself as much an ad for Sarif’s products as a work environment — as well as the upper office floors. You can wander around and talk to them, hearing their reactions: some are uncomfortable, some surprised, some avoid talking about your injuries. Nothing about returning to work seems positive for Jensen. And then there’s Sarif, squawking in his ear.

Something’s going on, and despite his only just returning to work, Sarif needs his security chief. You’re to report to the helipad, but before you can go there, you need to stop by the office of Sarif IT chief and all-around jerk Frank Pritchard.

Heading up to Pritchard’s office is like walking into a buzz saw. He does a quick adjustment of Jensen’s augs, fixing his flickering heads-up display, and then baits him into an argument about Jensen’s inability to protect the people of Sarif Industries. The conversation branches some here, as most major interactions in Deus Ex do, and I have the opportunity to make some decisions — either ignore Pritchard, or get angry and threaten him. When he mentions how Jensen failed Megan, I decide such abuse cannot stand, and threaten the pencil neck with bodily harm. He backs down, but reluctantly.

Sarif checks in again. I can head to the helipad now, or mess around in the offices for a bit. The second option carries a warning from Deus Ex Lead Writer Mary DeMarle, which she mentioned as she intro’d the preview before we started: staying too long here will have consequences.

Exploring the World

Dropping by Jensen’s new office and checking his email reveals something of a side quest the player can partake right now. Jensen has been asked to investigate some drugs that have gone missing from the lab, and you can actually follow the paper trail, breaking into the offices of various scientists to read their emails and figure out what happened. Emails reveal that Pritchard is on the case, too, having enlisted one of the scientists to plant a camera in the lab refrigerator where the drug is stored. The email to his agent inside vehemently emphasizes that Pritchard wants to solve this before Jensen’s returns. Someone’s bucking for your job.

It’s an interesting little bit, and adds to quite a bit

of story content available just from wandering around Sarif Industries it feels like a little microcosm unto itself; all the employees, or at least ones I noticed, are unique character models, and while some of their dialogue gets recycled, it’s a surprisingly small amount.

The helipad and David Sarif await. I make it to him before the time consequence kicks in — more on that in a moment — and he explains the emergency situation: One of the Sarif production plants has come under attack from an anti-augmentation Human Purist organization. There are hostages. A prototype is on-hand in the facility and Sarif has been stonewalling the Detroit Police Department’s SWAT unit to get you there to infiltrate and handle the situation, rather than let them discover it. The SWAT guys won’t wait forever, so you need to get in and secure the prototype. Finding and saving the hostages is your secondary objective, as is determining who’s behind the attack.

Remember that invisible timer running while we were in Sarif Industries? That was related to the hostages. Hold out too long, and the hostages get executed as the terrorists grow more desperate and execute them. It affects Sarif’s disposition when you speak with him, and it changes how the coming events play out.

Lethal or Nonlethal?

During the helicopter trip, you’re given some significant choices. You can choose at the outset what kind of loadout you want to take: lethal or nonlethal, close-range or long-range. Each carries advantages and disadvantages, although they’re not even close to immediately apparent. Like much of what’s happened so far, these choices hint at larger implications just beneath the surface. Picking nonlethal weapons puts you at a severe disadvantage, actually, at least when it comes to the long-range option, which is a bolt-action dart gun. Conversely, the lethal option is the automatic weapon you used during the tutorial, and the familiar sensibilities of a shooter kick in. Going nonlethal is definitely a tougher challenge.

I prefer to play my video games as a heroic, upright figure, so I go with the dart gun. We arrive a few seconds later, landing on a nearby rooftop where the SWAT team is holed up. Nobody is happy to see Jensen: a former DPD interloper who is stopping the cops from doing their jobs and saving lives. They all know they’re being held back because Sarif is a rich industrialist and because there’s something in that factory he doesn’t want the public to see. They have no disillusionment about the situation, and they let Jensen know it. And if you’re late to the party and get the hostages killed, theey spew disgust at you like bile.

Stopping by to talk to the SWAT commanding officer gets you some information, but not much in the way of real choices. There are a few things to learn about layout and the perpetrators, their numbers and the location of the hostages, but nothing that’s extremely useful. A moment later, it’s off to check some nearby lockers for loot — something you can do all over the place, to discover money and candy bars, which gets stored in your big, open inventory system.

Augmenting Adam

In fact, before we head any further, it’s time to do some Adam Jensen augmentation housekeeping. The preview build I played allowed us to get a sense of the augs the game would have available, so I have the ability to choose and upgrade just about anything. Augs are broken up by body part — cranium, arms, legs, chest, and so on — and further by the skill set they adjust: combat, social, hacking or stealth. They’re unlocked by applying Praxis points. This is how leveling is done in Human Revolution: experience points earned through battle, conversation and exploration are converted into Praxis when they hit certain levels. One Praxis point basically unlocks an augmentation, or upgrades it.

Praxis can also be purchased from designated facilities, like LIMB clinics (which are basically Sarif facilities where people can buy augs, get prosthetics, and the like). The point is that players have the ability to choose how they want to spend resources — money can be used to fast-track augmentation development, if that’s what you’re into, or you can spend it on weapons and equipment.

Augs run on charges from batteries on Jensen’s person, running off his internal metabolism. You can upgrade the number of charges, and the last battery always refills over time. The rest have to be restored by eating candy bars you pick up throughout the game. Battery charge is a constant concern, especially on combat, because it runs all Jensen’s augs, as well as his melee attacks.

I opt for the aug that lets me see through walls, an upgrade in battery charges, and the typhoon, an ability that fires little shrapnel grenades in every direction around me when I’m surrounded by enemies, basically turning me into a human mine. Just in case the stealth thing doesn’t work out.

Stealth Everywhere

A little further in, I can climb down from the rooftop to the outside of the plant. I run across my first terrorist here, a man on patrol, and get a quick tutorial about stealth. Every situation has a stealth option, and here I can get close to my quarry, while staying quiet, and perform an execution move on him from behind at the cost of a battery charge. One button executes a nonlethal knockout, which is quieter than its permanent lethal counterpart. After dispatching the guard, I drag his body to a nearby doorway and toss him inside, but not before snagging his pistol and looting his body for other supplies.

Around the corner is the loading dock area for the plant. The front door isn’t far beyond, but it’s guarded by several soldiers. Here, the option is to fight or find an alternate path. I go for stealth, piling a box near some containers and climbing carefully up to the roof. From there, I have to move another object to find a hole behind some transformers, around which downed power lines have created an electrically charged puddle. Slipping through to the other side, I find a switch that turns off the power. A second later, I’m slipping into an air duct to get inside.

The plant is huge. Starting in the loading dock (I’m in the rafters up above), I get a few hits of story from the Purists below and their conversations. They’re searching for something incriminating, but they haven’t found it, and they don’t really know what it is. They’ve vandalized a lot of the building, but they look and sound like amateurs.

Opting for stealth again, I carefully make my way over lighting fixtures to an elevated catwalk on the far side of the room, totally avoiding any enemy encounters. Another vent leads to an interior office section, allowing me to blow past more enemy patrols and hit a door that needs hacking.

The hacking mini-game’s a bit strange. You’re given different options for interacting with different nodes on a system, but generally, your job is to make a path between different nodes and “capture” them. Each time you capture a node, you have a chance of tipping off the system to your presence, and the firewall then starts capturing nodes of its own. The goal is to reach the security node before the firewall program discovers your point of entry into the system and locks you out.

The door hacked open, I enter some lab areas. It’s possible to get into more combat here, from my place above the room on some stairs. Time to pick some shots with my single-action dart gun — acting quickly, I put down two of three guards before I’m sighted. The third quickly goes on the offensive, hitting me hard with his gun, and I have to take cover behind some crates.

AI: Kinda Smart, Kinda Dumb

Combat in this preview build is a little wonky, as the developers on hand explain. We’re playing on casual, but enemies are definitely not balanced for the difficulty. They also are irritatingly smart (or dumb) and will willingly put themselves in the line of fire in order to take you down. They don’t take cover in this preview, which they’re supposed to, but instead approach your position and try to shoot you. This makes things very difficult, since ammo is scarce throughout the plant. It’s a hint at what harder difficulties are like, as is the fact that a guard I was unaware of starts to work around and flank me while I’m dealing with the other. Clever girl.

Even so, the AI so far has been a little on the iffy side. Sneaking past guards is a little strange: they don’t ever actually see you, it seems, unless you stand up and wave your arms. You’ll tip them off to motion by opening a door, making a noise, or doing a SWAT turn from cover to cover where they can see you, but that usually just sends someone over to investigate, Metal Gear Solid-style. Human Revolution’s AI seemed inconsistent this early on, either giving you too much credit in sneaking and seeing only about 10 feet in front of them, or sending enemies at you with no fear of death who eventually detect you, no matter where you head off to. There were issues with the build’s AI, admittedly, but hopefully they get ironed out so that the way enemies react feels more organic and realistic.

I knock out the last guard with a melee strike and drop down. Up ahead, I can either advance further into the facility, where my HUD points toward the primary objective, or take some stairs up. I choose the latter, knowing secondary objectives aren’t marked on the HUD and require some hunting.

I find an open door to an office with nice leather chairs — and hostages, sitting quietly, looking creeped out. Approaching the room, I cock my head as I hear, “Don’t come in!”

Then: “The bomb is wired to the doors!”

Uh-oh. Too late.

A timer starts as the hostages fearfully scream at me. I run over to it — it’s a massive capsule sitting on the desk, filled with the green stuff in canisters that was so handy to gas terrorist mercenaries in the tutorial section of the game. I start the hacking mini-game, and it’s more difficult because the paths to the end are more convoluted and one-way, but the bomb gets disarmed, just barely. After a quick look around the room, I discover a vent that would have led me straight into the office without having triggered the explosive.

Choice Matters

Quickly speaking to the hostages reveals that one, the plant’s manager, has been taken hostage by the terrorist leader. This kicks off a side objective, requiring me to rescue the woman. The whole objective and this portion of the story is totally severable: If the terrorists had died because I was late, or if I’d failed to disarm the bomb and they’d gotten gassed, I could miss this objective altogether.

Further into the facility I go, entering a set of tunnels to the higher-security areas and offices. More vents allow bypassing of different enemies and obstacles, including security cameras that kick off auto-turrets or sound alarms and send guards running. Careful stealth is possible everywhere, but the paths are often hidden behind objects and in out-of-the-way places. It requires quite a bit of investigation and careful attention.

Pressing on, Jensen enters a server room and a cutscene ensues, during which he confronts an auged-out hacker wiring into the plant’s computers. Odd, since these “terrorists” claim to be Purists. Confronted, the hacker picks up a pistol, pleads momentarily, and then shoots himself in the head. Jensen recovers the prototype from the room, but clearly something bigger is going on here than just a simple hostage situation.

The next notable section is a big open set of desks with computers: a work area for regular employees. The room is also filled with enemies, and since I didn’t pull down the aug for active camouflage, I have to take them down. With a bit of sneaking, I can dispatch the two nearest me on the upper level with nonlethal means. A few more quick, careful darts and the last three patrolling troops are brought down, none having even realized what was happening.

Checking the bodies reveals all kinds of information, and many carry login information for the computers. Some of the computers have real information, lore and backstory contained on them, but many are just filled with the meaningless word detritus of everyday life. They can all be hacked, too, but the process is more time-consuming. Eager to press on, I leave the computers, content in the knowledge that I could have spent 20 minutes in this room just immersing myself in Human Revolution. Maybe when I’m not on the demo clock.

A Battle of Wits

The head offices are just beyond, where I find the terrorist leader and a “conversation battle” ensues. The leader has taken the plant manager hostage, and you’re given several different conversation options for dealing with him — empathy and reason among them. The guy hates modded humans, so that’s a barrier that has to be traversed to begin with, but he’s an ex-soldier and not someone who’s in the business of hurting civilians.

Carefully appealing to the man’s reason and his wish not to harm anyone — while playing up the fact that he was a patsy for whatever that hacker was trying to accomplish, distracting the cops and eventually getting himself killed — I talk the terrorist down and he leaves the hostage and flees. It could have easily gone the other way, and did in another run I did of the demo, in which he took the hostage with him and got her shot by the SWAT team closing in on the room.

As it stands, leaving the office and heading outside, I find the SWAT guys trying to break through a door and get the leader, but with no success. They berate me for letting him go, but a little further on, reactions are more receptive to the job I’ve done. SWAT guys congratulate me on avoiding a bloodbath of men who were clearly just upset vandals (listening to the enemies’ conversations bears out the fact that the situation got far out of hand for most of the ones operating on the minion level), and they’re glad I was able to save the hostages.

Meeting up with the husband hostage, I get some rewards and a vow that the man will repay me for what I did for him — undoubtedly, sometime later in the game. All these conversations could have gone very differently, and the fact that I saved the hostages and chose not to kill the vandals seems to have a ripple effect on the world around me. In another playthrough, I shot most everyone in the head as well as got the hostages gassed, and basically earned the ire of everyone, everywhere. This time through, I’m regarded as a hero, and it affects the way people deal with Jensen.

Final Thoughts

Human Revolution is a suitably huge-feeling game — I was told to expect around 25 hours of play time, with lots of variation based on choice — and the preview shows off lots of the little things about how complete the world is. Talking with people, any people, is a pretty interesting experience that helps drive the story.

The aug system, too, felt good. It allows the player to build Jensen’s abilities as he or she sees fit, in a way that jives well with the world Eidos is creating in the game. Leveling goes slowly, allowing you to spend a lot of time getting to know your abilities, and it’s clear that your choices are final — opting for a mod means you’ll be forgoing another one, since you’ll never get everything in one playthrough.

And once I’d played the demo through a few times and learned the map of the plant, specifically the vent locations, sneaking felt like a very viable option. But combat and trying to be stealthy in a room full of enemies were very tough. It might be a function of the weirdness of the build I was playing, but trying to stealth through many rooms didn’t feel like an option that could reasonably work without finding the sort of cheat presented by the vents. Until the full game is out, it’s tough to judge, but this suggested to me that the oft-toted “you choose in every situation” description of the game won’t really be so accurate in practice. Much like in Deus Ex: Invisible War, sometimes you’re just going to have to shoot people in the head, lest they swarm and murder you while you think you’re slipping past them.

My multiple failures with combat got a little irritating, but this was also because I (more or less accidentally) played through the demo so many times. A lot of the issues, like Jensen’s somewhat crap aim, are a function of the early stages of the character. But despite being a superman, it often felt like I wasn’t a match for the fighting tasks at hand, often only surviving just barely by tricking the game and hiding in a vent or running out of a room. Forget about running and gunning ever, even in an emergency — the AI will kill you. The whole of combat felt a little out of balance, and finding the way to sneak through the level and outsmart the enemy was much more satisfying.

But if you’re in it for the story, Human Revolution has it extremely well covered. There’s a lot of immersion, customization and conspiracy to be had in the latest Deus Ex, it would appear. Provided the first-person shooter aspects of the game come through development working a little better, Human Revolution holds a whole lot of promise.

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1 Comment on Deus Ex: Human Revolution Hands-on Preview

AFreakinProblem

On March 3, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Game of the decade material right here, this will probably be better than the original.