|Warren Spector is a veritable
celebrity in gaming circles. With a slew of groundbreaking titles to his name, including
the recently reborn System Shock, it is supposed to be a guarantee of quality if Spector
is involved in a game project. So it should be no surprise to anyone that Deus Ex,
Spectors latest title, is one of the most incredible gaming experiences ever
constructed. With an in depth, and fairly convoluted, plot, incredible game mechanics, and
a style of play that merges the best of First Person Shooters, Role Playing Games, and
Freeplay, Deus Ex is something you dont want to miss. That is, unless you want the
future of gaming to wash over you like so much propoganda washing over the imperceptive
citizens of a nation at war.
Deus Ex is mechanically similar to System Shock 2, and bears a resemblence to other FPS action/adventure titles such as Half Life. As in System Shock 2, the FPS mechanics are supplemented by a deep skill system and biomodification, giving the game more than just an RPG flair. In Deus Ex, you play JC Denton (thats a codename), the second "nanoaugmented" soldier to join UNATCO, the United Nations Anti-Terrorism Committee. Your brother was the first, and you encounter a lot of bad feelings from the mechanically augmented super soldiers who have preceded you. As you play, you increase your skill set and acquire new "augs" that give you nifty abilities such as invisibility and super speed. All of your skills, augs, inventory, goals, notes and the like are accessed through a simple menu system that is very intuitive and incredibly easy to use. Likewise, Deus Ex doesnt break any new ground in movement or how you interact with your environment. The game deceptively feels like a standard FPS adventure game.
However, there is almost nothing textbook about Deus Ex. The training mode itself acknowledges that were sick of standard training modes, and conducts the training in a streamlined, efficient, and quick way. Before you know it, youre flung into the heat of conflict. Your first mission: Terrorists have taken over the Statue of Liberty and you have to capture their leader. As a sidenote, you can also save one of the aforementioned, grumpy, mechanically enhanced super soldiers.
The first mission exposes small clues as to why this game will get into your head and not let you quit. Upon approaching the grassy, park area around the statue, you notice pigeons and rats conducting their business. Approach the birds, and they flutter away. Cap that terrorist in the head at long range with your sniper rifle, and the birds scatter from the blast. Deus Ex takes place in a fully populated world, complete with animals and innocent civilians, and the density and quality of it is enough to make you really suspend your disbelief.
The wide variety of approaches you have open to you at the beginning of the game is also indicative of Deus Ex. As many other reviewers and strategy authors have noted, you can play the game however you want. The trick is to pick a style stealthy, run-and-gun, by the book, loose cannon and stick to it. Mixing up your style wont get you too far, but one other aspect of Deus Ex that almost everybody agrees on is that you cant really lose. You can experience more or less of the game, and you can either make your bosses really happy, the civilians really happy, or have everybody ragingly upset with you its all possible. However things play out, you can always finish the level and progress through the game.
Still, alluding to the level-by-level play of Deus Ex makes it sound a little too simplistic. There are basically 15 levels, each with at least three or four sections, and all with a multitude of side missions and errands youll want to embark on. Spector has commented in interviews that he plays console RPGs, and I think that really shows in Deus Ex. Squaresoft classics like Saga Frontier 2 and any of the Final Fantasy series constantly present you with errands other characters ask you to complete. In Deus Ex, as in these other RPGs, completing errands and secondary goals will usually help you with your main objective. In Deus Ex, this plethora of side missions creates a freeplay environment that successfully masks the level-by-level organization of the whole story. It also helps that there are no end-of-level screens or readouts. Play continues seamlessly as you complete one mission and embark on another.
Another startlingly cool aspect of Deus Ex is how the whole game is formed by your actions. After the first mission you return to UNATCO HQ and speak with your boss, Manderley. Manderley tells you that you need to conduct yourself with the utmost of decorum and act professionally at all times. Being a seasoned gamer, I thought to myself, "Yeah, right." I then proceeded to cruise around the UNATCO offices and try all the doors. I approached the restrooms, went into the Mens room and found a soda (thats worth two health points). The next door, logically, was the Womens room, and it was unlocked. I entered, and instead of finding a soda, I found a lady who seemed quite upset that I was there. I continued my exploration, interacting with everybody in the office complex, and returned to Manderleys for my final orders as I had been told to do. Manderley delivered my orders, and I thought Id gotten off the hook for the whole Ladies room thing. But then he commented that going into Womens restrooms were highly unprofessional and embarrassed myself as much as the organization. I was floored. Throughout the games similar circumstances crop up, although most are of more importance than trespassing in the wrong loo, and the game changes enough based on your decisions and actions in the game that you can play through several times and experience an almost totally different game each time.
All of this goes towards building a highly interactive and believable world. The plot of Deus Ex comes out of a combination of popular conspiracy theories, which means that if I gave you a whole lot of specifics it would probably spoil much of the play. Suffice it to say that Deus Ex draws heavily from the Illuminati, the Area 51, and the FEMA / Constitutional Suspension conspiracies. The combination of these theories creates a story that is highly convoluted, and will force you to question much of what you think, especially what you think about the game world. It is a useful plotline because it keeps the game full of action and twists, but at the same time its a little old hat. While I have really no qualms with the way the story is constructed or delivered, Im disappointed that it relies on such cliché computer geek lore. Since Ive been cruising the Internet, Ive run across dozens and dozens of websites, newsgroup postings, and archives of conspiracy theory, and most of it can be found in Deus Ex. Granted, there has never been a game to deal with the subject as effectively or amusingly as Deus Ex, but I wish we could get beyond the stock Internet/ Computer Geek/ Sci-Fi mode of thinking when it comes to our video games. The whole thing makes me think of System Shock 2, and similar disappointments I experienced with that game, which in my mind was a beefed up version of Gibsons Neuromancer.
Of course, few reviewers are siding with me on that point. For the most part they seem pretty content to experience the same dirty, cyberpunk, corrupt world in every game, and thats fine if thats your thing. However, quite a few reviewers have picked apart the dialogue and voice acting in the game. Im of two minds regarding these points. On the one hand, I think the dialogue is written quite well. It does all the things dialogue is supposed to do: develops character, delivers motivations, and advances the plot. I love the fact that much of your information is gained by eavesdropping on other peoples conversations. However, the voice acting is pretty flat. Denton, especially, is incapable of voicing emotion at all, even when his dialogue seems incredulous or emotionally charged. Overall, the quality of the dialogue is significantly improved if its read rather than heard, and I can only hope that the next time a house has such a phenomenal game under its roof they will work a little harder to get quality voice actors.
To finish up the criticism of Deus Ex, its a requirement to mention that there are some problems running the game on D3D cards. It is a little surprising that these bugs slipped through what must have been rigorous game testing, but nevertheless, if you have an nVidia (read: GeForce) or Matrox card you really ought to download the patch here. I played through the game on my Matrox G400 Max, and I encountered problems without the patch, but as far as I could tell the new D3D driver fixed everything up. Still, if youre not playing on a Glide system, be sure to save often, since the most common errors I got were slowdown and freeze-up.
Now that weve finished up the criticism, and you should have a good idea of what this game is about and like, Id like to take a moment to sum up just why it is so important. Deus Ex holds the key to the future of gaming. If you havent already read Scott McLouds seminal works Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, you should. Right now you might be wondering what comics have to do with video games, and if you are wondering then its proof that you havent read your McLoud. McLoud observes that comics are categorized by popular conception as "kids stuff." He cites the Comics Code, which forced all mainstream comics to adhere to a strict G rating, and nearly killed off the independant comics movement entirely, as the main reason for this perception of comics as immature. Once the society labels something as "for kids" or "for adults" it is very hard to undo that belief.
Likewise, video games have been categorized as "for kids." Indeed, most adults werent attracted to the Atari 2600 or Robotron in the arcade. And if you were looking for a holistic, involving, possibly narrative, gaming experience it is no wonder that you would reject much of the early days of video games. Eventually "adult" games came out, but these do to "mature" video games what hentai has done to anime they warped the meaning and created a perception of games for adults as being socially unredeeming games for dirty-minded adults. "Mature" titles have tended to present fairly immature values and content. Turok, Kingpin, Quake all of these games are only Mature because they contain a lot of blood. Even before the hysteria of video games contributing to teen violence, the Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB) was created and began rating games. It only took Leisure Suit Larry to set parents off, and its probably a good thing that the far more shocking examples of gratuitous degradation of morals and values came after we had a system in place to appease the hysterical masses. Still, I get the feeling that the gaming community does not acknowledge that the ESRB molds the creativity that is put into video games.
Deus Ex is rated Mature. The ESRB rating claims that the M is for animated blood and violence. Well, yes, there is some animated blood and violence in the game, but dead soldiers dont leave pools of blood, and even point-blank head shots are not rendered gratuitously, or even realistically. In all, the violent aspects of Deus Ex are suppressed as much as possible, and the game actively encourages you to use stun sticks and other non-lethal forms of combat. As a matter of fact, that ethos forms a part of the plot line. No, Deus Ex should not be rated M because of violence. Deus Ex should be rated M because it is a truly "adult" game. You will not get the most out of Deus Ex if you have not read Aquinus, Gibran, Voltaire, Wilson, or Milton. You will not understand the ramifications of the nature versus technology delimma or the critique of governmental control if you are not looking at the world in a "mature" state of mind.
If you are hung up on framerates, gore effects, and how many guns are included in the game, Deus Ex is really not for you. Sure, youll play it, youll love it, but you wont understand it. Spector and his gang at Ion Storm (who receive far too little credit for the quality of the game) have created a thinking-persons game. It is the future of gaming because all of us who were satisfied with Pac Man are now grown up and demand more from our games. We have recognized both the importance and the sappiness of entertainment, and we demand that it satisfy us. Deus Ex is the kind of interactive entertainment we crave, and it serves to show the way for future "adult" titles.