Review by El Pinguino

"Three years on, it's still ahead of its time."

Every now and then a game comes along that changes the face of videogames as we know it. Think Mario Bros and Doom. Sometimes, a groundbreaking game comes along and is pretty much ignored by other developers. Deus Ex is one of them.

Graphics are unimportant. Graphics power improves every week, so a three-year-old game running the Unreal Tournament engine hasn't got a hope in hell of looking good next to Doom III, but look beyond the polygon count and you'll find an experience that can only be described as a masterpiece.

Set in the not-too-distant future, Deus Ex has you playing as JC Denton, an agent working for a counter-terrorist organisation. So far, so what. The difference is that JC is nano-augmented, letting him install a range of augmentations - biotech ''plug-ins'' - that he can switch on and off at will. This augmentation system, combined with an RPG-style skills upgrade system, forms the basis of a game that offers a level of player freedom and customisation still unrivalled today (21/5/2003), while guiding the player a plot of intrigue, suspicion and conspiracy that has not yet been bettered in videogame.

The action all happens in real-time, from a first-person perspective, and yes, you can shoot things. But Deus Ex is so much more than a simple FPS. From the first mission onwards, there is nearly always more than one way to complete your objectives. You can go in with a huge gun and blow your enemies to bits, or you could hack the security grid and slip in unnoticed, or you could use the silent-but-deadly ninja approach, taking out enemies without being noticed. In fact, the game offers rewards for not taking the easy way out and playing it as a pure FPS.

These incentives take the form of skill points and augmentation canisters. Skill points are awarded for Critical Achievements and Progress, but also for Exploration and Character Interaction - Ion Storm wants you to spend time involving yourself with the world they've created. Once you've been awarded some skill points, you can then use them to upgrade one of your range of skills, which vary from weapons skills to hacking abilities and swimming proficiency. Upgrading different skills has different effects. For example, upgrading the Rifle skill will improve your accuracy, reload speed and reduce recoil, while upgrading the Lockpicking skill lets JC pick locks quicker and more quietly, as well as using fewer lockpicks. In this way, you can choose your character's strengths and weaknesses according to the way you want to play the game.

Augmentations offer a similar choice. They come in the form of canisters which, when installed, offer a choice of two upgrades. For example, the Leg augmentation makes you choose between Speed Enhancement and Running Silently. Since you have limited augmentation slots, it forces you to make choices about how you want to develop your character. Moreover, augmentations can be upgraded once installed, with the aid of Aug Upgrade Canisters, giving another dimension of flexibility.

The plot supports this idea of choice-making. From the outset, different people try to influence you. Should you listen to your partner and eliminate every single threat? Or should you listen to your agent brother and go for non-lethal takedowns? The twisting, compelling plot throws up dilemmas like this at every turn, right up until the end. It makes for gripping stuff, and I've must have played it through ten times, just taking a different approach to the game. This is true replayability. Are you listening Nintendo?

It's a crying shame that the developers of the trigger-happy, brainless games that flood the market nowadays have ignored Deus Ex, because it is a masterclass in game design and execution.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 05/21/03, Updated 05/21/03

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