Adventure games, RPGs and FPS titles usually don’t gel well together, but Ion Storm’s cyberpunk hybrid Deus Ex still holds up pretty well today.
Deus Ex (PC)
(USA 2000, developer: Ion Storm (defunct), publishers: Eidos Interactive (defunct)/Square Enix, platform: PC)
A lethal plague, the “Gray Death”, runs rampant through a future society in which only the upper class can afford the synthetic vaccine “Ambrosia”, but soon JC Denton, a field agent of the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO) with bio augmentations, finds out that there are more than a few conspiracies taking place behind the scenes.
A society not far removed from our world
Calling the plot, characters and world of Deus Ex groundbreaking would go a little too far. But the story offers surprises and twists, even if it doesn’t necessarily do anything new with conspiracy theories or the struggle of an underground movement against the oppressive government. However, what it does is to be quite clever in making the player believe in how easy it is to go from a democracy into a police state with all the rights of people revoked for their “own good”. This isn’t only reflected in JC Denton’s fall from following-orders grace, as he’s marked as a terrorist himself, but also shows in all kinds of excerpts from literature, newspaper articles and bulletins which are exceptionally well-written. This creates an uncomfortable sense of unrest, as it makes the player think about contemporary government behavior in regard to terrorism and health safety. As most of the agencies and conspiracy theories are grounded in reality, this becomes even scarier.
The world Denton finds himself in as an agent who is already different with his augmentations, i.e. implants that make him more like a machine, is populated by all sorts of people who either play a significant part in the story or who give each location a certain mood. While it’s often optional to talk to them or to listen to their conversations while passing by, one should take the time to do this, as it provides background information about what is happening in the world or how current political and social events change the lives of these people. Dialogues add to immersion and realism, something that is even more important in a dystopian setting not too far removed from our own world.
Characters with or without souls
The only storytelling problem is Denton himself, as he isn’t the most interesting character to relate to. Of course this has partly to do with his machine-like inner workings and him abiding by the rules attitude, but when talking to NPCs, he remains rather faceless and less memorable than the people he encounters. Obviously with so many places to visit and characters to fill in the places, almost identical-looking and sounding characters who’re not part of the plot are an issue as well, but as their dialogues are always a mix of amusing anecdotes and more serious topics, they’re more enjoyable than what Denton has to say. In addition to this, one can read e-mails. Sometimes these include codes or other important information, but again they’re not essential to go through. However, they help to better understand certain character attitudes, plot twists and changes in the environment, providing an additional layer of immersion.
Choose your story
Freedom of choice isn’t only reflected in conversations (although it rarely goes into multiple dialogue branches as in Mass Effect), but also how the player approaches each new objectives. In addition to primary goals, there are optional secondary ones, i.e. side quests that often provide additional weapons, tools or even change the course of the story. While gaining experience points is always helpful, being involved in some people’s life and death situations can lead to alternative routes of how to reach the next primary goal.
Sometimes the repercussions are only felt much later in the game, e.g. if one asks a former colleague to stay behind at UNATCO who then finds a very important password that can make one tough fight redundant. There are three different endings, and while these can be achieved shortly before the final decisions independent of how one played the game before, the various people or machines one meets during the adventure make it a much more relevant part of the game, as it entails different objectives.
Choose your gameplay
It’s amazing just how differently each level plays out depending on the player’s choice of using brutal fire power, stealth or a mixture of both. Sneaking past guards, hacking security systems to disable cameras or open doors is recommended, as the odds are usually against Denton, although with the right weapons (and prioritizing due to limited space in the inventory) and upgrades, it’s also possible to storm each location and kill everyone on site, even including people who are essential to story progression, but who can leave behind keys or other information to continue anyway. Being less combat-focused still awards more experience points and opens up new areas. Sometimes one can use turrets to mow down enemies if one has enough computer skills as well.
Bigger places don’t mean better pacing
Levels have varied missions and usually feel like part of an encompassing world, although going back to key places and having no cutscene between taking off from one and going to the next with longer loading times is noticeable. Still, the places are quite expansive, and this is where it gets problematic with storytelling and gameplay, as it often takes a long time if one chooses the non-lethal approach. It doesn’t help that enemies are often the same and some buildings and sites are near identical, although it helps that one visits memorable places like Paris or Hong Kong.
Progressing in the story when looking through every nook and cranny is very slow, so that suspense suffers in the process. At least the adventure part, i.e. going into bars and interrogating people or searching through a house, breaks up the monotony of doing the same crouching, disabling computers/people and opening doors routine. Of course this criticism can be leveled at any FPS or RPG, but it makes the game longer than it needs to be. As much fun as it is to find out alternative routes and trick enemies, it can get tiresome and a little boring after a while, with the AI not being the best.
Augmented reality upgrades
Fortunately, the augmentation system makes leveling up and distributing skills very interesting. It’s not only possible to invest experience points in many different skills that can either help hacking computers faster without being detected, lock picking with fewer tools, or being more efficient in using armor that protects against bullets or toxic hazards. One can also learn to improve weapon handling, although these can be upgraded with specific accessories as well.
Augmentations of body parts can give certain boosts for a limited amount of time, depending on a depleting power gauge that can again be upgraded and filled either by a robot or energy cells. With every F-key assigned to these special abilities if one picks up the appropriate canisters, this makes for varied gameplay styles, but as in every good RPG, one has to be careful about which parts to install, so one can either jump higher or walk silently, push bigger crates or deal more damage with melee weapons, which again can be used to destroy doors, cameras and turrets, making it an alternative to computer skills being upgraded.
Experience points are awarded for progressing through the story, but also after completing secondary goals or finding hidden locations. As one can’t grind as in other RPGs and one doesn’t have many EXPs throughout the adventure, it becomes even more important when and how to use them. But as there are many ways to solve problems, either by force or stealth, one doesn’t get stuck, although it helps to prioritize without being a jack of all trades.
Technology of the past
Technically, the game hasn’t aged that well. Based on the very old Unreal Engine, models and environments lack detail, although it kind of adds to the cyberpunk atmosphere. Memorable vistas can’t really be found except for a few outside structures like a church or a mansion. With so many identical-looking underground or building parts, it’s easy to mistake one location for another, making the game less impressive today than when it was released, a problem many first-person shooters have. Special lighting or water effects also suffer from the outdated tech, although reflecting surfaces still look okay.
Music offers an interesting mix of jazz, techno and classic variations. While there is some repetition in wide areas and it’s not really a soundtrack one can listen to for very long, it’s great to have recognizable tunes for certain areas like Hong Kong, Paris or New York. Voice acting is a mixed bag of good and bad line delivery. Most roles are played quite well, and it’s always a joy to listen to the bantering of security guards. However, JC Denton sounds like the Metal Gear Solid‘s Snake tough guy, albeit with a different actor, i.e. there isn’t much nuance in the dialogue. The same holds true for other main characters whose appearances are too forced. All in all, the quality is above average with certain compromises.
A classic but flawed masterpiece
Deus Ex is considered to be one of the best games ever created. Granted, the freedom of choice of how to go through levels, the way how augmentation and skills upgrade systems are handled is exceptional. The world building is also very well detailed with enough thought-provoking parts to delve into even deeper if one wants to see their real-life counterparts.
However, the long playtime means that some of the narrative feels stretched out, while some of the plot is too clichéd to be really groundbreaking. Character development is also less engaging than progressing through the story. Levels feel as same-y as the graphics and some ropey voice acting and repetitive sound design. Still, with various goals to follow and decisions that matter in the long run, not to mention endings that require more than choosing alternative answers to questions, it remains a memorable gaming experience with a very long playtime and replayability.
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