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E3 2011 hands-on: Deus Ex Human Revolution

The first thing to know about Deus Ex: Human Revolution is that despite the looks, and despite the majority of the game play, it is not a first-person shooter–or at least, it is not just a first-person shooter. It is technically an RPG that plays like a first-person shooter, at least according to Eidos.

Set in a cyberpunk inspired future, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the prequel to the Deus Ex series that originally launched in 2000. The games are loosely connected, but DE:HR is also an original story and a prequel, meaning anyone can jump in and play without being a fan of the series. And that is a good thing, because DE:HR has a lot of potential.

At E3, Eidos was showing both a playthrough demo, and hosting several hands-on demos. The showing was designed to highlight the potential of the game, while the playable demos were there to display the way the game moves and feels. The Deus Ex series has always been known for the multiple choices and options you are given to complete each objective, and that returns with a vengeance.

If you want to play DE:HR like you would play Halo, you have that option. It might not be the most practical way, but it would be possible. On the other hand, if you prefer the Sam Fisher approach, you could choose to be stealthy and complete the entire game without killing a single person (except for bosses). But if you are like most gamers, you will opt for something in between and try out new paths based on your mood. And since the game will take in the neighborhood of 30+ hours to complete, you will have plenty of opportunities to try things out.

The RPG aspect of the game comes through as an upgrade system. As you progress, you earn “Praxis” points, which can be spent on upgrades. The main character of DE:HR is Adam Jensen, a former security officer that was seriously wounded in an attack. Jensen was rebuilt, but in a clever marriage of plot and gameplay, the operation which gave Jensen his cybernetics limbs and various artificial bits, was traumatic—so much so that the process of adding more components needs to be done over time as Jensen’s body accepts the new parts. It is just a necessary evil in a title like this, but it is nice to see the game integrate the upgrades logically.

But besides just being more Robocop-y, the upgrades give you options on how to proceed and can even offer branching side quests. One example showed the character taking the stealth approach, which led him to an elevator shaft. The character had purchased an upgrade for his legs, which allowed him to fall a significant distance without damage. If he had not had that, he would have needed to find another route. Another example featured a slight side-quest to save a man trapped in a sealed off lab filling with gas. If you have purchased the lung augmentation, you could rescue him. If not, you need to leave him to his fate. Certain augmentations also add to the combat and support abilities of your character. If you did purchase the lung augmentation, guards using gas attacks will be disappointed. Alternatively, if you purchased the optics augmentation, you could see through walls to avoid guards, and if you have the strength enhancement, you could then punch through certain walls to grab the guard and take him out quietly.

The upgrade process is a lengthy one, and it will take you the better part of the game to max out your potential. That means choosing your upgrades to match your play style will become essential, and more than that, there is no right or wrong way to upgrade. For each objective there will be a few options unavailable to you, but with each new upgrade comes new possibilities.

There is also a big emphasis on both hacking and conversation trees.  The hacking is something of a simplistic mini-game, while the conversations can open up new options and side quests through charisma, bribery or fear. You do not have to hack that often or speak with everybody if you choose not too, but both offer more ways to proceed.

But despite the RPG elements, and despite the assertions of Eidos, DE:HR is an FPS. It moves and thinks like an FPS, albeit a smart one. There are plenty of weapons to choose from throughout the game, both lethal and non-lethal, and your loadout for each mission will be determined based on your intentions. If you plan to leave people breathing, you will be given non-lethal weapons. If you plan to become a death dealing angel of Hell, you get something slightly more powerful. You can also upgrade your weapons with new types of ammo that will suit your style.

The controls are about what you would expect from a FPS, in a good way.  There is also a cover system that can help you with silent takedowns, moving without being seen, or to just give you cover from incoming bullets, which will become increasingly important as you progress. The majority of the enemies you face will be average humans, and many times you will have the option of what to do. It may be as simple as eavesdropping on them and waiting for an event you overheard, or it may be bloodier. But average humans are the least of your problems, and you will soon meet other augmented humans. Apparently, in 2027 people are a bit more cavalier with their limbs and seem to misplace them, forcing a replacement. This leads to some epic battles.

In combat, you have a few new options thanks to the augmentations, but those—while incredibly useful and somewhat essential—are limited by the battery life. As you progress, you will gain battery cells. You start with one, but earn more through the game. When you are fully charged you can use any of your augmentations however you like. But the charge does not last long, and you will quickly drain the power, forcing you to find a means to recharge them. The first battery will never completely run out and it recharges through movement, so you will never be trapped by a lack of power, but the judicious use of augmentations will be an important factor.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution also looks great. Although the graphics aren’t on the level of Battlefield 3 or a half dozen other amazing looking games, DE:HR looks technically sound. Where it stands out though is the design of the world. The Deus Ex setting of 2027 is a cyberpunk-inspired world seen through a Baroque lens. The colors are a major factor, and gold is the dominant tint. But that is just the details, what really matters is the design of the world, and that is where it shines.

Mega cities of tomorrow will be a frequent stop for Jensen, and in the future of DEUS Ex, cities will be built upon cities. There is an upper and lower section to these metropolises, and the detail in the design is enough to make you stop and just stare for several minutes. If you are a gamer that is a fan of sci-fi, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the game for you.

The game was mostly done when it was demoed for us–there are a few tweaks and a last coat of polish to apply, but what we saw was enough to focus our attention on August 23, when the game is released for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.