I’ve been wanting to write a review of this game for a while, as it was certainly a favorite of mine when it was released. Its genre-blending style and captivating plot certainly left an impression, not just on me, but on plenty of others heaping similar praise (which you likely have already heard or read about). But if you’ve somehow been put off from checking this out, hopefully the following words will convince you it’s worth going back to.
Deus Ex takes place in a near-future world quickly crumbling. Poverty and crime are rampant, or at least it seems that way based on the places you’ll be visiting. Terrorism is a very real and very present threat to the world’s nations. And the people living their day to day lives have to deal with the emergence of a particularly virulent plague sweeping through the ranks – possibly the result of another terrorist attack.
Your character is a newly-christened field agent for a United Nations counter-terrorist group. Your brother Paul, whom you idolize, is a highly-decorated agent himself. The two of you begin by responding to an attack on the UN’s Liberty Island headquarters. Terrorists have hijacked a shipment of “Ambrosia” – the only known treatment for the plague – as a bargaining chip to further their own twisted goals. Without Ambrosia at the distribution clinics, untold numbers of civilians may die.
…at least that’s what you’ve been told. You could certainly cowboy up and shoot your way to that drug, but you’ll be missing some important clues, not asking some important questions, and not hearing the other side of the story. Since the game’s pretty up front about being all about conspiracies, you really should be looking for clues, asking important questions, and hearing other sides of the story.
Deus Ex is another Warren Spector joint, and sort of a spiritual successor to System Shock. No characters from that game will be present here, but its interface and mechanics will, and both are quite capable hybrids of an FPS and an RPG. Your character’s claim to fame is that he’s a new “nanoaugmented” agent, with modular upgrades and implants similar to those in Shock. Throughout the game, you’ll be presented with new abilities you can fit to your body, categorized by where they go (arm, leg, etc.) You will always have to make a choice between a couple of upgrades that fit in the same place, but do something different, so you can’t have your character be everything. For the cranium, for example, you will have to choose between a camera drone you can shoot out and pilot, or a system that detonates incoming missiles. They’re both useful in their own ways, though hopefully one will match your playstyle more than the other.
All of these implants are further upgradeable, though not enough upgrades exist to bring them all to max. In the case of one of the eye implants, upgrades give you access to nightvision, then deeper levels of x-ray vision that highlight foes through solid walls. Most of these implants have to be activated to be used, and activating them costs bio-energy – the game’s form of mana. This, and the forced choice of select upgrades, make your character superhuman for sure, but no superhero.
The implants also represent half of what allows you to “play the game as you want to.” Spector was clearly enamored with this idea – which is difficult as all hell to pull off in a game trying to tell a coherent and cohesive story. How can you guide the player through the story in a setup expressly promoting player freedom? You’ll see some straining here for sure, but for the most part, Deus Ex achieves what it’s going for exceptionally well. Aside from cosmetic changes (hairstyle, skin tone), your freedom to choose your abilities and approach situations in a mostly free-form fashion let you turn J.C. into an extension of yourself.
Dialogue choices also help you decide what attitude you want to take on, and if you’re exceptionally rude to someone, you can expect them to remember it if you should happen to cross paths again. There’s no global “reputation” rating like a standard RPG, but word of your asshattery can still manage to get around. It also will affect whether you’re a wandering do-gooder, or a gruff, shadowy, slighly corrupt agent, and you certainly don’t have to help anyone but yourself. All of this means you can certainly carve out a unique character well-suited to your play style. Then, the game world itself supports whatever character you have chosen to play by giving you an appropriate character-tuned path to your target.
Imagine, if you will, your goal with three doors leading to it. One door is the “stealth door” and involves sneaking around some patrolling guards to get to it. One door is the “hacking” door, which can be cracked with high enough computer skills. The last is the “combat” door, guarded by a missile-packing robot, who would fall easily to the right kind of EMP ordinance or specialized weapons training. This is basically what goes on with every major objective in the game. You’re not restricted by which path you should take, but one will obviously be easier depending on the character you have built.
In theory it works seamlessly, because if you’re playing a stealth character, you would naturally gravitate to the stealth entrance. In practice, it’s kind of fucking obvious, especially when the levels are as relatively small as they are here. “Oh, this door is opened by computer? Well damn, I don’t have any hacking skills. Guess I’ll have to find another… oh look, is that an air vent?” Still, I appreciate the gesture, and it is nice that the game supports whatever kind of character you want to customize; so there is no one “best” configuration, and you’ll never be stuck. And that’s not to say that it doesn’t lead to some excellent, unscripted “I did that!” moments.
I remember one particular mission that found me trapped on a roof with the enemy pounding up through the building below. I could have shot my way back down to the ground level, but I wasn’t really loaded up on combat skills or armor implants. I’d been through that building earlier, so I could have used my knowledge of it to sneak around past them. I could have tried to hack some turrets and let them thin the numbers for me. But I didn’t. I did, however, have a highly-leveled jump implant. Right as soldiers appeared at the entrance to the roof, I bolted toward the edge, smacked the appropriate key to power the implant, then leapt over a fence and dropped three stories down to a back alley. The soldiers on the roof ran to the edge and started firing as I juked my way down the alley and to freedom. I’m not even sure the designers had considered someone successfully jumping off the roof – but it worked, and ended up being like a scene from The Matrix. So while the system isn’t quite as invisible as you might wish, it does work, and it does let you play pretty much any character you want to.
Though if you’re someone who must know what’s behind every door and down every path, prepare to play multiple games. You’ll get to the same place regardless of your character, but it’s simply impossible to cover all the ways and options with one character and one game. This especially extends to things like “bonus” caches of gear behind locked doors, or extra backstory e-mails tucked away inside protected computer stations.
I don’t want to tread too far into the conspiracies and events of the game, because part of the fun and shock is discovering THE TRUTH for yourself. I can assure you though that all questions are many and multilayered, they all answer themselves by the end if you’re diligent and observant enough, and the game is absolutely worth playing through for its resolution. Bad men have done very bad things, and you will have the opportunity to discover just what and punish them for it.
I do have to say that if there is one disappointment, especially for a game pushing such freedom of choice, its that you cannot support the status quo. You can go off on a rogue quest for answers at a few points throughout the game – usually after discovering horror after increasing horror (but which some people may still consider ‘necessary’ in the context of the situation) – but there will finally come a time where you have to turn revolutionary or die. You can’t play ignorant or indifferent, or keep down your initial path should you actually believe the current system is the best. It’s the only real complaint I have about the plot and the system supporting it.
The Unreal engine is used to render the world, and does an excellent job. Animations are awfully jerky, the lighting is not dynamic, character models can get a touch blocky, but the texture work is superb. The grittiness of the filth of New York slums gets across perfectly. The shiny government and affluent areas look just as appropriate. No one will confuse this with a modern game, but no one should be taken out of the world by distracting and unrealistic visuals. The subtle use of reflections and the beautiful neon and glass skyscrapers in Hong Kong are of particular note.
Some serious kudos need to also be given to the character design. You’ll meet a number of varied, but well thought-out players as you try to make sense of the world. Camera angles and dialogue choices make the most of your interactions, along with a healthy variety of voice talent, personalities, and perspectives. Some will lead you further on the path of truth, some will try to steer you from it, some offer side quests that may or may not be unrelated. All of them look the part, from glaring government agents to weary barkeeps. The faces of bums and the sick elicit a surprising amount of sympathy – as do the older UN agents who volunteered for metal implants before nanotechnology was invented. So while you and your brother look like prettyboys, these two obsolete agents look like Terminator freakshows, and will share their disgust and disappointment if properly coaxed.
Sound is impressive, with a killer opening theme, and nice background music and effects all around. Voices are spot-on, my favorites being your brother and the grating mechanical tones of the government “Men in Black.” Getting around is simple as well, with basic FPS controls. Your inventory has a hotbar you can assign items to, and call them up with the number keys. Your implants can be assigned to and toggled by the function keys. Pretty much what you’d expect, and make playing the game a cinch. I do wish sneaking could have been made more obvious, with some kind of indicator as to whether you’re invisible to enemies or not. You can see shadows easily enough, and verify your visibility by the light on your gun models, but it’s not always a guarantee that you won’t be spotted. It made sneaking less of an option for me, but it may be more natural for someone else.
I really can’t think of a reason not to recommend Deus Ex, unless conspiracies and sort-of-future settings aren’t your things. Just as I am not impressed by or interested in Tolkien fantasy worlds, laws of probability suggest that there must be people out there who feel the same way about the kind of world this game provides. But if any of the hacking/sneaking/shooting stuff I talk about interests you, then you will want to sign up. It’s probably the best cyberpunk game since System Shock or Shadowrun, and has a couple of killer plot twists and sylish action. I know I have intentionally not revealed much about the storyline, but it is there, it is twisted, and it is deep. If this sounds like your kind of game, it will be satisfying to the end.
Bar-setting FPS/RPG blend. Super cool setting, deep plot that’s not too hard to follow, much freedom in how to approach your goals and define your character’s abilities.
Some obvious pushing in directions for plot purposes, but few. Stealth sometimes a guessing game.