Video games try all the time to provide glimpses at humanity’s future.

“Deus Ex: Human Revolution” is one of the few to genuinely leave you wondering whether you’ve just seen it.

Eidos Montreal’s prequel to the landmark 2000 action RPG takes you to 2026, when scientists have just married man to machine. Through mechanical augmentations, people can lift heavier, jump higher and see farther. But not everyone’s enthused about making this great leap forward in human capability. Groups protest in media and in the streets against “augs,” others take up arms against them. To them, augmentation perverts human nature.

You’re Adam Jensen, the security chief for Sarif Industries, one of the corporate entities leading the charge into this new technological frontier. Though familiar with the opposition, Jensen is still caught off guard by an attack that kills several of Sarif’s top scientists, including Jensen’s girlfriend. Jensen is pulled from the brink of death himself through extensive augmentation and tasked with finding his attackers. Among the few things he knows about them is that they, too, are augmented.

Jensen’s mission sweeps him from Detroit to Montreal to Shanghai, from sewers to sophisticated warehouses to slick corporate offices. But his precise route through the settings of “Human Revolution” is, like so much in the game, up to you. Charging through the front door leads you into enemy cross-hairs and essentially takes the action into shooter territory. Personally, feeling like I’ve played that game before, I chose non-lethal stealth. This approach leads you through the back doors, the open windows and the air ducts. And it’s an exhilarating path.

The AI foes of “Human Revolution” patrol in patterns that cover areas in such an interlocking way that Jensen can only stay undetected with extreme caution. Just when you think he’s out of sight, a guard may spot him with a sideways glance, and the whole squad starts firing in seconds. Sneaking behind the guard and putting his lights out with a slick animated take-down is one gratifying way to prevent that from happening, as is a shot from the tranquilizer gun. If the enemy does see the sneaking Jensen, it’s for a split-second prior to passing out.

Even then, it may not be that easy. Take-downs drain Jensen’s energy to the extent that performing two in quick succession may require him to recharge with a power-up in those precious moments before he gets his hand on the second enemy. The tranquilizer gun is short-ranged and slow to reload, so maneuvering within striking distance is still a challenge and putting two enemies to sleep before one can be alerted is quite difficult. If you do manage to take out both foes undetected, you then have to hide the bodies before other guards spot them. And if you don’t want to draw the attention of a camera or automated turret in the vicinity, your presence should be nothing short of ghostly.

There is a way to lighten these challenges of non-lethal stealth: augmentation. The newly augmented Jensen is like a cybernetic hunk of clay you can shape to your playing preferences. Enlarging his energy stores and adding double take-down abilities makes it easier to go ninja on enemies. Sharpening his hacking skills helps him bypass security hubs and deactivate cameras and turrets. And the cloaking device is a handy tool for those times when he just can’t sneak by a guard detail otherwise.

Adding these augmentations requires Praxis points, available via XP and money, which Jensen can collect by progressing through basic story objectives, as well as exploring the environment and completing an absorbing collection of sidequests. Like his tactics, it’s all your choice. You choose how deeply to explore the 2026 environs, you choose whether to aid that desperate police officer or do that slimy bartender’s dirty work, and you choose how to augment Jensen with everything you collect along the way.

Your choices can also alter the very events of “Human Revolution.” You can select Jensen’s responses during his conversations, and the ramifications shape how characters respond to him and whether some sidequests may be made available later. And choosing isn’t always an active process: Exploring the Sarif Industries offices for too long in the beginning of the game led to the death of hostages before I even started a mission to save them. But the best story-related choice is saved for last: Following 30 hours of hearing engaging dialogue between pro- and anti-augmentation forces, between those who believe technology actualizes human potential and those who believe it corrupts it, Jensen is faced with several possible choices that could plot the future of augmentation. You’ll mull that one over for a while.

“Human Revolution” doesn’t innovate to the extent that “Deus Ex” did, but it does make some departures from its predecessor. A “Gears of War”-esque cover mapping system grants the player helpful vantages during stealth sequences. Though Jensen carries himself with Neo-like stoicism (and a Solid Snake gruffness), “Human Revolution” trades the cyberpunk grays and blacks of “Deus Ex” for heavy golds that dominate the game’s stunning visuals, from the teched-out offices to the steamy, “Blade Runner”-inspired Shanghai streets.

It’s telling that the weakest segments of “Human Revolution” are the ones you’re forced through: the boss fights. These slam-bang gun battles don’t concede much room for the finesse that makes the main body of the game so savory to cunning players. Get through these augmented headaches, though, and you’re back to choosing your path through one of the year’s most well-designed games.

David Wilcox


Twitter @drwilcox

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