Review by AutoRock
"In a world gone mad..."
Is Deus Ex set in the real world, or a fictional one?
Certainly, there are similarities between our world and the futuristic dystopia in which this first-person RPG is set. The gap between the power and the populace is great in both; control is in the hands of big businesses and political organisations, ruling from the shadows, veiling their true motivations behind a thick web of lies and doublethink. In our world, the outcome of their vile machinations is a grim sense of futile cynicism that spreads from person to disaffected person like a virus. In Deus Ex's world, it's an actual virus, a dire plague gnawing away at the poor and the powerless.
Of course, Deus Ex is just a game. In reality, there's really little you can do to save the world without a concentrated nuclear arsenal and a heart that's true and pure, but inside the beige box under your desk, the odds are a tad more favourable.
Not least because your avatar in this dystopian wonderland is not like other men; peacekeeping agent JC Denton is as righteously enthusiastic as you are, but hides it behind a long trenchcoat, sleek sunglasses, and a deadpan drawl that raises him high above the unconvincing mumbles and hokey accents of the shambling mortals that surround him. He's not all style, either - JC is a skilled warrior, granted incredible abilities by the nanomachines that course through his icy veins, and with this innate superiority comes responsibility; JC must support the infected beggars and destitute peons with which he shares the scum-caked streets of New York.
So go, JC, go! Give that homeless kid a candy bar from your inventory! Use your riot prod to reprimand that innocent girl's abusive boyfriend! Confiscate that rowdy wino's booze and drink it yourself! Hack that ATM for some funds! Riddle that drug dealer with lead so you can nab his stash and shoot up in that grimy bathroom! Stumble drunkenly into that busy nightclub and launch high-powered explosives into the unwitting crowds so you can sling the blackened corpses at the whimpering infants outside!
You're our hero, JC!
Well. The sense of freedom is intoxicating, so much so that it's often difficult to operate within the bounds of conventional morality, let alone by the book. Still, carefree anarchism and substance abuse are only fun for so long; you'll sober up after a few stern debriefings and once the narrative moves to open up the world. Initially you're a proud member of international peacekeeping agency UNATCO, but your faith is questioned after your first few sorties expose you to the worryingly-sensible dogma of the NSF terrorist group; a few double-crosses later, and, disgusted by the corporate chicanery and questionable politics of your former outfit, you embark on a worldwide trek in search of the truth.
Your side-swapping continent-hopping campaign doesn't change your job description though; your enemies may be terrorists or businessmen, your mission philanthropy or subterfuge - in practical terms, your goals vary little. Your one-man-war requires information to be gathered, supplies to be stolen, and, more often than not since your opponents are well-armed and omnipresent, men to be avoided, outwitted, or killed. The US laboratory sites, Hong Kong business districts, and European catacombs in which you operate feel vast, intricate (more so than they actually are, due to cunning layouts and shadowy suggestion), and ripe with possibility.
A good thing, too, since the aforementioned abusable freedom becomes key when you're at work. Much license is granted in developing your modus operandi and the game's RPG slant allows you to craft JC vaguely to your liking - from barrier-smashing juggernaut to security-hacking ghost. Mission success and exploration reap skill points that are used to raise JC's proficiency in the espionage arts (lockpicking, sniping, swimming, etc). While the system is probably too simple and rigidly incremental for hardcore RPG types - there's only 4 tiers per skill - from the FPS standpoint, it gives the game welcome depth; its effects are noticeable, but not intrusive or overbearing.
More immediately satisfying are the effects of JC's augmentations. Cannisters found every few levels allow new meter-draining abilities - super strength, thermal vision, health regeneration - to be installed and upgraded in a manner similar to the skills, but one that's far more rewarding; the first time you roll out your awesome little spy drone, say, is far more entertaining than a vague accuracy increase or a lockpick saved. On the flipside, this palpability makes the restrictions hit harder; the permanent choice that each cannister forces you to make between its two available augs is agony, if only because the lure of building into an omnipotent master is so great.
Still, no matter which route you take JC down, the game is generally open and forgiving enough to allow you to break character; after all, the skills only make you better at what you can already do and you don't need the augs to operate. Stealth is generally the most attractive discipline, direct combat initially being a messy affair due to powerful-yet-mincing enemy AI and your own rookie cack-handedness with the weaponry. Firefights gain the expected allure later on once your aim is a bit steadier and you've gotten more comfortable with the cannons (perhaps tuning them up with a laser sight or bigger magazine), but any time that direct violence and the way of the gun start to feel less effective, it's easy to just stuff the peacemaker back into your coat and try a subtler method; hacking cameras, jamming turrets, and interrogating the civvies for advice like a dead-eyed futuristic Columbo.
Indeed, Deus Ex positively encourages you to play with different solutions, and your development is dictated by your immediate actions rather than any long-term plan. You're never forced into any one way of doing things. Every move you make in Deus Ex feels natural, personal, and logical.
Meanwhile, every move the world makes feels like a consequence rather than a non-sequitur. That is, if you're willing to suspend some disbelief; the sheer depth of simulation means that the AI often struggles to keep up. A heated philosophical debate between two trendy intellectuals in a Parisian coffee house is absorbing if you're polite, but it's disheartening once you realise that they'll simply argue on uncaring once your playful side makes you dance on the table between them with a dead boy slung jauntily over your shoulder. In terms of visual logic, the world of Deus Ex is insane, and not even pretty with it; the game revels in the nasty details while struggling with the bigger picture of a broken world. Vermin and flies pick at the limp corpses that rest among the blocky geometry and bland lighting of dingy backstreets and industrial wastelands; an overcome populace wander through their sad lives with limp, stilted animation. It all fosters a certain amount of ambivalence; the technical squalor suggests melancholy and oppression as much as it does a crap engine. If you don't make the mental leap and ignore these absurdities, the game is just an ugly farce; do, and it's infused with thick atmosphere that flips from sci-fi through urban to gothic with consummate, enthralling ease.
Unfortunately, this isn't the only mental tickbox that's required to enjoy Deus Ex; a certain amount of blind faith must be invested. Pay too much attention, and the level designer's hand occasionally reveals itself, in lockpicks placed too conveniently close to locked doors, or in NPCs that can't ever be killed. Whether they're due to technology limitations, or concessions to plotline structure or the overwhelmed player, the moments where you suddenly feel your hand is being held are absolutely game-shatteringly heartbreaking, and completely counter-productive to the game's absorbing emergent gameplay.
But hey - there's not many of them and they're usually easily missed. Play by the rules of the game and grant its world the license it needs to grasp you, and the favour will be returned with a magnificent cyperpunk adventure that lets you work how you like to work. At its best, it's entirely open; at its worst, it constrains you in largely the same way other games do, but without losing its rich atmosphere, gripping narrative, or satisfying mechanics.
The answer, then: Deus Ex is a set in fictional world not unlike our own. It's nearly as freeform, a lot more forgiving, and a million times more rewarding.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 01/10/05
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