Welcome to the nightmare that could be our future. The Statue of Liberty is missing her head, one victim amongst many in a neverending series of terrorist attacks, brought on by increasing distrust in the government. Most of the world is in the grip of a mysterious plague known as the Grey Death. An exorbitantly expensive drug with the apt nickname 'Ambrosia' is the only known way to curb the effects of the disease, and supplies are controlled by the government too. Are you sufficiently well connected to merit your daily Ambrosia fix, or doomed to a slow, withering death like the majority of the populace?
Are you a fan of conspiracy theories? Is the Grey Death a manufactured plague, developed to cull a runaway global population? Have you perchance heard of the Illuminati, or the clandestine Majestic 12 group? Do you ever wonder how pigeons can make such a big mess? In that case, you've found the right game. It may not answer all those questions, but it certainly pushes the right buttons.
In Deus Ex, you take on the role of J.C. Denton. Both you and your brother Paul are nano-technology enhanced agents for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). Collectively, you have cost the government untold millions in research and development, and now it has come time to pay the piper. Paul is the older brother, and thus the first bold experiment with nano-tech, though he's nearly come to the end of his useful shelf life. And you... you are the 'Mark II' model. There are billions of nano-bots cruising through your blood vessels, and they can be programmed in a myriad of ways to enhance your skills and abilities... but now Paul has gone rogue, putting you both in danger. Has he gone over to the side of the terrorists? If so, what could make him do such a thing?
Deus Ex is the progeny of Warren Spector, the producer behind many of the most innovative games ever brought to the PC: Ultima VII: Serpent Isle, Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief: The Dark Project to name a few. Thus while at heart Deus Ex is a first-person 'sneaker' (along the lines of Thief), it also has strong RPG underpinnings. As agent Denton, you are continually forced to make difficult decisions, both morally and in relation to your 'stats'. For instance, early on in the game there is a hostage situation. If you apply the stealthy approach to save all the hostages, you win the favour of the UNATCO director and gain more credits (that you can spend on high tech gear), but you lose the respect of one of your heavy-handed peers who would have gone in with guns a-blazing, and this affects how the next mission plays out. In fact, there are also conversation choices that affect how the game subsequently develops, and this factor adds immensely to the depth of the game.
When you are creating your character at the beginning of the game, you get a certain amount of experience points to spend amongst about a dozen skills. Where you spend these points largely determines the style in which you will play the game. If you put points into Swimming, for example, it allows you to stay underwater a little longer for each level of the skill. Congratulations. You are now the world's most expensive sewer rat! In what I thought was a very nice (and realistic) touch... you start out not even being able to steadily aim a sniper rifle. At all. But as you pour more points into this skill, you cut down on the amount of wavering as you are trying to aim, and eventually become a crack shot. Each skill has three levels of proficiency, but you can't possibly become skilled in all available disciplines, so you must choose carefully.
There are also skills like Computer, where you get increasingly longer times to hack ATMs and security systems as you become more skilled, and Demolition, which concerns both the arming and disarming of mines. But the most fun you can have with Deus Ex from an RPG perspective, and also the cause of the most angst-inducing character development decisions, is concerning the nano-tech augmentation canisters you will find throughout the course of the game. These are usually tucked away in the depths of a secret research lab or enemy stronghold at the end of a difficult mission, and are basically the game's way of granting J.C. a level-up. Each canister is dual purpose, and works on a specific part of the body. But that's the catch. You have to choose which of the two possible enhancements you wish the canister to perform, and there's no going back. For instance, one canister can grant you either temporary invisibility from flesh and blood enemies (Cloak) or from the electronic variety like patrolling robots (Radar Transparency). Which do you choose? And there's another catch - all of the augmentations require power from bioelectric cells that are in scarce supply, so you can only use them for short periods of time. There are also generic canisters to be found that can upgrade any augmentation to the next level, in which case the augmentation in question consumes bioelectric energy at a reduced rate so that the effects of the augmentation last a few precious seconds longer. These extra seconds can make all the difference in a crucial situation, and this central aspect of the game is extremely well thought out. It will certainly tax the strategic skills of even the most experienced role-player!
Well, there's no denying it. There are lots of guns in Deus Ex. Big ones. But you have to be very careful how you use them, because ammunition is rather hard to come by. And you also don't want to unnecessarily alert all the guards in an area to your presence when you can often figure out a way sneak past them instead to gain the upper hand. This is another reason why I think that adventurers who aren't afraid to mix a little action in with their adventuring will enjoy Deus Ex: it involves a glorious amount of exploration, and the player is rewarded for curiosity and inventiveness. There are usually three ways to get past any obstacle depending on how your stats are leaning at the time: stealth (you can often sneak up on enemies and zap them unconscious with an electric prod), an alternate path that requires a particular skill or augmentation to avail of, or guns a-blazing if that's your style! There is some nice middle ground here too. One of the most unique weapons is a crossbow that fires tranquiliser darts. But it takes two accurate shots and a certain amount of waiting time to render a foe helpless. If you don't pull this off correctly, there is a danger that the victim will alert his colleagues before slumber beckons...
You also shouldn't be put off by my use of the word 'mission'. Usually this word makes me break out in a cold sweat and put the box I just picked up right back on the shelf; however, in Deus Ex, they are more like goals. You always have a primary goal to accomplish next, and a few optional secondary goals that will net you more experience points and/or cash. It's just the game's way of advancing the story line and keeping you on track. You might otherwise be at a loss as to where to go next, because Deus Ex is very open-ended.
Of course, there must be a few things not to like about this game. I hope your day job doesn't involve working with crates, or Deus Ex is going to send shivers down your spine when you have to either push, throw, or break open the umpteenth one. Also, a few of the NPCs come across as blatant stereotypes of their chosen profession, but this didn't bother me all that much. Even though its mainstay is a dark, gritty realism... there is also something intentionally 'comic book' about the way characters and events are portrayed, and it works rather well.
The game utilises an enhanced version of the Unreal engine, and the graphics were simply superb for their time. In fact, I first played Deus Ex on a laptop without any hardware acceleration, and the graphics still blew me away. All the outdoor locations are portrayed at nighttime, which may sound like a bit of a cop-out, but sneaking around is the norm here so perhaps this feature makes it all the more plausible? I also really like the title track, though the in-game music is quite sombre... yet memorable nonetheless.
Since Deus Ex was developed specifically as a PC game, and then later ported to consoles, the controls are just as we adventurers like them: all pointing and inventory/menu navigation is accomplished with the mouse. Keys are only used for character movement, and the keyboard is fully mappable. And speaking of inventory, there is a touch of realism added to Deus Ex here too. Your inventory consists of a 5 x 6 grid. Very large weapons can occupy up to 8 spaces on the grid, so you can only carry a practical amount of equipment around with you. As you can imagine, this aspect of the game will also force you to make some tough decisions.
The events in Deus Ex take place in three diverse locales: New York City, Paris, and Hong Kong. My favourite was Hong Kong, where you first had to overcome some cultural differences before you could gain the trust of the local denizens - whose help you required to achieve your ultimate goal there.
Deus Ex sits firmly within my top five, and will always have a place on my hard drive. Near the end of the game, you have to choose a path that takes you to one of three possible endings. I've played two of them so far, and I'll probably revisit the game shortly to take on the third. The question still remains: is this game an action/adventure, an action/RPG, a 'sneaker', or something that is the sum of all these things? Who knows? Who cares? It is simply one of the best games ever made.
Copyright © Steve Metzler 2004.
All rights reserved.
300 MHZ Pentium II, Windows 95/98, 64 MB RAM, DirectX 7.0a compliant video and sound cards, 4X CD-ROM, 250MB hard disk space, keyboard, mouse
Pentium III, 128 MB RAM, 3D accelerator with 16MB RAM, 8X CD-ROM, 1 GB hard disk space, EAX compliant sound card