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RPG Codex Review: Deus Ex: The Fall
Review - posted by Infinitron on Tue 25 March 2014, 21:43:28Tags: Deus Ex: The Fall; Eidos Montreal; Square Enix
A Review by DalekFlay
Mobile games: the Mongolians at the wall. Having fought off console invaders for years the PC platform is facing a new enemy, the rising market share of phone and tablet games. Men in suits fill boardrooms with sweaty palms, eager to “spread their IP through multiple revenue streams” and “diversify development across new platform models.” They're rabid, ready to defile whatever fans deem sacred to earn their next Caribbean vacation. They don't care that your favorite game series was always on PC before, they want you to break down and spread yourself out. They're hovering over your fandom with heated breath and hungry eyes. They're skimming through lists of owned properties and well-regarded classics, looking for titles to shoehorn onto integrated graphics chips and seven inch touchscreen displays. Some time ago one of these men paused a finger over “Deus Ex,” one of PC gaming's most beloved poster boys. “Yes” he said, his voice low and husky from years of substance abuse, “that'll do nicely.”
You probably didn't play Deus Ex: The Fall on mobile. If you're like me you probably actively ignored its existence, not wanting to dwell on the pain. However, now Square Enix has seen fit to shove it in your face as a new Deus Ex game on the PC, home of Deus Ex lovers the world over. What is it? Some kind of on-rails shooter? A top-down tactics game? A puzzle game where you match three augmentations to break the security computer? What could it be?
Turns out it's Deus Ex. Huh.
Come along with me as we explore the depths of corporate depravity and mingle amongst the invaders, discovering just how low you might stoop to play more Deus Ex.
Human Revolution: The Morning After (Looks, Style and Personality)
Welcome to the world of Deus Ex B-movie spinoff territory, where you play as some random ex-military guy from Human Revolution's Belltower PMC group. Now you're doing black ops alongside a few familiar faces from the main game, at least until the plot takes the expected twists and turns from the 80s action movie playbook. The main character is a completely forgettable military guy with no real charisma or motivation you'll care about. There's a woman helping you, I don't really remember why, and you suddenly decide halfway through to fight the bad guys and save lives for reasons that aren't explained much. There's a new drug on the streets, bad people are behind it, gotta stop them or else, etc. etc. Suffice it to say the plot is “here's some more Deus Ex, shut the fuck up.” If you valued the story in Human Revolution at all you might be even more upset about how phoned-in the piece of shit story and dialog are here, but it's easily ignored overall. There aren't any long, drawn-out story or cutscene sequences, just brief introductions and hand-waved references. In short don't play this for story, or for some missing and essential piece of Deus Ex lore. It's not here.
Taking place in Panama City, The Fall directly copies Human Revolution's style, world and look. The same basic vibe and structure is there, but due to technical limitations it looks cropped, edited and compressed. There are bits of Human Revolution's convincing worldbuilding, with lots of local dialog and signage. Some areas, particularly the boardwalk and final mission location, offer unique color palettes and location styles for the series. Future coastal city in Latin America? Lime green colors? Palm trees? Yes, please. It teases you with the potential to show sides of Deus Ex not seen before, and for big fans like myself it's a small thrill to be in Deus Ex Panama or Deus Ex Moscow, no matter how poorly they're handled. In the end though, the game simply cannot escape its platform origins, and all of this potential succumbs to limited size, limited new assets and a low budget. Once you sober up you realize Deus Ex Panama looks like three rooms of compressed assets from its big PC brother. Once the morning sun shines through the windows the whole illusion falls apart, along with your excitement.
Technically speaking, the graphics are fine, they get the job done. Textures vary but mostly look about ten years old, while lighting effects are extremely simplistic and flat. Some might find this to be a nice change of pace from today's constant assault of bloom/HDR/depth of field madness, but at the end of the day simple is simple. It looks decent enough though, with smooth edges thanks to AA and a much higher resolution than any phone could provide. Load up Human Revolution on it's lowest detail settings, squint a little, and you might get the gist of things. This is acceptable, given the game's origins and price. If you can play the original Deus Ex without modding the graphics you can play this without bitching about how it looks (though you probably will anyway).
The whole presentation really falls apart once sound starts playing, however. The music is fine, copied and pasted from Human Revolution's file folders. The voice acting is anything but fine, and sounds like a series of non-English speakers, coders, janitors, and dyslexic friends of the family all trying to pretend they know how to act without being given a second take. The Fall features some of the worst acting of all time in a “big franchise” game, and when paired with the low detail puppet NPCs the whole thing comes across as parody. Any goodwill the game earns by being a real Deus Ex experience is quickly squandered by such a low budget presentation. The fact that it was intended for more casual players on mobile platforms is even more damning, as certainly anyone not used to forgiving video game stories and acting would laugh out loud upon hearing this shit. If the story deficiencies didn't turn you away then perhaps this amateur hour WAV file excrement will.
The Fall tries to ape Deus Ex's choice and consequence but few decisions seem to actually impact the plot.
Low budget aside, The Fall offers real Deus Ex gameplay. You're going to sneak around office buildings and gang hideouts, shooting or auto-punching various naughty people (or not-so-naughty people) so you can move on. There are items thrown about everywhere to find, some hidden and some not. There are computers to hack, large items to move, air ducts to sneak through and idiots to talk to. If you remember the game's mobile origins you might find yourself consistently amazed at how it's a real game. “Holy shit it has a hub world” I said. “Holy shit the hacking minigame is fully intact” I said. “Holy shit I'm shooting conspiracy troops in the head with a silenced pistol and clearing rooms before anyone notices” I said. It's all here, just with caveats. A lot of caveats.
While people will surely complain about all manner of mobile platform holdovers and cut corners, the game's greatest flaw is the absence of Human Revolution's intricate level design. What you get with The Fall is rooms, hallways, air ducts and stairs, all pasted into the editor as quickly as possible before the lunch bell rang. The rooms and levels are reasonably sized, a bit larger than Invisible War maps but smaller than Human Revolution's, all of them boxes connected by hallways. None of it feels as real or as planned out, and all of it is too straightforward for a game about discovering how you want to get things done. Every locked room has a passcode nearby, every air duct leads around the enemies, every alternate entrance is highlighted and predictable. This simplistic design makes the game insanely easy to finish, and you won't feel any anxiety when moving through the game world. It feels like paint-by-numbers design, and in turn you'll feel like you're simply matching colored blocks as you routinely go from one bathroom air duct to another. There's an almost complete lack of player-driven solutions, since there is nowhere to jump, nothing to stack, no obvious consequences from your choices or performance. It's as if everyone settled on making it generally play like Deus Ex and then decided that was good enough.
The actual core Deus Ex gameplay remains remarkably intact, however. Shooting works about the same as in Human Revolution with roughly the same weapons and options. The dart rifle seems to be missing but the crossbow suddenly has a tranq dart modification. The pistol seems weaker at the start of the game, but you can quickly enhance its damage to get the same old headshot machine you know and love. Cover mechanics and sneaking work exactly the same as before, focused mostly on line of sight and avoiding direct contact with enemies. Enemy awareness seems about the same as in the main game as well, and enemies spotted me reliably when I was in their vision cone. I've seen reports online of people having mouse, recoil and hitbox problems but I encountered none of this and reliably shot all those damn Panama terrorists in the head without difficulty. I was actually happily surprised that the mouse aim felt normal, since I thought that if any aspect of a mobile game would feel broken on PC, it would be mouse aim. Your mileage may vary, of course.
That's not to say that the game's mobile roots don't shine through in a variety of ways. The most obvious and critical of these issues is an extremely unintuitive menu system, where nothing seems to be quite where you want it. Using powers or health items requires you to hold down keys while scrolling the mouse wheel to select the item you want, then pressing the same key a second time to use the item or power. It's all incredibly slow and cumbersome compared to hitting a number key. Weapons, thankfully, can be switched by simply using the mouse wheel by itself, but grenades aren't so lucky. The inventory menu is also poorly designed, being a combination of store, modification interface and actual inventory. There are in fact no stores in the game world, everything is purchased through the menu system. It's rather absurd that you can open the magic inventory store and click a purchase button to obtain more ammo in the middle of a combat situation. Picture an invisible drone flying in through a skylight to deliver your can of beer for that last minute health boost.
Most importantly for non-WASD gamers, there is a complete lack of keybinding options. Instead, the game sticks you with some slightly annoying defaults, such as “use item” being mapped to the 'F' key. As a true WASD bro I didn't have much difficulty in this area, but I'm sure it's an absolute deal breaker for many. Interface options are also nowhere nearly as robust as in Human Revolution, with no option to customize HUD elements and gameplay hints. I learned quickly that you can go into your quest menu and disable quest markers individually, thank god, but it's certainly an additional hassle. And then there's the lack of multiple save slots, which ensures your trip through Panama is a straight shot with no room for second thoughts.
Outside of menus, there is the much talked about lack of jumping. Personally, I don't consider jumping in games as essential as some other people do. In Deus Ex, however, jumping is an important tool for creating innovative solutions to gameplay roadblocks. I remember stacking dumpsters in Human Revolution to get past an apartment fence, for example, something which is impossible in The Fall, severely limiting player creativity. Enemy bodies also vanish after a short time, in a weird cyberspace kind of digital fadeout effect (is this whole thing a simulation or what?). Not only is this visually distracting and immersion breaking, it also of course makes hiding bodies a non-issue. There were many times during my playthrough where I would time a long-distance kill-shot for when a nearby guard was looking the other way, and by the time that guard turned around his dead buddy had vanished from the game world, never to cause alarm again. Not that guards cause much alarm anyway, given how easy the entire game is. There are even auto-revive items in the store, so a cunning 80s action avatar never need fear death.
If all of this sounds pretty damning on the gameplay front, that's because it is. The Fall is not a comparable experience to its sister game, Human Revolution. It's shrunken and simplified, signposted and low budget. Its straightforward nature and limited tactical options remove the very essence of what Deus Ex is. There is, however, for the biggest of fans a spark of Deus Ex life to the whole thing that can make it worthwhile. When you enter an secret enemy lab and begin to snoop around, discovering key codes and hidden items, sneaking up behind MJ-12 troops and taking them out one at a time from the shadows, you get into a Deus Ex groove, let your mind go and ignore the deficiencies. Shoot, sneak, hack and move to the next room, repeat for seven hours or so until finished. It's by-the-numbers and missing half of its DNA, but still fluid and oddly compelling. When everything shines just right you can almost forgive everything else, and for a moment you're playing Deus Ex again. Then you reach yet another bathroom air duct and it all comes crashing down around you.
What are You Willing to Sacrifice?
Like a drug addict staring down their mom's television, what this really all comes down to is what you're willing to do for another hit of Deus Ex. Are you willing to sacrifice graphical fidelity? How about jumping and thinking in general? Do you need it to be challenging? Does it have to play like a PC game? Like a well-ported game? Does your love for Deus Ex reach the depths of becoming unconditional, or do you require your cyberpunk fantasy to respect you as much as you respect it?
There's really no way I could call Deus Ex: The Fall a quality PC game in good conscience. There's nothing about it that's better or even on par with any other Deus Ex game, barring perhaps smoother gameplay than the legendarily clunky Invisible War. As a companion piece to Human Revolution its strength lies solely in its unique content, but that content is middling at best, hollow at worst. It's continually surprising that so much of Deus Ex is here in such a small package, but it's not impressive enough to distract you from the fact that so much of Deus Ex's soul is missing. The real achievement here is that such a close facsimile of the real Deus Ex experience was made for mobile platforms. That success, unfairly or not, becomes completely irrelevant when the game is ported to the PC platform, standing beside its adult siblings on your games list. Short, stunted and with a severe voice impediment, it looks up to you from beside its peers, a tear in its eye. You can choose to take pity on it and get what reward you can, but it will never be your favorite son.