It wouldn’t be entirely appropriate to call Deus Ex purely a first-person shooter, any more than it would be to call it purely a role-playing game or a stealth game. The truth is that Deus Ex is a little bit of all of those, and yet doesn’t have to be any of those depending on how its audience chooses to play it. Erstwhile developer Ion Storm-Austin has given players a world in which they can wield rocket launchers and assault rifles, hack computers and disable security systems, and lurk in the shadows a la Sam Fisher or Solid Snake. Such is the game’s versatility that one can even strive to complete it without fatally wounding a single person. Deus Ex was a fantastic game back when it released in 2000, and in fact has aged remarkably well despite its one glaring weakness: the technology behind the experience.
Based on Epic’s original Unreal engine, Deus Ex doesn’t look or feel entirely adequate at first. The first thing you’ll notice upon watching the opening cinematic, along with the sharp and reflective floor textures of a building lobby, is how strange and ugly the character models and their faces appear. Like something out of Lawnmower Man, the first face you see is full of angles and points. Later environments suffer both from blocky and muddy visuals as well as mundane artistic design. As you start to control your protagonist, “code-named” JC Denton (you can change his “real” name to whatever you wish), you’ll notice his somewhat sluggish movement and encumbered jumping. You’ll find that the physics are a little wonky; try picking up and throwing a small box and it’ll look like gravity–for some reason–decided to be far more potent when it woke up that morning. When you fire your pistol for the first time, you’ll notice that the recoil isn’t exactly there and the “pop” doesn’t resonate quite like you’d expect it to. The presence of role-playing tendencies also means that your accuracy is not only controlled by cross-hairs that expand and contract based on your movement and positioning, but is also reliant on JC’s accuracy statistic. For the player looking to “Doom 2″ his way through the game from the get-go, Deus Ex might seem like a steaming pile.
This would be a mistake, because Deus Ex’s charms become more apparent as you further immerse yourself in what its multi-faceted experience has to offer. No, you can’t quite go in guns blazing at first. You’ll learn, though, how to crouch and wait patiently as your first terrorist victim turns his back towards you, before you snipe him with a headshot from your pistol. Or, you could incapacitate him with your tranquilizer dart (if you choose to go the non-lethal route, that is). Or you could sneak right by him and get to your goal through the back door. As you continue to explore different nooks and crannies off the beaten path, you’ll receive not only health packs and other small knick-knacks, but also experience points for exploring. Here’s where you can start to decide whether or not you want to go through with your Rambo tactics by upgrading your proficiency in heavy weaponry, among other such skills as lock-picking, computer hacking, small arms, swimming, and more.
Along with this basic customization comes a plethora of modifications, both to your weapons (accuracy, increased clip capacity, laser sights) as well as your own body. JC, as it turns out, is one of a new breed of “augmented” soldiers, capable of receiving tiny nano-machines that can bolster his existing abilities as well as granting him new ones. The upgrade path is entirely up to you, and is structured such that you can never reap every benefit in a single playthrough. Installing an arm modification, for instance, lets you choose between increasing JC’s melee combat abilities or increasing his physical strength. (Granting him super strength allows him to move larger objects to reveal hidden entrances or arrange stepping stones.) It seems like a limitation imposed solely to encourage multiple playthroughs, but in reality, the game would probably be too easy if you had access to every single thing and would devolve into a cheat-code-inspired Grand Theft Auto romp. Deus Ex is not that kind of game, and it’s better for it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’re not given the option to toy around with how to accomplish your goals. The skills, weapon mods, and augmentations directly impact how JC develops over the course of the game, dictating how you go about your tasks (do you pick locks and sneak around or do you hack security turrets to do your dirty work for you?), but the way in which you interact with non-player characters also determines the avenues of approach you can seek further along in the game. With the exception of a select few, you can kill characters before it seems appropriate to–and even when it would seem inappropriate at any time–and the game will adjust the story, and people’s reactions to you, accordingly. How you approach your first mission, for instance, can also determine the impression you give off; kill as many terrorists as you can, and you’ll receive reprimand from an old war veteran for not using tact while also receiving great praise from a meathead soldier who previously thought you were a wuss. Even small choices such as how you choose to answer questions in a dialogue tree determine what people think of you and what items (or other things) you might gain. There’s no “good/bad” meter running in the background, as there usually is in Bioware’s games, but most of your decisions need to be made after at least some cursory consideration.
For better or for worse, though, you can’t truly affect how Deus Ex’s story plays out at its core. Certain characters may drop; certain lines of dialogue may change; your development as a character may vary; but you will still follow the same overarching path. This allows for a conspiracy story that is at least consistent and engaging, if somewhat convoluted. Rarely does the story seem like an afterthought or nothing more than a quaint reason for you to be sitting in front of your monitor playing this game, and it’s supported by some pretty convincing, if slightly inconsistent, voice acting (strangely, JC’s own voice acting is probably at the weaker end of the spectrum, and a few other voices have all the emotion of a brick). You will find yourself caught up in a conflict between multiple factions with different motivations, including the token evil corporate executive, underground rebels, Hong Kong Triads, and even the game’s own interpretation of the men in black. Though much of the expository dialogue is delivered through talking-head in-engine cutscenes, there’s a ton of literature spread throughout the game world, including newspaper clippings, diary entries, emails, and books. From these, you can learn as little or as much as you want about what’s going on–from different perspectives, even–at your own pace and without removing you from gameplay. Even if it all gets a little absurd at a point, it should never be said that Deus Ex’s storyline is devoid of entertainment and content.
So, there’s plenty of meat here, regarding both exposition and gameplay. The real issues can be traced back to the game’s engine, which–in addition to hindering Deus Ex’s aesthetic and physics properties–isn’t really expanded to offer more immersive gameplay elements. Lock picking is simply a matter of having enough lock picks to use, and as your lock picking stat increases, all it does is decrease the amount of picks you’ll need to use on a given lock. The same thing applies for electronics bypassing, which is simply the lock picking mechanic in sheep’s clothing (instead of a lock pick and locks, it’s “multi-tools” and security panels). Computer hacking follows a similar route, with a higher stat meaning simply that the amount of time it takes to hack any given computer is decreased. Though overloading the experience with hackneyed minigames wouldn’t necessarily have made things better, it would have been nice for Ion Storm to imagine these actions as more than just, “Click here and don’t move until it’s done!” In addition, the artificial intelligence can be all over the place. Sometimes a soldier will spot you hiding in the shadows, even if there’s no way he could have seen you; in contrast, you can sometimes run around a corner and under a desk or behind a door, and your assailant will give up his chase after spending a minute standing in place, dumbfounded.
Yet, even as the bland graphics and some stilted play mechanics would seem to thwart the overall Deus Ex experience, its variety, hefty game world and ability to let you decide how you want to accomplish things–and to see what kind of impact your decisions can make–will wash away the sour taste of a crappy lock-picking mechanic. Let’s put it this way: Deus Ex is a game begging to be ported to today’s technology and design principles (dumbing things down as its sequel arguably did doesn’t count); but if such a remake never comes, the original is an absolute must-play, warts and all.
From the Trigames.NET Archive
Originally posted August 20th, 2009