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Retrospective: Deus Ex, Part 5

Part 5 of a retrospective series on Deus Ex.

Ivan Beram, Blogger

August 18, 2011

19 Min Read

Dude, where’s my Inventory?

Vaguely picking up where part 4 left off several weeks ago – I really should stick to 3 parts per blog, max – I wanted to move onto to primarily focusing on Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX3) specifically, rather than, comparing the first and second titles to get an idea of what went right and wrong with both as lessons for the upcoming third. Especially as Australian PC Powerplay had a fairly decent, relatively deloused fanboy feature, on the upcoming title – along with all the released vids of the game on their cover DVD; which saved me having to track down and download the HD gameplay trailers. 

I’d have to say that it looks like it is shaping up to be a very interesting (enjoyable) title. Probably with a degree of hype to it, but with all eventual griping aside, one that I’ll end up playing soon after it’s released – as long as it gets 80+%. The vids, have done a good job of alleviating my fear(s) for the title. The fear being, that it’s Assassin’s Creed (2007) meets Splinter Cell (2002) wrapped up in an eastern Ghost in the Shell (1995) façade with a more traditional western Neuromancer-esque (1984) heart .

After borrowing and playing AC for a couple of hours, I grew bored of it’s linear gameplay dressed up as an open-world sandbox, with the simplicity of the mechanics – mocked as “press X to win” gameplay – and a less than interesting storyline; the futuristic “virtual world within a virtual world” aspect (among other interesting themes) aside, I just found it dull in an arthouse-way, like a action-drama take (Quantum of Solice, 2008) on an action-thriller (Casino Royale, 2006) Bond flick.

As for SC, it was interesting for a couple of hours, but the linear gameplay grew tired for me relatively quickly – I also found the “thriller” aspect of the storyline to be somewhat shallow black-and-white one-sided and no where near as interesting as The Bourne Identity (2002) in way of subject material.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on these two games, maybe I should have played them more, but, I didn’t and most likely never will – and that goes for all of their sequels. God knows that like games where you play a stealthy assassin, like the Hitman series of titles. But, Hitman was very much a sandbox game, especially Blood Money (2006) – which also had some clever writing and premises for missions and targets; especially when compared to Silent Assassin (2002). But there was something that I just found repetitive and dull about those two particular titles – though, many people haven’t felt the same.

Anyway, that was my “fear,” that what we’d get is Assassin’s Creed actually set in the future rather than taking place in the visual aesthetics of the past but really set in the future – wow, real mind-fuck there… Not.

And I know that Eidos Montreal is not Ubisoft Montreal, but, I can’t help but put them in the in the same boat. And though part of my fears have been negated from the actual gameplay vids I’ve seen to date. As it looks more than AC and SC put together, with some interesting nonlinear (sandbox) gameplay present; and the futuristic assassin vibe it gives off, is exactly the kind of vibe I could get into – as I gravitate to playing the role of an assassin in RPGs. I also know that much of what you see in vids is staged, and what I see, doesn’t provide me with overwhelming evidence that this game is the DX sequel that fans have been waiting for – or at least the one that I’ve been waiting for.

I just can’t seem to shake the feeling that perhaps Eidos haven’t learnt their lesson(s) from Invisible War.

Take something as simple as an inventory / equip system. What jumped out at me form the HD gameplay videos, was the use of the radial-dial inventory system from Invisible War. Granted, the vids progress rather quickly through the gameplay footage, but, it was a striking image of deja vu from the maligned DX sequel. I also see evidence of the player as the walking arsenal of weapons, still present in the game as well.

I know it still largely occurs in titles these days, but, I really wish that we’d largely just move on from that. I won’t get into my reasoning other to say that it is another example of providing far too much “choice” to the player and therefore undermining that choice for them; if you don’t agree, then play Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 (2005) – or Hell’s Highway (2008) – and ask yourself whether the game would have been a better tactical shooter if you were able to carry a division’s range of weapons – I say: NO!

Screens from Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 (2005)

So getting back on point, I know that you’re supposed to be an augmented bad-ass transhuman and all, but, never in any footage do I see you as the player carrying all these weapons, in a backpack or the like – presumably you pulled that rocket launcher straight out of your cyber-augmented arse. This is not just an aesthetic thing for me, it has to do with gameplay. Has to do with tactical choice, advantages versus disadvantages.

You see, if you have a great big gun strapped to your back, well, this is going to be affecting your movability (agilitiy and speed) and stealthiness – it’s really hard to sneak around with that gigantic cannon strapped to your back, after all… It’s only logical, from a gameplay point-of-view.

When I see this disregard in the DX3 footage, well, it doesn’t exactly make me feel confident that they really understand how to go about creating “tactical” gameplay. Methodical gameplay, where you need to think just as much (if not more) than just relying on your reflexes and instincts. That’s good RPG gameplay after all, as tactical gameplay, is about making decisions based on what you know and what is on hand – in your inventory, and, in the (sandbox) environment. It’s about choice, even if it is the illusion of choice.

Something the previous titles were poor at, even Deus Ex, which failed to provide the player with clear tactical choice for the most part, due to a poor AI. Resulting in gameplay that was more arcade shooter (Serious Sam, 2001) rather than action shooter (Medal of Honor, 2002).

Though, even more methodical and tactical playing games, also make (what are in my opinion) glaring oversights – Hitman: Blood Money comes to mind. That is removing key elements of the RPG inventory and equip system, culminating, in not actually making the game easier to play, but, making the game more tedious to play. In Invisible War (hell, even Blood Money), I would have liked to have seen an inventory screen where you “equip” items just like in traditional RPG fare. Doesn’t have to have numerous slots, but, a primary and secondary weapon slot would have been nice, along with, an armour slot – though, this could be taken care of (to a degree) by adding a dermis biomod slot.

Whether you actually had an “inventory” for the stuff that you hadn’t equipped, is debatable, in that it doesn’t “solve” the walking arsenal problem; personally, I’d limit how much you can carry, basing it, on what augments the player has and what equip “mods” they have equipped. A backpack for example, would boost your carry capacity considerably at the risk of slowing you down, whilst something like a shoulder holster, will allow you to carry a (tertiary) backup pistol.

You could also tie this into clothing – if your RPG allows you to customise your character (and gameplay) that way – as a trench-coat would allow you to carry a much larger weapon and more ammo; another benefit it could provide, is making the whole lot concealable, as holstered, it’s all hidden away out-of-sight inside your trenchcoat – this goes back to part 4 and my points about making the RPG “object” based.

Then in-game, I’d also bind it so that with the d-pad I can cycle left or right through which current grenade I had selected, and cycle up or down through which “special” inventory item I had selected – based on what I had in my inventory pool. I’d then have a specific button binded to using those items. Hitting the (XBOX White) button for the grenade would switch from my current weapon, prep a grenade and toss it, then, switch back to my weapon again. Similarily, the “special” (or consumable) inventory item (XBOX Black) button would allow you to quickly use a medikit without having to go into the inventory screen, or, use a multi-tool.

No fumbling through a list of inventory items, making grenades your main weapon, tossing one, then cycling back to your main weapon hoping that you’re not dead yet before you can use it – the same with medikits. Nothing revolutionary here, it was done in other games (Halo, 2001) long before Invisible War came out.

Lastly, I might have a button that swapped from my primary weapon to secondary weapon quickly, so if my SMG ran out of ammo, or was just inappropriate for the job, I could switch to the plasma sword to hack away at an enemy or perhaps switch to a silenced gun for a stealthy kill – I’d also have a means of hosltering weapons, and, I’d make it count; no running around trying to talk to people whilst your gun is out and in their face, unless, you were specifically trying to coerce them as a strategy (The Godfather, 2006).

You might think that for an RPG, that these things aren’t necessary, but, niceties to have. I’d say that you are wrong. A good interface will facilitate things for you, make what is relatively easy to do in the real world just as easy to do in the game world, especially, if it is crucial in creating a more tactical style to play – and not just in way of combat, but, NPC interaction. Tactics after all, is about choice. About advantages weighed up against disadvantages. Of risks compared to rewards.

A good RPG, especially action (sandbox) RPG, needs to facilitate it’s action so as to simulate tactical play. Without limiting the diversification of experience for the player.

You might think that limiting what the player can and can’t carry, would be a limitation. But beyond that I think that less is wisely more, especially when more of the same is just more of the repetitive same, period – RPGs have a tendency to offer a wide selection of tools which end up being functionally identical to one another; hardly diverse. You also have to factor in Biomods, the equivalent of a fantasy RPG’s “powers” (spells). It’s another specialised toolset that the player can build and utilise in way of play to compliment and supplement their other (limited) tools available to them. Guns and stuff for blowing shit up. Which brings me to weapon mods.

Augments and weapon mods were touched upon in Part 4, so I’ll keep this as succinct as I can. The beauty of weapon-mods, especially if you can use some kind of workbench to upgrade them as you like. Is that it allows you to carry one main weapon, and a range of additional add-on tools / components, that then expands that weapon’s functionality.

Therefore that one weapon ends up being (idealistically) several weapons – though, nothing is as ideal as a specialised tool for the job.

Weapon mods, are also “lighter,” than carrying an arsenal of weapons, each one, specialised for a specific task. So that trusty pistol with weapon mods, can become a stealthy tool to kill from a distance – with a silencer and mag-lense – or a micro SMG – with the extended clip and full-auto trigger upgrade. And alt-fire modes like an auxiliary grenade launcher to your rifle or an EMP blast for your Mag-rail – provided via a mod or not – also expand your possible tactical options and targets you can effectively engage.

Of course it helps if the weapon is designed to be a modular toolset that clips together, perhaps part of a family of weapons that can be inter-changed to create a wide range of unique and specialised tools. But as said, having simply a workbench – or an armourer that can do the work for you, for a price – means that at set intervals you can retool your trusty set of weapons to the task and challenges ahead; especially if weapon mods were interchangable between weapons but their effects were context based – mag-lense “scope” for the pistol, thermal-scope for the tox-dart rifle.

But hey, as long as they haven’t implemented anything as universally stupid as universal ammo – I don’t recall reading anything that suggests that’s the case – then I guess they can be forgiven if the weapon mod system isn’t quite what you and I want it to be.

Now onto something that I didn’t watch, but, read…

Regenerative Health: Work of the Devil or Laziness?

Reading that they’ve adopted a regenerative health system, well, it’s nothing entirely new in the domain of RPGs. Other games have done it before, like Morrowind (2003). However, you’d have to way up the benefits and impact of doing so within that title, as in others, and in doing it in this case.

I’ve always approached the Deus Ex titles from an action (sandbox) shooter point of view. Yes, there were RPG elements, but, these were just ways of enabling options to play that fit within the action shooter mold. Whether it largely works or not, is dependent on the strengths of the scenario, the story, it’s themes, its narrative and the mechanics of feeding these to the player and enabling the illusion of choice, creating the suspension of disbelief, and thus, immersing the player into the game world.

If you just tacked the Morrowind regenerative health system onto an action shooter, where a player merely has to wait 1 to 5 minutes in order to regenerate all their health – and perhaps energy. Well, within such an action shooter framework, I don’t think it would work that well. Metro 2033 (2010) did that, and like much of the game mechanics, it does and doesn’t work; why it gets the metacritic ratings it does – though, other popular (military) shooters have also done it as well, though in Metro’s case, I think a more traditional health system would have worked better with the “survival” aspect.

Screens from survival-horror action-shooter Metro 2033 (2010)

The argument that you want to make it so that players aren’t locked into the tedium of having to find ways of getting their health back via using medikits thoughtfully, planning their attacks out thoughtfully, learning where the medbots are and how to use them effectively and the like – basically, knowing how to utilise your environment to your advantage. That you don’t want these things getting in the “way” of gameplay

Well, I think the developers have missed the point here. An action shooter, or any action or tactical game (especially sandbox) would tend to “thrive” on that.

As much as players may hate it, may even be vocal as to how much they hate it, they would hate it more if it were removed from the game. Just like they hated universal ammo, which was meant to take the tedium out of gameplay, and allow, “choice” to the player as to how they wanted to play the game. You’ll get criticism that the game had been “dumbed-down” for the console – which is an oxymoron, in that developing a title for the console, especially if it also needs to work for the PC platform, has nothing to do with “dumbing-down” and a lot to do with effective and efficient (interface) design.

It works in Morrowind (and Knights of the Old Republic, 2003), because the focus of that title is not really action, it is about building a character, gaining in influence, and deciding what quests to complete to unveil more of the story and add to your loot – tangible evidence of the player’s growing power and influence in the game universe (as covered in Part 3). The “action” elements of the title, aren’t that engrossing. Really, they aren’t. Any action is really directed towards one end: the RPG experience grind.

Deus Ex, and other titles like System Shock 2, have RPG characteristics, but, it is all focused on providing action choices to the player in how they overcome obstacles in the (sandbox) game’s environment, driven, by a strong story. But, I wont piss on the regenerative health that much, in that there is an action shooter – well, stealth shooter with RPG elements – that has used it quite effectively.

Screens from The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher’s Bay (2004)

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher’s Bay (2004) is that title. However, it was in the form of a far more progressive a system than in Morrowind.

What they had, was a health bar divided into separate blocks. When you took damage, like a health bar, the right end would slowly deplete towards the left. If a full block had been depleted, then, you had lost that block of health. If it had not, even if it only had a thin sliver remaining, it would regenerate back to a full block over time. I found it a nice system, especially, in that items in the game, could increase the number of blocks of health you had – a very progressive RPG “object-based” touch.

In a Deus Ex kinda way, this could be married to whether you had a certain augment installed of not, making it object based rather than stat-tweak based.

The regenerative blocks, gives you a second chance, in that you can pull back to safety so as to regain some health which may not be that much, but could very well, make all the difference. But, you can’t just get all your health back unless you use a medikit – which I think was also “nano” based – which is quite fair and balanced I think. In Riddick, you had to use a machine to do this; you couldn’t add a block of health or restore a block of health unless you used the machine to do it. This mechanic (limitation) worked but you could just as easily have medikits you can use anywhere so as to restore a block to full, and a medibot, so as to install your augment / mod and gain an additional block of health.

I also like this system, in that it is in the spirit of the original title, if maligned, where the body was made up of separate areas that each had their own “health.” For a shooter, it just tended to make things too arbitrarily hard. You get shot a few times in the head, you die quick. Have a few of your limbs reduced to black, and you can’t run that quick or shoot straight – on top of a dated skill system that makes it too artificially hard to begin with.

It has potential but is a bit clunky in health management and biased against the player who has a limited interface for controlling their game character and interacting with the world – console gamers. The block system can provide similar effects without the dated clunk. Lose to many blocks, and you won’t be able to move at full speed and your breathing becomes audible. Lose one or two more, and your shooting starts to get more effected and your vision white from exertion. Perhaps on your last block, your vision becomes somewhat impaired, as in a growing tunnel-vision of darkness – maybe a muffled ring to the sound you can hear as you begin to fade into unconsciousness and eventual death.

All these things are good visual (as well as aural) clues that your health is getting drastically low. It’s with such methods, that you can do away with the health bar HUD element altogether, but, I wouldn’t go that far myself; it may be better to leave that option in the player’s hands, or, based upon chosen difficulty settings – (manchild) players picking the “easy” option will want as much hand-holding as possible, whereas those picking “hard,” will want as little hand-holding as possible so as to get more of a challenge.

You could also introduce an interesting game mechanic, in that whilst a block is regenerating back to full health, you are leaking blood. This blood leaves a trail of drops and smears (waypoints) that an enemy NPC could follow, perhaps to the hiding place your holed up in whilst you heal. Even if you don’t bother to implement such a feature for the AI, simply having blood drops that gradually fade but nevertheless leave a trail of visible blood, could be an interesting multiplayer mechanic; especially if the size and frequency of the drops was dependent upon how many full blocks of health you had remaining – very telling for a seasoned player ;) . You could also tie in how quickly each block takes to regenerate depending on how many whole blocks you have left.

Such a system would be far more progressive than the dated RPG alternative, and able, to create a much more richly immersive and intuitive experience, for the player. But chances are, DX3 won’t have one, not that it’ll hurt (much).



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