I would like to cut straight to the chase on this one – this is an excellent game. Got that? Any questions? Yes, you at the back, the gentleman wanting to put his hands inside the game’s wounds before he believes me? ‘Is it as good as the original Deus Ex, the one our grandparents played on their Amstrad 64s in the early 1700s?’ Excellent question, I’ll come to that shortly.
The story is set in the near future, where the world is poised on the brink of a bionic revolution. Everyone is discussing the major issue of the day – should we enhance our own bodies using the latest technology? Adam is head of security at a bionics firm set to make a major presentation on their latest advances, when everything goes terribly wrong. Terrorist mercenaries attack the company, killing a whole team of scientists, and Adam critically wounded as he tries to rescue them. He’s saved from death by being given a series of implants by the company, and within six months is back on active duty, trying to prevent a second attack.
But nothing is as it seems – the company is full of secrets, his boss is playing some kind of double game, and the terrorists may be part of some bigger, more sinister conspiracy. Adam must chose who to believe as he plumbs the depths of the criminal underworld he must search through for answers. Betrayal and treachery dog him at every turn. His implants must be upgraded in order to compete with his foes, implants he never asked for and that some would say make him less than human. What else will he have to sacrifice in order to find the truth?
More news in brief – it looks great. The graphics, even on my four-year-old rig that can’t do much of the newer stuff that makes your eyes hug each other with tearful thanks, are glowing and gorgeous. I have a friend with a brand new rig, and he does mention some of the DX11 whistles and bells are actually rather buggy, in fact, which should make cheapo gamers like me feel jolly smug. The setting is excellently portrayed, your Neuromancer Future in neon made virtual flesh, the grime under the chrome real enough to make me wince when I fall into each lovingly rendered sewer. The sound is lovely, pacing up nicely when the risk in the game ramps up, or flicking out deadly dancing bass when the bullets get stuck in. There’s only one specific complaint I have about the sound, and I’ll get to that shortly.
There is more freedom in this game than there is in the USA right now. I’m not saying that isn’t the Land of the Free in any way, before anyone lynches me, just that this game is rife with freedom. To start with, the upgrade system, which allows you to strengthen your abilities to make it easier to play the way you want to. Want to be a gun-happy killosaur? Fine, spray bullets out of a rotating hose in what is a very good cover-based shooter, albeit one a damn sight harder than most we get foisted on us these days. Want to be a nervous hacker, desperately hugging the walls until he can find an unsecured terminal to jack into in order to set the security systems on the guards? Then go for your virus software and start crossing your fingers that you’re faster on the draw than the firewall. Or just be a bloody thief and nip about breaking into apartments and half-inching stuff. There are almost as many ways to get through a level as you can imagine. Assuming you don’t imagine surfing on a giant metallic octopus whilst dressed as Count Basie and farting through a flute, at any rate.
Okay, so there are a few limits on that freedom. Playing as smooth-talking con man is out. Mostly because the protagonist you play as, Adam Jensen, insists on talking like Jason Statham at all times. You know him, the action hero actor from ‘The Transporter’ and ‘Lock, Stock’ whose vocal range leaps from ‘gritty’ to ‘gravelly’ by way of ‘growly’ and ‘actually quite annoying because surely nobody really talks like that unless they’ve had throat cancer’. That’s my one complaint about the sound – I cannot empathise with a lead so determined to choke in his emotion and grind out masculinity, you can hear the tension in his buttocks. It doesn’t help that (on my admittedly far below graphical par machine) the animation of the main characters isn’t great. Their faces seem a little disconnected, they shift around a hell of a lot as they talk, and the women all have the same ludicrous chest. But given this is a computer game and not the RSC, the fact that there is acting there to criticise is something to be proud of.
There are flaws, just before I get completely carried away. Grumpy-voice Jansen is one. The slightly hackneyed setting and plot might be criticised too, for however sumptuous and detailed it is, it’s not exactly the most original clone in the pod. Some locations actually feel lifted from the first game in a way that’s probably deliberate, although still very faintly grating. That’s really being very mean, though, it’s like criticising the Lord of the Rings for ripping off Saxon mythology. Which it totally did, by the way. The way the game will let you play it any way you want most of the time, and then occasionally force you to play it one specific way has been much whined about (see the recent Penny Arcade comic for more eloquent details – http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2011/09/02), although that doesn’t bother me personally.
Giving you choices into a game isn’t the same as saying that your choices will always be rewarded or make the game easier, something that bores me in many other games involving choice. Look at the original Dragon Age, for example – yes, you can be a good guy or a bad guy, but the net result is pretty similar, you save the world and there are some consequences that don’t really touch you, because they’re really just narration for the cut scene at the end. [Spoiler alert – horribly, I hear a rumour, although I haven’t reached it myself, that the ending here has a similarly crap approach, which really would be a rotten shame]. This is a game that gleefully says yes, you may play as an invisible sniper, but occasionally someone will really make you examine that as a life choice incredibly hard, often through the medium of grenades. Adapt very quickly or perish. It’s still a choice, right?
Play it on hard, would be my advice, and revel in this challenge. It makes you take risks and value your few rewards and scanty ammo. There is a great emphasis on tactical decisions and on choosing the right tool for the job in order to survive. There’s the reward for your planning and thought, the fact that you are still alive! You want phat lootz? Go and play something menial and thoughtless like WoW or Bioshock instead, where you cannot die and grinding will eventually triumph over everything. Yes, I’m slating two vastly successful games. But I’ve got a point, and you all know it.
And you, Doubting Thomas, nervously hovering at the back, unsure whether to come in to the new golden age or sneak back out into the cold and rainy plethora of bollocks out there. You question the heritage of this game, new scion in a house with one mighty ancestor and one haemophiliac freak. Which parent does this one harken after? Now look here, have you been reading this review or just picking your nose and listening to your iPod this whole time? This. Is. An. Excellent. Game. It’s clever, thoughtful, well-written, superbly realised and not afraid to be difficult in an era where games fall over themselves to baby-walk you to their snoozy conclusions. Even though whilst playing, I am doing nothing more worthwhile than sitting on my arse, wearing only a flannel dressing gown and eating pizza because it’s Sunday and my wife is away, this game genuinely gave me a sense of rewarding achievement and interest. It engages your brain. Dubious Tom, come on in and relive the glories of the game’s good ancestor. The great days of PC gaming may well have come again. Tired old warhorse that I am, this makes me feel like I’m playing Thief for the first time. Only without the graphics that look like cardboard arse.
I shall finish with an anecdote.
So, I’m trying to escape from a bathhouse full of goons. I have four tranquiliser darts and a single charge for my taser (as I’ve decided to keep the body count as low as possible. I’m a security chief, not a murderer, dammit). I’ve snuck in behind the first sentry, but now I’m stuck. If I shoot him, his friends will hear. If I knock him out or drug him, the security camera he’s standing under will spot me and warn the other baddies. His two pals are round the next corner standing right next to each other and protected by a ferocious gun turret built entirely out of gatling barrels. There’s a nearby terminal I could hack, but it’s in their line of sight, and unless I can fox its baffles without tripping an alarm in less than five seconds, they’ll see and shoot me.
Now, at the end of the day, I could just sneak past the lot of them, leave them none the wiser and get away. But I know they’ve killed everyone in the apartments above me, and they don’t deserve to escape justice. They’re mercenary killers that the local police won’t be able to catch. If I leave them dead, I’m no better than they are.
So my question is this – knowing that trying to take out even one of them will alert the other two, and that they are all better at combat than me, how do I bring them all in?
Intrigued? Go and buy the game. You’ll get to wrestle with conundrums like these continuously. Or enhance your shoulders with rubberised muscle and beat them all to death with their own gun turret if that’s your personal wrestling mania. Either way, you’ll have a ball.