Human Revolution begins clumsily and in at least that sense it’s a true successor to the first game. Whereas 2000’s ‘thinking man’s shooter’ dropped the player off at a terrorist-occupied Statue of Liberty with barely more than a pat on the back, Eidos’ prequel over-eggs the orientation, locking the player into a series of technobabble-filled cutscenes and on-rails sequences that hurriedly set the scene. The year is 2027 and you are Adam Jensen, part-time World’s Gruffest Cyborg contender, full-time security chief at Sarif Industries – a biotech firm on the verge of a seminal announcement. Not everyone is eager to see this come to pass, and the violent persecution of Sarif Industries by forces unknown becomes the main thrust of your investigation.
Once the exposition settles down and you are finally allowed to forge your own path through the streets of seedy, derelict Detroit, the plot against Sarif begins to unravel, embroiling first the local corrupt cops, terrorist cells, shady government outfits, avaricious corporations and beyond. It’s a gripping narrative, and one which feels all the more significant and personal by dint of the player’s own detective work – turfing through conspirators’ desktops and misplaced PDAs, connecting the dots between email headers and factional interests.
The narrative stretches across two major civilian hubs and many more mission locations besides. The crumbling Detroit is your first playground, and then later the smog and neon of Heng Sha island – and though both feel claustrophobic in comparison to the open-world cities of other games, they are nonetheless a sizeable sprawl, densely populated with interactivity, drawn with a squalid sort of beauty and peopled by colourful, well-drawn characters. The chippy systems specialist Pritchard is the most frequent voice in your ear, and an uncertain ally, while the tomboyish pilot Malik is a more obviously sympathetic figure. Then there’s David Sarif himself, every bit the swaggering CEO, with his authority, easy charm and warmth concealing… what, exactly? While voice acting wavers among the bit-parts, and the script is sometimes leaden, sometimes cartoonish, the principle characters deliver a strong showing. You even warm to Jensen, who manages to be a perpetual misery guts regardless of your dialogue choices, and despite the fact he sounds like Timothy Olyphant impersonating Clint Eastwood recording a voiceover for an especially listless sat-nav.
The story is, dare we say it, probably a better yarn than that delivered by the first game. Its themes are certainly more relevant. While Deus Ex was more consciously a pastiche, starting with the premise that every conspiracy theory is true and spiralling off into hysteria about aliens, Human Revolution focuses on more immediate and credible issues surrounding transhumanism – its effect on morality, the vast social inequalities it will create and how the powerful will seek to subvert its potential to their own ends. And the game is particularly good at illustrating how power sustains itself through illicit collaboration between corporations, governments and the media. You only need to turn on the TV to see how relevant that is.