While loitering in the toilets, we stumble across an Eidos Montreal datapad full of hot Human Revolution info - can this truly be a worthy successor to the Deus Ex throne? Well, yeah, we think it just might be...
Eidos reckon they've figured out the "four pillars" that held Deus Ex up as one of the greatest first person adventures ever created. And they seem about right. They're "combat, stealth, social and hacking", claims a proud Sebastien Bisch, Eidos Montreal's marketing and communications director. To be fair, his job title suggests that he's contractually obliged to tell us this game will be the second coming, or at the very least a worthy sequel in a series that was cruelly visited by the worryingly neutered Deus Ex: Invisible War. But Bisch doesn't have to work very hard to convince. He's showing the E3 demo of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and to put it simply, it looks bloody good.
The world of Human Revolution is one of near-future cybernetic augmentations, Bladerunner-esque cityscapes and retro-fashioned corporate conspiracy. Protagonist Adam Jenson unwittingly finds himself strapped neatly to some fairly exhaustive bionic body parts, but rather than these shiny new limbs acting as an excuse to leap buildings and crush the skulls of all who oppose him, Jensen instead acts more like a suave 40s private eye. He chats and he sneaks, he discovers keypads and hacks weapons lockers, he assesses situations with the utmost cool. It's almost as if he knows Eidos's four pillars are right there, dictating his every option.
Of course, Bisch assures that you can also charge through levels in a distinctly un-Bogart-like fashion, and that doing so usually makes things more difficult for yourself later on - but forcing your way through Human Revolution's levels isn't what anybody in the room is interested in. The Heng Sha level we're watching Bisch play through features a heavily urbanised island city resembling an allegorical victoria sponge, except one made from heirarchical, societal classes rather than delicious sponge and jam. The rich live on the raised city surface above, while in the shadows below this vast platform the proles eke out a mucky existence.
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Drawing a comparison with Final Fantasy VII's city of Midgar is so obvious as to make me disgusted for having even done it just now, but the surface streets are in fact closer to Bladerunner's in their greasy, neon-furnished atmosphere. NPCs mill about, shopping, talking, drinking and dropping obvious clues about lost datapads, usually with precise instructions on where to find them, oddly enough. This incidental activity feels startlingly like that of the original. It feels better than the original: it's fuller, with more NPCs and a bedrock of subtle detail on top of which the more important interactions can properly sit.
Heng Sha, while beautifully realised, isn't a totally open environment, but it presents you with choices as to how to proceed. The nightclub Jensen is trying to get into can be accessed in a number of different ways. The aforementioned lost datapad will get you in through an entrance underneath the streets. Bribing the bouncer will get you in the front door. Bisch also mentions that if you've augmented your social abilities you'll be able to successfully talk your way into locations and extract information from characters who'd otherwise be reluctant to give up sensitive information. There's still a lot of player decision involved here though: your possible responses in the conversation appear on the d-pad - whether or not you end up with the result you want depends on how you carry yourself in conversations.
The script itself is mature and, for the most part, well-voiced - Adam Jensen does a fantastic JC Denton impression: stoic, gravelly, monotone, yet somehow chillingly expressive. Returning character Tracer Tong is a wonderfully realised, grizzled, menacing and robotically-armed gent, with ambiguous intentions and refreshingly non-pantomime flare. Dragging things back into the dirt, in this demonstration at least, is one mercenary leader with a grating South London accent and a semi for Lock Stock. But we'll forgive them that.
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So far, so Deus Ex. Eidos will dress it up as pillars and boil it down to buzz words - but they really appear to have grabbed a firm hold on to what, fundamentally, made the original great. And that's an exciting prospect. Where it deviates from the first game is in several conceits made to contemporary game mechanics. A cover system sees Jensen propping himself up against corners and crates in third person - but we saw it used more often to facilitate stealth rather than balls-out action. Animated takedowns add scoops of violent flourish to melee attacks: footlong forearm-mounted blades were the stars at this stage of the game, with a close second being Jensen's ability to punch through a brick wall to grab a guy by the head and snap his neck. But these are visual treats, and progressing through the game only ever using non-lethal takedowns is doable. Only the most cynical of curmudgeons would scoff.
More boomshackalack is delivered in your entrances to certain locations. Later in the Hang Shen level, a warehouse with "five or six ways in" is entered into by means of a skylight. In an incredible preset sequence, Jensen crashes into the midst of a small group of guards before ejecting a cache of marble-sized cluster bombs from his forearms and ducking as the cloud of explosives erupts around him. Hopefully it's a rare treat for finding a clever way of getting to your objective, rather than an overbearing disconnect from actually controlling your character.
Yet to be shown are any real details as to how the game's RPG style augmentations might work. Weapons and bodily augmentations are purchased with cash and XP respectively, and XP is awarded for everything you do in the game. XP bonuses are also awarded at the ends of levels for achieving certain things - the "Ghost" bonus, for example, offers you a cheeky pot of XP for finishing a level without ever being detected by unfriendly NPCs. In a scrap with a bipedal security bot, Jensen uses a rocket launcher fitted with a heat-seeking augmentation. Bisch deliberately fires into the air to show it off; it arcs around to hit the mech in what most would consider its "head".
We also see a crossbow, the bolts of which can pin enemies to walls. Hackable camera systems can be disabled to allow you to progress through secure areas unhindered, (a nice touch: if you take out a guard while he's using a terminal, he'll be logged in already - you won't have to hack anything). Similarly, hack the right terminal and you can operate turrets and security bots. Or don't, you can always ignore these things and carve your own path through the level. Eidos were proudly taking us along the most well-developed and visually interesting route, but they took time to show us one or two alternative routes: gaps in fences, stackable boxes, vents and the like.
Combat, stealth, social and hacking. It's a plain but robust summary of why Deus Ex was such an engaging and replayable game, and if Eidos Montreal can stick to just that skeletal framework, those four "pillars of design", then they really are on to something rather special. And if Human Revolution can hold its own, as its doing, against a torrent of post-Invisible War cynicism, then it must be made of tough stuff.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution stabs its way into shops in February of 2011, but we'll be having another good ogle at the thing at Gamescom next week. We're excited. Can't imagine what you must feel like. Have a bunch of screenshots to tide you over.