Deus Ex is one of the greatest games ever. It’s as simple as that. If you’ve played it already and agree with me, then we’re friends. Read on and favourably compare your opinion with mine. If this article is your first encounter with one of the finest examples of a medium – go get yourself a drink and mouth the words that follow. If you happen to be one of those long-wounded optimists who masks their pain with a stance of cynicism and gives seminal art a review of ‘meh’ over craft beer – stick around. I bring salvation, or damnation, or a hidden third ending.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has just recently come out and by all accounts it looks like a solid, exciting installment of the franchise. I loved it’s predecessor, Human Revolution (Directors’ Cut), and as you might know, science-fiction is my escapist jam. Not only is Deus Ex science-fiction, it’s cyberpunk; the way sexier cousin.
The game itself is the brainchild of Warren Spector (of Ultima, Wing Commander and Thief fame) and Harvey Smith (Ultima, Deus Ex, Dishonored). It was the year 2000. It was a pretty damn good year for games. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Thief II, Diablo II, Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2, and Quake III: Arena all came out that year. Initially, Deus Ex just seemed to be a fairly well received summer release but it got cult status in a few years. It seems like all artists who make something timeless and loved don’t really think that’s what they’re doing. Chris Norden, the assistant director, said in an interview with Gamasutra:
“At the time, we had no idea what it was or what it would turn into. We really had no idea. We hoped it would be a success, at least critically, and it kinda turned into something…big.”
When we have college courses on game narrative like we do on the Romantic Period or Modernist Poetry, Deus Ex is going to be on the reading list. Why? (asks the initiate, the cynic, and me, rhetorically.)
Same as any other game – gameplay and narrative. The gameplay is great (if a bit mad) but fits the narrative, and the Narrative is mad (but absolutely great) and fits the gameplay. It’s a genre-blending philosophical meander in a coat of dark navy pearlescent paint and it works damn well.
The shotgun is clunky. I never liked it. The sound of it firing is like stamping on feather pillows. The assault rife looks like something I made out of an inverted cereal box as an adolescent. The recoil animation cycles too quickly so the gun jumps in predicable circles and looks weird. The missile launcher (Guided Explosive Projectile – GEP) is devastating but if you mishandle it at all, you’ll need to quick load. The pieces of you go everywhere. LIKE A ROCKET LAUNCHER SHOULD WORK. The main pistol fires too slow and the stealth pistol does as much damage as baby snot – but it all works.
The clunkyness is part of its’ charm. It would date other games, but it flavours Deus Ex. I don’t know how they managed it, but all it’s little foibles contribute to tone, not disengagement. The weapons are simultaneously a bit off by todays’ standards and tool your character learns how to use. I slapped a laser, silencer, scope accuracy modifications and an extended magazine into my starter pistol. In a few hours I was sniper Jesus. Just like old times.
You could do that in Deus Ex. You can do it now, but you couldn’t before Deus Ex. I won’t go into how much you could get up to, it’d just be a list (which you can read here), but all of a sudden in 2000 you could talk your way around fights, trigger enemies to explode, stealth past everyone or cut them down with a Chinese nano-lightsaber. I’m not joking. If you’re thinking “yeah, yeah, choices and customisation, multiple styles of play, blah” – don’t. All that stuff is commonplace now, but it was absolutely groundbreaking then. Alexander Brandon, the composer, said:
“Deus Ex is the game I hear the most about. I’m proud of everything I’ve worked on. Unreal pushed boundaries of level design and fantasy world exploration in the context of an FPS. Unreal Tournament honed multiplayer combat. But Deus Ex blew the doors off genres, and at the time, hardly anyone had done that. ”
Deus Ex is the godfather to your latest action RPG with an unnecessary skill tree. Just the year before, System Shock 2 had all sorts of customisation and whatnot, but it didn’t penetrate the same way Deus Ex did. Like System Shock 2, DX didn’t and doesn’t hold your hand – you can play it wrong and badly. If you don’t work on the right skills, the late game will be considerably more difficult. Now, you’d have to suck pretty hard, but if you compare to the RPG-ness of Bioshock, you’re talking about the difference between Ikea instructions and Argos instructions (but, y’know, fun).
Lockpicking, computer hacking, robot-hijacking, speech fights, datapad combing, errand-running, apartment raiding, guard bribing, bartender flirting, and air vents. DX has it. In spades. You cannot fault it for variety. It’s like a cross between Fallout and Metal Gear, and like a quad bike, once you get the hang of it, it’s crazy fun. Apart from fun, what good are all those activities? Don’t re-boil that kettle, kids, we’ll be done soon.
The game sees you play as J.C. Denton, a nano-augmented UNATCO agent. (UNATCO is an international counter-terrorism agency set up to combat the outbreak of tech-terrorists.) Your first mission sees you assaulting (or infiltrating) Liberty Island, where the NSF, a terrorist organisation have holed up with a top UNATCO agent named Gunther Hermann. Seriously. There are branching paths to the level and a decision you have to make that impacts the rest of the game.
I want to tell you the whole rest of the story, but suffice it to say that it escalates into a global conspiracy with shadowy organisations, rogue operators, visionaries, philanthropists, cabals and Illuminati. The whole thing is utterly mental but if I go into detail it’ll ruin it. I want to say more. I want to, just, can’t.
Other people would. They’d ruin it with details and summaries. I love you too much for that. If you’re lucky enough to have already been through it but forgotten just how good it is, let me reassure you.
Just… go and (re)play the damn thing already, because its amazing.