Deus Ex And Today’s Game Design

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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is out this week and I’ve already got the pre-load on my SSD. I decided to also finally install the director’s cut version of Human Revolution to remind myself why I liked that game so much five years ago.

Depending on who you ask Deus Ex has a pretty big pedigree in video games. The 2000 original is one of the tentpole immersive simulation games. It helped set a standard for reactive game worlds filled with gameplay options and all kinds of details that made them feel functional and real, along with System Shock or Thief. Arguably games today haven’t even hit that same standard that was established in the 90’s, but Human Revolution came closer than anyone dared believe was possible.

This was when the influence of Call of Duty was still strong, and people expected most big budget games to constantly lead players by the nose down paths full of chest-high cover. We were afraid of what this era would do to a new Deus Ex… until people started playing the leaked demo. I remember being utterly shocked that Human Revolution bothered to include things like an actual map, an inventory screen, and mission objectives detailed enough that you didn’t have to rely on waypoint markers.

To be brief, what I liked so much about Human Revolution is that it allowed and trusted players to do a lot more than most modern conventional action games do. If you wanted to find your away around and infiltrate a place, the game wanted you to treat it like a real place and really pay attention to the information it gave you. If you turned off the waypoints in the HUD you could figure out what was going on and what to do next by reading e-mails, remembering keypad numbers, and using that information in context with your surrounding environment.

The other big thing playing through Human Revolution again this weekend reminded me of is that the game has an unusually good sense of place compared to its contemporaries. I probably spent over an hour exploring the office building where the main character works, just checking out all the labeled offices (including the protagonist’s) and the computers in them which contain so much detail about the world. The early side quest there depends on the player knowing that environment too. When it comes to the character upgrades, combat, and stealth, Human Revolution definitely isn’t as systemic or open-ended as the original game (and Mankind Divided probably won’t be either). In that area it errs more on the “action” side of “Action RPG,” but I still feel like the game’s worlds retain that RPG core, probably better than a lot of today’s open-world RPGs to be honest.

The only other game coming out this year I feel is comparable is Dishonored 2. To be honest the first Dishonored might have been more structurally faithful to the original Deus Ex than Human Revolution was. The way Dishonored set up missions and hub areas, giving you a host of options involving NPCs and your special powers, and most importantly the designers deciding not to stop players from “breaking” the game, gave everything a much more systemic feeling. Human Revolution, when players are in combat or sneaking around, feels a bit more restricted and more like conventional action games. Part of that is the third person cover system which Mankind Divided seems to have pushed further. Even if Mankind Divided disappoints in any area, there’s a good chance Dishonored 2 might pick up the slack in November.

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