Human Revolution eschews plenty of conventions we’ve come to expect in modern games. There’s no in-game tutorial; if you haven’t read the menu or memorised the controller diagram, the only way you’ll be able to find the strangely configured controls or master most of Adam Jensen’s abilities is to trigger a video demonstration. Taking the player out of the immersion of play is a bold choice, and one that will frustrate the impatient.
But maybe that’s deliberate, because if you’re two minutes into the prologue and already fed up by pausing to watch a little video, Human Revolution is not the game for you. This is a game that calls for a certain bloody-mindedness, acceptance of re-iteration and willingness to compromise.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the game’s narrative-central levelling system, the augmentation tree. Players who wilfully throw their Praxis (upgrade) points into whatever strikes their fancy before they’ve scouted the obstacles ahead will be heavily penalised, and thankful for multiple save slots.
Although there are several paths through each level (bar the introductory sequence), depending on how the player chooses to spend their Praxis points largely determines which one they can take. Whichever you choose is largely linear and makes little use of the customisation available within the major streams, making them feel a little extraneous for those focussed purely on reaching the end goal. Many of the upgrades serve only to make things easier, or to open the way to small bonuses like items and XP, and as it’s impossible to collect all of theses little extras in one playthrough, serious completists will only be frustrated.
But this, in the end, is one of Human Revolution’s charms, and one rarely seen in mainstream releases. Every choice the player makes feels weighty and consequential, from dialogue options with wildly varying results to selecting a load-out, as the player quickly realises that each choice closes off not one but perhaps many opportunities – and there is no “correct” method.
That said, there is a definite weighting in favour of stealthy approaches, and this proves enraging when the player confronts the first of the game’s bosses. This may the first time some players enter a firefight, and their lack of experience – and appropriate upgrades – will see them dead on the floor in moments.
The bosses are perhaps the game’s most obvious weakness, because while these fights are something like puzzles (as is most of the gameplay – the puzzle of finding paths through guards, the puzzle of saying the right thing at the right time) the player is given very little time to solve them, and will spend a lot of time looking at loading screens between attempts.
Speaking of loading screens, on a high-end PC, the game loads faster than on the PlayStation 3, and this is probably the most discernible difference between the platforms. Otherwise, the console versions sport rougher graphics, while controls seem more immediate and fluid with a control pad, especially the cover system.
Players will need to master the use of cover, which is essential to both stealth and combat builds. The bobbing in and out between first and third person that results from moving to and from cover is disorienting and even a little nausea inducing, but thankfully, very rapidly becomes second nature, and a vital mechanic when tackling story missions.
Outside of the main plot, players can explore city hubs, and finally utilise some of their less-central abilities. Exploration skills like jumping and safe falling make navigation much easier, and side-mission environments seem to sport more room for experimentation than those of the core plot.
Unfortunately, these hubs can be something of a chore. Locations which should logically be joined by, I don’t know, a road, instead require the player to scoot through air vents, leap from buildings, and push dumpsters out of the way. Praxis points are too precious for many players to upgrade their inventories, and yet loot is plentiful and merchants few and far between – not to mention, not marked on the map resulting in constant backtracking. Jensen’s radar is all but useless for city navigation, and tracking down various side quest targets becomes a matter of constantly referring to the in-menu map.
If all this sounds tiresome, that’s because in some ways, it is. But the pay-off is a gaming experience like no other, where the player feels like every action is meaningful and feels the anguish of things left undone and sights left unseen.
Although some of its features will outrage fans of the original games, Human Revolution chimes against the ear with a familiar resonance to fans of old-school and alternative gameplay design. It is more than refreshing; it’s a re-education in why games aren’t just movies. In Human Revolution, the player is a deciding factor in the direction of the world, rather than something to stand in front of the camera, and that’s a hundred times more immersive than the seamless, no-failure shooters we’re used to.
Jimmy the Geek