DXHR: Or, How I Learned to Hate Regenerative Health! Part 1

Focusing on the Negative

Welcome to another sporadic installment of my off again on again game dev blog. It’s long overdue as I’ve been awfully busy wrapping up a masters and juggling multiple projects; why it’s taken so long to get around to completing and posting this blog. And since it’s a bit pointless to blog about Deus Ex Human Revolution, considering that it came out months ago. I’m instead going to start of with it and then segue into a growing irritance of mine with so called “AAA” titles. An industry service announcement about a blight on gaming that I can only conclude is due to laziness, short-sightedness, and, greed.

So first off, I’m gonna “nit-pick” about what I didn’t like about the game starting off with the number one complaint for PC gamers…

Display Stuttering: sure I could have played around with various settings like VSync and even updated my display drivers along with making sure to get the the latest Direct X, but, I’m not an idiot – though granted, opinions may differ. This “stuttering” only seems to be an issue with PC titles were the PC release has come at the same time as the X360 and PS3 console versions. It has nothing to do with my system, and everything, to do with the compromises made in order to get the game to work on consoles at the cost of performance for PC players – I’m sure there are some good reasons for this to do with 3D hardware and cross-platform engine architecture that I’m purposefully ignorant of.

This means that the PC version I played at least graphically and performance-wise, was actually worse than the PS3 version – if I had realised that I may have bought the PS3 version instead, or at least waited, for the stuttering to be resolved by a patch. If the PC version had come out first followed by the console versions later, or the other way around. Then there would be NO display stuttering nor would I have to put up with the next “nit-pick.”

Infinitely Bad Detail: my PC dev-rig isn’t the ultimate gaming beast, but, it can still push around at least twice the polys with all the latest shader effects required of the most performance intensive scene in the game without a strain on my system hardware. Why I do find the mentioned display performance stuttering quite annoying as it shouldn’t happen; however all that said, you can chose to ignore it if you really want to play the game and have the pain-killers on hand for the headaches. But what you don’t get used to is the lower quality models and textures utilised in Human Revolution, especially for PC, when you’ve come to expect better.

Perhaps I am really nit-picking here, but, you have to look at this game within the context of 2011 and the games that have come before it. Compare it to Mass Effect 2 for instance, and you’ll notice how the quality of some of the DXHR character models and animations aren’t even as good as those from Mass Effect 1. I know, you get used to it and there is more to a game than just its visuals, however, in other respects it is more of an ask of the player to suspend their disbelief.

For example there is a reoccur texturing of coiled cables, a number of variants of these I think but specifically a wound up loop of cables supposedly sitting on the floor with one end of the cable ending in a straight cut edge. It doesn’t appear to use any shader / texturing effects. It’s simply a 2D image that has no bump-mapping, normal-mapping or parallax-mapping. It’s utterly flat. It is also very pixelated and seems fairly angular for no good reason – it’s a 2D texture rendered on a 2D plane! It’s just a really bad texture and something that you would expect to find in a game like the original Deus Ex. Perhaps if it was only found in the odd out-of-the-way spot throughout the game, you could let it slide. However, the same texture is used over and over again within areas the player is bound to traverse and in a manner that makes it hard to mask just how crap – or basic if you like – this texture is.

This to me is unacceptable when it ends up adding nothing at all to the experience, or even worse, detracting from the whole game for a PC gamer with a decent system – it’s kind of a slap in the face when you know that the game isn’t even making your system work hard yet the textures of this AAA title look this crap. You might think that these textures aren’t that big a deal, but, this is what these textures end up doing. Making the overall gaming experience not better, not even marginally so. But worse. They undermine the whole experience as all of a sudden you see these textures and think: “wow, that is really shit!

You are immediately reminded that you are playing a game; the suspension-of-disbelief, the immersion, is ruined for the player.

The illusion implodes in upon itself and I am puzzled as to understand why it was allowed to remain in the game from a producer / quality assurance point-of-view. Surely it would have been better to not use these textures at all if console performance was an issue. To refrain from doing so and simply use an unadorned floor texture instead. And perhaps in the odd case where performance allows it for console versions, to actually add in something more appropriate like low-poly normal-mapped cables. Something that at least matches the quality of the rest of the level and game. And if using such textures to “fake” such detail, then do so wisely and by using higher quality (resolution) textures along with (normal/parallax) shaders. If not for all versions of the game, then for the PC gamers who are likely to have a gaming rig that can out perform the hardware of a gaming console.

Honestly, this one little thing is really that much of a big deal. Of all the memories of the game to stick after a couple of months whilst others have faded. Well, this one persists.

A Lack of Credibility

Moving on from the performance and visuals, there were a range of issues I had in the game creating believability in the game world and engaging immersive encounters. Forgetting the list of little things, like the awkward on-rails cut-scene at the start that can easily be dismissed, there were however a few that weren’t as easy to let go of…

Deus Ex Showing its Age: when you head out for the first time into the Detroit streets, you immediately notice that there are no cars driving about just parked. I know that this is not supposed to be an “open-world” GTA game, however, we’re so used to road traffic from such games that you kind of come to expect it as part of creating a believable world. When they aren’t present, it is because other games have chosen to avoid any awkward situation like this by having the game set elsewhere – for example Mass Effect’s Citadel station has no vehicles, just walkways, stairs and elevators as it is a space station; you don’t expect their to be cars. The best that the devs could offer was to have a monorail – really, of all things?! – triggered to appear and never reappear again at the start.

The expectations developed from playing other games means that simply barricading road access-points like in the original Deus Ex, just isn’t good enough any more. Either you HAVE to have the odd car drive by or you need to start getting creative as to why there are no moving cars on the street – like the CBD has become an Eco-friendly no-car-zone with roads turned into pedestrian thoroughfares. Otherwise it just makes the game feel off as it doesn’t meet current expectations gamers (consumers) have of your title from playing other similar AAA titles.

Now, this is just one example of the world not feeling right, feeling artificial, and not just from technology limitations compared to other AAA titles.

You Call this a Riot!: even though the original Deus Ex wasn’t that technologically sophisticated, it at least had the decency to allow you to interact within a riot rather than just be told about it by NPCs. Sure it didn’t look that great and was heavily scripted, but hey, that’s not the point, the point is experience. Being told about an experience is not the same thing as actually experiencing it.

The Detroit riot is one of the defining points of the game, that is it would have been, if the player were actually allowed to experience it for themselves – which they don’t. The kind of thing gaming memories are made of. Perhaps console hardware limitations or some other technical hurdle was present, however, I’m sure enough could have been done in a clever way so as to have the player have a far more rich experience here than they were provided with.

To me this is an example of one of the opportunities the game missed in creating a memorable world and experience.

“Boss” battles: I know it has been said that unlike the rest of the game, they did not offer many ways of completing them. There was only one ending for each for example, with no support for multiple “approaches” to at least achieving that end. I don’t much care to be honest and think this overlooks something far more important to me as I was able to complete these in my own “style” regardless; even if it was in a much narrower context considering the rest of the title. No, what bothered me about these boss battles was how easy they were to complete.

Honestly, the first boss battle after a few false starts due to me thinking they would be harder than they were, was solved with an SMG and a few concussion grenades – grenades to stun and stop him from attacking, full SMG clip of ammo point-blank to the face before he recovered, then repeat. The subsequent boss battles were either completed the first go or with a follow-up attempt or two. That said, I liked some of the set designs and the visual and mechanic design of these bosses themselves. Some original ideas from my experience of gaming boss battles, that worked/played with the various themes of the game.

Pity that these points of the game that out of all were meant to offer a real challenge, even a punishing one that demanded you to really grow in mastery of the game before you could proceed onward. Were just so disappointingly easy for anyone with moderate experience with modern shooter mechanics.

My Lasting Impression of DX: Human Revolution

My lasting impression is that it feels like Invisible War 2.0. Technology limitations and various conventions of the time aside, this very much feels like the sequel that the original Deus Ex warranted. As it doesn’t feel like a “revolution” but rather an evolution of the original game that took all the things that worked with the original game, revised these to make them better, then added in new elements to make up for what didn’t work – like competent and suitable AI to power the gameplay with; forgetting the final stage “crazies.”

Unlike the aberration that was Invisible War with its revamp of the inventory, augmentation, mission and objective structure, and, adoption of universal ammo that were from a gameplay perspective, completely the wrong direction to go in.

However after all this time – 10+ years – what was needed was more revolution foremost and not so much reliance on just evolving on what did work from the original title to make it just a better playing Deus Ex – such as rolling back the inventory system from Invisible War back to something more fundamentally like that of Deus Ex, however, with enhanced mechanics and slick UI.

This is also apparent in the game story that feels VERY familiar, as it would if it were a follow up sequel cashing in on the nostalgia the first title created. Not to undervalue the quality of the story and dialogue writing or the use of the various themes and how this was all utilised in creating atmospheric environments, missions and objectives. It was strong enough to have me at least finish the game. However, it didn’t exactly leave any surprises for me having played the previous titles and read and watched a lot of science fiction; I have this lasting feeling that it failed to resonate with the themes of today and make any real long-lasting impact with any of its endings. I actually can’t recall any of them.

I also think that though the dialogue was overall great, it was let down by the actual dialogue system.

This is an example of where revolution would have been best rather than evolution, and it wouldn’t need to innovate all that much to achieve it as games like Heavy Rain (2010) and LA Noire (2011) have provided alternatives to dialogue trees successfully. But though it did improve the system by providing a contextual “intent” header to each summarised dialogue option to make selecting the right option for the player less regretfully trial and error – Bioware please take note for Mass Effect 3. It was still an immersion-breaking dialogue tree that allowed players to speak the same dialogue options, ask about the same subjects, over and over again with little consequence for poor choices and strategy.

There may have been more to the system, however, I fail to recollect this over the negative, dated and tired aspects of RPG dialogue trees that let down the story and dialogue of the game – again, other games have made me come to expect more here.

As it stands, and taking into consideration that I did buy this game when it came out and did play and finish it over a couple of days – to curb the focus on the negative. To me Human Revolution shows why the original Deus Ex was so (critically) successful, however, by actually successfully (and realistically) achieving what the original game only claimed to achieve. It does so by providing a more complete and effective application of “nonlinear” level and game design along with the effective creation of the illusion of gameplay choice – albeit the implementation feels rather formulaic compared to Deus Ex’s flawed one.

Honestly, if you haven’t figured out by now that you actually can’t go wherever you like in the original Deus Ex and the latest DX: Human Revolution, that in neither game can you do what ever you like. Well, I’m not going to bother to try and change your mind or explain to you my reasoning – I’ve already done this to an anal degree of detail.

However getting back on point, though it does it well, unfortunately it’s like watching a magician perform an illusion when you know how the trick is done. It’s not very entertaining unless you do something new with it or at least do it very well with nothing to detract from it. In this case, luckily it did not have Invisible War’s universal ammo. Unluckily, along with the above “nit-picks” it also had something else to detract from the immersiveness of the experience and undermine gameplay: Regenerative Health.

Make sure to read part 2!

2 thoughts on “DXHR: Or, How I Learned to Hate Regenerative Health! Part 1

  1. ALCH3MIST says:

    For me [as someone who loved the original Deus Ex], regenerative health is good in general. It keeps the game going, but the way it’s implemented in DXHR, it can easily be abused. My biggest gripe was the cover system. That thing has no place in Deus Ex.

    True, DXHR DID build upon the original’s promise – Warren Spector himself said that Deus Ex created the illusion of choice by weaving sub-stories in and out of one main storyline. I just wish they’d ditched that cover system.

    • I’ll leave the cover-system for the second part but, I think like regenerative health, cover systems have their place. It depends upon the context (and implementation) for the most part. For a third-person shooter and/or adventure game, I think cover-systems are appropriate, especially if it is something like a stealth shooter or if the platform warrants it — like iOS.

      So to a degree, I’ve let it go for DXHR as it kind of fits even if I’m not a fan of them.

      But if you take a first-person shooter franchise like Brothers in Arms, where the first two games didn’t have a cover-system, Hell’s Highway introduced one. I fail to see how the game was improved by this addition. For me there were already enough mechanics in place to play the game effectively (“easily”) whilst still providing a challenge, and a cover-system, just made the gameplay too easy in a narrowed and automated way. To top it off, they also added in the more extreme version of regenerative health — screen turns red, get behind cover before you die, wait a couple of seconds, good as new!

      The cover-system I can let slide, as I can see the reasoning for it even if it makes the skirmishes too easy to complete. You’d think with a game trying to create a “realistic” military experience, that this kind of regenerative health system would be the exact opposite thing to do.

      Honestly though, if you have one, you really don’t need the other. Having both just made the game far too easy and in my opinion, quite boring — I finished the other games, this one I stopped playing after 2 hours and haven’t returned to it since.

      Regardless, cover systems and regenerative health are here to stay, whether we like it or not.

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