Sunday, June 10, 2012

Say You Want a Revolution

(How predictable am I? I nearly titled this post "Your Revolution Is A Silly Idea Yeah," but fortunately I checked and saw that I already used that for a post on Civ Revolutions back in 2010. You're welcome!)

Massive and belated thanks to Andrew for giving me the latest Deus Ex game, Human Revolution, for Christmas last year! Deus Ex has an outsized hold on my imagination given the surprisingly little time I've spent actually playing the franchise. I was entranced with the description of the first game long before it came out, but due to my computer situation at the time (early in my sojourn as a fanatical Linux-only user), I wouldn't get to play the first installment until its graphics had grown dated. I'd heard enough bad things about its sequel, Invisible War, that I never even picked it up. Human Revolution had gotten good buzz, though, and I was excited to return to that world and check things out.

People who've known me for a while know that I'm fascinated by, and perhaps even obsessed with, conspiracy theories. I don't BELIEVE in them, mind you, but I have a great deal of fun reading about them, mapping them out, and thinking through the hypothetical scenarios they present. I'm even a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to conspiracy theories. I've never been that enamored of the X-Files-style theories, which rely on government coverups and superior alien intelligences; that feels a bit like cheating. I am, however, utterly entranced with Illuminati-style conspiracies, in the mode of Robert Anton Wilson, which posit shadowy, secretive (and fully human) societies that have existing behind the scenes for centuries or millennia, subtly guiding the course of large, public events in order to serve their own nefarious ends. A good conspiracy theory should seek to link together as many visible events as possible, while remaining infuriatingly vague about who is pulling the strings from the center.

So, from the first time that I learned that Deus Ex was a game about secret conspiracies, and I heard whispers that the Illuminati might be involved, I knew I had to try it out. The original Deus Ex was kind of a cyberpunk game, set in a dystopic (but not post-apocalyptic) future with a heavy police state, pervasive surveillance and networking. I honestly don't remember that much about the plot, but do remember the joy of poking around in this world, which I could pretend was my own future world.

Human Revolution feels pretty different, but honestly a lot of those changes might be from me; it's been many years since I played the original, and I'm playing this version on the PS3 instead of the PC. I think the focus of the game is different as well, though... I recall the original Deus Ex as being more focused on the information side of things, while Human Revolution seems more interested in biology and biomedicine, as is appropriate for its title.

More on the plot eventually, but first, the gameplay:

Human Revolution is a first-person game, but it's very rarely a shooter; you do much better by sneaking around and avoiding combat than you do by charging in with guns blazing. In this respect it's a lot like the Metal Gear games, although HR gives even more choices for how to accomplish your goal. Say you need to get to the other side of a large room that's being patrolled by enemies. You could try to shoot them all; this would likely lead to disaster, though, especially since the survivors will probably raise the alarm and summon even more guards. You could try to sneak through the environment by hiding behind obstacles and carefully moving when their backs are turned. You could find a concealed air vent and work your way through the ventilation system. You could try to lure away guards by tossing around some cardboard boxes, then knocking them out cold once they're removed from the room. You could look for a terminal to hack, which might allow you to activate some robots or turrets that you can turn against the enemies. You could look for a weak section of the wall to smash through in order to bypass the main room. And on and on; I love that breadth of freedom in the game.

Of course, you don't always get all those choices. You almost always have at least two different solutions to any given problem; the major exception is in boss battles, where the only possible outcome is to shoot them enough times until they die. That's a little annoying, and actually kind of an inversion of how many other games operate: often, fighting the minions is a dull and repetitive process, while fighting the boss takes creative thinking and strategy; in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the opposite is true.

I mostly love the leveling system. You don't directly gain levels, but you get XP by accomplishing certain tasks, and larger amounts for finishing quests. The amounts you get in rewards all feel pretty appropriate; maybe 10XP for killing an enemy, 50XP for silently knocking them out, 75XP for hacking into a moderately secure computer, 100XP for finding a secret passage, 250XP for making significant progress in an optional side-quest. 5,000 XP grants you a "Praxis point". Generally, a Praxis point lets you unlock a new ability, although some powerful abilities require two points. Praxis allows you to upgrade virtually every conceivable aspect of your body and mind: you could invest in becoming a better hacker, or gain the ability to jump higher, or better handle recoil from your gun, or gain the ability to see through walls or breathe poisonous gas.

Early on, it's very tough to figure out where to allocate Praxis points. You want to put a lot into your hacking abilities so you can take on the more advanced computers and keypads that you run across; however, there are a few other skills that are also very essential, like the ability to lift heavy objects. I tended to agonize over these choices early on, and would put off actually spending the point until I reached an area where I would actually use the new ability. By about 1/3 of the way through the game, I'd finally acquired everything that I felt like I "had" to have. From then on, it was more fun to just spend Praxis points on things that seemed like they would make my life easier. (Oh: you can also gain Praxis points by buying them, or picking up Praxis kits in the environment, but those are both very rare options, so by far most of the points I got game from playing the game and getting XP.)

I really love the way that Praxis are explained within the game, too. The basic idea is that your hardware has been upgraded, with much of your physical body replaced by machinery; however, your mind hasn't yet gotten accustomed to controlling everything yet. So, many latent capabilities of your new body are "switched off" and waiting for instructions to activate. As you run your body through its paces and get to know it more, more of its features get turned on. Anyways, it's nice to see the developer put thought into this process, instead of just mindlessly following the vague "leveling up" idea that always gets used by default in RPGs.

Although Praxis points are useful, I found currency much less so. You can find some currently in the world in the form of credit chips, and you can earn a little more by selling weapons, ammo, and equipment that you no longer need. After the first major part of the game, though, I no longer had much use for money. You can buy Praxis kits, which are nice, but you'll only be able to spend about 10k credits per city that way. Stores sell other stuff like weapons, grenades, food, first aid, etc., but you can find plenty of those things in the environment and don't need to buy it from stores. So credits end up just being sort of a score card; I guess I did use credits to help complete one or two missions, but it didn't feel like a trade-off to use them, since I knew I wouldn't need them for anything else.

Inventory management is... okay. You start out with basically enough space to carry a single large weapon (like a tranquilizer rifle) and some ammo, but not much else. You can use Praxis to upgrade your inventory, and can eventually get enough space to hold a couple of things at a time - at the end of the game I was sporting a pistol, revolver, energy gun, and sniper rifle - but it's still limited, so you'll need to decide what to take and what to drop. Ammo also takes up inventory space, so it's entirely possible that you might find yourself with a huge sniper rifle in your pack but no bullets to shoot from it. And there are also grenades, and mines, and consumables that replenish your health and energy. Honestly, for me I mostly just grabbed everything so I could sell it later, and mostly just held on to a fairly small permanent kit of a pistol, 10MM bullets, painkillers, and energy bars, then sold everything else whenever I could... but, as noted above, I really didn't have any use for the credits I got from selling stuff, so it ended up feeling like an overly elaborate masochistic strategy.

Speaking of masochism! Or addiction, either way: the game is really good at encouraging my usually-easily-repressed OCD behaviors. There are a couple of things you can do that will always net you small, discrete rewards: taking down a guard properly grants 50XP, and hacking a computer will grant some XP and probably some emails to read. So, I would semi-obsessively try and take down every guard I came across, and fully-obsessively crack every computer or keypad or door I ever found. Fortunately, these are fairly fun activities. Taking out guards requires patience and skill. You need to make sure they're far away from witnesses, that no cameras are watching you, that their backs are turned, and that you can get close to them before they turn around. Then there's usually a nice little adrenaline rush after the fact, as you immediately (but slowly and quietly) drag their bodies away so they aren't noticed by security.

Hacking requires its own paragraph. Shadowrun is very fresh in my mind, and I'll probably get more into the similarities between Deus Ex and Shadowrun down below in spoilertown, but this is a good place to call out that Shadowrun (Genesis) and Human Revolution probably have the two "best" hacking mini-games I've ever played. They're very different. Shadowrun's is more in-depth, and involves acquiring a variety of programs ahead of time, building a deck of hardware and software; and, once in the matrix, engaging in lengthy battles against ICE. Human Revolution is simpler and faster; the races against the security nodes don't feel as epic as the battles against CPU ICE, but honestly, I think the Human Revolution depiction may be a better representation of what it's actually like to hack a system. After all, there's no such thing as ICE. In the real world, what opposes a hacker? Prior protection of a computer (locking down ports, keeping up-to-date with patches, etc., which could be represented by its Rating); automated defenses (simple programs that detect DDOS attacks, find when a single IP has 1000 consecutive unsuccessful login attempts, or sound an alarm when a system is accessed at an unusual time of day); and human operators, who can figure out that a system has been penetrated and then use the tools at their disposal to kick off the attacker and lock down the system. Both Shadowrun and Deus Ex give a really good picture of what it's like to break into a system: early on you might be very passive, just looking at the endpoints and gently probing what's there; eventually, you need to make your move, and from then on you're running against the clock, hoping to finish compromising the system (essentially, installing a rootkit) before anyone figures out what you're up to. So you take weaker points first (logging into a guest account, or finding an abandoned user account on a fileserver), then from those points try to trade up into better-protected and more important parts of the system. There's no real way to represent that in a video game, but I feel like these two have made the best attempts. (Infinitely better than a minigame with pipes and water!)

Incidentally, if you ever want to read a thrilling book about tracking down a hacker, check out The Cuckoo's Egg. And, for a more literal and surprisingly satisfying PC game about the early days of networks, don't forget about Digital: A Love Story.

Back to Deus Ex! The game is an interesting blend of linear and non-linear gameplay. The game as a whole is pretty linear: the plot moves in a predetermined sequence from event to event, most of the areas you visit you can only visit once, and you typically move from Point A to Point B throughout each area. However, there are some very long stretches of the game where you're more or less on your own, in a city environment, and here you can walk around at your own pace, pick up side-quests, and explore to your heart's content. Even within the linear areas, as previously noted, you usually have many choices as to HOW you can move from point A to point B, so the game rarely feels restrictive. On the whole, I like it fine... my general preference is for less linear, more open-ended gameplay, but there's certainly a place for more tightly plotted games like this.

On the Action/RPG spectrum, I think it errs a tad more on the action side. The RPG elements of money, XP, and inventory management are all embraced; but these parts really aren't very important to the game as a whole. The story is well-done, but a bit limited, at least in comparison with the Bioware titles that are my gold standard for RPGs: you have a very narrow range of reactions available to you, not even the false good/evil choices from games like Fallout and Bioshock. Still, the way the game can indulge your desire for alternate solutions does feel very RPG-ish, so I'll give them credit for that.

Some complaints before I get into the story:

The graphics look really nice, but the human animations were incredibly distracting and off-putting. I think I'd been spoiled by the months I'd spent playing SW:TOR. In that game, which had decently realistic-looking people, a lot of the game was spent talking with a huge variety of people. Over time, you would gradually come to recognize some of the animations that got recycled and reused across multiple people: characters crossing their arms, cocking their head to one side, resting a hand on their hips. Still, those gestures individually looked good, and lent a lot to my enjoyment of that game. In contrast, Deus Ex has a far smaller number of characters, and their animations look wholly unnatural. In any scene where two people are talking to each other, there's this weird... twitchiness to their movements, as each one constantly gives little jerks and spasms. It's like their marionettes operated by an apprentice puppeteer.

The voiceover work is far better, though still not perfect. I was initially bummed when I arrived in China, because the first few characters you speak with do not sound like any Chinese people I have ever met. Later on, though, most of the extras you meet do have believable accents, so I guess those early ones were mostly flukes. My biggest complaint is with the protagonist, Adam Jensen himself. Adam is COMPLETELY modeled off of Neo from the Matrix trilogy: same sunglasses, same black leather clothing, etc. Which is fine and all - The Matrix has defined cyberpunk for the 21st century, and I can't blame the developers for playing along with it - but I don't understand why anyone would voluntarily choose to emulate Keanu Reeves' performance. Adam rarely emotes, preferring to communicate in a low-frequency hoarse series of questions. It felt entirely too cliche, and not even a particularly entertaining cliche.

Finally, bugs! Or, rather, bug. For the most part, the game feels tight and well-made, and it doesn't suffer from the clipping problems and quest drops that plague some other games. However, there's a horribly nasty bug that occurs fairly early in the game: you're directed to dispose of the six bad guys in an apartment complex, and can take out five of them, but the sixth... is apparently floating above a water tower several hundred meters away. It's impossible to reach him, and impossible to complete the quest. This has been a known bug since the game first came out late last year, and it's disgusting that Eidos still hasn't fixed it. (I took the unusual step of writing in to the company reporting the bug, just on the off chance that they hadn't seen the dozens of threads with hundreds of posts complaining about it, only to be insulted by a smarmy representative from the company. Smooth move, Eidos. You won't be seeing purchases from me any time soon.)

All right, let's move gently into the plot, starting with some


To me, the mark of a great RPG is that it's as much fun to learn about the world as it is to complete the quests. Deus Ex totally succeeds in that. The game is set in.... hmm, I think something like 2027, a ways into our future but still close enough to be recognizable. One of the many things I admire about the game is that it isn't afraid to make you read: yeah, all the important plot points happen through high-res motion-captured cut-scenes, but a TON of content is buried inside email messages, e-books, etc. For my money, that's some of the best stuff of the game: the details of the world you're living in, and how we got there from here. Also, while the main game is almost entirely focused on the augmentation "controversy" (I do really enjoy Yahtzee's take on this), the secondary information sets up a whole bunch of other stuff as well: the rise of corporations, the decline of the United States in the face of an ascendant China, the outbreak of pandemics in Asia-Pacific countries, Iran's creation of a pan-Arab league that neutralizes Israel's nuclear capabilities at the start of the Six Month War, etc. Most of this doesn't matter to the plot at all, and that makes me love it even more.

Of course, a lot of the information you find along the way DOES directly relate to yourself, either by commenting on the current action, providing background for your character's situation, or (occasionally) providing clues about future developments. Again, all this stuff can be skipped if you don't feel like hacking and reading, but I enjoyed it all a lot. One particularly interesting experience comes of your time infiltrating the Picus news organization's headquarters. Early on, when you're sneaking through the secretarial pool and customer-relations offices, the correspondence you discovery is pretty rote, describing Picus's overall strategies with a thick layer of corporate-ese. As you penetrate deeper into the building, you start reading the emails from reporters, and start seeing evidence that Picus is deliberately manipulating news coverage in order to sway public opinion in a desired direction. Towards the end, you find email from Picus executives that bluntly lays out their goals and tactics in a pretty chilling way. I think this stuff would be very controversial if it was part of the main story's plot and explained in cut-scenes; for example, they're currently agitating for a war in Australia against the separatists, and the Picus leaders warn that they'll need to be careful in the evidence they produce, lest they create a public-relations disaster "like the second Iraq war." Yep: the game is invoking Judith Miller and the whole New York Times fiasco, and also positing that this sort of thing hasn't stopped: people can and will still use the news media to disseminate misleading "facts" that can sway public opinion in a rush to war. (The game doesn't exactly come down on one side of today's political spectrum; after all, the whole idea that "the media" are a vast conspiracy - in this case, they're directly controlled by the Illuminati - is a standard right-wing trope.)

In at least one case, I was chagrined to realize that, by failing to heed information, I made a poor game decision. Late in the game, your cybernetics start misbehaving: you'll lose your HUD for a few seconds and your vision will blur. Pritchard informs you of a problem that's been reported with your chip, and suggests that you go to a LIMB clinic to install the patch. I did so - after all, it showed up as a secondary objective in my mission log, and I ALWAYS do secondary objectives! - but that proved to be a mistake. I'd JUST finished reading a ton of emails from the Tai Yong Medical R&D lab in which scientists complained about poor quality control, and the way the company was rushing out a bunch of chips with no prior review that could cause serious problems. I was all, "Put that metal in my skull!" This had serious repercussions down the line, when my enemies totally shut down my cybernetics during a boss battle, which proved to be the toughest of the game for me: my vision was awful, I was missing all my HUD markers (including even my health information and radar), and I couldn't use the Typhoon. Sigh, poor me.

One of my few complaints about this wealth of information is how poorly integrated these discoveries are into the main plotline. There were so many times throughout the game where I would figure out what was going on by reading the emails and doing side-quests; then I would reach a cut scene and have to watch Adam looking like an idiot, claiming ignorance about whatever was happening. I'm guessing this is just because they didn't want the expense of creating multiple versions of cut scenes, one of which just has Adam going "Yeah, yeah, I know," and the other with him going, "What? Explain yourself!"


The messages you read, and a few side-quests, also fill in background on yourself. For my own edification, here's my understanding of the entire game's plot:

The Illuminati, working through a front corporation, wants to create a more advanced/evolved group of humans who can help do their bidding. They do this in a very scientific and very inhumane matter: by creating a ton of babies, in the hopes of making a genetic mutation that will make a human who's more adaptable to cybernetic enhancements. A specific man and woman are making these babies; I suspect that they had promising genes to start with. Of course, the vast majority of babies are "failures"; we never learn what happen to them, but most likely they were disposed of.

Finally, you, Adam, are born, and you have the mutation they were hoping for. However, the mom and dad are horrified by everything that's been happening, so they start a fire that burns down the facility, including all your records; they put you in the care of an employee, but they themselves die in the blaze.

Your savior puts you up for adoption by the Jensens; Mr. Jensen was formerly involved in covert ops, and so his record has been wiped blank, thus making him and you virtually impossible to trace. You grow up fairly normally, and join the Detroit police department. You excel in the department, eventually making the SWAT team; but you have enemies in the department, so they drum you out following a failed rescue mission.

Your girlfriend, Megan Reed, is a scientist for Sarif Industries, a biotechnology firm that's one of the pioneers in human enhancement technology. David Sarif has located the company in Detroit, and his company has almost single-handedly saved Detroit from complete poverty: his high-paying jobs and economic expenditures have given Detroit a lifeline from its decrepit post-industrial morass. (This leads to a fairly uneasy relationship, where each party feels unappreciated by the other: Detroit resents the way that Sarif acts like he owns the city, and Sarif doesn't think Detroit appreciates all that he's done for the city.) Megan's research focus is overcoming the body's biological rejection of mechanical implants. Typically after cyberware is installed, it will be fine for a short period of time, but the body will treat the implant as invasive, and try to isolate and eject it. The best solution that had been found so far was a chemical called Neuropozyne which can shut down the body's defense systems and leave the implants alone; however, there are side effects to the drug, and people can become addicted to it since they need to take it their entire post-of lives.

More or less by accident, Megan discovers that your own DNA is missing the elements that cause most people to reject cybernetics. You appear to be the perfect cyber recipient, and should be able to stand any level of implants without ever suffering side effects. She and Sarif start a line of research based on your DNA, while you remain in the dark, continuing your role as the chief security officer.

Sarif, as one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the world, is aware of the Illuminati, although he isn't one of its members; he discovers during a background check of your pre-natal connection to them, and tries to hide you from them. However, the Illuminati is already concerned about the direction that Sarif is taking: a planet full of cyber-enhanced supermen would be harder to control. So, shortly before Megan heads to Washington, D.C. to report on her research to Congress, the Illuminati sends a team of mercenaries into Sarif Industries. They destroy all of the labs, appear to kill all of the scientists involved in Megan's research, and leave you for dead.

You haven't experienced brain-death, though, so Sarif is able to rush you to a LIMB clinic and save your body by replacing it. Virtually every bit of flesh you have is removed and replaced with cybernetic hardware. Even your brain is upgraded with several neural chips that increase your vision, allow direct interfacing with computer networks, etc. You emerge after several months to help Sarif Industries fight back from its weakened position. Anti-augmentation sentiment has been steadily rising, and the UN is now on the verge of outlawing further research into cybernetics; various gangs and paramilitary groups are taking the fight against corporations like Sarif into their own hands.

You gradually investigate and piece together who was behind the attack on Sarif; early evidence points towards FEMA, but that's just a convenient cover. One of the mercenaries who had attacked you reveals that they were taking orders from Hengsha, China. This eventually leads you to the offices of Tai Yong Medical, one of Sarif's biggest rivals: they aren't as pioneering as Sarif, but are  the largest enhancement company in the world, and have been expanding at a breathtaking pace by acquiring smaller companies, often under suspicious circumstances.

You meet Zhao Yun Ru, the chairwoman and president of Tai Yong. In an unfortunate Dragon Lady cinematic, she attempts to seduce you, claiming that she's as much a pawn of the Illuminati as you are; and then makes her mistake, sic-ing her guards on you. You've learned enough here to grow suspicious of David Sarif, and are increasingly convinced that the Picus news corporation is somehow involved in all this, so you ignore David's request to return home to Detroit and instead make a detour to Picus.

In the least surprising plot twist of the entire game, you learn that Eliza Cassan, the spokeswoman and anchor for Picus TV, is actually an AI. C'mon, Eidos, seriously! When you name a character "Eliza," everyone will automatically ASSUME that she's an AI. Anyways... Eliza was created by the Illuminati, but she seems to have some autonomy, and is willing to help you on your quest and provide you with some answers. From her you get most of the story about what's really going on. You learn that Megan is still alive; William Taggart's aide, a doctor, was in league with the mercenaries, and operated on them to remove their "GPL" (I assume this is geo-positioning locator, sort of a homing beacon, and not Richard Stallman's software) devices, making them drop off the map and look dead.

Back in Detroit, Picus's careful manipulation of public opinion has caused riots to break out; Sarif is on lock-down, and the police have largely taken over the streets. William Taggart, an anti-augmentation activist (and a Mormon!) is speaking at the convention center. You go to see him and persuade him to turn over his aide's location; from his aide, you learn that the surgery had failed, but the scientists' positions are being obscured by a jamming signal. He doesn't know where they are now, but they were sent to Hengsha  after he operated. Back on the plane you go!

You're ambushed when you arrive in Hengsha; the situation is notoriously corrupt there, with the Belltower Associates (a not-too-thinly-veiled version of Blackwater Associates) responsible for security; Belltower is, of course, controlled by the Illuminati, and has impunity from the Chinese government, so they take the opportunity of your approach to shoot down your helicopter. This led into the toughest sequence of the game for me: I was trying to defend the burning helicopter against a dozen enemies, trying to defeat them all before it exploded, WITHOUT killing any of them. (That last part isn't required by the game, but I was trying to go through the game without any kills.) It probably took me close to twenty tries to do this; I hadn't brought along a tranquilizer rifle or PEPS, so I had to sprint around the battlefield while cloaked, taking down soldiers from stealth and using EMP mines on a big scary robot. Eventually she got clear and flew away.

After cutting a deal with a shadowy underworld figure, I was able to smuggle myself on board a Belltower ship, which brought me to a facility in Singapore. I located the missing Sarif scientists, most of whom were still alive, and convinced them to help me find and rescue Megan. Right before reaching Megan, I had that nasty fight I described above where my augmentations were disabled; I eventually beat it by tossing down every single fragmentation mine I was carrying into one huge Pile o' Death, then was able to finish him off by emptying all my 10mm clips into the boss and most of my Pistol as well. It really made me miss the Typhoon. It's kind of funny... since I was trying to be as pacifist as possible, and used takedowns almost exclusively, I almost never bothered to pay much attention to my armament; but, since the game forces you to kill the bosses, I did need to bring enough firepower to take care of them. Once I was able to get my Typhoon augmentations, I mostly stopped needing to worry about the bosses, but it failed me in this case.

I was finally reunited with Megan. Things were... tense. The other Sarif researchers were clearly working under duress, but she seemed to be more privileged than they. Also, I couldn't help but notice that she seemed to be sharing a room with Hugh Darrow, the father of cybernetic technology. She claimed that she had known nothing of the plot and was a victim; I believed her, mostly. We tuned into Picus to watch a live broadcast from Panchaea, Darrow's immense aquatic installation that aims to be both a research facility and a solution to global warming. Darrow had gathered together all the major players in the cybernetic controversy: manufacturers like Sarif, opponents like Taggart, and representatives from the United Nations, who were hoping to come to some equitable agreement. Darrow, who had created this tech in the first place but has grown more leery of it in recent years, apologized for what he was about to do, and then flipped a switch. Immediately, all neurally enhanced people on Panchaea went insane, attacking everyone on sight and causing gory, violent carnage. Darrow, as a rogue Illuminatus, had hijacked the kill-switch that Yai Tong had disseminated, and repurposed it to drive individuals mad. Clearly, this would set back the upcoming vote.

Megan collected the other scientists while I prepared their exit. Faridah arrived and flew them out, and I hopped into Darrow's private shuttle and headed for Panchaea. This environment was extremely spooky: it's enormous, but you see almost nobody for your first several minutes on board: everything is deserted, with just some fires and signs of destruction around. I eventually made my way up to a tower where Hugh had barricaded himself inside. This led to a climactic confrontation, which fortunately was one of the "social battles" that the game tends to do so well. (I don't think I've praised these before, so I'll do so now: I absolutely love any game that lets you solve problems through dialog, and I really appreciate that so many parts of this game give you the option to overcome an obstacle or at least lower its difficulty by talking. The "social analyzer" enhancement was also really cool; it didn't let you automatically win these "battles," but did give generally useful assistance. After experiencing this, I don't think I'll be able to go back to a stupid conversation mini-game like those in Elder Scrolls.) This one felt a little cheesy, since you eventually break him down with some hackneyed Psychology 101 analysis; still, the voice-acting in this encounter was some of the best of the game, and felt appropriately dramatic.

Darrow gives you the codes that will let you into the bottom of Panchaea, which is broadcasting the insanity signal; he warns you, though, that lowering the defenses will release the hordes of slavering monsters that he has created. And man, they are creepy indeed. Individually, they're far from the most dangerous opponents you've faced; most of them are borderline catatonic, staring at the walls in front of them and muttering gibberish to themselves, while a few stride around like Torgo and angrily challenge the empty air in front of them. However, they are in massive packs, and if you're trying to be stealthy like me, they're way more challenging than usual to avoid; I made good use of my invisibility augmentation, and this was the only point in the game where I also used my silence augmentation.

There are just a few non-crazy people down below. One is a helpful LIMB clinic attendee, just in case you felt like spending any of the useless credits you've been acquiring. (She won't buy any of your equipment, though, so don't bother picking up any gear after your second visit to Hengsha unless you plan on actually using it.) You also hear some broadcasts from Taggart and Sarif, who have barricaded themselves in different parts of the station. Each of them makes you an offer when you free them. Taggart directly admits to being part of the Illuminati; he is impressed by all you have done, and offers to recruit you to their cause. The Illuminati doesn't want to ban augmentation, he says; they just want to guide it, acting as benevolent masters for a race that is incapable of ruling itself. Sarif also admits to his own role in deceiving you and building a product line on your DNA. However, he points out that he wants to help all of humanity gain the same advantages that you were born with. He makes a really evocative invocation of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods: mankind will now be able to chart its own course, free of the Illuminati, by empowering every individual within the race. In order to do this, he encourages you to lie to the media and tell everyone that Taggart's group released a drug that made people crazy; this will turn public opinion back against them, and allow R&D to continue.

Neither forces you to make a decision. You work your way down to the core of Panchaea; you are about to disable the signal when you encounter Zhao. Both of you want to turn it off, which for some reason turns to a boss battle; she says, "Neither of us will trust the other," which seems strange to me; maybe she's worried that you'll modify the broadcast to target her, or something. Anyways. This leads into the final boss battle: Zhao attempts to fuse with the Hyron Project, which you'll never have heard about if you haven't been hacking and reading the emails. Augmentation technology is about putting computer parts into a human body; Hyron is about networking together computer and human minds. Zhao hopes to gain control of Hyron, which will let her direct all of the station's controls and defenses; however, it's too strong for her, and she becomes another slave component to it. This leads to a big and, frankly, pretty confusing final fight. I beat it on the first try, but still don't totally understand all the mechanics behind it.

At last, you reach the station's control room. Eliza manifests here and helpfully breaks down your choices. You can honor Darrow's wishes: come clean about everything that has happened, and implore the world to ban augmentation research. You can ally with Taggart: leave out any mention of the Illuminati, and steer the planet towards limiting and controlling research. You can adopt Sarif's plot: frame Taggart's Humanity Front for the disaster so augmentation continues unchecked. Or, Eliza notes, you can pick a more nihilistic answer: self-destruct the station, killing everyone on board and yourself, removing yourselves from the equation and letting mankind choose their own path.

I was a little unhappy with the choices. I really, really wanted to join the Illuminati - after all, that's kind of been a lifelong dream of mine. However, I didn't like that this required me to slow down the future. I'd have much preferred an outcome where I join the Illuminati, they take over Sarif Industries and Yai Tong, and create chips for everyone that conform to the Illuminati's designs. Now THAT'S a dystopic future!

Eventually, I picked both the Taggart and the Sarif solutions. The ending videos are pretty cool, with some surprisingly contemporary footage mixed in - it was a bit surprising to see foreclosure signs while Adam reflects on the dangers of lack of control. The ending seems to also be somewhat customized based on your playstyle, as both versions seemed to acknowledge that I had followed a peaceful path through the game. (I didn't get the "Pacifist" trophy, however... I'm not sure why, but I suspect that I may have killed some of the enemies in the game's prologue, prior to getting my enhancements that allowed me to perform takedowns.)


Great game! It's nicely philosophical, and if you're looking for story, it has it in spades: a nice, pretty highly evolved revenge/mystery plotline drives most of the action, but a far richer and more subtle and sprawling tale of speculative fiction that's revealed through the wealth of in-game text. The game is a little limited on a few technical fronts - character animation is a little jarring, and a lack of QA leads to painful bugging - but given the whole ambitious sweep of the game, I'll gladly take it.

I wasn't thinking of Shadowrun at all when I first got the game, and it's really interesting to play this in such close proximity to that earlier game. Both are cyberpunk games, and you can really see how the genre has evolved in the last twenty years: much more The Matrix than Blade Runner, more sleek and less grimy, more leather jackets and sunglasses, fewer mohawks and nose rings. Most interestingly, though, both seem to be dealing with roughly the same level of technology, at about the same point in the future. Playing these games back-to-back makes me think that we really are approaching the Singularity, and wonder what it'll feel like once we reach it.

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