In Retrospect: Deus Ex

Platforms: Retro | PC

With wave upon wave of modern games hitting the shelves every week it is often hard to find time to think about, let alone play, the games that inspired their successors. However, with the prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution on the cusp of release (due 25/08/11), I decided to do just that and take the time to replay and review the original Deus Ex, considered by many, critics and gamers alike, to be the greatest game of all time.

For those of you, especially younger readers, who may be unaware of this game, here's a quick history lesson:
Deus Ex - developed by Ion Storm Inc. and published by Eidos Interactive - was released on 26/06/2000 for MS Windows. Without wanting to pigeon hole it into a genre, it is a FPS stealth / action RPG set in a not too distant dystopian vision of the future. With society breaking down due, mainly, to a lethal disease with no apparent cure sweeping across the globe destroying civilisation, you take on the role of JC Denton a nano-tech enhanced super human, an agent of the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). The story begins with all hell breaking lose on Liberty Island as terrorists occupy the statue…

I actually own an original copy of the game, so I dug out the CD, spun it up and was surprised to find that it installed and ran successfully on Windows 7 without issue, unlike many other games which I’ve had to go through hell and back just to bring up a loading screen. Before I blazoned off into attempting to play the game I investigated whether the modding community (so often tirelessly working on games from this era) had made any improvements worth checking out. Not only was I surprised by the size and activity of this community but amazingly people are still working on improvements, mods and total conversions to this day.
Many of these mods are devoted to changing the statistics of the games, but to fairly replay the game as it was meant to be played I felt that it would only be fair to load those that improved the quality of the game's visuals. After browsing the rather large library I decided to try out the most popular mods that improved the texture resolution and model quality called HDTP and New Vision (which bizarrely released a new version just this month). I also discovered that there is a patch for the unreal engine which allowed DX10 rendering adding modern techniques such as bloom lighting, bump mapping and many other technical magicarys… Unfortunately after installing all these mods, I noticed the frame rate drop, so I would be careful on older machines.

Comparison of the improvement the New Vision mod made compared to the original.

...And Finally I got around to playing.
Being a stalwart of the gaming age, I decided to play on the hardest difficulty (as I do with most games), oddly called ‘realistic’. This was of course a foolish move. Modern games have learnt that steep learning curves and constant death put casual players off, but this was made before this, and as it turned out ‘realistic’ meant just that. As in real life, in this mode a bullet to the head is instant death. Indeed the first person I met promptly blasted my skull open leaving me to stain the floor with blood. Not a single game on current generation machines has made such a fool of me. Worse still, auto-saves that are now prevalent are missing, meaning those insta-death headshots are even more painful when you know you have not saved it in over an hour.

The game teaches you very quickly (and agonisingly at times) that stealth is the solution. As in its even earlier predecessors, such as Thief: the dark project, you learn that enemies should be approached quietly from behind and taken out swiftly and silently. Frontal assault, especially on hard, is death. However, this is deeply hampered by the terrible AI that can randomly sense you are nearby and open fire, or worse run to set off an alarm and call more enemies - resulting again in you finding yourself in a pool of your own blood, cursing that again you failed to quick save recently. If you manage by pure chance to find a few seconds to fire back then your gun will recoil wildly and the spray will fall far off target because early on you have not had a chance to ‘upgrade’ your gun skills. Either way, your already depleted ammunition supply will dry up until either you’re hiding in a corner with your trusty crowbar waiting for death or you charge head first at the nearest enemy trying to cattle prod them into submission. This, of course, will almost always fail.
It’s a horribly steep unenjoyable learning curve, and after an hour or so I began doubting myself. Was the game I remembered as being brilliant and better than anything produced in the last decade actually a fraud? Had my memory, like most things in life, been dulled to only remember the good times?

Sometimes you can sneak up to these robots and smack them, other times you're not so lucky.

I almost gave up. But I knew there had to be something more to this ‘best game of all time’ and so I soldiered on, after all this was still only the first level!
Luckily, over time, things get easier. I learnt the enemies’ idiosyncrasies. I understood that you need to hold still and laboriously aim your gun to be accurate. I realised that to conserve ammo you aim for the head and pray. Once I got to this point it all started coming back.
I began to get into the plot which is superb. It intertwines, cleverly, themes of government / corporation conspiracies, family loyalty, class wars and racial tensions (or in this case augmented people) to be incredibly absorbing and like the best fiction is rather worryingly relevant in today’s world. Most of the setting of this future cyber-punk world is described in the papers you find lying around and books you pick off shelves, and if you can get over the huge expanse of text that you can read it is all very immersive. I found that through this immersion I got over the rather jarring action element of the early game.

You see, Deus Ex is not really about the action anyway. It’s about choices. Similar to its great grandchild Mass Effect there are conversations and turning points throughout the game that really affect the plot and the game as a whole. You can determine the fate of certain people (even at times that you didn’t realise you could) and this will effect whether they will appear later in game to help or hinder you. Perhaps it is not on such a grand scale as Mass Effect and certainly not its sequel, (admittedly the game remains fairly linear in terms of levels you play) but it’s thoroughly enjoyable to read in an e-mail later in the game that someone who you knew you gunned down earlier has disappeared according to official sources, or equally it’s almost heart wrenching when you learn of a death of someone you really should have tried to save but instead ran away to save yourself.

And it’s not just plot choices either; every situation you approach in Deus Ex can be tackled in many ways, more so than any game I think I have played since its release. These usually range from the charge and kill approach (which is perhaps only a viable option once you’ve got your skills high enough); the silent stealth climbing route (which often, rather strangely, makes use of climbing and moving small boxes); the clever hacking approach as well as many other styles depending on how you feel like playing the game. The genius of this is that sometimes this affects the plot too. Certain characters will approve of your tactics more if you don’t kill everyone on sight and different objectives will open up for you.

The Augmentation system: just one of the many choices you make in the game.

As you make your way through the game it also dawns on you just how staggeringly huge it is. Sure it’s not a giant open empty city like you would find in GTA, but you have to remember that the development teams were tiny in comparison. Still, each area (ranging across the globe from New York to Hong Kong) is fairly open leaving you roam where you choose.
Even if you play it through without trying to attempt all the different solutions to each problem the game should last you at least 25 hours, and when you’ve finally got this far you understand how it got to its high status within the gaming community. It attempts to encapsulate so many genres and playing styles and combines it with an engrossing plot that you actually feel like you have a hand in writing through the choices you make. Sure, it fails in many areas particularly where the action and AI is concerned, but I think I’m perhaps looking back at it with the hindsight of modern games, where even now AI written by teams instead of individuals can be just as irritating. Considering the grand scale that was achieved in this game, it is easy to forgive and forget. And did I mention it also has multiplayer thrown in just for fun? If after reading this I've encouraged you to check Deus Ex out and you don't own a copy of the game, then it's available on Steam for only £5.99.

So, what can we hope for the prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution?
I’ve spoken to many people who have said that they would be happy for them just to remake the original with top-end graphics and Artificial Intelligence that works, but I’m not sure this would actually be particularly compelling. With the formidable powers of Square Enix at the helm, I would actually hope for more. Certainly the plot needs be to equally, if not more, impressive. If they pull off a Star Wars trick and destroy the world created by the original with poor voice acting and irritating characters then that would be huge shame. Furthermore, if they remove the value of choice within the game it would be incredibly disappointing. Too many games recently have just been First Person Shooters with pretence of other genres and failed because of it. If this is to happen to Deus Ex: Human Revolution then again it will be a sad day. Sure, it’s got a lot to live up to, but I guess we shall have to wait a few weeks and see.

Tags Retro
Category Feature

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