I may sound like I'm being overly critical of Human Revolution's shortcomings, but if this is the case it's only due to the fact that I love pretty much everything else about it. The level design is excellent, especially in the second hub area, Shanghai. On paper, it's nothing we haven't seen before - another post-Blade Runner Asian sci-fi metropolis, with fluorescent lights bleeding through the gloom - and yet rarely have we seen the idea so well executed in video game form. It's not just the size of the area, or the fact that there are loads of places and secrets to uncover; it's the fact that the entire place feels alive and inhabited. NPCs tend to be relatively fixed in terms of their movements (or lack thereof), but they've all got something to say - their gossip often tying in to wider themes, or to places or people you've yet to visit. Some of this chatter is important exposition, some of it is just background colour, but it all helps to make your surroundings feel remarkably organic - even if much of the world seems determined to replace its humanity with something shiny and robotic.
These nuggets of info aren't limited to the things you hear, either. About halfway through Human Revolution I started to wonder if the hacking mini-game was beginning to outstay its welcome. The game itself is a strange sort of territory-capture contest, a mix of limited tactics and outright luck that gets a lot easier if you upgrade the associated skills. It's better than the system used in BioShock, but the novelty does wear off over time - especially if you're hacking every terminal you can find. But here's the thing: there's a good chance you'll want to do just that. Pretty much every computer in the game - and there are hundreds of the things - has something worthwhile to read on it. It might tie into the plot, hint at a hidden stash of weapons elsewhere, or it might simply uncover a bitchy discussion between two co-workers - and if it's the latter, you can be sure you'll find another piece of the puzzle elsewhere.
In short, an empty room is rarely an empty room in Human Revolution. Much of this content may go ignored by many players, but nine times out of ten you'll be rewarded with an interesting discovery if you're prepared to dig about. The dialogue and plotting are extremely tight, juggling complex themes and characters with confidence and intelligence, and thankfully most of the voice acting is of a quality that does justice to the script. These strengths are shown off to particular effect during the set-piece conversations that crop up every once in a while. Here Jensen verbally duels with a key NPC, attempting to manipulate the flow of conversation to reach the information or outcome he needs.
At each break in the chat, players must opt from one of three approaches to follow next - "threaten", "pinpoint" and "advise" might be a typical set of options. You're given a rough overview of exactly what Jensen will say, but there's no way to know how the other person will react: you have to just watch their face and listen to their tone as they speak, and then make a decision based on that. While the facial animation falls short of the standards set by LA Noire or even Mass Effect, these interludes still feel commendably fresh, even if the raw mechanics aren't that much of an evolution from the dialogue trees of old. In their own way, these conversations are just as satisfying as the moments where you're silently picking off badguys like a mechanised Batman (Jensen has the gravelly voice to match). I'd certainly be delighted to see other developers pinching the idea for future projects.
While we're on the subject of all things audio-related, special mention must go to Michael McCann's soundtrack, which is another clear highlight. His original theme undoubtedly helped Human Revolution's first CGI trailer to carry significant weight, and his efforts across the game as a whole are equally potent. If you're a Deus Ex fan you'll spot familiar themes and motifs as they are mixed into the new world, yet another way in which the game pays homage to its predecessors while building its own identity. There's certainly no cause for concern if you're an absolute newcomer to the series, but if you do have previous experience of the Deus Ex canon you should be delighted by the nods and winks made in your direction.
I'm not sure if there will ever be another game to carry the same impact and long-lasting legacy as the original Deus Ex; in terms of my own tastes, I'd be amazed if there were. That said, I think that Human Revolution is as worthy a successor as any fan could hope for. The loading times (on Xbox 360, the version tested) are longer than I'd like, but this is small price to pay for the resulting experience. It's a hugely ambitious game, and naturally the odd element does fall short - your first mission is littered with cause-and-effect variables, but as the game progresses there seem to be fewer moments where your actions have major consequences. Still, the rest of the experience is so slick - so thought-provoking, dynamic, and endlessly enjoyable - that you'll be far too preoccupied to notice.
Perhaps the strongest compliment I can pay Eidos Montreal is this: with its grand design, dynamic play and sheer wealth of ideas - not to mention its old-fashioned pre-occupation with air vents - Deus Ex: Human Revolution is reminiscent of the best efforts from the golden era of PC gaming at the end of the 90s. It's a modern release imbued with the finer qualities of an age gone by.