A common problem with games that try to mix different genres and accommodate different playstyles is that they end up not being particularly good at any single thing. This is also true for Deus Ex, which is a clunky first-person shooter, a stealth game that gives more loud and lethal solutions than stealthy ones (and the stealthy ones you’re given are often not the most reliable) and a fairly shallow RPG. Fortunately, in this case the whole is much bigger than the sum of its parts and Deus Ex manages to be a brilliant game in its own right regardless.
Deus Ex players control JC Denton, an anti-terrorist secret agent employed by United Nations. The character’s abilities can be modified by distributing experience points (received for completing mission objectives and exploring different locations) to a set of skills ranging from the use of different weapons to hacking and lockpicking, as well as by installing and upgrading ‘augmentations’: nanotechnological devices inside Denton’s body that allow him to use special skills like health regeneration, silent movement or resistance to bullets. Skills are fairly straightforward – just increase the ones you’re using the most – but augmentations require a bit of strategic thinking as augmentation of each body part is permanent and usually requires choosing one of two mutually exclusive bonuses (e.g. either being able to lift heavier objects or doing more damage with melee weapons). Bonuses that come from skills are passive, while augmentations need to be activated and require energy to use.
What’s great about all this character building (even if it’s quite simple by RPG standards) is that the game’s level design allows for each task to be approached in a different way depending on skills and augmentations. Players can sneak behind the enemies and avoid combat by going through ventilation shafts, bypassing security measures through the use of electronic multitools and enter restricted areas by picking locks. Or they might go for a more aggressive approach with different firearms, explosives and futuristic weapons, destroying anything that stands in the way whether it’s a human, a robot or a door. Sometimes, it’s even possible to fight the enemies indirectly by hacking security systems to turn robots and turrets against their owners or release poisonous gas.
The game even recognizes the different approaches, with some characters preferring you to use non-lethal ways of dealing with your enemies while others are more inclined towards violence. Funnily enough, the game also keeps track of less serious matters as several characters will remember if you do silly things like going into women’s bathroom. Unfortunately, while you’re usually given a lot of freedom, it becomes even more noticeable when the game takes it away from you as you encounter the door that can’t be opened with multitools, lockpicks or explosives or an important character becomes impossible to kill.
The levels in Deus Ex are not only well designed from a gameplay standpoint but usually make functional sense – a ship is laid out not like a vaguely sea-themed obstacle course but like an actual ship with a deck, engine room, crew quarters and other places that are actually expected on a ship. It’s a feature inherited from the Thief and System Shock series. Deus Ex can be seen as logical evolution of those games, especially System Shock 2, although with a reduced need for conserving ammunition and a bigger chance of different builds actually being useful.
While ammo isn’t usually a problem in Deus Ex (except when trying to avoid killing anyone, as tranquilizer darts and prod chargers can be hard to find), inventory management is, because JC Denton can carry only a limited number of items. Some of them (e.g. a rocket launcher) can take up more than one inventory slot. This often forces a choice between additional firepower and, for example, medkits for instant healing. Speaking of medkits, when applying these the damaged body parts to heal have to be chosen as well – JC won’t survive long in a firefight with wounded head or torso, but with healthy legs he might be able to simply outrun pursuers and avoid combat altogether.
The story of Deus Ex is presented mostly through voiceovers as NPCs speak to Denton over ‘infolink’ – an augmentation which allows for remote communication. It’s a fairly common device in modern action games and it’s easy to see why – it allows for storytelling without breaking the flow of the action. Occasionally, the main character will engage in dialog with the NPCs he encounters, although there usually aren’t too many meaningful choices to be made this way.
Additional details can be acquired by reading newspapers, public information terminals, e-mails and ‘datacubes’ (a variation on the standard concept of random notes scattered around the playing area). There are also books to be found, containing excerpts from either a fictional or a real work. The most common example of the former is Jacob’s Shadow, apparently a neo-noir cyberpunk novel while the latter is often Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday – a book that, quite appropriately, deals with philosophical themes of freedom, order and religion while telling a story of a policeman infiltrating a secret society of anarchists. Deus Ex is generally quite erudite with its allusions as it’s not hard to find references to anything from medieval philosophers like Thomas Aquinas to cyberpunk classics like William Gibson’s work in the game.
The first half of Deus Ex is a sort of creeping dystopia – a world that (despite the terrorist threat) seems not to be such a bad place most of the time, but occasionally slips up and reveals its true, uglier nature. The first boss is easy to dismiss as a radical who believes in conspiracy theories but then after finishing the mission it becomes obvious that all enemies (that weren’t already dead or unconscious) have been killed. As the time goes on, it becomes obvious that Denton is not necessarily not one of the good guys, and he is ordered to kill an unarmed terrorist who surrenders as soon as he meets him.
After that point, all subtlety is dropped as Denton himself is on the run from his former employers and in the middle of an intricate struggle between different secret societies. All the famous conspiracies are true: Majestic 12, Illuminati, Templars, Rockefellers, Rotschilds, global bankers, black helicopters, men in black, Roswell incident, global government, FEMA, executive orders, depopulation through man-made diseases. There are even underground societies of mole people in this game. Funnily enough, the game itself inspired a small conspiracy theory of its own – although it was released well before the World Trade Center attacks, due to memory issues the New York skyline doesn’t show the twin towers.
While conspiracy theories play a big role in the game’s plot, reducing the story of Deus Ex to paranoid ramblings about shadowy organizations controlling the world would do it a great disservice. Underneath all the spies and conspiracies lies a set of dilemmas about philosophy, politics and technology. Can a non-democratic government be benevolent? Is technological progress worth the loss of privacy? Do people need to fear, obey and worship something greater than them? Is chaos better than a tyrannical social system? How much decision-making can be relegated to computers? The game asks all those questions but it thankfully doesn’t try to shove any ideology down its players’ throats.
In the end, these are left open for everyone to answer with a choice in the game’s final level. Each option is represented by people who support it and try to convince Denton that it’s the right thing to do, but neither the advisers nor the choices themselves are perfect – some might even say that there is no good choice, as none of the options leads to a world worth living in. Players are forced to choose the fate of the world given their own worldviews and experiences acquired while playing the game, the same way they’ve chosen the way to approach the obstacles throughout the game. It’s a great idea – the game treats the decision seriously and never outright dictates what is right and what is wrong through a morality meter or a cutscene filled with death, ruins and despair. While the mood of each ending is slightly different (which may or may not subtly imply which was the developer-preferred one), overall there is no strictly right or wrong way to make the world of Deus Ex a better place.
Despite multiple endings and different ways of getting through each level, the game’s general plot is fairly linear. Denton will always start as an agent and then defect, he’ll always visit New York, Hong Kong and Paris and he’ll always get involved with Chinese Triads, terrorist groups and the Illuminati. The story will deviate in a ways that significantly change how certain events are perceived, mostly due to different characters surviving or dying, but the non-linearity never reaches the level of early Fallout titles or Infinity Engine games. The game is also not a free-roaming open-world game like Shenmue or Grand Theft Auto 3 later, instead settling for systems of interconnected hub levels (in the FPS genre pioneered by Hexen). Usually, a city is a hub from which it’s possible to go into certain buildings, sewers, subways and similar locations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – as mentioned before, the design is excellent – but it’s interesting to note how the approach to video game worlds has changed in recent years, with seamless open worlds being a de facto standard for games like this.
The game does suffer from the railroading in certain situations, combined with some inconsistency with the game mechanics. In one early mission, JC Denton must pass through lasers that trigger an explosion when he touches them. This can be solved by blocking the lower laser with a crate and crouching under the higher ones – something that can’t be repeated with any subsequent laser sensor, as they realistically react to being touched by an object the same way they would react to being touched by a person. The game also forgets the difference between dead and unconscious when Denton is ordered to assassinate a terrorist leader – even if he stuns him with a prod or a tranquilizer dart, everyone around will act as if he was killed – even when Denton carries the unconscious body around and throws it on the commander’s desk after he congratulates him for obeying the orders.
Some of the enemies in the game are also simply not fun to fight. While combat generally stops being a chore after leveling up relevant skills, the game sometimes throws non-human enemies into the mix. Grays (alien-like creatures) and karkians (described as ‘bear-lizards’ in-game) are fairly annoying – the former with their radiation-based attacks, the latter with very high attack and defense values – but the worst of all are greasels: small, fast, green creatures with a surprisingly high amount of health and a ranged attack that causes poison damage over time.
While the art direction in Deus Ex is very good, the same cannot be said about the quality of its graphics. The game’s low polygon models didn’t look good at the time of release and they’ve aged very badly. It doesn’t help that there’s so little of them, with the vast majority of characters being reskins of standard male and female models. Even the hair is a texture, which gives it a very noticeable painted-on look. While it’s easy to get used to it during normal gameplay, the cutscenes usually feature close-ups of the character who is currently speaking, which makes all the visual flaws much more obvious.
One of the game’s most famous issues is the low quality of the voice acting. The main character always speaks as if he was a film noir narrator, which is pretty cool when he acts like a badass cyborg spy, but is extremely out of place when any sort of emotion is required. The many non-American characters have extremely fake and exaggerated accents. Same actors voice different characters. The upside? It’s completely hilarious. While the game more often than not takes itself pretty seriously, there’s a certain so-bad-it’s-good B movie quality to the dub, which turns lines that would otherwise be forgotten into instant fan-favorites. The developers seem to have been aware of that – in the sound options menu, the clip used for testing speech volume is that of a Russian sailor saying ‘I spill my drink’ with a silly accent.
Despite the flaws in the game’s graphics and voice acting, there’s really nothing to complain about with the music. The soundtrack was created by Straylight Productions, a group with demoscene origins that also created music for Unreal Tournament. Most of the tracks are multi-layered electronic music imitating orchestral sound, a bit reminiscent of the Blade Runner soundtrack. But the more intense moments (mostly when JC Denton is spotted by the enemy) use faster, more rhythmic and more aggressive oldschool techno sound. Most of it (with an exception of the main theme) isn’t too memorable, but it sets the mood nicely and complements the game’s visual style (or at least the parts of it that don’t suffer too much from the low detail level).
The history of Deus Ex can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when Spector, along with many other people who worked on the game, worked for Origin. At first, it was supposed to be an action-RPG with a realistic setting built on the Ultima Underworld engine, called Troubleshooter. With time, the idea evolved into a project known under different names including Shooter, Majestic Revelations, Revelation and Operation: Majestic, which had a conspiracy theme inspired by the then-popular TV show X-Files, but different characters and plot details. Many of the ideas were scrapped for technical or financial reasons during the game’s development – the most interesting of them being a level set in the White House, and a far more non-linear story which allowed Denton to stay loyal to the UN and the conspiracy behind it.
Two years after the original release, the game was ported to PlayStation 2. The port, with the added subtitle The Conspiracy, includes numerous changes to accomodate for a gamepad controls and the console’s memory limitations. Larger levels are divided into smaller sections separated by loading screens, the inventory is simplified and, to help with less accurate control when compared to the mouse, auto-aim is provided (the game does provide support for mouse and keyboard though). The health system based on body parts was removed for some reason, and replaced with traditional hitpoints.
On the upside, some of the character models are more detailed and generally look better. Most of the lighting effects are gone, but the game looks much brighter overall to compensate. The PlayStation 2 version uses lower quality textures, but the revised level geometry in many areas is an improvement. Even though the PC version looks better overall, the PS2 version excels in several areas.
The intro and ending cutscenes are prerendered as opposed to being just in-engine conversations. The original PC game intro was a little weird, because it openly showed two antagonistic characters conversing – the PlayStation 2 version visually hides their identities (but uses their voices) while displaying different footage. There’s also a new rendition of the main theme on the title screen.
Other than that, the game stays surprisingly close to the original, given the limitations of PlayStation 2. The loading times are irritating, its save games take up huge amount of space on the memory card, and the frame rate often takes a dip during heated action. It’s a pretty good port, but obviously inferior to the PC version – something Ion Storm probably forgot about when making the sequel, as it uses many of the port’s elements even in the PC version.
Gamers who try to run Deus Ex (even the versions provided by Steam and GOG.com) might run into some issues, mostly related to its graphics engine – this is caused both by the game being made with non-widescreen monitors in mind and by the engine being optimized for the now-forgotten Voodoo GPUs. Those issues can be solved by applying fan-made mods and patches.
Like many great games from the late 1990s and early 2000s, Deus Ex is an ambitious title which combines many interesting ideas and is worth playing even when not all of them work perfectly. It also has some of the best level design ever created, so the game is always fun to play even if certain mechanics are not the most polished and the graphics looked dated even at the time of release.
Even though many of the game’s planned features have either been removed or were never implemented, Deus Exalways feels rich and never seems unfinished. It’s quite fascinating – we often hear about bad or mediocre games that could have been better if the developers managed to fully realize their potential but Deus Ex, despite all the flaws and cuts and bugs, is often described as one of the best games ever made. It’s one of those games that prove that original ideas, strong artistic vision and respect for the player are more important than technical parameters.