There’s an old thought experiment known as the Ship of Theseus that asks whether a wooden ship that has had its component planks replaced with new planks remains the same ship. Substitute people for boats and you have the crux of Eidos Montreal’s new cyberpunk action role-playing game Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Players step into a near future in which human body parts ranging from ocular nerves to lungs and hearts can be replaced with cybernetic proxies that function so well some prefer them to flesh and blood. Proponents of the technology see it as empowerment – humans controlling their own evolution. Detractors, however, view it as bastardizing the human form.
This plausible conflict of ideologies sets the stage for a war between corporations and activists, with both sides presenting compelling arguments and ethical conundrums. Are those against cybernetic enhancements willing to allow any exceptions, as in the cases of war amputees and disabled kids? Can supporters not see the dangers inherent as the technology inevitably moves toward even more profound changes at cellular and neural levels?
Players with a philosophical bent can explore this fascinating quandary in countless books, e-mails, and newspapers waiting to be found in the game world, which cover everything from the science behind the technology to personal stories in which cybernetic implants have saved lives and made careers.
Those less interested in the game’s metaphysical particulars can skip them. A prequel to 2000’s Deus Ex, a cult classic among PC gamers that allowed players an extraordinary amount of freedom, Human Revolution offers a similar brand of autonomy – and not just in terms of how deeply one decides to dive into its knotty narrative.
- Platforms: Windows, XBox, Playstation 3
- The good: Engaging narrative is loaded with interesting ethical dilemmas. Emergent game design lets players play however they like. Wide range of augmentations, conversation choices, and side missions ensures no two play-throughs will be the same.
- The bad: Visual presentation is merely average. Easy to lose your bearings while exploring open-world city hubs.
- The verdict: This long-awaited prequel to the cult classic PC game mixes suspenseful action and stealth play with evocative transhumanist philosophy for a truly adult-oriented interactive experience.
Our protagonist, a heavily augmented head of security for the world’s top human-enhancement corporation, can carry out his missions – primarily investigations into attacks against his company – with brute force or perfect stealth. Faced with the task of infiltrating a police station, I had the choice of going in with guns blazing, creeping up from the sewers and knocking out guards, or entering via the roof and crawling around air ducts.
The wet-wired enhancements players choose will strongly influence their strategy. Implement social augmentations and you’ll be able to monitor a subject’s physical responses during a discussion, making him easier to manipulate. Integrate a rebreather and you’ll be able to stroll unaffected through clouds of poisonous gas, opening access to new areas.
It’s a marvel of emergent game design that ensures no two players will play the same way.
Unfortunately, like many of the motives driving the philosophical arguments, the experience isn’t without flaws. Middling graphics left me lusting for a little more lustre, and the cities we explored often suffered from confusing, nonsensical architecture, making it easy to get lost.
But these issues seem of less consequence in light of the game’s accomplishments. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a decidedly grown-up game for mature players, the kind that legitimizes the medium as a platform for both evocative storytelling and challenging entertainment.