[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!”
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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:
- Docile. A regular patrol pattern is followed.
- Suspicious. They will investigate a disturbance on their own.
- Alarmed. They know you’re there, but aren’t sure where. They will call for help.
- 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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.