Twelve months ago this week, the summer gaming draught was brought to an end in spectacular fashion with the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Five years in development, the game saw the highly-anticipated return to the cyberpunk world that'd enraptured critics and players alike back in 2000 when the Warren Spector original was released.
Given that original was a stone-cold classic and continues to be cherished as one of the all-time greats, Eidos Montreal faced an uphill struggle in convincing sceptics that what they were attempting was still true to the vision set down by the first, rather than continuing down the path of the weaker 2003 sequel Invisible War.
First revealed in 2007, the majority of the subsequent four years would see a slow drip feed of info; early art, snippets of potential gameplay details. The world got its first proper look at the new vision of the future at 2010's E3 with a stunning trailer and gameplay footage that encapsulated the direction the team were taking the series. Both suggested something very special was coming.
It was not only a turning point for the sceptics, but for the studio as well, as Dugas unearths the memory of the months leading up to the industry show as one of his proudest moments during production.
"A few months before [the building of the E3 demo], we weren't really impressed by what we had so far with the game," he remembers. "When we started creating the demo however, the game itself really started to come together! Looking back on it, I don't know how we did it all, but the team was incredible in making it happen. We went through all the highs & lows that one could imagine. There's no better roller-coaster [laughs]."
The months between then and release offered us a look at compact preview builds, self-contained missions sown tightly from start to finish and excised from the full game with almost surgical precision. The gameplay, showing how either stealth of action mechanics could be used to clear police stations or terrorist-filled warehouses was almost mundane, given the adoption of such tactics in most games this generation irrespective of genre.
However the game's heritage, and its impressive subtlety that marked it distinct from its peers came with two key points during the latter's play through. Multiple sub-objectives that could be be followed up or ignored involving the plight of hostages, and an ending that saw a tension-filled face-off with the terrorist leader that relied on guile rather than fast trigger finger to finish and the consequences which would ripple out across the rest of the game's story. An intricacy that'd only be realised when UK press and gamers sat down with the full game on its release: August 26th, 2011.
Critical and Commercial Acclaim
Deus Ex: Human Revolution debuted at No.1 on the all-format UK sales chart come its release, landing on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC the same week (with a Mac version coming in 2012), and received near-universal acclaim, and would eventually match the original's score average on Metacritic.
Square-Enix reported that two million units of the title had been shipped to US and Europe as of September 2011, and come the year's end would mark sales of 2.18 million copies - 1.38 million of those coming from Europe.
We scored it 8/10, stating that while "initially cold, distant and disconnected, Deus Ex gradually proves a sublime experience of player freedom and choice..by the nature of its branching storyline and open-ended approach to every situation it's definitely worth multiple play throughs, and afterwards discussion with your friends, as to what you did do, what you didn't, what you missed."
It's a game, and a score, that we're still re-evaluating twelve months on, weighing up whether the badly stitched illusion of a wider metropolis - and thereby making us all too aware of the boundaries of the game's hub areas - tore us away from being completely absorbed in a story that demanded that level of immersion. But even with that weakness (and those boss fights), the game's still engrossing, the meaty spin on the human augmentation argument paling in comparison to the multiple, and perfectly-designed nuances of conversational one-to-ones that became not only the highlight of the game, but our Defining Moment of 2011.
DLC, Tie-Ins and Legacy
The game spawned a single piece of DLC some months after release - The Missing Link retroactively fitting into the main story as it tracked an Augmentation-less Adam's escape through a freighter.
The game's superb soundtrack by Michael McCann was released as a commercially available 25-track album, a prequel novel entitled The Icarus Effect was also released, as well as a series of Play Arts figures.
Arguably the legacy of Human Revolution can be seen in the growing number of cyber thrillers that are appearing on the market. While EA's Syndicate was well into development come Human Revolution's release, the likes of Ubisoft's Watch Dogs, with its emphasis on computer hacking, and Capcom's Remember Me, the new futuristic IP following a memory-altering agent/hacker, suggest that there may be a renaissance of the sci-fi cyberpunk genre to come.
But given the game's now twelve months in the wild, we returned to its creators to ask their evaluation of the game, and the project, with a year's worth of retrospect under their belt.
The One Year On Interview: Jean-François Dugas, Deus Ex: Human Revolution Executive Game Director
It's been a year since the game's original launch: what are your feelings about the project twelve months on?
It feels really good. When I look back at the game, even with its flaws, I feel we've created something very strong. So, I'm proud. It seems like the game resonated really well with the old Deus EX fans as well as newcomers. We still receive touching letters from our fans on a daily basis about their experience with the game. That's the best part for me.
What's your best overriding memory during development of the title? And what are you most proud of?
The thing I'm most proud of is that we managed to revive the Deus Ex series in a way that made the old fans happy while attracting many newcomers along the way. A lot of our audience is new to the world of Deus Ex!
There must have been pressure approaching a beloved franchise such as this: did the critical reception and hitting the chart top spots feel like vindication?
I don't really look at it that way. I'm proud that we managed to make a game that is celebrated as a real Deus Ex successor. However, the pressure that we had to face was just normal and totally justified in my view. People didn't really know us; we were playing with a cult classic and players naturally feared they'd be disappointed by our take on it.
I think it's a question of building trust with people. Maybe they will give us the benefit of the doubt when we make a new game, whatever it'll be [laughs].
Human Revolution has a distinct aesthetic unmatched elsewhere since release, and in fact remains distinct from other cyberpunk series in any medium: how'd the design process for the gold trim and such like come about?
I remember that being different was a goal from day one. We knew that we wanted to give a fresh spin to the Cyberpunk look & feel. We didn't want to fall into the trap of just reproducing what is expected from that genre. Back then, we didn't know how to do it but we were on a mission.
As we were doing our homework and brainstorming for the game, we started to see a lot of correlations to the Renaissance era. We dug further into it and we saw the potential to create something unique: a blend of the Renaissance staples with the Cyberpunk ones.
The art direction became a narrative tool on both a literal and figurative sense. Everything about the black & gold simulates the light & dark (chiaroscuro) found in the art of the Renaissance. On the more intellectual level, it represents the Icarus Myth; the gold is the sun - it refers to the potential and dangers of the augmentations, the hope for the future of mankind.
The black is the sea - it refers to the dystopian world, to the abyss you can fall into if not cautious; it represents the shadowy figures manipulating the events, etc.
The other Renaissance touches like the fashion or the architecture are there to support the characters of the game that represent the new man, the augmented man. And when you see the more conservative characters and environments it's because you're dealing with people who are against augmentations.
In the end, we wanted to be different, but not just for the sake of it. We wanted our world to be rich, meaningful, and intriguing.
How did you chart and plan a non-linear choice-driven narrative? Was there a sprawling whiteboard with every conceivable outcome etched onto it?
We spent roughly 3 months in full-day sessions in which we built the entire game experience with its choices, etc. We did this in an Excel document, which was really hard to read for newcomers but kind of made sense to us [laughs] toward the end of the project, one of our QA testers couldn't deal with our Excel sheet anymore, so he made this fantastically beautiful (and clear) chart that exposed all the possibilities of the game [laughs].
I can tell you that it was a nightmare to figure out all the outcomes without breaking the narrative consistency.
What did you think to feedback to the ending(s)?
There are 2 parts for me that I'd like to separate: a) there's the lackluster mechanic of pressing one of the 4 potential switches and b) there are the polarising actual endings.
For the first one, I totally feel for players' disappointment. It's not what we intended in the first place. We wanted the players to be more engaged in the process of making a decision, both on an emotional and gameplay standpoint. As with any project, sometimes you have to cut things or reduce the scope of some components to reach your deadlines and give you the time to polish the game where it needs it the most. I knew people would be disappointed by the final choice, but I had to make the decision and it was the right one to make in the context of the development reality, not in the reality of the players.
For the second one, I've seen as much good feedback as I've seen bad feedback. Some get it and love it; some don't and hate it. In the end, I pushed for endings that I thought would fit the experience. The message in them was that nothing is clear cut - just like in real life, it's not because you make a decision with the best intent that it will unfold the way you thought. We can never be sure of anything, but in looking back at the History of Mankind, you can somewhat extrapolate on what you think will happen with your choice - and that was the goal of the endings.
Sometimes games (or movies) give us endings with very explicit outcomes and often we're disappointed by them. Instead, I wanted to involve players' imaginations to fill the gap.
In the end, it polarized our audience, as intended. At least, it's not vanilla...
Legacy: what do you want Human Revolution's to be?
Before augmentations or whatnot, we should learn to live together and work out our own emotions so we can co-exist more efficiently with each other. The day we can do that, let's figure out this cool "punch through wall" augmentation technology!
The game ties into the original, but is there any interest in revisiting this iteration, this era, of Deus Ex in future?
That's a good question. Would you like it?
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is widely available - any good retailer either online or high street should be stocking any of the PS3, Xbox 360 or PC versions, and you can download the title either through Xbox 360's Games on Demand or PSN, and its also available on Steam.