Choice is the name of the game when it comes to Action-RPGs. Old RPGs (especially Japanese-style RPGs) didn’t have much choice, and they play a lot more like interactive movies than games. Your ‘choice’ came down basically to your character (and not ever his crucial character elements, but simply how you geared him. I say this not to impugn that style (the Final Fantasy series is one of my favorites), but only to point out how the Western RPG market diverged. If you look at earlier RPGs like Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate, not only do they flesh out character creation (instead of having a set character you can outfit, you build your character from scratch), but you get increasingly more options, via sidequests and choices of which factions to ally with. But I argue that these choices are hardly real. Why? Because they do not meaningfully impact the game. Sure, you can ally with the thieves’ guild against the mage’s guild or vice versa, but honestly:
- what difference does it make?
- Isn’t it basically determined by the class you play?
This can be most exemplified by more sandbox RPGs, where the extra ‘freedom’ you have is to explor ethe continent doing sidequests. But ultimately, the gameplay doesn’t change all that much.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s approach to choice, in my opinion, frames it as a stand-out game, perhaps one of the best 10 games I’ve ever played. Your choices are not about what to do, but HOW, and the choices actually feel different. In most RPGs, for example, the sneak mechanics fail for one of two reasons:
- Not fun
Either they’re disproportionately difficult and fickle, or they just aren’t satisfying. Metal Gear Solid and Thief are clear exceptions.
- A means to combat advantages
Plenty of games have sneaking as something you do ONLY so that you can get in a better position to kill somebody. In Deus Ex, you CAN, through clever play, actually sneak through the game (minus a few boss fights)
Deus Ex has three major types of augmentation (minor spoiler, you’re a cyborg in the pre-cyborg world, although there are a few other cyborgs out to get you), things that make you kill better, things that make you sneak better, and things that make your tech skills better. So given a path with a turret in the way and a guy guarding the terminal, you can either incapacitate the guard or sneak past him, hack the turret or sneak past it, or just destroy the turret. But what makes these choices compelling is pretty simple.
First, they are all fun. You can make any of them too easy by focusing on just augmenting those skills, and for that reason, I found myself seeking the more generic upgrades, like higher inventory capacity and more power (for charges of your abilities).
The hacking system gets a bit old, in my opinion, but it is mostly fun. But the outcome is often satisfying, with the ability to access a route that nobody expected, or to turn turrets on enemy guards.
The sneaking system is just SATISFYING. You have a minimap showing every nearby person and their orientation, and you just have to stay out of their line of sight, while making no noise. Easier said than done, when some objectives are right next to guards. There are alternative routes everywhere, and you learn to master the tunnels and air ducts and high places to avoid being detected.
The combat system is hard. This isn’t Max Payne, where you’re less a man and more a bullet sink. A few shots without defensive augmentations and you go down hard. And if you play on the ultimate difficulty, you have no aiming reticle, so unless you shoot down the blindsights, you’ll be shooting what feels like blind. Shooting from behind cover was never so hard.
To me, this makes the whole game satisfying, especially combined with my augmentation path. I never took anything that just straight up gave me a way out. For example, there’s an ‘invisibility’ upgrade, and a ‘you make less sound upgrade’. Sure, that might have made certain sneak missions, but the fun was in figuring out how to get past 8 guards in a room without needing those upgrades. As such, the game remained hard for me all the way through. I ended up doing nothing but sneaking and incapacitating for my first playthrough, so when got to the bosses and learned that this is what they think about incapacitation:
I learned what true terror was; fighting bosses with no combat upgrades. This, for me, was the one true weakness of the game. It promised choices: sneak, combat, or tech (and I guess a little talking), and for most of the game, it delivered. But then it gave you bosses where the only useful tree was combat (this is not strictly true, some of the other augmentations HELPED, just not as much as being more of a badass would have).
And when you get to the end of the game, you have three choices, much like in Mass Effect 3. But the difference is? The endings were different, so I didn’t feel cheated by having all of my choices overlaid over a simple 3-way choice, because that choice was meaningful.
This recommendation is going to sound hyperbolic, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the best computer game that I have played. I didn’t play it as much as games like League of Legends, Starcraft 2, Civilization IV/V, Rome/Empire: Total War, or Fallout 3, but with exception of Fallout 3, all of these are multiplayer games or games that otherwise benefit from replay.
EDIT: ok actually come to think of it, I did enjoy the Mass Effect series slightly more than Deus Ex at times, but Deus Ex also beat out Dragon Age, so that’s something, right?
Fallout 3 attempts the same thing as Deus Ex, but since the combat gets so repetitive (especially VATS), it fails to have the same impact, whereas the system of sneaking never really loses its appeal. So while Fallout 3 has many more options and a more sandbox playstyle, I find it less satisfying because the core mechanics get tiresome. It’s a shame, because while I found the universes, the stories, and the atmospheres of each game quite enjoying, I enjoyed PLAYING Deus Ex far more, whereas my fond memories of Fallout 3 are largely of listening to the radio.
There’s just something satisfying about being told to get something from a building, and being given a choice about HOW to do it, about looking at a building full of enemies and thinking ‘do I want to sneak through, or just go in guns blazing?’ and never defaulting to one because the other just isn’t fun.