One month ago I got to see the third Deus Ex game being played in front of me, for half an hour. At the time I was pretty sceptical, but what happened in that demonstration made me a convert. I wrote my impressions down frantically as it went, so I thought the best way of explaining to you why I got so excited was to write up that mess of typos into a full blow-by-blow account.
It's a LOADING SCREEN! Exciting!
I'm not entirely kidding, because this loading screen has a LOADING SCREEN TIP! It tells you that you can upgrade your Cybernetic Arms augmentation to let you move heavier objects, cancel weapon recoil, punch through walls, or increase the size of your inventory.
In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Augs are things you buy at a Limb Clinic, but they only come with basic functionality. You earn experience points as you play, and spend that to unlock specific functions for your augs, like super-jumping for your legs.
While the game loads, producer David Anfossi explains that the demonstration will be about 25 minutes, all taken from the actual game: no specially made demonstration levels to show off specific features. We're going to see two consecutive levels, from about 5-6 hours into the game.
"Basically we put a lot of effort on the demo itself, not so much on the loading times."
The demo finally starts. It opens on a curvy VTOL aircraft named the B-EE burning through a thick gold fog towards a striking and profoundly futuristic sight: the double-decker city. An island metropolis near Shanghai that's had a whole second street level built on top of the first, making it look like the logical extreme of a multistory car park. Hero Adam Jensen speaks for the first time:
[MPU]"Son of a bitch."
"Twice the scum in half the space," remarks his pilot, Faridah Malik. She's referring to the fact that the lower levels in particular have become home to less savoury elements.
I think her maths is off: to fit twice the scum in half the space, you'd actually need four stories.
I was expecting to hate their voices, but I actually don't. Not enough to go on for Adam's, but Faridah's is perfectly decent. A very conventional nice-lady-in-your-earpiece performance, but a good one.
Faridah explains that we're after a hacker who hangs out in a nightclub here.
"Got a name?"
"Tong Se Hong."
The journos in the room with sharp ears and fond memories all look at each other. Tong? Our Tong?
Touch-down in a great looking futuristic city. Like the original, a lot of Deus Ex 3 takes place in large, freely explorable city hubs.
This one is gorgeous: every chunk of it is on a different level, and argon signs from tacky corner stalls light up the lingering fog with a different blaring colour on every street. Above, massive neon ads flicker so bright and sharp it's hard to look at them. They've gone for the Blade Runner feel, and pretty much nailed it.
Adam pulls a gun on the first guy he runs into as he leaves the landing pad - just to show us what happens. It's a nice looking, very slim and secret-agenty silenced pistol. The poor guy yelps, puts his hands up, and whimpers something in Mandarin. It wouldn't be Deus Ex if the hero wasn't being a dick.
The streets below aren't packed, but there are more people than you expect to see in a game city, and they're going about their business convincingly: sweeping up, chatting, buying things. At this point it's pretty clear the ambient chatter you're hearing isn't coming from anyone in particular, but that's understandable this early on.
Producer David Anfossi tells me you can talk to absolutely anyone, and almost all of the dialogue is unique.
Adam follows the bassy thumps and finds the nightclub, approaches the bouncer and is denied entry. Two things strike me at once:
One: Adam's voice, heard properly for the first time. Holy shit, it's gravelliest thing ever. It's like if Clint Eastwood played Batman. It's almost, almost too much, but after a few seconds, I like it. A lot, actually.
Two: the shoulders of Adam's trenchcoat have a faint black floral print on them.
Combined, this makes him the manliest and girliest protagonist ever.
Adam relents and pays the cover charge, growling something reluctant. Game director Jean-Francois Dugas explains that he could have just shot the doorman, but with police and bots directly behind it would have been a tough fight. There's also a back route that can be found by exploration.
The club is cool - Deus Ex 3 actually has an art style, and this interior shows thought and creativity. It's called the Hive, and gold hexagons dot the walls - a reference both to honeycomb, and a recurring motif on a lot of the cybernetic augs the game is about. There's a second-floor balcony over the dance floor, and the ceiling space is filled with dozens of irregularly hung flourescent tubes: a messy crosshatch of lights in club's thick smoke.
Adam finds a barman upstairs and asks after Tong. He's unwilling to let him in.
What follows is a verbal fight: Deus Ex 3 has conversations you can actually lose, closing off the social path to your objective forever. Adam has to choose a tack: Insist, Advise or Pinpoint, then try to tell by the barman's response whether to stick with it, or change. Those verbs are different for each of these arguments, but the same within this one: he gets to choose three times.
It's a long, angry conversation. Adam tries to intimidate the man - he's aggressive, but with a low menace rather than any shouting - then convince him he's of use to Tong. Both ploys fail, the barman is abusive and ultimately refuses to even talk to him anymore. Whoa. I'm not used to there being a genuine risk when you choose how to talk to someone in an RPG.
Adam overhears a conversation about someone losing their keycode to the backrooms, and finds it quickly. If he hadn't, Jean-Francois explains, he could have hacked the keypad if his hacking Aug was up to it, or found a sidequest for someone else in the club in exchange for an introduction to Tong.
The code is 0415!
Excuse me. This is exciting because it's a nod to the code for the SatCom trailer at UNATCO in the first game: 0451. That, in turn, was a nod to the code to the first door in System Shock: 451. Which, in turn, is a reference to the book Fahrenheit 451. Which, in turn, is a reference to the temperature at which books burn: it's a dystopian classic about banning critical thought. Looking Glass, Ion Storm, Irrational Games, 2K Marin and now Eidos Montreal have all snuck nods to this heritage in their System Shocky games: games where you have options, games where you have to think.
System Shock 2, first airlock: 451000. BioShock, first keycoded room: 0451. BioShock 2, code to the Sauna: 1540, written on the other side of a window, so it reads 0451.
And now Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the code to the backrooms at the Hive: 0415. Scrambled slightly perhaps out of modesty: they don't have a lot of staff in common with the other companies who've used this calling card.
Adam slips into the backrooms and hugs a wall. I finally get to see one of the most worrying details of Human Revolution in action: the third-person cover system.
It works. Adam slinks stealthily along the wall till he hits a corner, and because of the external perspective, I can see round it. A guard is coming.
He waits till his back is turned, then comes out of cover and walks up to him. Adam taps the guard on the shoulder and knocks him out.
Melee was never really a form of combat in the Deus Ex games: you either knocked them out with one blow, or slapped them repeatedly with your nanosword while they shot at you point blank. Human Revolution cuts out the slapping: if you're close enough to hit them, you just press the key and the takedown happens perfectly - in third person.
It's a little jarring, yes, and people are going to decry it as a mere action game. But the mechanics make sense to me: Deus Ex was all about getting close enough to someone to be sure you could take them out instantly - whether it was with a crowbar or a headshot. This way, at least it looks cool.
What I can't tell without playing it is whether this will feel like you're doing it. I think that's the biggest risk.
Adam grabs the guard's body and drags it into a storage closet - all in first person. Corpse dragging! Yay!
Apparently guards can wake up their unconscious friends if they find them. So lethal kills are safer, but as in Deus Ex, certain characters will judge you for it.
Adam finally finds the ultimate alternative route: an air vent. He's failed to get a meeting with Tong, but he can spy on his office from here.
There's a twist about the identity of Tong in this game that I won't spoil for you. We weren't asked not to mention it, so be aware that a spoiler for this scene may well be mentioned in other coverage of DXHR. I don't reveal it in my preview feature in the mag (PCG UK 215), but I do go into more detail about how the Tong name may link the plots of this and the first game.
A conversation unfolds in a cut-scene that reveals the hacker you're after is at the shipyard. Fade out.
The next section of the demo takes place at the dock. Adam ducks behind a low wall as he approaches the security gates - again the switch to third person feels useful rather than weird. He dives and rolls from one bit of cover to the next until he comes to the fence on the other side. It's blocked, but only by a crate. He picks it up.
He picked up a crate! It's Deus Ex! Me and Will Porter from Eurogamer are grinning like idiots. If you want to make a cool looking modern game, this is the feature you scrap: having a big transparent box in front of your face looks weird, and letting the player rearrange the scenery leads to all kinds of AI, level design and testing complications. But if you want to make a Deus Ex game, this is a feature you keep. They kept it.
Adam sneaks through the gap, over to a guard hut, and sets the crate down underneath its window. He hops up onto it - Deus Ex! - opens the window and slips through. Deus Ex: Invisible War had a pistol mod that would dissolve glass to let you break windows without setting off alarms. Deus Ex: Human Revolution just lets you open them.
Inside, there's a guard at his desk working on a computer. Adam sneaks up to him, we go to third person, a square blade flicks out of his wrist, and-
With a deeply unkind animation and very little noise, the guard is impaled where he sits. It's gruesome, cinematic, situation-specific, and a total dick move.
Adam, you're an asshole. Welcome to the Deus Ex family.
The computer the guard was using controls the security cameras throughout the dock. With a little more exploration, Adam could find the password, but instead he hacks.
My first thoughts on the hacking minigame are "It's... Pacman? No, it's... an RTS?" It's a map of nodes, and you start at the I/O port. You have to reach the Registry on the other side by taking control of nodes. Each node you capture could trigger a trace. If it does, you have to reach the Registry before the trace gets back to you and trips an alarm.
Adam manages it without problem, disables the cameras, and slips out into the shipyard proper.
The scene has a very crisp, dark, glowing, bloomy look. There's that pervasive gloom Deus Ex always had: like it's not only night, it hasn't been day for several years. And unlike Invisible War, here we have a big, open, outdoor environment. Not huge, from what I can see, but Eidos tell me plenty of the levels are bigger than Deus Ex's.
Adam sneaks around its circumference, jumps up onto a storage container - why sir, your jump seems augmented - and takes stock. Two guards on the ground, one on the crates, watching their backs. He brings up the inventory - simple, placeholder stuff for now - and chooses the crossbow.
But Adam! That guard will just run around going "Uh!" for ten seconds, alerting everyone and probably shooting you a fair bit!
He shoots the crossbow. It nails the guard's head to the corrugated metal behind. Oh, it's that kind of crossbow.
Eidos assure me there are plenty of non-lethal weapons, including tranquilisers like the old mini-crossbow. This is not one of them.
Lookout dealt with, Adam jumps down in front of the two remaining guards and skewers them both in one horrible move. You don't have to do these moves from stealth, though some of the fancier ones have to be unlocked by spending experience.
He runs into another guard around the corner, and takes him out with a rapid series of punches to all the wrong parts of his body. When you do a takedown like this, you can tap the key to beat them up, or hold it to get your blades out and eviscerate them. So right from the start, you always have a choice of lethal or non-lethal.
Adam flicks into a new vision mode: green with gold figures everywhere. He's seeing people through walls. The nearest guy is in a flimsy-walled hut, so he approaches from the outside and- Jesus Christ!
He smashes both fists through the wall, completely demolishing it, and grabs the poor guard from behind. A few nasty blows and he collapses in a heap of rubble. I'd heard you could punch through walls, I didn't realise that meant bringing the whole thing down.
He finds the explosives he's looking for, and Malik tells him where to head to plant them for the best distraction. There are a few too many guards to take on along the way, so he slips into stealth mode and sneaks past them invisibly until he finds one on his own.
Another inventory switch: this time to that slimline silenced pistol we saw back in the city. Ca-thack! It makes a sound like a particularly satisfying holepunch as he headshots the guard.
Adam's found a route up to the roof of the main building, and his standing on a skylight through which he can see guards talking below. He does exactly what I would do if I were playing: shoots out the glass.
He hits the ground in slow-motion, third-person, knocking all three guards on their arses. Then, absurdly, dozens of tiny red spheres shoot out of his body in a cloud around him - and detonate.
Now everyone is dead.
These are two separate augs, I'm told: one lets you land with a stunning slam, the other emits tiny mines all around you. This allows you to use a "Blow your tiny mines" pun.
That's the only thing that's been rigged for this demo: he's playing with infinite energy. Normally each of these abilities would consume at least one of your 2-6 energy pips, and you'd need to find something to replenish them before you could bash down any more walls or blow up any more crowds. Only your first energy pip regenerates over time.
There are a few more guards in the building, so Adam ducks behind some boxes - third person cover system - and peeks out to fire a few bursts at them with the assault rifle. It's a big, boomy weapon - fully upgraded apparently, which explains why its red muzzle flash colours the whole screen with every shot.
The guards are down, but there's an ominous zoomy noise coming from overhead. A massive steel cube is dropped from an unseen aircraft, smashes through a skylight, and lands in the centre of the warehouse. It unfolds elegantly, limb by limb, into a four-legged combat droid the size of the giganto-bots from the first game. Which is to say: giganto.
Its elephant legs crush the puny cardboard boxes it stomps on, while two miniguns protruding like antennae pelt Adam with fire. He dives between pallets with acrobatic commando-rolls and keeps firing back at the bot in short bursts, and I become worried.
In Deus Ex, bots are puzzles. It's completely inviable to fight them with mere bullets, so you have to hide, look at your toolset, and think about how to deal with them. This was starting to look like a boss fight: do enough damage and you win. That only requires - spit - skill . Deus Ex should require thought: can I afford to use up a rocket on this? Can I get away? Do I have any EMPs? If he beats this thing with an assault rifle, I will be sad.
After a lot of diving, shooting and hiding, Adam's found a good vantage point above the droid, and he's rooting through his inventory. He has a rocket launcher. And he has a weapon mod for the rocket launcher that lets him acquire a target, then fire-and-forget.
Boom, whoosh, crash!
The bot is totalled. Phew. This is still about having the right tool for the job, and not just brute skill.
After the fight, and the explosion, a military-looking chap with an augmented jaw shows up. I recognise him from concept art: Barrett. He has a minigun for a hand, and looks like the type to say something awful like "Looky here, we got us a boyscout."
Barrett: Well looky here, we got us a boyscout.
He goes on to explain that we 'done good' to get this far, but that 'this ends here'. Not really looking forward to hearing more of the Disgruntled Paramilitary Phrasebook from this guy in the final game.
That's the end of the demo. I am left confused and excited. It's good? It's good! When did this become good? I thought this was going to be the slightly embarrassing bastardisation of the Deus Ex template that I would play to death anyway, find some underlying virtue in, then spend seven years apologising for. That's what happened with Invisible War.
There are third-person kills, you can shoot from cover, and there are a few mid-mission cut-scenes. But you don't have to clone Deus Ex to stay true to it, and seeing some of the slicker changes here gets me thinking about how silly some of Deus Ex's rough edges really were. I usually defend them, because things like the half-blind enemies and inaccurate shooting were key to making you plan your approach. But here, I can see those things replaced by better systems without reducing the thought required.
It's a sneakier, prettier, more violent Deus Ex. That doesn't mean it'll be better than Deus Ex, but just seeing a game that's comparable gets me buzzing.
Next in Deus Ex week, we have an interview with game director Jean-Francois Dugas about what made Deus Ex great, what was wrong with Invisible War, and which side of the line Human Revolution falls on.