Brian Eno is supposed to have said of the Velvet Underground that only a thousand people bought their records, but every one of them started a band. Something similar could be said about Deus Ex. A reasonable commercial success when it was released in the year 2000, Deus Ex has since passed into legend as the high-water mark for a certain kind of open-ended, player-driven experience. And if you ask a game designer working today what PC game has influenced him the most, chances are that you'll hear, in a reverent whisper, "Deus Ex."
See, Deus Ex seemed like the vanguard of a movement toward fully dynamic games, in which every action was informed by a player's choices. Decisions that players made in dialogue in the first scene would reverberate all through the storyline. There wasn't one path through a level, but several, each optimized for different play styles. Players who wanted to blast their way through the game could do that. Or they could sneak through without killing anyone. Or just smooth-talk their way to their objectives. Anything was possible. But somehow, the revolution never came, and audiences moved on to high-octane thrill rides like Call of Duty, which every player experiences more or less the same way.
It's fair to say that expectations for the belated third installment, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, are high. But this is the part where I need to tell you that, although I have vague memories of trying out the demo, I have no history with Deus Ex, nor its much-maligned sequel, 2003's Deus Ex: Invisible War. Whether Human Revolution lives up to the lofty standards of its source material or desecrates it, I couldn't say. I can say that it feels very much like other PC games I remember from the era: ponderous, slow-paced, and majestic in its way.
The open-ended approach gives players the tools to solve problems. In my time with Human Revolution, I tried my best to avoid being seen, and to spend my skill points developing my character into an expert hacker who could bend security systems to his will. I could just as easily have made myself bulletproof and shot everyone, or upgraded my social skills and used my silver tongue to bluff my way past guards. It's all there.
But that also means that you feel an unmistakable sense of loss when you realize how much you haven't seen, or haven't done. At certain points, you're given the option to upgrade your character's physical augmentations, choosing from a menu of dozens of choices. This screen is agonizing. Whatever you pick, you've effectively closed off several more paths, at least until the next time you can upgrade. And what you can't have always seems more interesting than what you've got.
However you choose to play, Human Revolution is short on thrilling setpieces and long on square rooms full of square crates to hide behind. You'll skulk around for 10 minutes, crouching behind barriers and scoping the environment, only to be spotted and immediately killed mere steps from your objective. For gamers used to instant gratification, this can be jarring, but it also makes victory unusually satisfying. You don't feel like you were just along for the ride. You earned it.