Review by mark1bdi

"A genre-defining moment in first-person video gaming"

Choices. Being able to choose the course of action in a game - you might think - is a basic component that ought to be included by even the most backward of games developers. You might be right. We make choices during gameplay constantly. Shall I fire or move? Shall I duck for cover or stand and fight? Shall I jump for that distant platform or stay where I am? The clever part of offering a gamer choices is the readjustment of consequences. How many times in a game has item X prevented character Y from interacting in situation Z, resulting in a three hour round trip to retrieve item X or a restart from an earlier save point. A clever game would not require the player to have item X or ever have met character Y.

Approaching problems in different ways is Deus Ex's bread and butter. Read any FAQ about the game and it is littered with corrections and additions. "Although you said kill this person to get the key, I found destroying the Coke Machine with some explosives created a hole in the wall big enough to squeeze through which meant I didn't need to use the door at all." Read the developers biopic in Edge magazine and they will refer to seeing games testers concocting methods of completing assignments that even the developers didn't know were possible. This is the testament of a clever game. A game that offers proper choices. A game that has gone out of its way to avoid the item X and character Y problem.

Right now we are on the verge of an influx of games that promise realistic physics engines, allowing players to solve puzzles using skills and knowledge they have gained in the real world. We sit with anticipation waiting for the release of Half Life 2; one such game that promises to allow players total freedom over how they interact with the game world. A freedom that will allow problems to be solved knowing, for example, that doors have hinges, therefore why not just destroy those? Why not blow the lock off rather than look for the key?

Advanced Physics game engines have only recently become possible due to the increased magnitude of the computers that sit on our desks. A Pentium IV with a one Gigabyte of RAM has some room to manoeuvre when it comes to constantly checking the implications of every action on every object on screen; there is spare power to do that. But Deus Ex was released in 2000 - four years ago. Four years is a lifetime in games development, yet Deus Ex managed to provide a glimpse (albeit a shadowy veiled glimpse) at the realistic problem solving environment we are told is possible within a fraction of the processing power now available. The game wraps an intricate plot around a convincingly designed game mechanic that makes us believe – for the most part – that our choices count. That what we do whilst playing has some consequence that we will suffer.

An intricate plot is one of the game's most heralded features. Set amidst a future of government corruption, terrorism on a global scale and a suffering, impoverished populace preoccupied with drug abuse and inter-racial fighting [so that's now then – ed], you take the role of JC Denton. Denton, a cybernetic human working for the government anti-terrorist agency UNATCO is initially given the task of recovering Ambrosia, an antidote to the pandemic Gray Death virus. The plot twists and turns like an Alton Tower's roller-coaster, throwing in all manner of surprises and revelations. Constantly the narrative opts for the unpredictable. Your discovery of corruption and the MJ12 organisation. Your brush with the Illuminati. Your involvements with the Triads in Hong Kong and dealings with the Paris underground. Just when you think the story is homing in on a conclusion (around the actual half-way mark), another plot twist will involve some distant journey to a faraway Bond-style location. The story is immense and can be added to depending on the player's dedication and exploration. Find datacubes (a Deus Ex take on PDAs) and reveal personal information, passwords, bank details and recorded conversations. Log into email accounts and voyeuristically capture background information on the characters in the game.

Uncompromisingly vast. Relationship-harmingly long. You will age with Deus Ex, it is truly a monster of a game. Without reading the full scope of all missions, players will on occasion believe they are near the end several times, only to realise they are only half way through; this game is that massive. Almost detrimentally long, the game pushes players to the edge where only the toughest and most dedicated will survive. But actually reaching the end is so satisfying (and so amazing thanks to the multiple endings) that you just have to keep on going, in the knowledge that although sometimes you won't want to, turning the PC on and double-clicking the “Play Deus Ex” icon will eventually hook you. And then you realise, once again, that ten minutes has turned into two hours.

Perhaps, other than the remarkable length of the game, the most unique feature, and one that splits critics is the addition of a well-balanced RPG sub-system. By allowing the player to upgrade the basic skills (not called on by the player but improve general performance) and special abilities (called on by the player where required), the game allows the player to further customise their experience within the game. Fed with skill points from completing the rolling mission objectives (for basic skills) and collectible canisters (for special abilities) the system really does define a path through a mission. For example, refine the JC's swimming ability and (without a re-breather) he can swim far enough underwater to reach a door further into MJ12's secret underground base, otherwise its Gun Turrets and Control Boxes for a good five minutes.

Message Boards still ring hot with arguments about Deus Ex. Some say the graphics were too dark and blocky, too drab and colourless. Some say the game was very buggy and wouldn't run on anything other than a high-end machine. Other say the overuse of the lock-pick and multi-tool puzzles made the game repetitive and boring. It is easy to look upon the title with hindsight and see that it maybe wasn't revolutionary, in the sense that nothing ever really followed in its footsteps. It is also easy to write Deus Ex off in a direct comparison with Half Life, a game some consider to still be genre defining.

Deus Ex doesn't ask to be judged alongside any other title. At its most basic, it is a wonderful stealth action game, if you want it to be. It can be classed as a unique take upon the RPG genre, if you play RPGs and are interested in that kind of thing. It could be judged as a modern, first-person reworking of the adventure game, if you played that sort of thing in the past. Deus Ex is pretty much anything you want it to be. It is a little buggy, that is not an argument. The game's graphics are a little dark, but in fairness the story demands a dull and vapid setting. What critics must appreciate. What critics must understand. What players must realise is that Deus Ex is a masterpiece. Unsurpassed in its brilliance, unique in its approach, untouchable as a genre-defining moment in first-person video gaming.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 10/29/04

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