Okay, so with hindsight I guess I may have spoken a little too soon. At the end of my E3 preview for 2K's XCOM, I stated that I'd be delighted and surprised if anything else made such a successful play for my affections. Needless to say, I was proved wrong the following afternoon. Eidos Montreal's Deus Ex: Human Revolution was one of the last things I saw at this year's Expo, but somehow it managed to eclipse almost everything that came before it.
As I predicted, this rampant success was as surprising as it was delightful. The first presentation of Human Revolution had an awful lot to live up to – and not just as a result of that incredible, instantly memorable trailer. You see, the Deus Ex license is a solid gold property, a name that provokes powerful emotions among older gamers. The first entry in the series, developed by Ion Storm and released at the turn of the millennium, is still regarded by many as one of the best games of all time. Long-term fans have already had to suffer one alright-but-disappointing sequel, 2003's Invisible War; after so many years, the thought of another let-down seemed almost unbearable.
And yet somehow, the development team in Montreal appear to have shrugged off these weighty expectations. Barring a few fresh concepts and design, the new Deus Ex is immediately recognisable as the descendent of its cybernetically-enhanced ancestors. Eidos' E3 demo started off with a comparatively quiet slice of exploratory investigation before moving on to more violent, murderous pastures, but in both cases the game boasted the qualities that veteran fans know and love: rich atmosphere, the freedom of player choice and, above all else, a keen sense of intelligent design.
Set in 2027, almost three decades before the events of the original game, Human Revolution is the story of an unfortunate security officer named Adam Jensen. After the bio-mechanics firm he works for is violently attacked – by perpetrators as-yet unknown – Jensen is left looking like a bloodied shop mannequin; the head of the company steps in and has Jensen operated on, against his will. When he finally wakes up, he discovers that his body now has bionic arms, as well as whole bunch of other neat tricks (iTunes compatibility comes as standard). Our man then sets out to uncover the truth behind the attack, embroiling himself in a web of conspiracy that stretches across the world.
The demo kicked off in spectacular fashion, with a cutscene showcasing Jensen's arrival in the Chinese island metropolis of Heng Sha. Like many dystopian cities, this place has a duel-layer social split going on, with the wealthy locals literally inhabiting a higher plain of the city, far above the slums below. It's a classic sci-fi setup (or a hackneyed cliché, if you're cynical), but as with everything else here, Human Revolution has a strong flavour of its own. It looks amazing too, a riddle of stacked buildings, ridges and overpasses, decked out in a smoggy, sand-coloured palette.
Jensen's objective in the showcase was to track down a hacker he'd been following, but thanks to the Eidos demonstrator, his first act was to threaten an innocent bystander, a young Asian loitering near the docking area for flying vehicles. In first-person perspective, Jensen approaches the man and whips out his gun. The civilian reacted with immediate surprise, and as the demonstrator aimed at his face he began to babble in fearful Chinese. Even after the player turned away, the pedestrian continued to whimper and shake in his boots, arms raised in terrified supplication. I felt quite sorry for the poor chap, but Jensen was in no mood for hanging around.
The demonstrator descended a concrete staircase into the main body of the city – a busy market area full of fluorescent signs and seedy locals. While the area itself wasn't exactly packed with NPCs, it was explained that everyone here was a unique NPC who would engage with Jensen differently; if we hadn't threatened the young man, we could have chatted to him, and he'd have had something to say. Social interactions are one of the four pillars of Deus Ex's gameplay, alongside stealth, hacking and combat. All of these skills have their part to play, but Eidos Montreal state that you'll never be forced to play one way or another. If you so choose, you can even complete the game without killing a single person (although I'd wager that you might have to knock quite a few people out).