Human Revolution: AI Iteration

I’ve been a big fan of the Deus Ex series since the beginning. I like the cyberpunk setting and the gameplay tends to be pretty good. There’s always a wide variety of ways to approach any given problem, which keeps things varied and interesting. I’ve been really psyched about DE:HR since it launched, but I finally made time for it in the run-up to Gaming Season 2011. Although the game has plenty of tactical options, I find myself drawn to the stealthy/pacifist options. There’s a certain challenge in getting through a tricky situation without being detected that I find enjoyable.

If you’d like a quick overview of the graphics, gameplay, and some of the pacing of the game, I’d suggest watching TheAuzzieGamer play the first level. He does a pretty good job of explaining many of the basic game mechanics and showing the multiple routes you can take in the early stages of the game, without it getting too plot-spoilery. It’s 20 minutes long, but even if you only give it 5, you can get a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Plot-wise, there’s not much to get excited about. Every Deus Ex game has a pretty similar plot. You’re the latest technological marvel out of Possibly Evil Corporation, Inc, (a subsidiary of Morally Gray Operations, Ltd) and you’ve been drawn into a world-wide conspiracy for control of the technology you represent, and what it means for all of mankind. The last third of the game’s plot is a mishmash of conspiracy theories and preachy futurism. There’s a wealth of backstory and context contained in books, emails, and other items scattered around the environment, but I found myself skipping over much of it as the game progressed.

The game has a wealth of options to approach any situation. Your augmentation system is upgradeable, and every so often you’re given the option to take or upgrade your augments in a way that can accentuate your play style. It’s not nearly as complex as something like Fallout, but it still gives you more options than games like Splinter Cell, where you might have a choice of guns or gadgets, but they don’t really effect the gameplay that much. In this game though, the augs make your character a custom-built badass – a force to be feared and respected.

Since the game can’t predict your character’s abilities, it has to give you multiple valid options to approach any situation. For example, one of the augmentations lets you punch through walls, one lets you lift heavy objects that might be blocking your path, and still another lets you take a fall from any height without taking damage. These augs can open up new ways of getting around the game, but it’s never required. It’s nice to be able to choose from multiple paths, but it can make the game too easy. For instance, almost every locked door has at least 3 ways around it. You could hack the keypad, knock out or kill a nearby guard, or find a vent that bypasses the door altogether. The problem is all three of these options are almost always available. There’s always a vent. There’s always a guard. This can make the situations you get into a bit cookie cutter and predictable.

I didn’t spend much time playing with the various guns in the game, but there was an interesting variety of weaponry available. There’s a weapon upgrade system that allows for some level of customization, but I found that my weapons were already plenty powerful. The only time I was really forced into a combat situation was the boss fights. Pretty much every review of this game has blasted the boss fights, and I have to agree. Perhaps a character more combat-aligned would have had an easier time, but the game is clearly incenting people to play it quietly and with as little loss of life as possible, so these “weapons free” boss fights just feel out of place. Your inventory space is limited, so stocking up on boss-fighting items and weapons isn’t always a viable option.

There was one particularly annoying fight where, due to some choices I’d made hours earlier in the game, I had to play without my augmentations. My playthrough was probably 80-90% augmentation focused, so suddenly I had no lethal weapons, no cloak, no explosive weapons systems, and the screen was going crazy. It was exceptionally irritating. I finally resorted to something that most would consider a glitch or cheat to beat him.

The one thing that I think really breaks the immersion for me is the enemy AI. AI for me is a sticking point in a lot of games. Good AI is opaque, and makes smart choices in a variety of situations. Poor AI is overly transparent and easily predictable. I understand that for games to work, they have to be at least somewhat unreal. It wouldn’t be fun if the guys caught sight of me for one second and then they pursued me mercilessly until I was dead and gone, but at the same time the AI in this game just feels like it hasn’t evolved at all since the days of the first DE installment. It also seems to me that the only way game designers have to make a game ‘harder’ is to make it more or less fair. Playing an unfair game, whether it’s unfair for or against you, isn’t fun, it’s just annoying.

For example, at one point I had to raid an apartment where a group of thugs were holed up. There were two of them sitting on a couch, one facing the far wall, and one facing the middle part of the room. I snuck into the room and hid in the kitchen behind a half-height wall. One of the two guys on the couch noticed me and got up to investigate, but quickly gave up and headed back for the couch. With his back turned, I snuck out of the kitchen and beat the ever loving daylights out of him. There was a satisfying crack of his arm as he screamed in pain, and then I flipped him completely over and he came crashing down onto the wooden floor. Ouch, bad day for him.

I’m now standing over an unconscious (but probably life-threateningly injured) man, in the middle of the room, about 2 feet away from the couch. The other thug is completely unfazed by this. I’m pretty sure at some point he must have at least felt the gentle breeze of his friend’s arm flying past his ear, or perhaps gotten a little bit of blood and chunks of teeth splattered on him from my brutal takedown. He, however, is staring intently at the TV, on which the same static image is being displayed as when I first entered the room. Even jumping up on the back of the couch, inches from his shoulder, does not faze him.

I really feel like Splinter Cell: Conviction got this right. They managed to make stealth fun, and the AI smart, without making it overly frustrating. The mark and execute system speeds up the flow of the game, without making it too terribly easy. By contrast, this game plays very much like the original Deus Ex from 11 years ago in a number of ways. It has the effect of making it feel like more of a remake or homage than a proper modern sequel. It’s a good game, but I wouldn’t call it any kind of revolution. It’s just another iteration.

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