I’m an extremely slow gamer at the best of times, but I’m breaking my own records with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Despite loving the original and even going so far as to pre-order DX:HR, a move I don’t usually bother with when it comes to new games, I only really started playing it last week. I wanted to finish Catherine first (which is an experience I need to eventually get off my chest, though I keep waiting for it to settle, hoping something will become clear in reflection…). And when that was over, I found myself playing DX:HR at roughly a sloth’s pace.
After finally finishing that first mission over three or four nights of staccato playing sessions, I was turned loose on Detroit. This was an absolute gaming dream for me, to comb through a world so verisimilitudinous*, completing sidequests and idly talking to NPCs at entirely my own pace.
So after a week of this, when my friends are already on their second or third playthroughs, I’d just barely finished up in Detroit. Last night, I finally encountered what I’ve heard far too much about from other players, something that perhaps contributed to my dawdling in Detroit’s slums. I was enjoying the game so much, you see, and I didn’t want to believe that such a rich game could employ such a cheap method of driving along its story. I didn’t want to believe that I was going to have to wrest myself from the trap of the unavoidable boss fight.
I see now what Twitter was talking about, and you can add me to that list of people complaining about the bosses. It’s not that the first fight with Barrett was difficult – after the initial shock of being dumped into the big brutal mess, it was fairly easy to figure out what to do, especially after watching Twitterers exchange tips on defeating him. And it’s not necessarily that the fight didn’t gel with the rest of the gameplay up to that point, either. My problem was that it was insulting.
Besides a shaky start, the rest of the game had been a gorgeous experience. I loved that there were numerous approaches to each puzzle, numerous ways of taking out enemies. I spent an hour alone in Jensen’s apartment, zooming in on the tiniest details, examining the way in which his renaissance furniture and the strangely creepy greeting cards scattered across his bedside table contributed to such a well-designed virtual space. Until that point, the game, for me, had been about choice. I could choose where to go and how to deal with people in my way. I could choose to leave my pilot waiting as I combed the city for hours, ticking off objectives to unrelated but fulfilling sidequests. I could choose between infiltrating gang territory through sewers, or facing it in head-on combat. I could choose to doss about in Jensen’s sweet apartment doing absolutely nothing if I damn well wanted to.
Facing this boss felt like a mockery of the choice that had been afforded to me. I felt as though the game had suddenly turned on me, hissing, “Did you choose to be stealthy? Because you chose WRONG.” The x-ray vision and hacking augmentations I’d acquired were suddenly useless. I was a skinny child pitted against the bully of a sudden thoughtless, inconsistent mechanic.
Taking to Twitter to voice my complaints, as per usual, returned a chorus of others who knew exactly what I meant, who said, just wait until the second boss. But a couple of other voices stood out. Someone said that the boss fights “weren’t THAT bad”, that they “took nothing away from the game at all”, that I was just “being picky”. Besides, the boss fights in the original Deus Ex were just as terrible; why didn’t I complain about those?
Given the unsubtle first boss fight in DX:HR, it was natural for guns-blazing players to not notice just what made it so awful; it was a boss tailored to their playstyle, after all, while us stealthy players suffered as a result of our earlier choices. The original had its own boss fights, yes – and it also offered stealthy methods of overcoming them (I will never forget the devastating power of uttering two, seemingly insignificant words: “Laputan machine”). The Barrett fight catered to one style of player only, and screwed over the rest of us who had waited so long to play a decent stealth game. It was a poorly-designed encounter that gave no thought to what the player had done to get to that point, something that appeared to have been dumped into the game as an afterthought, because hey, games are meant to have bosses, right? Though the original Deus Ex had provided such a strong base for its sequels to stand on, it felt as though DX:HR didn’t want to stray too far from today’s formula of a constant stream of action. The effect was punishing for those of us who did.
I’m heading back into HR tonight, though, and because I’m finally getting sent to China – a whole new world to explore painstakingly – I can forgive the game. Still, I feel a little mistrusting, and I know that at least a few more predictable encounters lie in store for me. I think I’ll dawdle for awhile yet.
* Credit to Mark Duval for introducing me to this awesome word.