By Joel Hruska
Date: November 12, 2001
This column marks a step in a new direction for VHJ. We’ve decided to add occasional game coverage to our articles, news, and reviews and you, lucky reader that you are, are looking at our opening column. Rather than attempting to compete with the likes of PCGamer, CGW, or Gamespot, we are going to focus our efforts on the true gems of gaming. We’ll definitely try to hit the big ones as they become available, but we’re definitely not above looking at an older classic—which is exactly what we’ve done today.
Deus Ex could be summed up in just one word - amazing. This is a game that does almost everything right and it’s a game who’s subject matter has become increasingly interesting in our post-September 11th. In Deus Ex you are JC Denton, a fresh academy graduate for an international anti-terrorist organization named UNATCO. The game takes place roughly fifty years in the future from the present day, and the world is not a pretty place. A mysterious plague is ravaging the planet, terrorist groups are assaulting major cities on a daily basis (your first mission eerily takes place in the ruins of the Statue of Liberty) and civilization everywhere is under attack. It’s not a pretty picture.
Deus Ex’s biggest triumph—Character Design
Before I go any farther, though, I’ve got to take a minute and talk about the game structure itself. Deus has a fabulous character design system. When the game starts you are given a list of character stats and a few thousand points to assign to them. You earn additional “skill points” throughout the game by exploring the maps thoroughly, completing mission objectives, and making decisions at crucial points (more on these later). Possibilities include Heavy Weapon Usage, Pistols, Computer Hacking, Security System Hacking (called Electronics in the game), Swimming, Lock Picking, and Medicine. There’s nothing new about the idea of assignable skill points in a game, of course, but what’s amazing is how much they matter in Deus Ex.
The greatest part of Deus Ex’s gameplay is that your main character of JC Denton becomes whatever you wish him to be. Do you visualize him as a sneak, a computer hacker and data thief with minimal weapons skills? Then just keep assigning your skill points in the right skills. Because the game continuously awards skill points as you play your character is never finished growing. JC Denton can be a computer hacker, a Terminator-type killing machine, or a long-distance sniper with ultra-quiet movement and deadly marksmanship—or, if you prefer, he can be a combination of all three, or something else entirely. It’s up to you.
Another major character-design structure is the nano-augmentations your character gains. As you progress through the game you’ll find “Augmentation Canisters” that can be installed to boost certain abilities (such as jumping) or grant others. Each Canister contains two different powers, but only one can be installed. One canister, for instance, will grant JC either the ability to jump incredibly high and fall great distances without damage—or the ability to move absolutely silently. You must choose which augmentation best compliments the type of character you are trying to build and act accordingly.
Even the inventory and health systems (usually taken for granted in an FPS game) are well designed. Rather than settling for the traditional FPS idea of giving you only weak weaponry first and making stronger weapons available throughout the game, Deus Ex makes much of the powerful weaponry available right from the start. Ammo for these weapon types is scarce, however, and inventory space is limited. A pistol takes up only a single inventory slot, for example, while a rocket launcher takes up six. Its not possible to carry tons of heavy weapons at the same time. This creates very interesting strategic situations and forces the player to carefully manage his arsenal. Every weapon matters.
Similarly, Deus Ex tracks health according to multiple locations on the body. Falling from a building doesn’t just damage an abstract health bar—it damages your legs. Fall too far and your left and right legs will have no health—forcing you to crawl on the ground until you can find a medkit or a medical bot to heal you.
Putting All This to Good Use: Open-Ended Gameplay
None of this design would be of much use, however, if the gameplay remained the standard, linear, FPS fare we’ve become accustomed too. Even Half-Life, brilliant as it was, was a purely linear game. Gordon Freeman moved from Point A to Point B with no side quests or true freedom of exploration.
Deus Ex offers a brilliant alternative to the standard FPS shooter and has some of the most incredible open-ended scenarios I’ve ever seen. If there’s a locked door in your path, chances are you can blow it apart—or pick the lock, or find a key. Or, if you prefer, the kid back a few blocks knows about a secret entrance, because he used to raid the building for food. There’s a ventilation tunnel he’d be happy to tell you about—if you’ll buy him a meal.
The entire game plays like this and it brilliantly succeeds. Many of the puzzles feel as though they have no ‘right’ solution—just different solutions that lead to different outcomes. Breaking the door down will alert the guards on the other side, while picking the lock takes time and may attract the unwelcome attention of the local police. Finding a key would be best—if you knew where one was, and while that ventilation grate looks attractive, it puts you in an inconvenient spot for a fire fight if one occurs. It’s these types of decisions that make Deus Ex feel so true-to-life.
You Are Not Alone
Its an amazing fact that in most FPS games (and even most role-playing games) the few people you encounter either 1) Try to kill you 2) Have something amazingly pertinent to say to your life, despite having never met or seen you or 3) Repeat the same line of dialogue the guy two streets over just said, such as, “I don’t have time to talk to you.”
While its obviously not possible to completely eliminate this from any game populated with computer generated characters, Deus Ex goes farther than most. There are a great many civilians on the streets (particularly in Hong Kong) who you can speak too. Some of them have pertinent game-advancing information while some just have tidbits of story that flesh out the plot—but all of them can be spoken too and very few resort to the tiresome “Go away, I’m too busy to talk.” While you do complete almost all your missions alone, the depth of the NPC characters and the numerous side quests make the game more interesting.
The game’s plot itself is highly interesting and suspenseful. Early in your career at UNATCO you begin to see signs that things are not what they seem. Suspicious rumors of government cover-ups and international schemes appear, as well as rumors of a cure for the supposedly incurable plague ravaging the country. By using brilliant plot twists and unexpected developments the game keeps you on your toes, and manages to simultaneously weave an excellent plot that any arm-chair conspiracy theorist will love. The Illuminati, Majestic 12 and even the Knights Templar all have roles to play, and the game will take you from the Statue of Liberty in New York to Area 51 itself. Prepare to be surprised.
Graphics, Sound, and Technical Issues
The game is based on the Unreal Engine and still looks good even a year after its release, with realistic player models and good area rendering. The engine also handles large open spaces well, so lag times are kept to a minimum. Unfortunately, the game’s sound is more of a hit-and-miss affair. Voice acting is competent (though JC Denton’s voice is rather monosyllabic) but several of the sound effects are rather weak, particularly the assault rifle and shotgun. Because the game IS based on the Unreal Engine, it is very Glide-friendly, while its D3D support is not as good. I’d say any Voodoo3 card should run the game just fine, but if you’ve got anything less powerful than a GeForce DDR you may not see as good a performance rate. The game itself seemed very stable and I encountered no crashes or lock-ups while playing.
Play this game. It’s a masterpiece, with a deep involving plot, excellent open-ended game design, great character construction, and dozens of meaningful (and game-affecting) decisions a player can make within the plot itself. These strengths completely overwhelm its niggling sound issues and aging graphical engine. Since the game is now often found on the sub-$20 rack in many stores there’s no longer a reason not to buy it. Just be prepared for a LONG session at the computer the first time you boot it up.
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