Deus Ex (PC) Review

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Review by tankMage (January 2019)

Score: A (9.7/10)

A Lot More Fun than the Name Implies

  Many years ago, a friend brought Deus Ex over to my house and we spent a few hours exploring the dark dystopian landscape of 2052 before he took the game home so he could finish it. At the time I thought it was cool, but nothing special…I could not have been more wrong. Deus Ex is a slow burn, being a first person shooter with RPG elements and open ended gameplay that can make it hard for new players to find their feet. As a result it took me some time to really get into the game, but everything clicked into place after the first few awkward missions and the brilliance of its design became apparent even to a skeptic like myself.

   Things start out very simply as the player assumes the role of a cybernetic UNATCO agent known as JC Denton, who must investigate and eliminate a terrorist group called the NSF. At the start of the game, players can choose a few basic skills to train in that include pistols, rifles, lock picking, and computer hacking, which will determine how well JC performs certain tasks. Next, you’ll get JC’s first mission, which is to kick some NSF terrorists out of the Statue of Liberty and this is where everything opens up. Players can sneak past the bad guys, gun them down, set traps for them, or perform any combination of these strategies to fulfill JC Denton’s mission. There are all sorts of places to explore in the statue and the player will encounter even more complex scenarios as the game progresses. JC will get skill points for exploring areas as well completing goals. These points can be used to upgrade his skills, making his weapons of choice and tools more efficient.

Damn straight.

   Open-ended gameplay, character progression that rewards players for advancing in the game rather than grinding experience, a rich story, and excellent music make Deus Ex one of those once in a decade games that manage to cultivate a devoted following. Earlier, I said that I did not fully appreciate this game at first, which is in part due to its few, yet obvious flaws. New players will either struggle to find a play style that suits them or take to the game like a fish, depending on how well they build JC at first and how they choose to play the game, which can leave some people with a bad impression. The graphics were also overly dark and the primitive lightning mechanics didn’t help. Character models that were not top notch even by the standards of the year 2000 and bad voice acting also detract from the presentation. Aside from the initial awkwardness and aesthetic flaws, Deus Ex is truly excellent, so give it a try if you are even remotely interested.

Story

   Set in the dystopian future of 2052, where cybernetic augmentation and various forms of political strife have pushed civilization to the brink of collapse, Deus Ex stands out from the crowd immediately. The game begins with two conspirators discussing their plans to conquer the world using a virus called the Grey Death and cuts to Liberty Island in New York which has been occupied by a group of NSF terrorists. JC Denton, the player controlled main character, is tasked with capturing the NSF commander who is holed up in the Statue of Liberty. From here the player is immersed in a dark world of conspiracies and political intrigue. The story touches upon many philosophical and social issues that people have debated for centuries, which are all exacerbated by the game’s futuristic setting where technology has created even more complex problems.

   While Deus Ex delves into some heavy stuff, it never comes off as preachy. The characters are the mouthpieces for the conceptual underpinnings of the story and multiple viewpoints are presented through dialogue, often presenting the player with a moral dilemma that he or she is free to answer through JC Denton’s actions. There is a lot of expositive dialogue, but it feels natural since it is generally in the form of a mission briefing or a byproduct of the narcissistic villain’s bragging. The world of Deus Ex is further fleshed out through interactions with minor NPCs, side quests, as well as snippets of info found in emails, books, and the like.

   As far as character development goes, the devs did an excellent job with JC, who is your archetypal no nonsense G-man placed in an extraordinary situation. JC and his brother Paul, are rather wooden, but every now and then a bit of humanity can be seen in them (especially in regards to their relationship as siblings) which makes them more than the usual one dimensional heroes we see in many games. The player is essentially in control of JC’s destiny and can choose to be good, evil, or anything in between. The cast will often react accordingly to the player’s choices and some characters will scold JC for killing people, while others will reward him. The freedom of choice in this game is taken to its superb logical conclusion as the player brings about one of three final outcomes in the last mission.

Graphics

   Being made in 2000, Deus Ex isn’t exactly pretty to look at. 3D character models were coming out of their boxy early days, but they still had a ways to go and there’s a lot of sharp angles on the characters in this game. Usually this is not much of a problem as far as I’m concerned, but the devs decided to zoom in on characters during dialogue, which made all of their angular features and jagged edges very noticeable. This could have been remedied with a few pre-rendered cutscenes for important events, which would probably have held up better. It also doesn’t help that the graphics were not that great even by the standards of the year 2000. To be fair, this game looked a hell of a lot better on the old CRT monitors that were still in use when Deus Ex was released and I played the Steam game of the year edition, which could have benefited from some bilinear filtering and antialiasing. My main gripe about the graphics is that everything is so damn dark and I had to constantly use JC’s built-in cyborg flashlight to see things. On one hand the gloomy visuals contributed to the atmosphere, but they went overboard with the low light mechanics, using them far too often.

Half the challenge is figuring out what the fuck you’re shooting at.

   Aside from the character models and lighting, this game looks alright and feels a bit like an interactive (and more interesting) version of the movie Blade Runner. Drab grey palettes are used frequently in Deus Ex, though they are often contrasted by tawdry neon lights, iridescent pools of chemicals, and flashing monitors. JC will spend an awful lot of time crawling through tunnels and ventilation shafts; luckily Ion Storm did a good job of making these dingey places different from one another. The explosion effects are also worth noting, since they still manage to be satisfying, even though they aged about as well as the character models. There are also nice touches like shell casings that are ejected from guns, shrapnel from destroyed objects, and cool looking weapons like the Dragon Tooth Sword.

   While the normal human character models leave something to be desired, the various genetic and cybernetic monstrosities that JC has to fight hold up in their own strange way, because the chunky graphics enhance their alien nature. Players will encounter all sorts of strange things as they go down the rabbit hole and UNATCO’s first generation cybernetic agents are perhaps the best example. Gunther and Anna, JC Denton’s allies, are exactly the sort of thing one expects to see in a game about a dystopian future. Both of them sport things like exposed wiring and mechanical parts grafted into their flesh, which probably won’t be the case if and when cybernetic enhancements actually become a thing, but are effective dramatic tools nonetheless. Players will also encounter the psychopharmaceutically conditioned MiBs, which are about as uncanny as Anna and Gunther, as well as other novel enemies. The somewhat stiff animations, jaggy 3D models, and low res textures make these creatures look like they belong in a hopeless, rundown future, so I guess the crap graphics worked out to some extent.

User Interface

   Deus Ex’s UI is decent, though I’m not very familiar with PC FPS games. At any rate, the controls work as they should and it’s possible to remap anything you do not like. However, tinkering with the inventory was rather odious, since it forces players to constantly shuffle things around every time they pick up a new item. I’ve seen worse inventories and the one used in this game is similar to other titles of the time, which had their strengths and weaknesses. The most annoying thing about the UI was how the game handles looting bodies. Click on an incapacitated enemy and JC will automatically take anything you have room for…whether you want it or not. While not a big deal, dropping combat knives and pistols every so often after you check a body was a drag. The upshot is that it also made looting ammo easy.

Music and Sound

   A great game needs great music and this one has a stellar soundtrack. The dark techno BGM fits this game perfectly and is very well put together. Many of the themes got stuck in my head, which really says something for a title that comes from a time when video game music was turning into boring, cinematic trash. Speaking of trash, much of the voice acting is awful or amateurish at best, which was the norm for this era in gaming…I guess you can’t have the best of both worlds. Sadly this hurt the sense of drama in many situations. The sound effects could have also used some work, though they aren’t bad, it just would have been nice if they had more texture.

Gameplay

   As I said before, Deus Ex is an FPS game with stealth and RPG elements. It’s possible to play this game in many different ways which is one its greatest strengths, but it also took me time to learn to go with the flow and act naturally. The fact that JC’s ability to use his guns accurately is about as closely tied to the skill system as it is the player’s own skill also makes the experience awkward at first. I missed a lot of headshots even at close range early on, because the bullet decided come out of the barrel at an odd angle…at the same time this also saved me a few times when I should have missed, so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much. Anyway, couple the RPG mechanics with the ability to solve problems in a variety of different ways and you have a game that can be confusing at first, if you were expecting a run and gun shooter.

   Dues Ex will really shine for players who can stick with it long enough to get accustomed to it or those who take to its mechanics naturally. As I said before, players can be sneaky or aggressive and there’s even different ways to do so. For example, Denton has to get into a locked building. A sneaky player may crawl in through an air duct or knock out an enemy with the Prod Charger and take the key. At the same time a more aggressive player can just shoot all of the guards and blow the door up with a LAM, which is a type of grenade. Maybe you built up Denton’s hacking skill and used it to turn the turrets on the guards, allowing you to stroll through the front door. Sometimes players can achieve goals through simple detective work, by talking to NPCs or reading emails. This gives the game a tremendous amount of replay value since there are so many ways to accomplish goals and build your character.

   I touched upon the RPG mechanics earlier and while they get in the way at times, they also make things more interesting and rewarding. JC has a variety of skills that improve his ability to do everything from hacking computers to swimming. There are also several main weapon categories that include pistols, rifles, close combat, and heavy weapons that are governed by the skill system. Players can upgrade any skill they wish (given that they have enough skill points) in order to create a character that fits their playstyle. Even better, skill points are awarded for completing missions and exploring the game instead of grinding experience by killing the same enemy a billion times like in most other RPGs. This system urges the player forward and keeps the action moving, which is the best kind of character progression system as far as I’m concerned.

   As a cyborg, JC can be augmented with a variety of powers that range from regeneration to cloaking. Players can mix and match these augmentations provided they find Augmentation Canisters. Most of the early augmentations aren’t very flashy, but some really powerful ones become available as JC moves forward. Denton needs Bioelectric energy to power his augmentations, which balances things out a bit considering how abilities like cloaking allow him to bypass guards effortlessly. Some of the augmentations are better than others and it seemed like the devs were stretching to find ideas that were within the realm of possibility to keep the game from going off the rails. Still, the system works well for what it is and really adds to the player’s ability to customize their agent.

   JC has access to quite an arsenal of weapons that can keep the gameplay fresh even after completing it several times. Each type of weapon is governed by a skill that affects how much damage it deals and its accuracy if it is a ranged weapon. The pistols category includes a 10mm handgun, a silent semi-automatic pistol, and a wrist mounted crossbow. Next there’s my favorite, the rifle family, where you will find classics like the sniper rifle, sawed-off shotgun, and assault rifle. The heavy weapons family is home to more exotic arms like the GEP Gun (a mini rocket launcher), flamethrower, and plasma rifle. Low tech is for those who like to get up close and personal with things like crowbars, combat knives, batons, and the mighty dragon tooth sword. The great thing about these weapons is that they are all viable and can be used exclusively or in tandem with each other, but they also have their own quirks which make the player’s choices matter.

   Combat in this game can be awkward thanks to the RPG mechanics (imagine standing around for three seconds watching Denton and his opponent reload in the middle of a gun fight) but after JC becomes adept with his weapon of choice, the game will begin to feel more like a smoothly designed shooter. Even better, players can choose to avoid combat almost entirely, which is a unique challenge on its own. The enemies can be a bit repetitive at times, though many of them are exotic enough that it takes a while to get bored of them. Players will also encounter several enemies that can be thought of as bosses and the fights that take place with them are pretty basic and straightforward. Luckily the story’s sense of drama and the ability to bypass or trick some of the bosses makes the battles more interesting.

   Finally, there’s plenty of stuff to find in this game and many of your actions will have a tangible effect on later events, making the game even more interesting to play a second, third, or even fourth time. One example of this are Paul Denton’s (JC’s brother) and Manderlay’s (JC’s boss) attitudes towards killing. Paul tells JC not to kill anyone and will get angry if JC murders everything he meets. On the other hand, Manderlay approves of killing and will give Denton extra money at the end of some missions for doing so. Of course there are rewards for sparing lives, because another character (whose name escapes me) will give the player extra items if they don’t kill anyone. Freedom of choice is a theme that runs through the gameplay to the very end where the player can choose from three different ways to complete the final mission, which will in turn unlock one of three different endings.

Final Thoughts

   I have never given out an A+ before, though Deus Ex came close to getting one. In the end I went with a A, because of its problems. However, this is a case where the good far outweighs the bad. I’ve spent five pages talking about this game, but that can’t capture the experience of playing it for the first time and being immersed in its dark, paranoid world. This title is fairly cheap and can easily run on any computer made in the last 10 years, making the 30 hours of entertainment I got out of the first playthrough alone worth the cost.

Recommendations

Deus Ex is an excellent choice for someone looking for a game with a great story and tons of replay value.     

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