Mobile augmentation for the console gamer
Negative reaction from traditional console gamers aside, Square Enix has taken a risky decision I must applaud. Taking one of the most praised properties in recent years to mobile has only infuriated some; and that's without even counting the anti-jailbreaking measures the game launched with. The final product from Eidos Montreal and N-Fusion is a full-fledged stealth action shooter without gameplay or artistic compromises other than the ones imposed by iOS devices themselves.
Every element such as the luscious 3D environments, the signature golden tints, interactive dialogues, augmentation upgrades, predictable hidden routes and a corruption plot are all here. Concocted as a mobile version only, Deus Ex: The Fall is a prequel to the events experienced in the superb Deux Ex: Human Revolution. It apparently uses characters featured on the novel Icarus Effect without much introduction. For those not aware of the 2027 future Deus Ex paints, the introductory tutorial is a punch in the face: fictional medical terms and modern warfare anecdotes are thrown at you liberally without time to process them properly. A fake documentary trailer like this live action one, used for the console version, would fit perfectly as an appetiser to the narrative to come.
Playing as the ex-military Brit Ben Saxon has strong similarities to the console hero Adam Jensen. They're both augmented with mechanical upgrades that enhance their mortal body with unnatural assassin capabilities. This directly ties with the RPG-esque element in Deus Ex to upgrade your character. The cliché of an accident is used to explain why Saxon has forgotten how to use the gadgets built in him. The tutorial is more palatable than what it sounds like, though.
A familiar story
Both Saxon and Jensen have emotional motivations to uncover what paramilitary groups and pharmaceutical corporations are up to, although this simply serves as a story backdrop — a justification for using lethal or non-lethal techniques to progress. You can choose to go all stealthy, Tom Clancy-style, or heavy armoured like in a first person shooter. For most part, this feels irrelevant. The story is completely linear and will get you to do what you are expected to do. Dialogues rarely have an effect on the outcome and once you equip the social enhancer augmentation to influence conversations, The Fall is probably over.
Once you are dispatched to Panama City in your first free-roaming mission you finally begin to discover all the work that has gone into this production. The very intricate and small outdoor environments carry all the personality of the original, using the gold and brown palette that is a staple in the series. The sound effects, ambient lighting, small details on the walls and objects scattered around really get you in the Blade Runner mood.
Decent touch controls, questionable cover system
Aware of the endless discussions about touch controls, the developer doesn't only give you two choices, but two at the same time. They are surprisingly good! You have the typical dual stick method that works perfectly well. There are no HUD buttons for these but a clever blurring effect that shows you where you touch. The second method is a double tap to move, which also works well but will feel slightly more alien to iOS gamers. Since The Fall is bringing the full mechanics of the console version, there are a lot of controls visible. The HUD is customisable — a blessing on the smaller iPhone screen — but the standard layout works well. The cover mechanic, however, leaves you thinking you've done something wrong.
The tendency to leave your cover when you were trying to aim your gun forces you to avoid the covering system altogether in case you end up exposed.
It's also worth highlighting how fluid the movements are. A normal game session will involve a good back and forth between first-person exploration, third-person hiding in cover mode, managing inventories and transitions between, dialogues, cut scenes and the odd hacking mini-game. Not only the iPad 4 manages to run all of the above, but also pulls it off without any frame rate stuttering. Even in the more intense combat sequences the game remains smooth.
While everything else is in place, dancing to the same melody, what really feels out of rhythm is the enemy AI. For a game that relies so heavily on moving through environments without being noticed, having the dumbest gang rivals is a big fail. Stuck to their patrolling routines, security guards won't notice the person they're talking to has been shot in the face. They also tend to have a strange panic behaviour, forgetting everything they've seen in the last ten seconds. This flaw spoils the balance in combat sequences; you may be hiding aiming for headshots from the distance when a silly missed hit will alert the whole building. In the meantime, you are free to perform scenic takedowns standing up in front of a crowd without any apparent reaction.
Once you get over the silly artificial intelligence, there's plenty to enjoy. Every map is full of hidden passages and secret areas for you to explore. In fact, there are a lot of goodies scattered around, including pocket agendas that add background to the story and what’s going on in Panama City. The scavenger part of the game is super-satisfying, allowing you to master those touch controls and spend some time enjoying the futuristic industrial design in there. The collection of items feeds directly into the augmentation tree, allowing you to unlock super-hero abilities for Saxon. I guess you could tailor these to your taste so they have some effect in how you play the game. What I found very useful were the augmentations to move heavy objects, hacking expertise and the ability to see through walls. If you take the time to look around in garages and search in bins, the game is very generous to ever need to spend anything on in-app-purchases.
An episodic Square Enix winner
It all comes to an end after a five-hour playthrough if you don't go for the side quests or spend much time scavenging. This is perfect timing so you don't realise that all the missions consist in infiltrating an area to talk to someone or fetch an item to return it to the starting point. The effort put into bringing the whole game without cutting corners makes you forgive some of the compromises due to the restrictions of Apple's devices and the App Store. There are repetitive decoration elements; copy and pasted civilians, plus the models of secondary characters are very basic (and even cartoonish) compared with the protagonists. They went all the way to include a lot of cutscenes, but both the script and the voice acting is not quite right.
In the end, both console and mobile gamers are going to be happy about The Fall. The first will know that this is simply a short episodic game following a different plot with different characters at a different time. Mobile gamers will enjoy an App Store game that attempts to do a lot of things; and for most part, it does them very well. Those cyberpunk people unfamiliar with the series have a fantastic opportunity to immerse themselves in this new universe.
Whatever Deus Ex: The Fall wants to be is always going to be inferior to Human Revolution; didn't you know what already? The real highlight is bullish approach, bundling game with all the things that makes the rest of the series great. Apart from the dumb enemies and sticky cover mechanics, everything is terrific for a... mobile game?