Monday, 18 May 2020

Corona Variations II/III


Life is a relay race. Every generation passes the baton to its children in the hope that they might reach the end, but there is no end; one day the last human being will fall, and many years later the track will be empty, save for a lone baton resting on a thin layer of dust. The only victor in the relay race is the baton.

The only victor is the baton. That is your first codephrase. The only victor is the baton. A few years ago I bought an old Apple Power Mac G5. A 2.0ghz dual-processor model from 2003. An infernal engine that generates answers by blowing air into a furnace of electricity. It has a slightly bent foot, because the case weighs almost twenty kilograms and aluminium doesn't bend back.

Aluminium doesn't bend back. That is your second codephrase. Now that the world has ground to a halt I decided to fire it up and record some music with it:. Two tracks, one live, and one not:





My G5 came with a Mark of the Unicorn PCI-424 interface card, and shortly after buying it I picked up a contemporary MOTU 2408 Mk3 audio interface for a fraction of its original price. Here it is:


The 2408 is essentially a posh sound card with a bunch of audio inputs and outputs. The idea is that you can plug several instruments into the inputs and record them all at once, or alternatively you can send audio to several outputs, for example if you have a bank of speakers in a concert hall and you want them all to play slightly different sounds. The ADAT and TDIF digital tape interfaces aren't much use in 2020, but it has eight balanced mono quarter-inch jack plugs, which are timeless.


It connects to the MOTU PCI-424 card with "audiowire", which is what Mark of the Unicorn called FireWire 400. I use a standard FireWire cable. The digital i/o was probably very useful in 2003, less so now that most outboard digital gear has been virtualised. I have to admit that SMPTE synchronisation is beyond me.

Eight balanced 1/4" inputs and outputs, which can be used as four stereo pairs. The 2408 is full-duplex, e.g. it'll play back and record simultaneously.

Sound on Sound magazine reviewed the 2408 back in 2003, presumably plugged into a Power Mac G4. The 2408 was part of a system that included the MOTU 24I/O, which had 24 analogue inputs and outputs, and the MOTU HD192, which was similar but with XLR jacks. Presumably the HD192 was aimed at concert PAs who needed to mix lots of microphones. Seventeen years later the 24I/O is the most useful of the three units on the used market, but the 2408 seems to have sold in greater numbers, or at least there are more available second-hand. NB there were Mk1 and Mk2 versions of the 2408, which were similar but used RCA jacks instead of quarter-inch plugs. I'm not sure why.

The modern equivalent of the 2408 is the MOTU 828, which connects directly to laptops and desktop machines with a Thunderbolt cable; for historical reasons the 2408 connected to a special PCI card inside the computer, although the actual cables were standard FireWire. The PCI-424 card has four inputs, so you can connect several interfaces to it, and surprisingly it works with Windows 10 because MOTU still supports the card.

What is an audio interface? Imagine a mixer that doesn't mix. The idea is that you use your sequencer or digital audio workstation as a mixer and effects unit, perhaps with a USB control surface to manipulate the sliders. Here's what the second song above looks like in Logic Express 9 running on a Power Mac G5:


Three tracks of instruments and two tracks of drums, separated by some spurious MIDI data. The blippy, swirling sequences that run through the song are tracks 1-3, which were made with a Behringer Model D, sequenced with a 16-step Arturia BeatStep step sequencer. Tracks 4-5 are nonsense that I used mostly to keep the Model D in tune. Track 6 is a software instrument running on the G5; it's the swoopy solo noise. Tracks 7-8 are respectively a Korg Volca Sample and a Korg Volca Beats drum machine.

If you record music one track at a time the multiple inputs of an audio interface are overkill, although they tend to have better sound quality and perhaps even lower latency than the soundcard built into your PC's motherboard. The 2408's balanced inputs have the benefit of eliminating ground hum, which is a problem that VST/AU software musicians don't have to worry about until they start using physical instruments, at which point it becomes infuriating.

If you want to record several instruments at once you could in theory use a mixer; the advantage of a multichannel audio interface is that you end up with multiple channels of audio that you can mix and remix later on, whereas with a mixer you end up with a processed stereo pair that you can't tweak any further.

Clockwise from top, a Behringer Model D, a Volca Beats, and a Volca Sample. Coronavirus aside, we're living in a golden age of reasonably-priced synthesiser technology.

Korg's Volca instruments were launched in 2013. The first wave consisted of the Volca Beats - a hybrid digital / analogue drum machine - plus the Volca Keys and Volca Bass, which produced synth tones and basslines respectively. They sold well, and the range has since expanded to include a sample-playback drum machine (the Volca Sample, pictured above), as well as a mixer, and even a tiny modular synthesiser that uses patch cables to build sounds.

Conceptually they mimic Roland's early-80s TR/SH/TB-X0X range, but with enough embellishments and at such a low price that they feel like a homage rather than a copy. They all have MIDI IN and rudimentary built-in sequencers, plus analogue clock sync, which has led to a fascinating revival of CV/Gate and analogue sequencing. Remember, the only victor is the baton. You will know what to do.

They have some limitations. They're physically creaky, and the two I own have noticeable background hiss. It's not offensive and you can gate it out, but it doesn't sit well with amplification or compression. They use unbalanced 3.5" stereo jack plugs that feel flimsy, and the lack of USB is irritating in the case of the Volca Sample; you have to upload samples with an audio cable, which is akin to loading 8-bit video games from tape. The Volca Sample's sequencer can chain patterns together but the Beats can't, and none of the Volcas have MIDI OUT, so you can't use them to drive other instruments. Unless you modify them, and some people do, but they use teeny-tiny surface mount components that require a deft soldering hand.

They run from six AA batteries or a mains power supply (not supplied). As with the Model D they're really too limited to build a career on - an extremely creative musician might get an album from them, but as with DJ Shadow the basic sound would become monotonous - but as a cheap way of adding analogue or digital colour to an otherwise computer-only setup they're great fun; the step sequencers in particular are a fun way of generating simple ideas. Perhaps best of all they tend to hold their resale value, so if you get bored with one you can sell it on again.

Imagine if there was a way to convert money into objects, and then back into money. You'd revolutionise world trade. Imagine it.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Deus Ex: Human Revolution


I don't know the exact words. The gist is that every living creature on this planet is a potential solution to the problem of survival. Survival in an environment that fights back.

As of this writing not a single creature in history has come up with a solution to the problem of death, but the human animal has only just got started. Where the organic machine of evolution has failed we might do better, but not like this, not in these bodies.

Human Revolution was released in 2011

Every creature shapes its environment but the human animal stands apart. It builds oil wells in the middle of the sea, with drills that cut through miles of rock; it kills entire forests to make furniture; it breeds other animals for food. The achievements of the animal kingdom are insignificant in comparison. Some crows have learned to dig larvae out of holes with little twigs. Cats have a rudimentary sense of self-awareness, but even if cats and crows worked as a team they would be unable to develop face-hardened steel. The human animal has comprehensively outpaced, nay lapped the other living creatures on this planet.


As of this writing humanity is under assault from a virus, but we have dealt with worse. Which animal might cure cancer? Which animal might save the Earth from asteroid bombardment or solar flares? It won't be penguins or moths, it will be us, and today we're going to have a look at Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game that asks the questions "what if moths actually do surpass us" and "will we have to become moths ourselves" and "is it worth the price" and "if we become moths, does that mean the moths have won" and other questions.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), published by Square Enix, developed by a team of nobodies in Canada that no-one had heard of until that point. Released for the seventh generation of games consoles plus the PC. Third game in the Deus Ex series, after the classic Deus Ex (2000) and the disappointing Invisible War (2003). Much better than expected, in fact genuinely legitimately good, perhaps even on a par with the original; still fondly remembered in 2020.


Human Revolution was something of a surprise in 2011. The franchise had been dormant for eight years and none of the original developers worked on the game. Furthermore 2011 was dominated by military shooters and sports franchises, plus Skyrim; in that landscape Human Revolution was an odd fit. An action game with slow-paced stealth sections and lengthy meditations on the future of humanity. It was at variance with the prevailing mood. Nonetheless it received positive, nay rapturous reviews, and was generally hailed by fans of the Deus Ex series as a return to form.

Nine years later, is it any good? Yes, it is. The impact wears off, but it's solid. After picking it up cheaply for the PlayStation 3 I gave it a go, and then bought it for the PC. On a technical level it's rough, and the storyline needed a few more passes, but the atmosphere has aged well and it's also a solid stealth action game.

I didn't realise until checking the screenshot that the stealth soldiers have hooves.

Human Revolution was a "thing" for a while. Eidos marketed the hell out of it. There were several DLC packs and a standalone expansion, even a couple of novels. A sequel, Mankind Divided, came out in 2016, to slightly-less-strong reviews and relatively weak sales, and the franchise has now gone dormant again. All of this happened at a time when I didn't play many video games, so I missed it, but now that the world has ground to a halt I have time enough at last.


That's my original Deus Ex compact disc. The game came on compact disc. Roughly 768mb, compared to 60gb for a typical A-list title in 2020, but it felt massive because what it lacked in detail textures it made up for in clever level design.

Deus Ex is a first-person action adventure notable for its dense conspiracy theory plot and its open-ended gameplay, whereby you have to infiltrate a series of secure installations, but the execution is entirely up to you. On a tonal level it's more grounded in reality than the Metal Gear Solid games, although the characters still wear sunglasses at night and also baggy coats in order to make them look bigger than they really are.

The series is set in the mid-to-late twenty-first century, at a time when scientists have worked out how to improve the human body and perhaps even the human mind. It's essentially a hodge-podge of cyberpunk ideas wrapped up in an aesthetic that borrows from The Matrix and Blade, and also Mondo 2000, cyberpunk fiction, the old Max Headroom TV show, the list is huge. Contemporary reviewers generally ignored the game's derivative nature, perhaps because it stole from so many sources that the reviewers were awed by its chutzpah.

Human Revolution is a prequel set in 2027, where cyberpunk body modifications are mechanical, but by the time of Deus Ex in the 2050s a new wave of technology has found a way to inject microscopic nano-machines into people's bodies, so that Future Man looks more or less like us. The game's plot essentially asks the question "yes but what about moths so where does humanity go when we totally replace our bodies and our minds", and the answer is "you flick a few switches and then Invisible War happens".

Deus Ex's rendition of Hong Kong

Gameplay-wise Deus Ex typically gave the player a choice between sneaking in through the sewers, or bribing someone for an access pass, or stacking boxes to jump over a fence, or jumping through a window and grenading everybody into submission. The genius thing is that the game didn't punish the player for adopting a certain style and the writing was smart enough to account for outcomes that would ruin a lesser game's flow.

Strictly speaking Human Revolution doesn't have a Hong Kong level. It was originally going to have a hub set in Singapore. However the game's Hengsha Island is essentially Hong Kong with a second Hong Kong on top of it.


Nine years later Human Revolution has faded from the public consciousness somewhat. Internet memesters are more likely to reference the original Deus Ex, and the YouTube comments are all seven years old. Reddit's Deus Ex subreddit is just full of joke pictures.

Nonetheless there's one thing about Human Revolution everybody remembers - the striking, horrifying, intriguing vision of a city with another city on top of it. The game portrays a golden age of technology and progress, just as it comes to a crashing halt; the theme is unsubtle (the levels are literally gold-coloured, the hero is called Adam; he is explicitly portrayed as an Icarus figure) but effective.

The original Deus Ex was also notable for its worldbuilding, which was dense, and its plot, which was the Whole Earth Catalog of conspiracy theories. Off the top of my head a shadowy clique of billionaires were trying to control the world by forcing the United Nations to hoard a vital plague vaccine, and a second clique of shadowy billionaires - the Ill-yoo-min-ati - were trying to stop the first clique, and...

The developers mocked the game's gold-and-block colour scheme by leaving cans of yellow paint sitting around.

Or were they the same clique? One of the shadowy billionaires (from the first group) also wanted to become a God by merging with a giant computer, but the computer had a mind of its own and was of the opinion that both the rival groups of billionaires were unworthy. So there were three factions. Two groups of billionaires plus a giant computer.

And also the Chinese Triads, who represented the traditional underground economy; the nearest thing to the ordinary-people faction. And technically the United Nations was a separate faction, and I suppose you were a faction of your own.

Human Revolution was sold in a bewildering array of configurations. The Explosive Mission Pack added a bonus mission and a couple of gadgets. It was available if you pre-ordered the game from Amazon. NB The game was single-player only. The producers wisely didn't even attempt to implement a multiplayer mode.

And it had Area 51! You nuked it! As part of one of the missions you fired a nuclear missile at Area 51, almost as an afterthought. There was also a faction of good guy scientists, so that's seven factions. Objectively the plot of Deus Ex - there were aliens, too, but they weren't really aliens - objectively the plot of Deus Ex was nonsense, but it worked if you thought of the game as an opera. A conspiracy opera. It existed on the same plane of heightened reality as an opera, but the characters communicated their emotions by firing guns and rockets at each other instead of singing. Nonetheless it was basically an opera, but without music.

Except that it did have music, didn't it? It had a memorable electronic soundtrack, so it was like an opera after all, but with music. An opera.


The characters of Deus Ex were stereotypes and the writing often felt like unfiltered chunks of Noam Chomsky, but the game had its moments. One of the most memorable sequences wasn't even part of the main storyline; it was just a short dialogue sequence with a prototype artificial intelligent system that discussed the nature of God:


The AI argued that human beings have a fundamental need to be observed, and that we invented God and latterly the mass media for this purpose. The game as a whole posits a future in which we are all watched over by machines of loving grace, but whereas Richard Brautigan had an up-beat view of a cybernetic future, the people who wrote Deus Ex were not so hopeful.

How did this blog post come about? Back in 2018 I bought a PlayStation 3, mainly to play Blu-Ray discs, but also to catch up on some games I missed. Two years later a viral pandemic prompted me to dig through my stash and try out Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and here we are. It's on the top of the pile there. Some time in 2023 I'll probably get round to Bioshock 2, and then The Last of Us, maybe the PS3 version of ICO / Shadow of the Colossus.

I'm going to digress a bit. Deus Ex was written in the late 1999s for the PC because back then the PC was the only platform that could run complex first-person action-adventures with large maps. The original PlayStation and the Nintendo N64 didn't have the horsepower, but by 2000 the brand-new PlayStation 2 and soon-to-be-released Microsoft XBox were a much better fit for a Deus Ex-style game. In fact Deus Ex was ported to the PlayStation 2 in 2002, two years after the PC original.

Sixth-generation consoles such as the PS2 and XBox could move graphics around the screen just as quickly as a contemporary PC, but they still had limited memory - 32mb and 64mb respectively, vs 512mb or even 1gb for a typical early-2000s gaming PC. As a consequence the PS2 port of Deus Ex had to be modified to work on the console, usually by reducing the texture resolution and splitting the maps into smaller chunks.

Nonetheless it was well-received and was generally considered a playable conversation of the original. The PS2's DVD drive allowed the developers to polish up the music and give the game CGI cutscenes, and it was one of the few console games of that era with keyboard and mouse support.

On the PS3 Human Revolution has an uncomfortably narrow field of view. My PS3 copy of the game is the original release, which had more saturated lighting, and furthermore I took the PS3 screenshots by photographing the screen with a camera. Even so the PC game looks oddly washed-out.

Beyond that however the game is essentially identical across all of the platforms for which it was released - PS3, XBox 360, PC, and Wii U. They have the same AI pathing, the same geometry, the same models, music etc.


On the whole I actually prefer the PS3 version. The low resolution masks the low-res textures; the lighting is less flat; the analogue control sticks are less precise than mouse and keyboard, but feel more fluid.


Furthermore the analogue sticks enforce a slow, stealthy approach to combat, which suits the game perfectly. On the PC it's relatively easy to pop out of cover and headshot-headshot-headshot multiple enemies, so unless you force yourself to play a pacifist style the gameplay is a lot easier.


Off the top of my head there's only one gameplay difference between the console and PC versions - the console versions allow you to move your viewpoint around while using the hacking minigame, which is marginally useful for checking nearby guards.

I mentioned all of this stuff about memory because the sequel, Invisible War, was written specifically for the original XBox. Or rather the publishers insisted that it should be developed for the XBox and then ported across to the PC. The result was a game that looked fantastic in small bursts but felt disjointed. It replaced the original game's large-scale maps with individual buildings and small hubs, and on the whole it felt less ambitious than the original. It also suffered badly from excessive loading pauses:


If you only had an XBox Invisible War was one of the best action-adventure games for the system, and on modern PCs with fast hard drives it's a lot more playable, but the game sold poorly and quickly became a cautionary tale of how not to cross-develop games for multiple platforms. Furthermore the cover artwork was dire; a nineteen-year-old kid with spiky hair pointing a gun at the camera sideways, gangster-style. Along with Thief: Deadly Shadows I remember Invisible War as one of the games that inspired the PC Master Race movement.

I actually have a copy of Invisible War somewhere. I remember playing the first couple of missions on the PC and then getting bored because it felt very generic. I was going to photograph the box but I've lost it. Here are some photos of Hong Kong so that you can look at them and remember a world where people were free to travel around:






It's not quite so dramatic in the daytime. How does Hong Kong compare to its portrayal in computer games and films? Even at night it feels safe, and although it's crowded and occasionally scuzzy even the less savoury parts are nothing like the menacing hellholes of legend. At the same time it doesn't feel sterile, and it's one of the few places in the world where simply strolling in a random direction for a couple of hours feels like an adventure, and that's why I love it.

But what of Human Revolution? It was originally released in 2011, for the PlayStation 3, XBox 360, and PC, apparently with the PS3 as the lead platform, but in practice the ports are identical. The PC version has more graphical options but that's about it. After playing through the first half of the game on the PS3 I switched to the PC version and started from the beginning, but I quickly caught up because the gameplay is identical.

On a technical level the game feels older than 2011. Some of the graphics are downright rough. The level hubs feel substantial but, as with Invisible War, it's a shame that they couldn't have been merged for the PC version. Loading pauses on the PS3 are such that travelling between zones is irritating.

The game fakes environmental detail with layered sprites - windows have a "parallax layer" behind them, which works at a distance but looks odd up-close.

The textures seem to have been optimised for consoles and ported straight over for the PC.

There's a lot of environmental detail, which is good, and of course you breeze past it during gameplay, but the models are very low-detail. The great thing about video games is that you can live out some of your fantasies. In this screenshot I am threatening a sandwich.

And occasionally the game just looks crude.

HR was sold in a confusing range of configurations. The Tactical Enhancement Pack added a silent sniper rifle to the game's arsenal; the Collector's Edition had a physical action figure; the Explosive Mission Pack had an extra mission. They were compiled into the Augmented Edition, which was released in a posh box with a coffee table book of the game's artwork.

There was also a making-of video documentary. The very first line is something about Eidos' very rich IP portfolio. I stopped watching at the point because I never want to hear the phrase "IP portfolio" again.

Visually the game has a beehive motif, not just in Hengha's nightclub, but also in the colour scheme and hexagonal interface. Because human society is a giant beehive, that's why.

A standalone mission pack was released as The Missing Link later in the year. It was akin to one of Valve's Half-Life Episodes - a mini-campaign that didn't require the base game. On a technical level it had a different lighting system that toned down the original game's gold-and-black colour scheme.

There's a common cliche of computer games whereby about half-way through the story the hero is captured and stripped of his weapons, and has to fight through a few levels without his super-gadgets. Surprisingly this didn't happen in Human Revolution, but it's the main theme of The Missing Link.

As a standalone experience The Missing Link is entertaining and has a creepy horror aspect largely absent from the main game, at least until the last level. It has a memorably hateable villain, a likeable side character who seems like he would be fun to have a drink with, and the storyline is tight and coherent. On the other hand the final section is very repetitive and there are a couple of irritating level transitions that go on for a minute every time you walk through certain corridors. A late-game twist that gives you a choice between outcome A and outcome B feels forced albeit that the action sequence accompanying it is great fun.

In 2012 the original game plus The Missing Link were ported to the Apple Macintosh as the Ultimate Edition, which was essentially the Augmented Edition plus The Missing Link but for OS X / MacOS.

NB It has to be said that most of the DLC was unimpressive. Human Revolution's gameplay emphasised stealth and secrecy, but the extra weapons and explosives in the DLC packs were either very noisy or surprisingly ineffective or simply too large to carry around all the time.

On a purely technological level DE:HR was dated even in 2011, but it compensates for its lack of visual flash with some interesting design work.





Some of the rooms have transparent floors and ceilings which make the environment seem larger.

HR was ported to the Nintendo Wii U in 2013. The developers took the opportunity to overhaul the whole game. They folded The Missing Link and its revised lighting engine into the main storyline and added in-game commentary nodes from the developers. The package was released as Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Director's Cut, which had a colon and a dash in that order. I imagine they didn't want to use two colons because there would have been too many colons.

I don't know if you remember the Wii U. It was a games console with a separate controller that also had a little screen; think of it as a prototype of the Switch. The Wii U version of HR used the controller's built-in screen to show the minimap, the sniper scope, and the hacking mini-game. It was gimmick but the reviewers seemed to enjoy it.

Some game characters click with the audience, such as Faridah Malik, who ferries you from place to place in her VTOL jet-helicopter. She's one of the few people in the game who doesn't have an agenda, and perhaps because of that she's a fan favourite. Her performance is undermined slightly by the digital motion capture acting - she chugs her arms as if she was mimicking a steam train - but the voice acting is good.

The cutscenes were farmed out to another studio. They seem to have been given access to the original map data and model assets, but the characters look slightly different.

And some of the animations simply aren't very good.

In comparison this is Half-Life 2, from 2004. In this series of screenshots - from 2004 - Alyx Vance is tearful, concerned, pensive and exhausted (in that order).

2004 was, like, a million years before 2011 in technology terms. Admittedly Valve only had to animate half a dozen characters, and only for a few cutscenes, but they nailed the faces.

Human beings learn from birth to read facial expressions. This is why faces are so hard to animate convincingly. One misplaced brush stroke ruins everything. I'm reminded of the final scene from The Long Good Friday, where Bob Hoskins realises that the game is up; he doesn't say anything, but his facial expressions run the gamut from surprise to anger to denial to finally grudging respect for the people who beat him. That kind of thing is very hard to mimic.


The Director's Cut became the new standard version of the game. It was ported back to all the other platforms, and in fact it's the only version of the game you can buy nowadays. On the positive side if you buy The Director's Cut you get all of the downloadable content plus The Missing Link, but the removal of the option to buy the original game from digital stores was controversial.

At launch Human Revolution was widely criticised for a perceived overuse of golden colour grading, which is something the Director's Cut toned down, but the results were mixed. There is however hope. While writing this blog post - but, curiously, before it was published - a man on the internet called Silent read my mind and released a special mod that lets you switch between the two lighting models.

I prefer the original. The remake has flatter lighting and turns up the intensity of the bloom effect, which makes the highlights blow out. In the following shots the Director's Cut is at the top and Mr Silent's mod is at the bottom. In the first shot the difference is subtle - the signs are more legible in the original version of the game:


But in this example the lighting in the Director's Cut is obviously broken:


And in these two examples the new lighting isn't broken, exactly, it just doesn't give me the sweetest taboo:



The new lighting does however make sense in the following shot, where the omnipresent gold filter was thematically inappropriate. The platform is supposed to be in the arctic ocean, a location not noted for its warmth:


Getting hold of the PC original is difficult nowadays because the game activates with Steam. If you buy a second-hand copy it won't work because the Steam key will have been redeemed, and you can't transfer Steam keys. You need a sealed boxed copy that has sat on a shelf somewhere without being activated for seven years. It's easy to get hold of used copies of the PS3 and XBox 360 original, but the narrow field of view is irritating, and from a blogging point of view it's hard to take screenshots on those platforms.

Another problem is that the Wii U port was apparently based on an earlier build of the game than the final, patched PC version, which meant that the end result had a number of bugs. My PC is modest, but it has more than enough horsepower to play games from the early 2010s. Nonetheless HR: DC locks up every so often for no obvious reason. It also has an odd habit of making NPCs revert back to a default unposed animation state when I re-enter their cell:


You can have a lot of fun playing with unconscious human bodies, and in the game as well.

Some of the cutscenes - but not all - are low-resolution pillarboxed video files rather than in-engine animations. Apparently the development team was in a rush and outsourced the cutscenes to another team, which might explain why some of the characters are off-model. The cutscenes also feel as if the developers had been asked to move the narrative along as efficiently as possible, which might explain why most of them consist of our hero Adam Jensen being easily knocked out and/or snuck-up-on by the baddies. While I'm moaning about things, one of the many criticisms of Deus Ex was that the voice acting was borderline racist. It wasn't so much the competence of the actors that was the problem, it was the attitude; the idea that no-one playing the game would care that the Chinese characters had cartoonish voices.

In contrast the developers of Human Revolution hired a bunch of Chinese-Canadian voice actors to voice the Chinese characters, although ironically the accents are still all over the place because, well, accents aren't genetic, are they? And even if they had hired Chinese voice actors in China, there's the issue of time; Human Revolution's cast had to generate a lot of speech, there wasn't enough time to finesse the voices with multiple retakes.


But, yes, the first female Chinese character you meet in Human Revolution is a prostitute, and also the second, and probably the third if you follow the game's storyline, and the fourth. Your helicopter lands on a brothel, and one of the prostitutes asks you to rescue another prostitute. Every female Chinese speaking role in the game is a prostitute or a scheming liar, or at the very least untrustworthy; the chief female villain is literally described as a Dragon Lady and is portrayed as a stereotpically cold, uncaring monster, just like Maggie Chow from the first game.

Of course HR is a neo-noir thriller, and the men are just as bad, but there are sympathetic male Chinese characters, and sympathetic non-Chinese female characters, but no sympathetic Chinese women. The game was developed by Canadians, in Canada, and perhaps I expected something more inclusive because Canadians are supposed to be nice. Perhaps Canadians are the enemy after all.

Also, you can insult the bouncer at Hengsha's nightclub by telling him that "you all look alike", which makes the player character come across as a massive asshole. During the course of infiltrating a Chinese biotech firm you learn that their products are poorly-made copies of Western designs with deliberately limited lifespans. This may well happen in real life, and the game's portrayal of Western firms isn't rose-tinted either - the sinister conspiracy behind the game's events is European - but it feels oddly old-fashioned for a game set in the future.

Going for the One (1977) was a big commercial hit, but it tends to be overlooked - the music press were more interested in punk and shortly afterwards Yes fell apart.


I've written enough about the negative portrayal of Chinese characters. In a fight between Lisa Gerrard and Elizabeth Fraser, who would win? On a physical level Gerrard would probably dominate Fraser because she's a sturdy lady and Fraser is a will-o-the-wisp, but on an artistic level there's something fundamentally camp about Gerrard's music. Something shallow and affected, whereas Fraser really does appear to have been dropped onto her head at a young age. Dead Can Dance has always rubbed me the wrong way, as if they were more interested in being seen to be artists than actually being artists.

One aspect of Human Revolution that attracted widespread criticism was the boss fights. At the end of every chapter you have to fight an augmented villain. Deus Ex had boss fights as well, but you could skip them. In HR however they're mandatory, with one exception that I'll come to later.


The problem is that the rest of the game emphasises hacking and stealth, but the boss fights are tough action setpieces against armoured bullet sponges who can kill you with a short burst of gunfire. If you spend all your skill points on hacking and sneaking you can find yourself in an almost unwinnable situation when it comes to tackling the end-of-level boss, and the first time you play the game there's no warning that the gameplay is suddenly going to change. Conversely if you know what's coming the fights are unsatisfying because with the right equipment you can win most of them in a few seconds.

As a consequence the boss fights were reworked for the Director's Cut. In general the developers remade the boss arenas and added hackable turrets and environmental hazards that you can use to your advantage, although having played both versions of the game I'm not sure which one I prefer. The DC boss arenas are slightly absurd, because instead of pursuing you around the new areas the bosses seem happy to wait while you hack terminals - as if their pathing hadn't been updated - but on the other hand the original arenas were very spartan.

I did in fact defeat Barrett. The original release of the game just had the central hallway, without the upper levels or side rooms; the easiest strategy was to grenade Barrett and then shoot him or (if you had it) use your Typhoon system on him.

The exception is a fight against a commando squad that takes place at the beginning of one of the later levels. You can in theory run away, and the game implies that the fight is unwinnable, but you can also stay behind and fight - and win, because the baddies don't respawn. Achieving a pacifist run through the fight is extremely hard but not impossible, although when I first played that part I killed every last one of the bastards because no-one shoots down my ride. If you run away the game acknowledges your decision slightly later on, when you infiltrate the base of a bunch of gangsters who steal body parts.

It's frustrating, because it's a perfect example of how a boss battle should be done, but it only happens once, as if the team accidentally stumbled on the correct solution but didn't realise. Even the boss fight from The Missing Link is unsatisfying, mainly because it doesn't feel like a boss fight; it's essentially a standard stealth arena with the chief villain standing in a room at the far end.

Perhaps the flag changes before the events of HR, but this one is wrong - the left half is upside-down. The snow should collect on the red bars.

Let's talk about the game in general. It's a first-person action shooter with mild role-playing elements. You play cybernetically-augmented super-agent Adam Jensen, former policeman, now head of security for Sarif Industries, a multinational biotech firm. Sarif is under attack from a mysterious enemy and it's Jensen's job to find out how and who and why.

Jensen has a personal motivation to uncover the mystery, because during one attack some of his co-workers were murdered, including former girlfriend Megan Reed. She was Sarif's top research scientist. Supposedly she was killed because she was working on a secret government weapon, but Jensen senses that something is off.

Jensen himself was badly injured and only survives with extensive cybernetic implants that leave him dependent on technical support from his employer.

In Hengsha you can order cocktails - for fun I decided to carry them with me for the rest of the game, in the hope that I could offer them to the final boss as a distraction. How does Jensen carry a cocktail half-way across the world without spilling it? His arms are augmented, that's how. NB The Hengsha level was originally going to be Shanghai, and perhaps this cocktail is a holdover from that.

After following a bunch of clues the finger of suspicion falls on Chinese biotech firm Tai Yong Medical, but it turns out that they are a front for a much more sinister organisation. I don't want to spoil the rest of the plot, but in general it follows the same path as the original Deus Ex albeit in a more low-key fashion.

Some aspects are unsatisfying. In order to tie the game in with the Deus Ex universe the chief villains are the Illuminati, but they feel as if they were shoehorned into the plot. They don't fit the more realistic tone of Human Revolution and could have been eliminated entirely without hurting the narrative at all.

The more we learn about Adam Jensen's deceased colleague Megan Reed the less sympathetic she becomes, but with the exception of one brief moment late in the game Jensen seems to adore her unreservedly. The game almost implies that the opening attack on Sarif industries was staged by Reed herself in order to prevent Sarif's competitors from exploiting Jensen's unique DNA, but neither Jensen nor the game's narrative pick up on this. I wonder if the writers began with the notion of making Reed the chief villain but changed their mind and decided to kill her off instead. Despite dying in the opening few minutes she casts a long shadow over the rest of the storyline.

Furthermore the Deus Ex games in general have the same problem as Blade Runner - they're visually stylish and introduce a number of interesting themes, but never explore them in any great detail. The mystery of Adam Jensen's parentage is bought up during the middle of the game, but Jensen never reacts to the new information he receives and the storyline drops it shortly afterwards. The game suggests during one conversational snippet that Jensen is now essentially a slave of his employer, because his augmentations require millions of dollars' worth of routine maintenance - if he leaves Sarif Industries he would be crippled for life - but again this train of thought goes nowhere.

The fact that life-saving augmentations require lifelong support is again briefly touched on, and could have been expanded into a thesis of its own. Suppose your heart ran on the equivalent of CP/M, but no-one maintained it any more? Would the government have to provide legacy support, or would they simply declare that you weren't worth the money and let you die? Would you have to learn CP/M yourself? Would you be free to modify your own cybernetic heart, or would that be illegal? In our world people routinely die because they can't afford specialist medical treatment or routine cancer screening, so in that respect some of the issues facing the people of Deus Ex are already here.


One of the game's most interesting moral arguments - that some people have to be sacrificed for the greater good - isn't given the weight it deserves, and it suffers badly from the decision to withhold the inevitable outcome of that philosophy until the very end of the game. In fact the storyline has obvious pacing issues (you are given several weapons far too late for them to be useful) which apparently arose because the developers had to wrap up the ending quickly.

You know, if I was in charge of developing a game I'd ask the writers to come up with the most devastatingly brilliant ending and develop that first, then the opening sequence, and it doesn't matter if the middle is rushed. Just fill it with fetch quests. People will remember the beginning and ending.

The game takes place in a world where cybernetic augmentations are commonplace - commonplace enough that a glitch with the software is a global catastrophe - but in a rare lapse the game doesn't show the effect of unregulated augmentation, it merely tells us. One subquest involves an insurance broker who uses a social enhancer to win clients, but beyond that the game only tells us that augmented people are leaving the rest of humanity behind, it doesn't show it explicitly. But then again by that point in the game Jensen has either snuck past or cut through several dozen heavily-armed soldiers without a scratch, so perhaps the developers are smarter than I thought.

Still, as with all good stories Human Revolution isn't just a series of events. It has themes. That's the major problem with computer role-playing games. They're just a series of cliffhangers. They don't have anything to say. The Deus Ex games have themes; what price human life in a world where people are commodities? Who owns us? What conclusion do we hope to reach? Are ordinary human beings more real than bio-augmented but unnatural supermen, and if so, in what way? Are we just components in a larger machine? Is the machine bleeding to death? Etc.


On the whole HR is less outlandish than DE, perhaps less memorable, but it has a greater emotional impact. The original game's Agent Denton was an unflappable, emotionless cipher, but Adam Jensen is obviously a troubled man. One of the game's revelations is genuinely sinister, and some of the environmental storytelling is subtly well-done.

An early mission involves investigating the supposedly accidental death of a colleague's best friend; it's played for laughs until Jensen reads through the autopsy report and finds out exactly why she was killed. The subsequent detective work is simplistic, but that was the point when the game won me over - it had nothing to do with the main storyline but I was engrossed, and could easily have played an open-world game set entirely in a much larger version of Hengsha.

Hengsha has a gang called The Harvesters, who mug people and steal their augments - and paint them gold, because in the world of Human Revolution augmentations are basically bling.

There's also a sequence where Jensen breaks into a television newsroom; as he descends through the floors the chatter on the computer terminals shifts from light-hearted complaints about spoiled food to sinister requests for some stories that will topple a government. In any other game it would just be a background detail but HR's air of verisimilitude makes it feel real.


While playing System Shock 2 for the first time it dawned on me that the gameplay mostly involved searching cupboards and desk drawers for keys, and yet it was never less than riveting; the same is true of HR. Even if you skip past the dialogue scenes it's a solid stealthy action game. You can stick yourself against cover, although it's not mandatory. Unlike Thief the game doesn't factor shadows into its stealth calculations. It's purely line-of-sight, so you can't simply hide in the darkness.

The hacking minigame is a bit like Mornington Crescent. It has a bunch of rules, but in practice you just click on nodes until you can click on the red or green nodes, at which point you say "Mornington Crescent".

As mentioned up the page the game feels as if it was optimised for console controls. Jensen's walking motion feels more fluid with an analogue stick, but right-stick aiming is difficult, so you have to play the game at a slower pace (literally so when confronted with landmines; you have to walk very slowly in order to pick them up, which requires a separate key on the PC). With mouse and keyboard controls on the PC however I found that fighting through the levels was a breeze. I only ever died when I fouled up a stealthy takedown. On the occasions when I didn't bother with stealth I easily wiped out the baddies, not least because the basic pistol is sufficient to last the entire game - it silently kills every enemy with a single headshot, rendering most of the other weapons pointless.

It's not that I'm a particularly skilled PC gamer. The PC version really needed to compensate for the more precise controls by having tougher enemies, or more of them, but that would probably have meant enlarging the levels, which would have bust the game's budget.


You can also perform takedowns on the baddies, as in the Arkham games. Jensen has a limited amount of bio-electric energy and each takedown uses up one of his bioelectric batteries, although they slowly recharge. To perform a takedown you simply approach a character and press the correct control, at which point Jensen taps them on the shoulder and socks them in the jaw / snaps their arms / gently strangles them / confuses them into punching their team-mates accidentally etc. Hilariously you can do this against anyone in the game, including entirely innocent passers-by!

Non-lethal takedowns are silent, and a skilful player can probably finish the game with just the pistol and takedown moves without too much trouble. The pistol, takedown moves, and some EMP grenades for mechanical enemies, or alternatively Typhoon smart bombs. You can also opt to perform lethal takedowns - Jensen has blades in his arms - but they're mostly pointless because they're noisy and give you fewer experience points.

The Director's Cut adds a New Game+ mode that lets you start a new game with all the augments you earned the first time. This makes the game even more fun; you can jump off buildings, stun people when you hit the ground, cloak yourself and silently knock down and shoot entire gangs of thugs in a few fluid movements. At times I wished the game was more liberal with augmentation upgrade points but had more enemies to compensate, because there's also a really good straightforward action game lurking under the surface.


In summary Human Revolution is an exciting stealthy action game with an epic sweep that plays well on the consoles for which it was designed and is just slightly less good on the PC. It's more low-key than the original Deus Ex and less memorable, and on a technical level it looks rough; it's new enough that it resembles an ugly modern game rather than a stunning retro title.

It has an emotional heft that was largely absent from the campier, simpler original, particularly during the second half. Deus Ex started strong but revealed its underlying conspiracy too quickly, and then dragged on to a conclusion that involved shooting robot spiders. In contrast Human Revolution gradually gathers steam and builds to an odd-but-logical conclusion that sets up a ruined world. Right at the end there's a fundamental gameplay shift that doesn't quite work, but it's interesting enough that I didn't mind, and it makes sense in the context of the story; in any case I felt I got my money's worth.

As of this writing Human Revolution: Director's Cut is available new for the PC. All other versions are out of print, although the XBox 360 version will run in backwards-compatibility mode on the XBox One. As with the majority of PlayStation 3-era games it has not been, and probably never will be, upgraded or remastered for the PlayStation 4.

The sequel, Mankind Divided, was released for the XBox One and PS4 but not the PS3, so if you're a huge fan of Sony you need to own two generations of PlayStation to play the modern Deus Ex games. You would also need to own a PlayStation 2 for Deus Ex: The Conspiracy. Invisible War was PC and XBox-only.

That's me, isn't it?

Bad things? The game has a great main theme tune. It's elegiac and sad. The composer went on to write the music for the new XCOM games, which in contrast is all heroic military bombast. The rest of the soundtrack has its moments - generally individual cues when you visit certain locations - but for the most part it's made of repeating loops that are too short to be satisfying. I kept wondering if the contextual battle music had broken.

The spartan music stands out because the original game had a famously rich soundtrack. The new music makes a few references to the original game but they're few and far between. Perhaps they were going for a more naturalistic, less-is-more approach.


You win experience points by hacking into computers. You can also search desk drawers and cupboards for passcodes, but you don't get any XP if you just type in the password, so the game essentially funnels you into the hacking minigame, which is dull. It seems odd to reward the player for brute forcing a solution rather than sneaking around.


To accommodate the limited memory of seventh-generation consoles the levels have a lot of pointless switchback staircases and empty corridors to give time for the next part of the map to stream from disc. The game also has two major hubs, Detroit and Hengsha. Detroit loads in one go, but it's a chore to navigate because it's essentially one long street with an irritating gap in the middle where you go into an air vent. Hengsha on the other hand is more entertaining to explore because it's visually richer, but the downtown area is split into two loading zones. Neither solution is fully satisfying.

The loading pauses are tolerable, but they make me yearn for the seamlessness of Bethesda's role-playing games, which only load when you go indoors, and even then not always. Part of my irritation about the loading comes from misplaced expectations. On a personal level 2011 doesn't seem that far away, but in gaming terms it was at the tail end of the last-but-one generation.

Anything else? As of 2020 it's an excellent budget title, and if you can pick up the Director's Cut cheaply in CEX for £3.99 for the XBox or PS3 you aren't losing much by not having the PC version. There wasn't a modding scene. The best version is probably the OS X / MacOS Ultimate Edition, because it includes all the DLC and The Missing Link as a separate package, with the base game retaining the original lighting - except that it was a 32-bit release that won't work with 64-bit-strict versions of MacOS, so unless you stick with 10.14 Mojave or lower you can't run it. And of course it still activates with Steam, so you need a sealed copy. Damn.