Veteran designer Warren Spector has always been known for making games that combine action and role-playing elements within seamless 3D environments in order to create the most plausible interactive worlds possible. He's worked on such critically acclaimed game series as Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief, and his latest game, Deus Ex, is similar. It's an ambitious 3D game that defies simple classification, and though some of its individual elements are either overused or underdeveloped, the aggregate experience of playing Deus Ex proves to be both unique and worthwhile.
Deus Ex looks like a first-person shooter and frequently plays like one. As bionic government agent J.C. Denton, you're issued a series of risky covert assignments by your employer, the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). You'll find a wide variety of melee weapons, pistols, rifles, experimental guns, and explosives over the course of your missions, and you'll also get to use an assortment of miscellaneous high-tech equipment for infiltration and espionage. While J.C. can immediately use any item or weapon he finds, he's initially inexperienced with most of them. Fortunately, J.C. earns skill points for completing his various objectives, and these can be applied at any time to augment J.C.'s various special abilities and combat skills up through four levels of proficiency. Denton might also encounter various weapon modifications during his missions, which can slightly improve his weapons' kick, reload rate, and range, as well as add features like a silencer and a laser sight. You can apply additional modifications to the same weapon, and together with the ability to improve your skill with that particular weapon type, eventually you can go from being a lousy shot to a deadly sniper. But in choosing that route, you will forgo specializing in such skills as computer hacking, lockpicking, and swimming, which are some of the skills that you can apply in order to completely circumvent a lot of potentially violent situations in the game.
Deus Ex is quite long for an action-packed first-person game, but even so, most of its situations present you with two or three possible solutions. There's usually a direct approach, in which you must kill or incapacitate a great number of enemy gunmen along the way. But most every entrance in Deus Ex also has a back door, and you'll avoid having to use up your ammunition if you find it. The game also gives you several overlapping options to facilitate problem solving and to help keep you from getting stuck or frustrated. For instance, at several points in Deus Ex, you'll have to jump underwater and swim to reach a particular destination. Your average swimmer couldn't do it, but J.C. Denton isn't your average swimmer: You can increase J.C.'s swimming skill, thus letting him swim faster; you can acquire a bionic augmentation that improves J.C.'s lung capacity, which lets him stay underwater longer; or you can improve his environment training skill, which lets him get more use out of underwater rebreathers, hazard suits, and other special gear. Any of these options are viable in any combination.
Each mission in Deus Ex inevitably involves getting past many enemies, security systems, and locked doors. Just as you could engage these foes and find the appropriate keys in all instances, so can you sneak past your foes and their security measures by staying out of their line of sight or, later in the game, using high-tech stealth camouflage to slip right past them. As for the doors, you can either pick their locks or just blow them off their hinges if you can't find the key. Most importantly, as you play Deus Ex, you never need to pigeonhole yourself as a gunslinger, a saboteur, or a thief - your proficiencies grant you only moderate benefits until much later in the game when you can really emphasize your favorite abilities. But until then, you'll be able to improvise in most every situation. You might typically prefer to take the first shot, but if you're low on ammo, it's good to know that you could always just sneak through a particular sequence until you find more.
Deus Ex's open-ended design is certainly ambitious, and for the most part, it's successful. There's a lot of background information in the game that's purely optional; you'll come across books, newspapers, and e-mail messages that are interesting and contextually pertinent, but you needn't dwell on them for long. You can continue to hound many of the characters you encounter long after the main thread of the conversation is over, which often yields valuable but nonessential clues. These characters might refer to how you've approached situations in the past, and it's startling and remarkable when they do. If you tend not to take prisoners, one UNATCO coworker might laud you for making short work of the coalition's terrorist foes, but another more even-tempered peer might give you the cold shoulder for cruelly killing UNATCO's opponents instead of finding a more humane solution. Most of the characters you meet in Deus Ex will behave differently toward you in later sequences depending on their first impressions. You don't often get to choose your responses during dialogue, but J.C. generally does a good job responding to others based on how you've been playing the game. Unfortunately, character interaction tapers off in the game's middle third, in which you'll find yourself constantly undergoing fairly repetitive infiltration missions. It's at these times, when you're closely attending to the means of accomplishing your goals, that you'll best be able to identify the game's weaknesses.
Deus Ex does let you solve problems in a variety of ways, but when you look at each option individually, you'll find that none are particularly satisfying. For instance, the combat in Deus Ex is sluggish and doesn't tend to be as enjoyable as in some other similar-looking games, even though the slower pacing and limited ammunition can make for some exciting showdowns. That sluggishness shouldn't be a problem since the combat's generally supposed to be optional, yet in practice you'll find that the combat isn't optional at all. Though you can theoretically sneak past a great many of the enemies in your way, not only is it effectively impossible to sneak by them all, but it's also impossible to get past the majority of them without a lot of trial and error. Unlike in Looking Glass Studios' Thief games, in which an onscreen indicator gave you an idea of how well hidden you were, in Deus Ex there's no real way to judge how stealthy you're being. Perhaps it's more realistic that way - but then again, you'll find that some of your foes in Deus Ex seem unable to detect you when you're standing in plain view, whereas at other times you'll be spotted even when you think you're well hidden in darkness.
Similarly, while the game lets you use electronic lockpicks and special modules for disabling electronic security systems, such instances are essentially noninteractive - you simply stand there and spend a particular quantity of electronic picks or modules until the door opens or the security goes down. You'll also find that computer hacking is a disappointingly formulaic process that can be done regardless of whether anyone's watching. Even with basic hacking skills, you'll still be able to bypass the encryption and password protection of any system in the entire game using the exact same procedure, simply by pressing the "hack" button and waiting a few seconds. The game also has an annoying tendency to impede your progress with keycode-locked doors. You can usually find the corresponding keycodes nearby, thinly disguised in the context of diary entries and e-mail memos, but this gameplay device is used far too often. In addition, the characters in Deus Ex have a bad habit of leaving their computer passwords in plain view, thanks to data pads conveniently placed throughout the game. These data pads help advance the plot and sometimes provide clues to interesting gameplay puzzles, but like the overabundance of numeric keypads, their placement seems a little too deliberate and contrived on many occasions. Such elements in Deus Ex are simply average, or even rather weak.
Deus Ex's graphics aren't very good, either. Though the game uses Epic Games' Unreal engine, which was once lauded for its exceptional visual quality, Deus Ex is actually a fairly bland-looking game because of its incessantly dark industrial environments. It's true that some areas of the game look really good, like an underground Paris nightclub and futuristic Hong Kong, and furthermore that the characters are often equally good looking and made livelier because their mouths move when they speak. But in consequence of such detail, the game tends to run slowly even on high-end computer systems. Deus Ex also has a few other apparent technical issues, such as the positively huge save-game files that are created whenever you save your progress - these can be in excess of 20 megabytes - and also the occasional tendency to crash during scene transitions.
Deus Ex also sounds fairly plain, and though its techno soundtrack shifts when you engage in combat, it's forgettable just the same. But what's more disappointing is Deus Ex's mediocre or at best inconsistent voice acting. It's got a huge script, but you'll find yourself reading the lines instead of listening to them because a lot of the characters aren't convincing. Even J.C. Denton himself speaks in a hackneyed private-eye monotone that never betrays any inkling of emotion. But occasional voice performances in the game, including an especially cold and menacing villain done by Ion Storm cofounder Tom Hall, are good enough that you'll always look forward to hearing from certain characters.
If nothing else, you'll be looking forward to what those characters have to say. Deus Ex has an involving story that grows more complicated as its many characters are gradually introduced. J.C. Denton ends up in the middle of a huge conspiracy and will actually have to take sides at several exceptional points in the game. The story is both intriguing and well written, as it draws parallels between many different conspiracy theories you'd sooner assume to be completely unrelated. The plot unfolds primarily through direct interaction between Denton and all the characters he'll meet and also through voice transmissions that Denton frequently receives at various points in his missions. These voice transmissions also serve to guide you through the game, as you'll generally have an off-site associate who'll inform you of your surroundings and how you might choose to proceed.
Unfortunately, the game's mystery and intrigue are diminished by its lack of character development. Many characters in Deus Ex seem one-dimensional - their motivations are clearly put forth and are never really called into question. This makes many of Deus Ex's plot twists unsurprising and even predictable. For a game that evidently takes influence from modern authors like William S. Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, much of whose work is filled with a pervasive sense of disbelief, the plot and characters of Deus Ex seem too straightforward at times.
Even so, all of Deus Ex's gameplay features and story elements, as well as the expansiveness of the game's environments and the scope of its setting, add up to a satisfying and unusual experience. The way in which the individual gameplay elements are balanced against each other, and the way the consequences of your actions tend to come back into play, all help make Deus Ex increasingly impressive the longer you play it, just as they invite you to play the game over again. It's not strictly a role-playing game, as its action sequences dominate much of its gameplay. But it ultimately succeeds at creating a believable, open-ended game environment, while it also tells a focused and memorable story, which makes Deus Ex well suited for anyone who's played through enough conventional action games or role-playing games to forgive its shortcomings in light of the game's great achievements.