Ghost In The Machine

Stealth is one of the “four pillars” of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s design. But just how sneaky can a heavily augmented cyborg be?

[one_third]Stealth is one of the “four pillars” dictating the design of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. But just how sneaky can a heavily augmented cyborg be?[/one_third]

Eidos Montreal has released the following video highlighting the stealth approach to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Stealth actually works a hell of a lot better in the game than in its predecessors, and the quests go out of their way to reward you for a stealthy approach with extra experience points or minor modifiers to objectives. If you manage to complete a section without being detected, the negotiation with the character at the end may go much smoother. It’s a great way of recognising the way you’re playing and showing that recognition through more than dialogues like “Wow, I didn’t even see you get in. Great work!”

[youtube width=”690″ height=”414″ video_id=”pzZQKIB8AvU”]

Key to the intricacy of Human Revolution’s stealth gameplay is its tiered AI alert system – an essential component of any stealth title. Guards will react to sounds or glimpses of you, but the severity of their response depends upon the noise or just how visible you are. A split-second of your coattails darting behind cover will cause a single AI to investigate, while the sound of a gunshot will raise the alarm. The alert states progress as follows:

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  • Docile. A regular patrol pattern is followed.

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  • Suspicious. They will investigate a disturbance on their own.

[list type=”alert”]

  • Alarmed. They know you’re there, but aren’t sure where. They will call for help.

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  • Hostile. The alarm will sound. They’ll open fire.


It’s not exactly complex, but it’s simple enough that it works well with the flow of the rest of the game. Stay hidden for long enough and they’ll eventually drop back from hostile, but on the hardest difficulty it’s more likely that by that time you’ll be dead. Stealth is hard in Human Revolution. Mainly because it’s based entirely on line-of-sight – there’s no light and shadow interplay. This would be hell if it wasn’t for the third-person cover system. With it, you have the peripheral vision to survey your surroundings safely and plan your next move.

The flip-side of this is that cover is a little too obviously set up for stealth. Remember how the appearance of chest-high walls in Mass Effect 2 telegraphed an imminent combat encounter? Similar thing here, but with stealth.

The thing is, the pieces of cover are linked. Not physically – but by Jensen’s ability to flip from one piece to the next at the press of a button. It’s very quick, and very smooth, but he’s obviously visible during this brief second. The AI is such that this is enough to throw them into a hostile state if they catch a glimpse of him.

Press spacebar to make Adam Jensen flip between cover and sometimes flash his butt. Yeah, I'll BET you want to secure that exit.

So stealth becomes about hiding behind cover, waiting for every enemy to be looking elsewhere, then flipping to the next piece of cover, and repeating. You enter each section usually with a piece of cover immediately available – that piece of cover acts as the “starting point” for the stealth route. From there, it’s often possible to make it to an objective or safe haven by flipping from barricade to barricade at the appropriate time.

This sounds quite dull. And it can be, when all you’re hiding from are a group of seedy gang members. It’s when Human Revolution’s high-tech and systemic elements come into play that the game’s stealth becomes something completely captivating.

Cameras and automated turrets follow the pattern of the first title – stay in their line of sight for too long, and they’ll raise the alarm. The difference here is that cameras can temporarily be shorted out with a blast from an electric stun gun, without raising the alarm. If you’re going for a completely pacifistic approach, finding the right time to take out the cameras – while guards are still patrolling – takes patience and skill.

[one_third][alert_box title=”Panel Beaters”]
Alarms work exactly as they do in the first game. Alarm panels are dotted around the levels, and guards can run to and activate them to sound the alarm. This will cause every guard in the complex to immediately enter into an alarmed state, whereby they’ll investigate the source of the disturbance. You can hack and disable each individual panel to prevent it from being used to sound the alarm. Tripping alarms in areas further into the game will cause security bots to activate and hunt you down.

Things get much deeper when areas remove the “cover chain” entirely. The Detroit Police Station contains a lot of long hallways and wide corridors patrolled by cops and watched by cameras. They’re hard to get through undetected as no cover is set up.

But using the everyday objects found in the level, you can create your own cover. Push that vending machine in the camera’s view, then hide behind it until it’s safe to move. Stack some boxes against an office window, so the guards patrolling the corridor don’t see you hacking into the Captain’s personal computer. All of this stuff works, and it just takes a little planning and ingenuity. It makes little real-life sense, but within the limits of the simulation, it’s one of the most rewarding stealth experiences out there.

Further depth is added with the augmentation selection – so much of which seems geared toward a stealthy approach. The cloaking device is endlessly useful, but seems balanced enough with its massive drain on your energy reserves. The silent walking aug helps out a few tricky situations, but can become redundant since moving while in cover, and flipping between cover pieces, is already completely silent.

The cloaking device could actually do with being spread out over multiple augmentation upgrades, like the hacking system. As it is, the single cloak aug makes you invisible to humans, robots, cameras and even lets you move through laser tripwires – as it essentially bends light around you. One of the great things about the original Deus Ex, and Invisible War, was that it forced players to choose between optical camouflage and thermal camouflage – cloaking from humans and robots respectively. We can’t expect Human Revolution to ask players to make the same exclusive choice, but it would be nice if the thermal cloaking and tripwire bending were separated into additional upgrades further down an extended cloaking tree. The cloaking device is currently far too useful for the amount of points it costs, otherwise.

This might look tricky, but the cloaking device bends light around Jensen, which means moving through lasers while cloaked won't trip the alarm. Super-tough security systems like this are few and far between, so it's most useful for entering restricted areas when you don't have the code to turn off the laser alarm panel. Or are too lazy to hack it.

More exciting are the Metal Gear Solid-esque augmentations which promote a much looser, more daring style of stealth. Enemy view cones can be visualised on the HUD radar, encouraging you to detach from cover and weave your way amongst them. An on-screen countdown timer can be added which shows how long it will take for the AI to drop their alertness level. And a marking system ripped right out of Splinter Cell: Conviction lets you keep track of enemies without having to coordinate their positions on your radar. Thankfully you can’t execute them all with a cinematic third-person takedown.

The Smart Vision augmentation can be used to see enemies through walls, and can be used in combination with Mark & Track to tag them without acquiring line-of-sight.

These augmentations also complement a more predatory style of stealth, allowing Jensen to clear a room of enemies, non-lethally, whilst still remaining undetected and within the game’s loose definition of ghosting. Shoot a guy in the arm with the tranquiliser rifle, knock out the second with your fists, then finish off the third with a stun gun charge – just as the first guard succumbs to the tranquiliser and drops. All this can happen in just a couple of seconds, and timing the attacks to avoid detection evokes a far stronger puzzle element than simply moving between cover points.

The major thing Human Revolution is missing is a simple, silent and non-lethal way to take down enemies from behind. You can perform non-lethal takedowns, but they result in a jarring cut to a flashy animation of Jensen beating the crap out of his victim with rather loud punches and arm snaps. It doesn’t alert nearby enemies, which doesn’t make much actual sense, but works as the “silent” takedown option. The main problem with this is that it depletes an entire battery of your energy reserves, which will discourage you from using any of your other stealthy augmentations. Batteries can only be refilled by chowing down on cyber candy bars, which are far more rare than the first game’s bioelectric energy cells. This means you’ll end up completing most areas without actually taking anyone down – close to the equivalent of a ghost run.

[youtube width=”690″ height=”414″ video_id=”R62D04NdEKo”]

In fact, Human Revolution does actually reward you for ghosting an area. But its definition of ghosting isn’t the same as what the Thief community is used to. Here, it just means getting through an area without making any AI trigger into the Hostile state. You can still knock guys out – so long as no one else catches a glimpse of you or a body.

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Ghosting is typically defined as a player making it through a level while leaving zero trace of their presence. That means leaving everyone be, closing doors behind them and taking care not to raise even the slightest hint of suspicion.

The ghost reward is doled out as each objective is completed – perhaps ten to fifteen minutes of sneaking apart. Messing up one area means you can still ghost the next area, even if it’s in the same overall compound. The reward for ghosting is a massive experience point bonus – far more than that which would be rewarded if all the enemies in an area were taken out. It’s fantastic that the game goes to such lengths to make what is its hardest – and sometimes most tedious – style of play also the most rewarding.

It’s disappointing that the boss fights don’t support stealth or non-lethal options as strongly as the rest of the game does. The stealth augmentations can help out quite a bit; Mark and Track can be used to keep a bead on one particularly tricky boss, even when they activate their own cloaking device. As far as taking them down, though, stealth players are forced to exploit environmental hazards if they don’t want to carry around an assault rifle just for the occasion.

This could have been a great boss fight - two augmented agents attempting to out-stealth each other - but you can't actually use your non-lethal weapons or takedowns to finish the job. The stun gun works a treat, and the Mark & Track augmentation follows her even when she cloaks, but you're still going to have to crack out the silenced pistol.

Human Revolution has taken both classic and modern stealth elements and combined them into something that ceaselessly pushes stealthy players into tense situations, but provides them tools to overcome these encounters through systemic interactions and a seriously sweet range of augmentations. There’s enough wiggle room that lets players define just how predatory they want their playstyle to be. But no matter where you fall on the spectrum, there are always non-lethal options as well as opportunities to remain completely hands-off.

12 thoughts on “Ghost In The Machine

  1. So shiny stars make stealth rewarding these days?

    The augmentations are as overpowering as abilities in Alpha Protocol.

    Level design has the same \”go here if you have that aug\” -division.

    1. The augs in Human Revolution are no where near as overpowered in actual gameplay as the ones in Alpha Protocol. Cloak doesn\’t trivialize entire levels because energy is a limited resource in this game while time waiting for a cooldown in Alpha Protocol was not.

      Level design in Human Revolution is almost never \’go here if you have that aug\’ either. There are areas that feel this way when you have to aug but if you go back to them without it you\’ll find they really are not. Further Alpha Protocol didn\’t even have level design that was good enough to be \’go here if you have this aug.\’ At least with that design the choices you make would have lead to obviously different solutions to levels but what actually happened in that game was that character development made choices in levels completely irrelevant invalidating any design at all.

    2. ^ Correct; the energy system keeps the augmentations from being overpowered. If you could cloak and activate silent running for as long as Thornton\’s invisiflage power stays active, it would be a broken game.

      I don\’t feel the level design is exclusively bound to the augs. There are certain areas that were put in place specifically for a couple of the environmental navigation augs, like long drops for the Icarus landing system, but there are perhaps two or three instances of this. Even things like the wall punch aug – those walls can be destroyed with regular explosives, or explosive rounds and that route utilised anyway.

  2. \”We can’t expect Human Revolution to ask players to make the same exclusive choice, but it would be nice if the thermal cloaking and tripwire bending were separated into additional upgrades further down an extended cloaking tree. The cloaking device is currently far too useful for the amount of points it costs, otherwise.\”

    A minor nit-pick but there was no exclusive choice in Deus Ex between Invisibility and Radar Transparency. JC can get both eventually he just needs to wait until a second canister shows up.

    I always feel when I\’m playing Human Revolution that the energy recharge upgrades are basically cloak upgrades since cloak, more than any of the other active upgrades, is something to use in carefully controlled bursts that recharge works with. Takedowns and the typhoon always use full pips so they don\’t really benefit from recharge upgrades that much. Vision and silent movement use less than one pip as well but they drain so much slower that the time to recharge isn\’t nearly as noticeable as with cloak. I find that when I play I always try to plan to get the cloak, energy capacity, and energy recharge upgrades all at once when I get a large burst of augmentation points because individually they\’re not all that great. When I\’m thinking to myself \’well if I get another energy pip instead of the next stealth upgrade my maximum possible stealth duration without energy items is actually longer\’ that\’s the point at which I think energy capacity is a cloak upgrade.

    1. I\’m pretty certain he can\’t get both – there was only one subdermal slot for cloak and radar transparency, and the choice is irreversible. The other subdermal slot is armour and EMP shield.

      Recharge and capacity definitely feels like a cloak upgrade, but it\’s still irritating that only the first pip ever recharges without cyber candy. For this reason I tend to only get the recharge time upgrades rather than capacity, and use cloak in still rather short bursts.

      1. The augs in the first game didn\’t quite work like that. There were two sub-dermal slots but they were canister agnostic. A canister could upgrade cloak or radar transparency but if you found another canister of the same type you can get the other upgrade in the other slot as in the screenshot here: The books in the game that talked about augs laid them out as if the choice was one or the other in a given slot. However the actual game mechanic was simply that there were two sub-dermal slots that could be filled with any sub-dermal aug as long as the right canister was provided.

        I initially felt the recharge of only the first pip was irritating but I grew to enjoy it as a limitation on usage. In the early stages of the game, before the recharge upgrades, it forced more meticulous planing of take-down and body removal. Being unable to perform more than one every 30 secs forced plans that allowed for the movement of bodies instead of just taking out the next guard before he got close enough to see it. Also if all of them recharged you\’d basically be back at the alpha protocol scenario where abilities essentially only have cooldowns to limit their use which I feel is inherently broken if the player is patient and the game provides frequent \’safe\’ spaces to hide in while you wait it out.

        The larger energy restoration items are only truly useful if you have a greater capacity so I usually got them too. Plus I liked having the option to max out energy with items and hack terminals before cloak ran out every once in a while. A costly extravagance but one I indulged a few times. The keypads to the back areas of the The Vibe come readily to mind as an example. I mean I had to maximize that XP. Leave no terminal unhacked!

        …and I just now realized I was talking to the author of the article. You are one sneaky bastard.

        1. That\’s amazing. I had no idea you could get cloak and radar transparency. Twelve years on and I\’m still learning new things about Deus Ex. Hah!

          Invisible War actually made them exclusive, didn\’t it? Except you could swap them out at will, providing you had enough aug canisters.

          1. I think Invisible War did make them exclusive. I never really liked the swapping mechanic in that game much. Sort of killed the idea of progression and choice in one feel swoop when all progression on an aug and the choice to use that aug are the same action. At least it did to me.

            I\’m really liking the level of author interaction on this site so far :D.

  3. \’The main problem with [the takedown] is that it depletes an entire battery of your energy reserves, which will discourage you from using any of your other stealthy augmentations. Batteries can only be refilled by chowing down on cyber candy bars, which are far more rare than the first game’s bioelectric energy cells. This means you’ll end up completing most areas without actually taking anyone down…\’

    Not entirely true. I went through nearly the whole game on one recharging battery, while taking down nearly all the guards. (Didn\’t get Ghost for some areas, though.) Because you\’re well-nigh invisible when behind the correct cover, it\’s pretty easy to wait for your battery to charge, jump out and take a guard or two down, and then retreat to cover (most likely dragging his body). You seldom if ever have to use your other stealth abilities in more than short bursts, and there are very few moments in the game where you really have to use stealth abilities and takedowns simultaneously. This is especially true once you get the double-takedown aug.

    The limiting factor on takedowns, I found, is more the problem of hiding the body before a guard turns the corner and spots it. For some reason, a body on the floor is more visible than a dangerous-looking fellow in black crouching next to said body.

    …I did think it was odd that the guards didn\’t have to check in with their command at regular intervals. It\’s probably expecting too much of the AI to have them notice when their buddies are missing, but it wouldn\’t be too hard to implement a system where the security control calls the guards every, say, 5 minutes, and puts the complex on low alert if they don\’t check in.

    1. It\’s absolutely true that you can sit and wait for that battery to recharge each time. I definitely did that a number of times. But I found it gets dull. As the review mentions, once you get a few of the others stealth augmentations and silent weapons and start pushing toward a more predatory stealth playstyle, all the game\’s interconnected systems really start to shine. It\’s harder, and way more risky, but also way more fun.

  4. Sorry for being a bit hostile and not explaining myself. First off, I\’m not defending Alpha Protocol. It happened to be the first review I read and then I read this one and was a bit disappointed because the flaws are not pointed out.

    Like mentioned above, the double takeout augmentation is the only stealth augmentation you\’ll need. You already have the radar and if you\’re having trouble, you can cheat by the 3rd person view, which makes you less visible (for some reason) and you can spot the enemies safely which are then displayed in your radar (if they weren\’t already).

    Regarding level design, they do feel MGS/Sokoban like puzzles. What I meant about the augmentation choice, it wasn\’t critique of the stealth play but the implementation of different playstyle choices. As in there\’s a little corridor and you can pass to the second area by jumping high enough or moving the vending machine. Even with different entry points to levels it still feels meaningless because you\’ll probably have all the augmentations (or can have if you upgrade) and you\’ll get the same result with approx. the same amount of effort.

    Overall it\’s not as bad I make it sound and I had fun playing the game (mostly because of exploring), but I still wouldn\’t call it a very good game. To me, for instance, Invisible War and Alpha Protocol are more memorable experiences.

    1. I\’m not sure what you mean by getting the same result being a criticism of Human Revolution. The original Deus Ex still had multiple entry points to its levels, but they too always led to the same result.

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