Deus Ex - Reader Review  

Be Your Own Six Million Dollar Man
by John Boske

Low to Moderate
20-40 hours


Rating definitions 

   In the future, terrorist hideouts are just down the street, air vents lead from the bathroom to the secret underground labs, and every hobo or criminal has a keen and insightful opinion on international politics. In addition, the US will be in a state of near-civil war, plagues and terrorism will run rampant through every major city on Earth, and shady evildoers in suits will profit from it all. Enter JC Denton, an agent for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition; a man augmented by nanotech and dedicated to hunting down the bad guys, whatever highly identifiable uniform they might be wearing. Welcome to the world of Deus Ex, the tale of a multilayered conspiracy wrapped in one of the most robust and versatile games ever made.

   While the game is more complex than the first-person shooter engine it occupies, most of the controls are fairly standard: WASD moves, the mouse aims, left mouse fires weapons or uses items at hand, and right mouse uses the targeted object (opens doors, talks to people, picks up items, etc.). An optional tutorial helpfully explains the intricacies of movement, combat, stealth and character development, while an in-game notation system dutifully keeps track of current objectives, conversations, and every important note or passcode you come across. The end result is that the interface throws a lot of information at the player, but it's not difficult to keep track of what it is that needs doing, and the controls are intuitive enough that doing it is not likely to be a problem either.

   Based on the Unreal engine, Deus Ex features both massive outdoor locales and extensive indoor ones. With some settings modeled after their real-world counterparts, the scale and design of most areas are generally appropriate, though some spots will have the feel of being under-populated or short on detail. Nevertheless, the feel of each area is generally conveyed pretty well: a bustling marketplace in Hong Kong, a quiet mansion in the country, a scummy and crime-ridden city block in Hell's Kitchen, the obligatory labs/military bases; they're all well designed and colorful, although they do sometimes fall prey to the 'vents lead everywhere' contrivance of most shooters. Character models are varied and generally good-looking, but animated somewhat stiffly by comparison to today's standards, and are the most obvious visual indicator of the game's age.

   Soundwork, similarly, is generally good with a few spotty or weak points. The guns and most other sound effects get the job done, but are nothing to write home about. Voice acting, however, is slightly less consistent. Some characters are wholly believable (Walton Simons, for instance, epitomizes the cold-blooded, impatient bureaucrat), while others obviously sound too lifeless to be particularly compelling (JC himself, for instance, gives a generally underwhelming performance), and still others just sound silly, particularly some of the New York citizens and many of the game's Asian characters. Beyond reproach, however, is the game's musical score, which features skillful, appropriate compositions by Michael Van Den Bos and Alexander Brandon, among others. The music lacks the epic feel of many RPGs, but it nonetheless suits the game's numerous environments well, particularly as it varies in tempo and beat according to whether the player is conversing, exploring, fighting or traveling from one area to another.

Time to un-pimp ze chateau! Time to un-pimp ze chateau!
I'd like to highlight some security issues.  Issue 1: Man-sized vents which conveniently overlook otherwise secure areas. "I'd like to highlight some security issues. Issue 1: Man-sized vents which conveniently overlook otherwise secure areas."

   Owing partially to unimpressive AI, Deus Ex is not a particularly difficult game, particularly later on once JC's combat skills and augs are better developed. Some enemies are notoriously lousy shots, and most are fairly uncurious when it comes to searching for the player. Still, the game throws a good selection of human and non-human enemies at the player, and at higher difficulties the more dangerous opponents - snipers, bots, commandos - can pose legitimate threats to even skilled players. The main events can be breezed through in just under twenty hours, perhaps less for a particularly deft player, but a first-time playthrough is likely to exceed thirty. Furthermore, given that each area is fairly large and has plenty of secrets tucked away to encourage exploration, one can lose up to forty hours in one go.

   Chief among the game's strengths, and the reason it still holds together so well today, is its versatility. Skills and augmentations aren't perfectly balanced, but are sufficiently diverse to encourage multiple different play styles, and enough skill points and augmentation canisters exist to permit both specialization and jack-of-all-tradesmanship. The player is never pigeonholed into pure stealth or combat, although with augs like ballistic protection, cloaking, silent running or regeneration, and with skills like lockpicking, hacking, demolition or weapons training, they can certainly dedicate themselves in either direction. Another major plus is that the game only ends when the player dies, meaning that even though there are certain objectives which must be achieved, there are situations where the player can fail key objectives and still proceed, such as with hostage situations. In a similar vein, there is only one person in the whole game the player must kill, for plot purposes; anyone else can safely be knocked unconscious or even avoided, though this can be exceedingly difficult in some sections.

The Bar: innocent watering hole, or source of helpful information for anti-terrorist organizations?  You decide! The Bar: innocent watering hole, or source of helpful information for anti-terrorist organizations? You decide!

   As can be expected from a game about international conspiracies, the plot can get get convoluted at times, and there are a few points which are only properly explained if the player makes certain choices along the way, or invests in certain skills (particularly hacking). Having said that, Deus Ex boasts an intriguing mystery at the core of its story, with a menagerie of plot twists and revelations. As mentioned, JC starts out as an agent for UNATCO, alongside his brother and fellow nano-aug agent Paul. JC soon learns, however, that the anti-terrorist organization may be in the hands of larger, more insidious powers. And by 'may be', of course, I mean 'is'. Fortunately, most of the game's twists and turns are not so obvious, and a good amount of evidence lies here and there to suggest - but not completely reveal - what lies ahead. The number of competing factions and people involved may at times be difficult to keep track of, but it's never unclear what the player's goal is, and the overall plot is not difficult to comprehend.

   The thing to know about Deus Ex, above all else, is that while other games out-do its individual aspects - there are better shooters, better RPG systems and better stories - few games combine those aspects so successfully. It tells a solid tale of conspiracy and intrigue, through the vehicle of a globe-hopping adventure and a versatile action/RPG engine, decorated with excellently design levels and above-average sound and music. It is rightly heralded as one of the best games of its time, and though the graphics may age and the gameplay may pale in comparison to what contemporary titles can accomplish, it remains one of the most unique and well-rounded games of all time.

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