As a lifelong gamer and level designer, I have arrived at five criteria that comprise good level design. These criteria are: Immersion, Exploration, Flow, Combat, and most importantlyFun. I believe these criteria cover the most important aspects of both design and player experience. The following game reviews are composed with these criteria in mind, and in reference specifically to level design.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution - 88%
The original Deus Ex, released in 2000, revolutionized how I thought about level design. Not only did the game undertake a worldwide adventure, requiring the designers to create a variety of realistic environments, but the environments were immersive and expansive. This game was one of the first to reward player exploration with more than points or easter eggs, but with items and rewards that could drastically change the gameplay experience. Deus Ex: Human revolution, arriving 11 years later, had great expectations to live up to.
Immersion - 5/5
DX:HR immerses the player inside its cyberpunk womb from the very start. After the conspiratorial intro cinematic, the player is walked through the research area of one of the largest human augmentation corporations. This walkthrough denies the player free motion, but allows him to look around freely. This introduction utilizes a convention set forth by Half-Life to great success. This technique builds the suspension of disbelief and immerses the player in the game world.
The world of DX:HR contains gorgeous corporate architecture and interiors. The lighting is dark and moody, a trademark of the game's predecessor, but also utilizes flare and glowing effects to heighten the contrast. The design team also used a fair amount of 2-dimensional background art to great effect in the Hengsha and Arctic Ocean levels. The art style for all the levels was cohesive and contributed to the successful immersion of the player into the game world.
Exploration - 4/5
The original Deus Ex game set a new standard for exploration in the FPS genre. Players were rewarded for exploring with critical items, upgrades, and alternate gameplay outcomes. DX:HR lived up to this legacy, but not perfectly.
Before the first mission of the game the player can be gravely punished for exploring. Upon entering the first off-the-rails environment after the introduction, any player familiar with the Deus Ex legacy will naturally want to explore, but dawdling results in the failure of mission objectives on the next level. This kind of trans-level punishment only serves to diminish the player's appreciation for the world designed around him and hinder his explorative inclinations. This is a poor game design choice that acts counter to encouraging exploration and showing off a well designed environment.
Aside from the very beginning of the game, DX:HR offers the player great freedom of exploration. The game's city hubs offer a variety of rooftops, apartments, streets, and sewers to explore. In every environment and mission, alternate routes offer players a variety of gameplay experiences. A stealthy player will avoid an entire combat arena, opting to skulk through a vent or traverse a dangerous rooftop. Explorative players will also find many rewards for exploring; some numerical such as credits or experience points, while others are more tangible such as advanced weaponry or augmentation upgrades. Overall, the design decisions in DX:HR incentivize exploration and showcase the immersive and detailed game environment well.
Flow - 4/5
DX:HR achieves a smooth flow throughout its levels, enhancing the overall suspension of disbelief for the player. The designers frequently utilized elevators for streaming in level assets. This decision, coupled with plot advancing dialogue during these sequences, provides for a seamless gameplay experience for the player. Only once was my suspension of disbelief broken during a streaming segment. In this instance, the player descends into the Arctic Ocean base on a long silent elevator ride. While the vista was impressive during the descent, an actual loading screen would have been preferable.
In most cases, the flow from objective to objective was clear and uninterrupted. The in-game map and objective system helped clarify sub-missions in the hub maps. Certain sub-objectives during plot-advancing missions were unclear however. During the first hostage mission, it is easy for the player to bypass the hostages entirely, failing the secondary objective.
An alternate layout of one room could prevent players from overlooking the hostage room, which is at the far end of a large room, and made the objectives more clear. The flow of the game is certainly disrupted for the player who accidentally misses his opportunity to rescue the hostages, and must restart the mission in order to do so.
Combat - 3/5
Most of the combat arenas within DX:HR are well thought out. They provide sufficient cover for the player to either slip through stealthily, or defeat overwhelming odds. Many of these arenas offer multileveled tactical approaches, vents to bypass sentries, and hackable turrets to turn on foes. This diversity presents players with a variety of strategies to pursue, and results in an enjoyable combat experience. This is not always the case however.
The boss battles in DX:HR are a point of contention in many reviews, and without belaboring the point, I'd like to address the boss battle arenas in particular. Regardless of the decisions that went into the abilities and scripting of the boss characters, the boss arenas themselves hardly fit the needs of the scripting. This is my primary complaint against the combat arena design.
The arena for the fight against Sgt. McChaingun (editorial license taken) provided the player with insufficient cover and no Z-axis mobility all within a rectangular arena. Each boss battle felt as though the player were trapped in a maze with no recourse but direct combat. This fight could have easily been improved with the existing scripting if only the arena had been square or rounded, and a z-axis route added. The other boss battles could have been improved with similar changes to the level design.
Fun - 5/5
What makes DX:HR most fun for players is utilizing their augmented super powers. It is evident within the game's hubs and missions that the level designers knew this fact and attempted to tailor the environments to these powers. There are ample opportunities for players to use their super-human strength to bash through walls and open up alternate routes, or use survival augmentations to traverse an electrified or otherwise hazardous environment. These experiences were all conceived by level designers and lovingly passed along to the player.
My favorite of these experiences seemed to evolve naturally out of my play style, and involved me smashing through a skylight of a warehouse, activating my Icarus Landing augmentation, and stunning the group of enemy sentries on the ground floor. This moment was a rush of pure gaming fun, and while it seemed natural, it was in actuality carefully planned by a designer. This is one of the hardest and most rewarding aspects of level design: creating the opportunity for fun encounters.
Overall - 22/25
DX:HR achieved an immersive environment which encouraged exploration, maintained the player’s suspension of disbelief with a smooth flow, and provided ample opportunities for fun encounters. The combat arenas were engaging and diverse within the game's many missions, but were deficient during the game's few boss battles. Overall, DX:HR contains many memorable gameplay experiences that are in no small part due to its well designed and executed environments.