The problem everyone's going to have when discussing Human Revolution is that apparently, when somebody brings up Deus Ex these days, every PC gamer is required by cultural more to face Texas and genuflect. Somewhere along the line, it went from a good game to a great game to a life-changing experience, and Human Revolution's first and biggest hurdle is going to be stacking up against not necessarily its predecessor, but the cultlike following it's developed in the last few years. The same thing happened with the 2003 sequel Invisible War.
Fortunately, I haven't actually played very much of the original Deus Ex, so I'm coming at Human Revolution pretty well cold, and it's not bad at all. It's a nicely varied game that rewards exploration and molds itself pretty seamlessly around the player, with a solid plot and a well-built and engaging near-future world. You'll probably enjoy it.
About ten years from now, the United States is beginning to shake itself apart, not in the least because of the rise of personal augmentation technology, the ability to install mechanical parts that partially or completely replace human anatomy. Adam Jensen is the director of security for Detroit's Sarif Industries, a small but rising star in the augmentation field.
One night, Adam is nearly killed and his ex-girlfriend Megan is abducted by a heavily-augmented group of mercenaries. Adam's life is saved by the surviving scientists rebuilding him from scratch with the enhanced body parts that Sarif manufactures, and six months later, he's recovering nicely, although very little of him is still actually organic. Sarif calls him back to work one night to deal with a group of terrorists who've captured a manufacturing plant, which starts a line of inquiry that brings Adam into conflict with something like sixty-three separate globe-spanning conspiracies.
The draw of Human Revolution is also its primary drawback. I've got nothing bad to say about the graphics, sound, music (some of which is genuinely listenable trance), plot, or script, and you can safely assume those are pretty near top-shelf. There are a couple of unfortunate exceptions, like every single one of the game's four endings, but overall, this is How You Do Things: smart, thorough, well-acted, well-designed. The photos of the developers that accompany the game's credits imply that they spent four years on this game, and I can believe it.
Like the original game, the idea behind Human Revolution is that you can proceed with it in any way you choose and all paths through the game are more or less equally valid. It allows for multiple approaches to almost any conflict or obstacle, depending on how you customize your character, and assuming they're not coached, no two players will go through the game in exactly the same way.
The issue is mostly one of choice, and how those choices tend to play out. Unlike other games in this particular mold, such as the original Deus Ex and Alpha Protocol, Jensen's extra augmentations add capabilities, not proficiencies. At the start of the game, you are as sneaky as you will ever be, almost as good with a gun as you can get, a beginner hacker, a powerful hand-to-hand combatant, and capable of manipulating just about anyone. As you gather experience and activate Jensen's additional augmentations, you gain extra powers but you do not really improve in any particular arena.
It's trivial to get to a point where Jensen can simply do everything with a reasonable degree of ability, which removes some of the challenge and much of the choice; your particular Jensen's area of specialization has less to do with what he's capable of, thanks to how you've spent your points, and more to do with your particular preference as a player.
Now that I've written this down, it doesn't sound like that bad a deal, but it does feel like something's lost. Human Revolution is liberally combed with convenient ventilation shafts, fragile walls, crawlspaces, surprisingly sturdy water pipes, easily-hacked door locks, and poorly-guarded security computers, which makes every zone in the game into a complex maze of obstacles and solutions. It's not really a question, much of the time, about what route you take is the best route for your particular Jensen, but which route is the best in general.
To wit: Jensen at the beginning of the game, before any additional augmentations are activated, is lightly-armed, stealthy, and incredibly fragile, to the point where one guard with a clean shot can put him down. You also receive a great deal more experience from nonlethal melee takedowns than from any other way of dealing with an opponent, with a hefty bonus if you manage to get through an area without being seen, so it's dangerously stupid to play the first couple of levels as anything other than a stealth mission.
Later in the game, as you start running into enemies that are heavily augmented and very well-armed, a stealth character has a tougher time of things. At that point, you can calmly and with no significant penalties switch over to a combat-focused approach. At worst, you'll take more damage and waste a few more shots than a Jensen who's been built for war from the start.
In short, Human Revolution is a very good game and I can recommend it without hesitation, but it's not very good at its primary point of design. There is an unequivocally optimum path through the game, and while you can't purchase every upgrade there is, you can pretty easily get every one that's worth having. In a game that's ostensibly about choices, much fewer of them matter than you might think, and that's a bit disappointing.
With that put aside, and I consider it to be the primary point for or against Human Revolution, this really is one of the better games released this year. About the only other issue I might have with it is that the load times on the 360 are pretty ridiculous, but when you're stuck talking about that, you know you've got a pretty solid product.