If you've got what looks like an action game and often acts like an action game, then custom dictates that it should be labeled as such. Every once in a while, however, a game that isn't so easy to categorize comes along. Deus Ex is such a game. While it uses the first-person perspective, the complex character development system and the ability to choose different paths of progression make it difficult to call it any one type of game. Not quite an RPG and not quite an action game, Deus Ex was a truly unique game at the time of its release on the PC roughly a year and a half ago and is shaping up to make the same waves on the PlayStation 2.
Deus Ex takes place in a dark and futuristic world, reminiscent of popular cyberpunk fiction like the works of William Gibson and containing an atmosphere similar to that of Blade Runner, where a plague called Grey Death has erupted. Terrorists active in New York City are attempting to prevent the distribution of medication that can prevent the plague, and that's where you come in. Playing as J.C. Denton, a United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO) operative augmented with nanotechnology and special training, you will be sent in to try to break up the terrorists' hold on the cure. The story doesn't stay as straightforward as that for very long, however, which is part of what makes Deus Ex so interesting.
When you start the game, you will be given a total of 5,000 points with which to buy skills. The initial list to choose from contains such skills as heavy weapon use, swimming, hacking, and lock picking. Spending points on specific skills will let J.C. be more effective when he's required to perform those actions. For example, just because you didn't buy the swimming skill doesn't mean you'll drown when you end up in water later on; it just means that you won't be able to swim as fast as if you had. Similarly, you can pick up weapons that you aren't skilled in and use them to an extent, but your aim will be much better if you have the necessary skill. You'll also have nanotech augmentations (think cyberpunk--these augmentations are mechanical implants that help you perform better) that you can buy in addition to your skills. A few examples are eye alterations that will grant night vision, as well as a lung enhancement that will let J.C. hold his breath for an extended amount of time.
One of the most important gameplay elements in Deus Ex is that you will often have the ability to choose your responses when conversing with other characters. This ability plays a very important role as you progress, as it will have an effect on the outcome of your game. You will run into this almost immediately after you start playing. At the beginning of your first mission, you will meet with J.C.'s brother Paul, who issues your orders and fills you in on what's been happening. As you prepare to head into your mission, Paul reminds you that you're a police officer and cautions you that lethal force shouldn't be used if it can be avoided. After he warns you, he offers a choice of three weapons, all of which can be used with deadly force. How they will be used is up to you.
Later on in the level, you will run into a number of UNATCO troops on guard. Some of them offer only a quick hello, but others have more stimulating conversation. One such guard is eager to see action and is obviously frustrated that he's doing only patrols. He asks you for news, and you're given two options for your response. You can tell him that you don't know what your command is up to but that you're going in to wipe out all of the opposition. The other option is to tell him that you're going to keep it nonlethal, as a good police officer should. If you give him the "kill 'em all" response, he'll be genuinely impressed with you and tell you where you can find some tranquilizer darts, as well as offer to sell you some extra weapons. If you give him the nonviolent answer, he'll be disappointed, having heard that nano augs were supposed to be ruthless. He'll also neglect to tell you about the hidden darts and only offer to sell you the other weapons. After you have these kinds of encounters with characters, they'll react according to the initial opinions they've formed of you if you run into them again.
This open-ended style of play runs throughout the game and isn't restricted to just conversations either. Most situations in Deus Ex leave you with several methods of attack, so you don't have to run in with guns blazing all the time. If you want to conserve your ammo or have taken some damage and don't want to risk another firefight, your chances of sneaking by guards and looking for a more quiet way of doing things are good. Taking the action approach will be met with the appropriate measures--alarms will go off, guards will rush you, and you may draw the wrath of giant sentry robots.
The game also has a very wide variety of weapons, items, and upgrades available. You will collect an odd assortment of items as you progress. Items range from abstract (a 40-ounce bottle of beer) and necessary (a lock pick or med pack) to utilitarian (the multitool). You will also find plenty of weapons to use, including handguns, crowbars, sniper rifles, pepper spray, and even electroprods. The way you play the game will often be reflected in your inventory. If you prefer to take the action approach, you'll eventually collect more weapons and have weapon-based skills at your disposal. If you prefer stealth to action, you will likely have more lock picks and silent weapons and will have purchased your skills accordingly.
One of the biggest concerns in bringing Deus Ex to the PlayStation 2 was the menu system. With so many RPG elements, the PC version of Deus Ex required liberal use of the keyboard and a large number of hotkeys. This worked well for the PC, but the complex keyboard system didn't appear as though it could be brought over to the PS2's Dual Shock 2 Controller without damaging the game. Luckily, Ion Storm has incorporated a menu system that works well for the PS2. You'll have two basic menus that you can pop up at any time. Pressing the square button brings up your item menu on the left side of the screen. You can manage all of your weapons and items here by selecting, using, or dropping them. All the items and weapons are categorized within collapsible menus as well--handguns will have their own menu, as will rifles and melee weapons. The circle button lets you pop up your skills and augmentations menus, where you can examine all the skills and augs you currently have and purchase new ones as they become available. Skills and augmentations comprise the two tiers in this menu system; pressing R1 and L1 lets you flip back and forth between them. If all of this sounds confusing, take heart--the game will also include support for a USB keyboard and mouse.
Currently, Deus Ex for the PS2 is about 80 percent complete, so we've gotten a good look at what the final game will look and play like. At the time of its PC release in June 2000, Deus Ex was in no way cutting edge in terms of graphics (it used a tweaked version of the Unreal engine). A year and a half later, Deus Ex still isn't pushing the envelope as far as graphics are concerned, but that's not to say the game is bad looking. Just don't expect to have your socks knocked off when you boot it up. One issue that we do hope will be addressed before release, however, is the abnormally long loading times. The large levels that Deus Ex had in the PC version have had to be broken up into sections for the PS2 release, so as you pass through the level, you'll reach load points, where the game auto-saves and loads the next section. These load times aren't the short variety like those found in Red Faction--they're long enough to require a loading screen and meter. Hopefully, some optimization will take care of this. Aside from those two concerns, though, the game is shaping up quite nicely. Deus Ex: The Conspiracy is currently slated for release in late February. Check back with us at that time for the full review.