Deus Ex's deep gameplay and engrossing story make for a game that's just as fun now as it was over a decade ago.
Set midway into the 21st century, Deus Ex depicts a world where millions are dying from a mysterious plague known as the Grey Death, the United Nations is stronger than most national governments and sapient computers manage unprecedented global surveillance networks. JC Denton, a nano-augmented agent for UNATCO (the UN's new anti-terrorist task force), is working in a devastated New York City when he uncovers evidence indicating that a powerful organization called Majestic 12 is manipulating both the US and the UN. As his employers turn on him, Denton discovers links between MJ12 and the Triad, the Illuminati and even Area 51. It soon becomes clear that the group is no longer content to control others from the shadows, and only Denton can prevent them from achieving world domination. Deus Ex's story does a fine job keeping you sucked in, moving efficiently from location to location with new conspiracies to accompany each locale. Most of the supporting characters are not very deep (I had no trouble picking out the twist villains five seconds into their first appearances), but there are more than enough of them to make up for individuals' issues. There's also a good amount of detail in the branching script – having Denton stroll into the women's' restroom at UNATCO headquarters will cause his boss to berate him later, for example, and shooting one of the UNATCO allies in the first level will lead to questions about the incident later. These dialogue changes don't have much impact on the plot as a whole, but they help to immerse the player in Deus Ex's remarkably open universe. At specific points, players can choose whether characters live or die, greatly impacting the tone of the story and potentially avoiding some tough boss fights. There are also three distinct endings to the game, though which one you get is based entirely on your actions in the final level, so you can see all three without replaying the game. On their own, each of the conclusions is abrupt and a little unsatisfying, but taken together, they work fine (and you'll want to see all three anyway if you have any intention of playing Invisible War). Though it isn't quite as malleable as in games like Knights of the Old Republic (there's no evil ending, among other things), Deus Ex's script helps to give the game a substantial amount of replayability (on top of the already highly-replayable mission design).
Deus Ex's tutorial is quite lengthy, and with good reason. Between the shooting, hacking/lock picking, Denton's nano-augmentations and stealth options, there's a good deal to learn, and the multiple pathways found in each map will give you plenty of opportunities to try out everything. One could argue that the game is a jack of all trades and a master of only a few of them, but it does such a fine job mixing and matching its various gameplay types that it hardly matters. As Deus Ex looks like an FPS, though, many people will place the most weight on its shooting segments, which may be off-putting to some (at least at first). Denton's aiming abilities are tied to his stats, and until they're sufficiently upgraded, he'll have to stand still for several seconds before he has a chance of hitting something. As a result, the game's early gunfights can feel rather "mushy" (for lack of a better word), encouraging the player to use stealth or alternate routes to avoid them. Later on, after the player has spent some of their points, the weapons work similarly to just about every other first person shooter, but those early awkward hours will bother those who are expecting an explosive FPS (those who realize it's an RPG, on the other hand, will have a much smoother experience). The melee weapons can also feel rather clumsy – at least until you get your hands on the Dragon's Tooth, a nanotech-based sword that resembles a lightsaber and is just as powerful as it looks. That weapon made stealth a much more viable option for me, allowing me to quickly run up to enemies and slash them before they could run to sound an alarm. Running enemies is something you'll see a lot in the game, as your opponents will often attempt to retreat after becoming wounded. This attempt at self-preservation is kind of cool the first few times you see it, but gets old as the game goes on. The artificial intelligence as a whole isn't that great, with enemies failing to take cover and quickly forgetting about Denton after he leaves their line of sight for five seconds. I also could have done without the little robotic spiders that pop up occasionally, inflict tremendous amounts of damage and practically require a rocket launcher to kill.
Deus Ex's level design is simply awesome. The game's maps are huge, providing multiple routes to each objective, lots of hidden secrets and plenty of room for side missions. I spent over an hour finding all the extra stuff around the Statue of Liberty in the first level, and many of the later areas (including the canals of Hong Kong and a decidedly unglamorous Paris) provided a similar level of immersion. There's a great mixture of combat-packed and dialogue-oriented sections, giving the game a very comfortable pace that it sustains for the entire campaign. And though you can easily find longer RPGs, Deus Ex is much longer than most shooters, with my fairly complete play-through (I finished most of the side missions and got all of the endings) lasting nearly thirty hours.
Graphically, Deus Ex wasn't exactly stunning in 2000, and it undeniably looks pretty old now. The scope of the environments is still neat (especially compared to its more claustrophobic sequel), but most of the textures lack detail and the character models animate very stiffly (the lip-synching in particular can take a while to get used to). It's a good thing the game's perpetual night covers much of the world in shadows, allowing your imagination to fill in the details that usually aren't there. And for all the datedness, there are some nice touches: birds fly away as Denton approaches them, the Dragon's Tooth casts a faint blue glow on everything near it and insects circle around rotting corpses. The game's voice acting is inconsistent – most of the Americans sound fine, but many of the Chinese and French accents are either cringe-worthy or unintentionally hilarious. The dynamic music score, on the other hand, is extremely effective, with the military march-like main theme and the Hong Kong markets tune being especially memorable.
Even from the perspective of a gamer in 2012, Deus Ex is still a remarkable experience. The graphics and AI weren't great even by 2000 standards, but the large environments, branching script and deep gameplay make for a game that's just as fun now as it was a decade ago. For all its minor problems (and it does have a lot of them), few titles before or since have offered both the intricate story and the sense of freedom and immersion that Deus Ex does. Along with the Mass Effect and KOTOR games, it's also one those rare quality WRPGs that doesn't feature a generic fantasy setting, making it a must for any role-playing gamer who has had his or her fill of dragons for the next half decade.
+ Immersive, sprawling locations that suck you right in
+ Plenty of ways to deal with each situation
+ Interesting branching script lets you decide the fates of many characters
+ Some very effective music (especially that main theme)
+ Lengthy and replayable
- Artificial intelligence isn't great
- Visuals aren't spectacular (even for its time)
- Annoying mechanical spiders
Reviewed on 1/30/2012