Tuesday, 30 August 2011

OnLive Passes Its First Test as a Cloud-Based Deus Ex: Human Revolution Shines

Deus Ex: Human Revolution — a sci-fi first-person shooter game from developer Eidos Montreal — is one of the first few high-profile titles to launch simultaneously on OnLive, the PC and gaming consoles Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. There are a lot of questions as to whether OnLive would take off, much less be able to handle a game launch like Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Well, you can put those fears to rest. Human Revolution is the first in what looks like a series of fantastic blockbuster titles on the launchpad this fall. The game looked gorgeous and blazed along at something north of 50 frames per second on OnLive — slightly better than the kind of performance you’d expect from a high-power PC or an Xbox 360. There were a few glitches — which is natural for a newer service — but they did not really get in the way of the gameplay.

I’ve spent the better part of the week blitzing through the game using OnLive, a cloud gaming service that runs games on remote servers and streams them through a web browser like a YouTube video. The service can run triple-A titles like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood on computers and even on tablets that don’t have a lot of processing power. You need a decent Internet connection to play the games, but that’s not too difficult to find.

The game not only plays like a dream on OnLive, but goes out of its way to reward you for being creative and finding interesting solutions to problems and staying alive. When I first picked up the controller for Deus Ex: Human Revolution at the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in Los Angeles, Calif., this year, I was incredibly skeptical. The first title in the series, Deus Ex, came out in 2000 and holds a special place in my heart for introducing the idea of an open world with choices and multiple paths to an end.

But as I powered through and really got a better taste of Human Revolution, I was treated to an experience that doesn’t necessarily match the original Deus Ex but comes very, very close. And it has the added benefit of a decade of sophistication and evolution that video games and first person shooters have enjoyed.

OnLive actually included codes for a free copy of the game in retail versions of the game. The move actually frustrated game retailer GameStop, which instructed its employees to pull the codes out of the physical copies of the game because it promoted competition with GameStop’s own reported cloud gaming service. (The company later reneged on the move and is now offering free gift cards for players that didn’t get a code.)

You play as Adam Jensen, a security specialist that was gravely injured in a fight trying to protect a piece of technology in his company. Doctors used prosthetics and cybernetic enhancements — called augmentations — from his company Sarif Industries to restore his limbs and keep him alive. He returns to work shortly after being nearly killed to uncover the story behind the attack and quickly gets caught up in a feud between augmentation companies.

It’s a near-term dystopia where humanity is on the cusp of unlocking the species’ true potential through the use of augmentation. But it’s littered with problems as the human body over time begins to reject augmentations and you need to take a drug called Neuropezyne to stop the rejection. It leads to addiction and a whole host of problems for people who can no longer afford the drug. That leads to riots and the emergence of political movements to try and halt scientific advancement in augmentation.

It’s a Deus Ex for a new generation, and it’s a blast to play.

A Rewarding Experience

Human Revolution’s reward system feels almost Zynga-esque in nature — pulling ideas from the things that made social games like Farmville and Cityville smash hits on Facebook. Those games reward you for doing very small things, but the steady stream of rewards keeps you engaged and constantly hunting for the next reward. The more rewards you pick up, the more powerful you become.

That model was so successful it created an entirely profitable business for Zynga, which recently filed for an initial public offering in order to raise up to $1 billion. Zynga is the most profitable company to file for an IPO this year by a very wide margin.

“You always have to have two ways to win a game,” Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Bing Gordon, an investor in Zynga, told VentureBeat in an earlier interview. “If your player hasn’t won within the first 10 minutes of playing the game, you’re doing it wrong.”

The game gives you the biggest bonuses for being clever — like talking your way through a sticky situation. The game rewarded me for stacking boxes through a tunnel where the ground had electricity running across it. I didn’t even notice the switch-box to turn the electricity off, but I still got a reward for finding a unique solution to a problem with several solutions. (Which, as a math geek, is pretty awesome.)

You get rewarded for being a good sharpshooter by picking off enemies with head-shots, which is usually the most efficient way to kill an enemy. You also get a bonus for taking down an enemy without killing them, which you can do by shooting them with a tranquilizer dart or punching them in the face. You get bonuses for taking down multiple enemies at once, like with grenades or punching two guys in the face simultaneously (as you can tell, the face-punching is quite satisfying).

The most fun part of the game is probably the exploration. Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s world is a sprawling cyber-punk dream colored black and gold (see why in this story). There are at least three, if not more, pathways of least resistance to your mission objective. You can crawl through vents, hack open locked doors, jump from building rooftops or walk through the front door with guns blazing to reach your destination. All of them offer some kind of reward — with the more creative pathways giving the most experience points.

The game gives you ways to be a better explorer too, like letting you jump higher or no longer take falling damage when you fall from the top of a building. It turns exploration into this crazy parkour-esque blast, where I found myself literally spending hours digging into every nook and cranny of the massive buildings in Shanghai or Detroit’s sprawling police-filled streets.

The game perfectly fits the description of how to create a rewarding experience. It uses a dual-currency system by giving you experience points for completing objectives and credits, the game’s cash, for killing enemies and selling things. You can use both currencies to improve your character by earning or buying Praxis Points, which let you buy better augmentations and new skills, or by buying new guns and weapon upgrades.

The game litters side-quests along each mission’s path that unlock more details about the near-term dystopia that’s befallen humanity. The missions never feel like a chore because there is always something new to learn about Jensen’s cyberpunk sprawl and the story behind humanity’s new, interesting evolutionary twist.

The Power to Move You

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a very tough game if you choose a typical difficulty level, just like its predecessors. It’s refreshing compared to a lot of modern games that have become very easy. Enemies can quickly take you down in three or four shots if you aren’t careful. The boss fights are very unforgiving, even at the easiest difficulty level. Deus Ex: Human Revolution challenges you to become better at the game, and it rewards you significantly when you do.

It’s easy to die in this game. While you can run through the game with guns blazing as long as you carefully use cover, the game rewards you for playing stealthily. You can play through the game without ever getting caught. You can also play through the game without killing people through the use of non-lethal takedowns and tranquilizer guns. The game rewards you for doing both (with a significant “ghost” award for completing a mission without getting caught).

The game actually controls quite nicely, though the gameplay does feel like it’s littered with a few too many cut scenes. When you fall from a high ledge, it shifts to a cut scene that shows a field of electricity slowing you down. When you knock an enemy out, it shifts to a cut scene of Jensen executing a fancy close-quarters-combat move that takes them down. When you want to kill an enemy in close range, you get another cut scene of Jensen shanking his foe with retractable blades built into his arms.

There’s a wide variety of guns in the game — both lethal and non-lethal — and you can upgrade those guns with weapon kits to suit your play style. I personally chose to try and play the game while using exclusively tranquilizer weapons and non-lethal takedowns, but it did get a little frustrating because ammunition for those guns is so limited and the takedown cut scenes leave you standing in plain sight.

Most abilities — including a melee takedown — consume energy. While you have multiple energy cells, only one cell recharges naturally. Even with upgrades, it can take a while to charge. You have to consume sparse food to recharge your other energy cells, and it’s easy to get caught without an energy cell when you need to run for it or if you want to take down one more enemy with a non-lethal takedown.

Paradise Lost

Killing and sneaking aside, there’s a whole world to explore that is both visually stunning and disturbingly subdued. As you walk through the streets of Detroit, the trash and drug addicts on the street paint a picture of a dystopia where once-great American cities have fallen from grace and the government has started to lose control. The designers used a vibrant black and gold color scheme throughout the entire game, giving it a unique look when compared to other color schemes seen in dystopic games like Homefront or the newest entries to the Fallout series.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s world is a vibrant cyber-punk renaissance that feels part Blade Runner and part renaissance era, a-la Assassin’s Creed 2. For every chip of the world’s swarming technological landscape you see in Adam Jensen’s world, there’s a piece of gorgeous architecture or art that will literally stop you in your tracks as you take in the sights. There’s even more to see for those interested in exploring the sprawls present in Deus Ex — and, again, the game rewards you for seeing all its sights.

Whether it intends to or not, Deus Ex: Human Revolution also has to show down against the bold reds of BioWare’s supergiant sci-fi franchise Mass Effect or the bright, vivid neon blues of Nintendo’s Metroid Prime series. The game’s artists had to conceive a world that would stand apart from not only other dystopic futuristic pieces, but the entire sci-fi genre, lead artist Jonathan Jacques-Belletete told VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi. To the team’s credit, it succeeded in spades.

The soundtrack is equally subdued and brooding. Rather than bold orchestral jams that roll alongside sci-fi behemoths like the Mass Effect series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution uses a softer sound palette that feels more electronic than orchestral. There are few clashing high-profile crescendos and it feels like the whole soundtrack runs at a softer volume. From the game’s sweeping chorus-laden opening track Icarus to the sounds of the streets of Lower Hengsha, it never feels like the music is trying to grab your attention. It sits in the back and contributes to the experience.

The OnLive Experience

I sat in my kitchen at 11:59 p.m. on Monday, looking at my watch and waiting patiently for the clock to roll over to midnight. I quickly dove into Deus Ex: Human Revolution as soon as the game became available through OnLive. It felt instant — I didn’t have to drive over to a GameStop store or sit through a several-hour download to play it. Better yet, I was playing it on a MacBook Pro, which is notoriously light on games.

As a whole, the experience was solid. When OnLive first came out I played Borderlands — another first-person shooter — on the service. The controls felt a little sluggish when I played around with OnLive last year, but it has since improved and it now feels one-to-one. It’s comparable to a PC or Xbox 360 gaming experience.

I played the game on a decent Internet connection at home, with something north of 8 megabits per second download speed, but not too much higher. I played it over a wireless connection, too, which put even more strain on the service (it recommends that you play the game on a solid ethernet connection). It was basically the equivalent of running a high-resolution YouTube video for about 4 hours straight per play session, and it ran fine. The service was unplayable at our office, where our connection is shared between a dozen or so people and I can barely get a download speed above 3 megabits per second.

I only ever felt the wrath of the always-on cloud gremlin once during my hours of play time, when my wireless router inadvertently cut out and I frantically had to fix it within the 5-minute time limit OnLive gives you before it permanently disconnects you from its servers. It was frustrating, but realistically it was poor planning on my part. I lost around 45 minutes of play time, but it wasn’t enough to deter me from continuing on in the game — I just took a different path to the mission objective, which the game once again rewarded me for doing.

The spectator feature was also pretty enjoyable. I had a few dozen people drop in on my play session while I took on the first boss and cheer me on as I used some more absurd tactics to take the boss down. I was playing it on the hardest difficulty, which I suppose made my floundering and disastrous attempts to kill the boss more fun to watch. But eventually I joined the game’s voice chat and heard them talking about how to kill the boss.

One minor annoyance: that the game stops registering a key-press for a short period of time when you get a notification. That means if you are holding a key to stay in cover, you will drop out of cover for a second whenever a spectator joins, leaves, cheers you on or leaves a friend request. It was enough to get me caught once or twice while trying to be sneaky, and during intense firefights when more people seemed to join it got me killed as I lost control of my character for two or three seconds.

The video would infrequently become a little garbled when my wireless connection experienced small hiccups. It’s less like a YouTube video, where the video would simply stop and load before it continues playing, and feels more like a satellite television or cable channel that’s experiencing interference. It happened once or twice during a firefight and a cut scene, which hampered the experience slightly.

The Verdict

The whole Deus Ex: Human Revolution experience is evocative — not emulative — of the original Deus Ex released in 2000. That’s probably a good thing in the end, because video games have advanced to a point that many of the tropes that defined the original Deus Ex have become dated and would be unforgivable in the current video game era. We take for granted things like the game automatically saving your content, but those kinds of features weren’t around a short decade ago.

Gaming has evolved. And Human Revolution is about as good as it comes in terms of a natural evolution for an old franchise. While I never feel like I’m playing the old Deus Ex, I feel the same joy I felt when I was 15 and playing a genuinely good PC game for the first time. Other reviewers seem to agree, given that the game has a score of 89 out of 100 across 31 reviews on review aggregator site Metacritic.

It’s an even more surreal experience, given that Deus Ex and the PC was my first taste of a brand new piece of technology that would come to define gaming in my life. OnLive evoked that same feeling when I spent my time with it. I felt the same anger with my new computer that I did with OnLive — an oddly zen comparison that felt more nostalgic than frustrating.

Perhaps it means that OnLive will eventually come to define the next generation of gaming. But for the time being, OnLive was more than a good enough host for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. And Human Revolution was more than good enough: it’s a phenomenal evolution for a franchise for which, at one point, I hoped would never experience a sequel.

Final Score

Deus Ex: Human Revolution — 95 out of 100

OnLive on Deus Ex: Human Revolution — 90 out of 100

SOURCE: The New York Times.


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