Games of 2011: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

The original Deus Ex hit the market in 2000, and it was a revolution unto itself. It combined the first person shooter with role playing elements and strong writing. It offered the player real choice and branching story lines. Adversity could be worked around, fights could be diffused peacefully. The game brought with it an implied promise: first person games didn’t need to adhere to a formula.

Sadly, that promise wasn’t met. The 2003 sequel Invisible War was garbage, the franchise was shelved, and few developers wanted to try and replicate the Deus Ex experience.

But like other historic franchises, this was finally the year that Deus Ex was booted back up. After four years in development, Deus Ex: Human Revolution was released in August. From the moment I touched the game, I felt that familiar rush again. The stealth, the conversations, the gunplay, the lock picking, it was all just so brilliant. I started to mentally mark it down as a clear frontrunner for the best game I played that year.

Then I hit a boss battle, and those thoughts evaporated.

Much has been said by press and players alike about how out of place the boss battles felt. This is a game where you can specialize in stealth and subterfuge, building your character so that you can slink through each level without killing a single enemy guard. And yet this same game forces you into a guns-blazing do-or-die battle with an overpowered enemy. Players who went in with stealth-heavy builds were severely disadvantaged in these fights.

Player choice is a dangerous tool to wield. For every dimension of character construction you allow, you open yourself up to players working themselves into a position where it is difficult to advance. Regular adversity isn’t a problem – players need a challenge, and there shouldn’t be a build you can just blow through the game with. But games should never make it practically impossible for standard builds to advance, and sadly, that’s what the boss fights in DX:HR did.

Eidos admitted a month after release that they had outsourced the boss battles to another company, one that “didn’t know much about the Deus Ex world before the project began.” What a statement that is: to not only add gameplay that people generally disliked, but to farm it outside of the core team working on the game, to people who didn’t understand the history or vision for the game.

Developers, remember this: make the best games you can. Don’t compromise. And don’t add boss battles if they don’t fit into your game.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC.

Endured Enjoyed

Games of 2011: FIFA 12

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.


I’ve had a love-hate relationship with “serious” sports games.[1. By “serious”, I essentially mean “not NBA Jam, Mario Kart, or anything with motion control.”] They are rarely intuitive or come with strong tutorial modes. With manual size decreasing and annual releases churning out regularly, there’s a certain expectation that you’re intimately familiar with the series even before you touch a controller.

This is especially pronounced in EA’s FIFA 12. A scant manual of about eight pages highlights a handful of changes but doesn’t concern itself with telling you how the core game works. The game does launch with a tutorial, but mostly of a new defensive control system that doesn’t do a great job of explaining itself. Then, you are thrust into a giant menu system and left to find the mode you maybe heard about, once.

The gap between what you’re told and what you are expected to know how to do is greatest during the Virtual Pro career mode, where you join your favorite team and attempt to break into the starting XI over the course of a season. You typically only control yourself, and the first thing that will jump out at you is a numerical score next to your stamina bar. It starts at 6.0 (like most actual player rating systems do) and will fluctuate over the course of the game based on your performance. But the game never really tells you what raises your score and what lowers it. It’s pure trial and error in the hopes of eventually learning how to play in a way that the game feels is acceptable.

I understand that as the world’s best selling sports franchise, there’s little impetus in EA Vancouver spending time on a well written manual, or a tutorial mode that goes beyond “well, here’s a penalty kick, take it already, you fool!”. But I worry that so many sports games seem to be going down this road.

That said, I can’t be entirely down on FIFA 12, as it finally fulfilled my dreams of a online multiplayer sport. Shockingly, all of the FIFA 12 games I have played online have been lag free, have not been subject to any griefing or abusive voice chat, and generally have people who are not terrible playing. Strangely, it may have been the best multiplayer experience I had this year.

FIFA 12 is available for PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii, 3DS, PSP, iOS, PS2, and the Mac.


Games of 2011: Saints Row The Third

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games 2011 posts.

Saints Row 2 was one of my favorite sleeper hits of 2008 – an energetic blast of a sandbox game. When I first caught wind that a sequel would be emerging this year, I celebrated quietly, knowing that I would be raising hell again soon. When the game appeared on Steam, I preordered it without hesitation, even though that is taboo among those who believe in finding the best deal or waiting until there’s a pre-order incentive. When the game came out, I pulled it open, crafted a blue-haired asian business woman with a male cockney voice, and began tearing through the game without hesitation.

Twenty hours of play over a week later, I found myself on the other side:

All missions completed. All activities completed. All neighborhoods taken over. All 80 collectables found. Maximum respect level. It was the first game I could recall 100%ing in years, and the first crime sandbox game I ever believe I have completed to that degree.

Yet, I felt unsatisfied, even a little empty. Why? (And no, it wasn’t the endless levels of violence.) I think it comes down to three things that worked against the game.

The first is that the land of Steelport doesn’t become a character the way Stillwater did. This isn’t to say there aren’t pedestrians everywhere waiting for your abuse, but more that the neighborhoods of town feels less distinct than they did in the previous game. So much of the town feels run down, you don’t get a sense of location. For most of the islands of the game, I didn’t get a sense for which gang was where until I started scouring the map during my quest to complete every last thing.

It’s not just the decor, though. SR3 feature the ability to buy stores or properties, which help generates a revenue which goes directly into your pocket. (This isn’t a new concept, but I appreciated that SR3 didn’t force you back into your hideout to collect – it’s just a button on the game’s cellphone menu.) But the locations you could buy were underwhelming. There’s functional stores – weapon stores and car modification garages. There’s decorative stores – plastic surgery to change your appearance, tattoo parlors for ink, and about five different clothing store chains to play dress-up with. But that is shockingly it when it comes to interactive locations – no restaurants, no music stores, no arcades full of mini-games. And the “properties” you can buy aren’t interactive, save for a small handful of cribs. They sit on the map, reminding you that they’re there but providing you no function.

Without that ephemera to connect you to a city, a sandbox can become just a place where carnage happens, rather than a city you want to take over.

The second issue is that THQ made a point of pre-announcing that the game will have a tremendous amount of downloadable content. Now, don’t get me wrong – I am a fan of DLC. I appreciate that games can be enhanced and continue to provide gameplay long after release. But pre-announcing it – and selling it at a discount if you buy it all early – triggers the thought that there could have been more in the core game. There have been whispers that THQ is putting so much effort into this Saints Row release because if it tanks, there’s a strong chance they may go bankrupt. So it’s doubly sad that it has come to this – damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

The final issue I had is that when you sell a game on a campaign of insanity, the game better be insane. There’s a risk versus reward as you edge your ad campaigns out farther, and I feel like there are some areas of the game that are actually playing it safe.

Take for example, the in-game concept of Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax. The base concept seemed ripe enough: there’s some guy in an odd cat-suit and he has some sort of bizarre, deadly game show. But then, the game’s marketing team hired much beloved comedians Tim & Eric to produce a 12 minute episode of PGSERC, and it gave us a glimpse of truly insane possibilities:

When I first saw a Genki icon appear on my map, I raced to it, ready to have my mind blown. But what I got inside was a pretty standard arena setting. I had to shoot mascots, avoid fire traps, and occasionally shoot signs that popped up to get bonuses. There was some amusing commentary, but I strolled calmly through the level picking off people shooting at me. I waited for something bizarre to happen, but instead I entered a room full of prizes, the audience shouted something, and I got the ACTIVITY COMPLETE screen. For something that could have been completely insane, it felt surprisingly safe, and not dissimilar from Sega’s The Club from a few years back. (Some of the pre-announced DLC deals with Professor Genki, so perhaps the insanity is forthcoming.)

None of this is to say that Saints Row: The Third is a bad game. It’s quite good. I had fun playing it, I enjoyed many of the jokes, and it was a tremendous way to blow off steam. I will probably jump back into it as my friends pick it up and want to co-op through the storyline.

But for a game that could’ve easily blown me away and become an instant classic, I feel only slightly blasted.

Saints Row: The Third is available for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.