Deus Ex

From issue 87 of PC Gamer, this is the review which people tend to get misty-eyed over. At the time, I was relatively bitter about it, since it was chopped to pieces under the hands of a freelance production assistant who’d never worked on Gamer before, but I’ve loosened up.

John Romero was right. Full stop. Ion Storm, formed as a reaction to the – c’mon everyone, let’s be honest here for a few seconds – programmer lead Id, crystallised around a single molecule of thought: Design is law. Games are more about the artist than the artisan, the painting than the paintbrush, the taste of a meal rather than its look. Game design people. That’s where it’s at. The rest is just ephemera to distract us. At the only level that counts, the ancient ASCII based nethack is superior to the slickly vacuous Vampire. Repeat after me: Design. Is. Law.

Yes, Daikatana stank, stinks and will smell of decomposed half-ideas forever. But, as you all better realise by now, the best first person game ever was based on this principle. Except that’s no longer true. Now the top two first person games ever were created using an engine licensed from an external source. With Half-life, it was Id’s Quake. With Deus Ex, the basis is Epic’s Unreal technology.

The advantages of this method is pretty evident. Even with a lesser team – Early Raven creating Hexen 2, for example – games move from conception to completion with greater speed. When the whole of a full development cycle can be devoted to the central game mechanics, the extra time to savour, consider and let a game breathe, a team can hone the edge of their blade infinitesimally. You want a random prediction? In ten years time the amount of 3D graphics engine creation in a team will be next to nothing. With Deus Ex as an example of the strengths of this progress, it’d be a hard man who’ll grumble.

So. Why is Deus Ex so important?

Let’s examine its intellectual family tree. It goes a little something. Ultima Underworld begat System Shock which begat Thief and Shock 2. Then Shock 2 met Half-life in a bar, shared a few drinks and begat Deus Ex. Then let Thief and Floor 13 (ancient black-and-white you-are-a-Government-Black-Agency game) be God-parents. Then the child grew up and put pictures of Syndicate on its wall, fancied Diablo at School and hung-out with Exile. And read Voltaire, Guy Debord, The Illuminatus, Grant Morrison, Machievelli and pretty much the whole content of a decently covered bookshelf. And wore a trenchcoat and shades.

Or, in more prosaic terms, it’s the apotheosis of the whole action-RPG thing that gets us critical types all excited. Actually that wasn’t prosaic at all. Let’s start again.

Deus Ex is a first-person action RPG. You play J.C. Denton, an special agent for UNATCO, an extended branch of the police force. The world is a day-after-tomorrow affair with the current trends (Globalisation, Corporate power increasing, Democratic power falling, Terrorist direct action on the rise, Fade to Socialist Worker opinion columns) extrapolated to extremes. A modern plague, named the Grey Death, haunts the streets, with the vaccine – Ambrosia – in fatally sort supply, with its access limited to those with power, wealth or both. The locations in the game are either based on real-world areas, or thematically authentic enough to make everything hit close on the emotional level.

And in these levels you go on missions. In these missions you… No. I’m lost again.

Right. Perhaps, before I descend into the inevitable verbiage-onslaught (Expect quotes from Voltaire and references to existentialism. Ladies, take a seat. Gentlemen, pour yourself a stiffening brandy), if I better take your hand and lead you through what’s a pretty standard hypothetical mission we can side-step the vagaries of language.

You find yourself standing on a rooftop, overlooking a tower. You have to blow up a generator inside. Guards patrol outside, dogs yapping with their probably rabid mouths. You shrug, reloading the assault rifle. Noticing a ladder on the side of the building, you climb up to the roof. You hear the barking of the mutts, realising your cover has been blown. At this point you give up all pretence at subtlety, charging down a ramp into the building proper. Alarms go off as troopers start to locate you. Ducking between crates, you return fire. Realising you’re outnumbered, you pull out a LAM grenade, attaching it to a wall, before retreating. As the pursuing pack approach the motion sensors activate the grenade. Taking advantage of the confusion you charge, bullets firing. Downstairs you locate the generator, lobbing another couple of LAMs through the door to turn reduce hi-tech to a wreck. A sprint to the roof, leaping into your escape helicopter, and out. Chaos. Death. You’re an ultra-bad-ass motherfucker raining annihilation on the second summer of love.

Rewind.

You find yourself standing on a rooftop, overlooking a tower. You have to blow up a generator inside. Guards patrol outside, dogs yapping with their probably rabid mouths. You shrug. You’ve broke into worse places. Waiting until the patrol routes move away, you crawl silently to the ladder, ascending to the roof. Looking through the skylight you notice two guards chatting, spouting conspiracy theories about the government. You listen for a while, then lob a gas grenade down, reducing them to choking heaps, wiping their eyes. You leap down, applying knock-out blows to the back of their heads. All’s silent. You head down, noticing a couple more guards walking long patrol routes. When one turns his back an electric prod to the back of the neck brings him crashing to the floor. His yelp attracts the attention of his partner, who turns the corner only to get a face full of pepper spray. A truncheon blow and he collapses. From then on it was easy. Down a floor, crawling into the computer room. By hacking the computer system you’re able to program an auto-destruct of your target. You retreat back to the roof and escape. No-one will know you were ever there. Death count? Zero. No more tears on the face of the mother of the world thanks to you.

Rewind.

You find yourself standing on a rooftop, overlooking a tower. You have to blow up a generator inside. Guards patrol outside, dogs yapping with their probably rabid mouths. You shrug, shoulder your sniper’s rifle and put a 30:06 round through each of their heads. You hate patrolmen and – hey – you aren’t too fond of dogs either.

Rewind.

You find yourself standing on a rooftop, overlooking a tower. You have to blow up a generator inside. But by doing a few favours to your street-friends and throwing around a little cash, you’ve managed to gain every single security code, key and password for the facility. The second you find a security console, those gun-turrets on the first floor are going to be turned against their makers.

Rewind.

You find yourself standing on a rooftop, overlooking a tower. You have to blow up a generator inside. For you, that’s not enough. You shoulder you LAW missile launcher and fire a blast at the main doors, demolishing them. And setting off the fuel-drums you had dragged there earlier, wiping out anyone who had the misfortune to be on the ground floor.

Rewind.

You find yourself standing on a rooftop overlooking a tower. You have to… oh bugger this. You head back to the alleyways and entertain yourself by throwing that basketball you found at the cats. Perhaps you’ll go play pool in a bar later and have a few drinks. The mission can wait. Governmental Agents just wanna have fun.

Definitely rewind.

By now, people will be describing Deus Ex as a hybrid of several genres. A mistake in logic. Deus Ex doesn’t merge the play-mechanics of singular genres. It just includes them as options. The primary character of a hybrid game is the demands you to perform tasks that were previously separate, while Deus Ex is about personal inclination and – this is the important one – freedom. The traditional relationship between gamer and game is one where the latter dictates to the former what it will do to have fun, a dictatorial axis that, more than anything in the history of our artform, Deus Ex destroys. Look everyone! Genuine Interactive Entertainment.

This also implies that lots of games which we though impossible to complete actually are feasible. For example, since Deus Ex has shown that one level can be played in diametrically opposed ways with equivalent enjoyment, things like – say – Superhero games where you can play radically different characters become possible. Previously, received wisdom would have stated that no level would be equally satisfying to a steroid-powered Hulk-clone or a shadow-clad Batman analogue, hence meaning such a game could never exist. Deus Ex annihilates that defeatist thought in a burst of near-future cool. Put simply, it has raised the stakes and all that remains to be seen is if the industry is willing to follow.

(After all, after two years a fraction of the ideas which ran wild through the heart of Half-life have still yet to be assimilated into its peers. Most FPSs are still pretending its maintained genius never happened, hoping everyone will forget how sublime the genre can be.)

Despite all the ultraviolence (or lack of it, depending on your inclination) at its centre, Deus Ex is a role-playing game, featuring a strong level of character development in various areas. Firstly, you have the skill system. There are eleven of them, varying from the expected weapons (Pistol, Rifle, Heavy Weapons, Melee and so on), survival (Swimming) and intrusion (Lockpicking, Computer Hacking), with you only having a bare minimum points to spend on advancing them. While each only has four levels, the price rises almost exponentially, with the highest master abilities being incredibly illusive- but oh-so-desirable.

This extreme price means that, unlike the superficially similar System Shock 2, by the end of the game your character won’t be extremely competent in all of the abilities. You’re forced into hard decisions in which you’ll spend your hard-earned experience points into enhancing. To reach master in one – let alone multiple – categories will mean sorely neglecting others, leading to a truly unique character. And thus a truly unique experience.

However, dissimilarly to Shock2, being unskilled in an area doesn’t usually bar you from having a layperson’s crack – you’ll just be less impressive. Untrained swimmers doggy-paddle slower than the Duncan Goodhew’s in our midst, as well as having a lower lung-capacity. This differential is most clearly seen in the use of weapons, using a targeting reticule method similar to Rogue Spear. The longer you stay still, preparing your shot, the tighter the cross-hairs get, thus the more specific a shot results. Unskilled? They start with a massive expanse between, then narrow slowly. You’re a master? Almost instant unnerving accuracy.

The implications of this is devastatingly important. While there are some narrowing of your options depending on choices – without any hacking training you’ll be unable to break into security systems without their codes – generally you can still try. This contrasts neatly with Planescape Torment, a game which featured a similar amount of freedom of approach. In the more traditional RPG, the thrill was seeing your choices being limited by how you’ve wandered its moral maze. Deus Ex takes a radically existentialist approach, claiming that nothing is written in stone. You can always try something else, re-making your own game-image as many times you choose. In the intricate sprawl of the level, there’s always some other approach to try. Never has being condemned to being free been so heavenly.

The primary exception the approach is the second way you can personalise your character. You’re a nano-tech augmented being, capable of being upgraded when you find a suitable canister. When this is installed, with the help of a handy medical bot, you have the choice of one of two special abilities. Do you want to hypercharge your muscle neurones for hand to hand bonus or strengthen myocin fibrils for lifting strength? A spy-drone or an ECM based missile-detonator? Speed boost or silent running? And, like skills, once they’ve been plugged in you can upgrade them to four power levels with increasing power.

But leaving aside the specialisation inherent in choosing what to carry in your limited inventory space and the much-appreciated option to choose the racial group of your character (originally a sex choice was planned, but re-recording the immense amount of vocal information proved impractical. Forgive them), the most interesting way: your moral choices.

With the exception of Planescape Torment, I’ve never seen a game which judges and rates your moral performance then integrates it into the story – yet not preaching. This isn’t the superior Daily-Mail-readership judgements that the Ultima series occasionally enforced. This is simply giving your choices an effect. From major actions — such as whether you choose to follow your orders or your conscience — to minor ones — such as whether to investigate the ladies toilets in your base, the results are clearly laid out.

Oh yes: the story. Its narrative is as deep as you choose. For adventure fans, this is probably the only game since undersung semi-classic The Longest Journey to sate your conversational desires. Equally, the world drips in details. Books to read, e-mail logs to study, newspapers and data terminals to peek at. Of course, the important ones are noted in your log book — as are all the conversatios, leaving only those who enjoy to sink up information to read them. You can savour Deus Ex. Like a fine wine, it can be drank by anyone – but those who take their time and let it breathe will notice the depth of flavour.

And it’s true cutting-edge interactive storytelling. While the broad sweeps of the tale are pre-determined, the minutiae are determined by the player, leaving a distinct and beautiful lasting memory. Deus Ex joins Half-life and System Shock 2 as the leading practioners of this alchemy. We’re reaching an age when the traditional storytelling devices in games (Pure cut Scenes, ala Vampire) are beginning to look as shoddy as a flick-book in an age of widescreen plasma-screens TVs. Several years ago it was stated that, by definition, gameplay and story were opposing forces. Bits of a game that are story are noninteractive, hence decorative. The bits where you actually do something are game, with only a causal link to the flow of the narrative, with no genuine interaction. That’s just not true anymore.

But just how good is it? To take the two polar extremes of influence, while it’s not quite as good as Half-life as a shooter or Thief as a sneaker, the — and here comes that word again — freedom to try both makes it the former’s only peer. After two years we’ve finally got a genuine battle for the number one PC game of all time spot.

And hopefully it should sell millions. To the bloke in the street, they’ll recall the X-files and the Matrix and be satisfied. The pretentious posers will be rewarded with nods towards everything from the Illumianti and French Situationalists. Clearly, Deus Ex has influences outside the normal world of games; it reaches higher and drags you with it.

Because games – like most other entertainment – have a terrible habit of making you less than you are normally, simplifying you into a stripped down cartoon. There’s a direct line in the almost-autistic reduction-of-self required to succeed in the first arcade games (Robotron 2084, Defender) to the similarly emotionally grounded Diablo (Get sword, kill baddy, get stronger sword, Repeat, Repeat). Deus Ex is one of the few games that make you more than you’re normally. Because in Deus Ex’s reduced universe you feel as if you have more real freedom than you do in normal existence. Which like, say, Fight Club, reminds you of your own freedom in reality. After a session with Deus Ex you feel more alive. It’s a slap in the face, a reminder how good art can be.

And this is art. It’s beautiful. And I’m going to stop now before I start to cry.