Deus Ex: Defining a Genre
This year sees the release of one of the most anticipated and, in some ways, unexpected prequels in the gaming world. On August 26th, Deus Ex: Human Revolution will be released, carrying with it a weight of expectation so heavy that no amount of muscle augmentations could possibly support it. The reason for the ridiculous amount of hype behind this game is that it will be a prequel to one of the most influential and critically acclaimed games in recent times. How do I start writing an article about the history of one game that raised so many questions over a genre allegedly already going through a significant change? A game that means as much to me as it probably does to the millions of other people who have carved their own stories out of its flexible architecture. How do I convey the sheer excellence of what it meant at the time, and how the quality still beats a good portion of the million pound triple A titles developers are producing today? This is the easiest article I’ve had to write. This is the trickiest article I’ve had to write. This is Deus Ex.
Many games claim that they will shake up the industry, that they will feature a unique concept that will revolutionise the way we play games for years to come. Half Life was one such game. Released in 1998 it featured an actual plot, challenging combat and scripted sequences that made you feel a part of the action rather then just a spectator. Half Life is considered one of the greatest games of all time (and rightly so) for its impact upon the first person shooter genre. Looking back at the evolution of the genre, Half Life feels like the most natural progression. It fits like the piece of a jigsaw you’ve always been subconsciously looking for. It was exactly what was required. The correctly administered dosage of improvement.
For two years Half Life reigned in a position of supremacy over the genre. System Shock 2, another highly influential title that was ahead of it’s time, challenged Half Life for the title and, despite being a fantastic game, its blend of FPS/RPG did not generate the sales that it probably deserved. Half Life continued to survey smugly from upon high. After the world didn’t end at the start of the year 2000 and the millennium bug didn’t send us back to the Dark Ages something happened. All of a sudden, Half Life had competition. Deus Ex had arrived and it was going to cause more of a fuss then Gordon Freeman and his ruddy crowbar. No-one knew it but this game was going to raise the bar so high that very few games can even be mentioned in the same breath. So what did Ion Storm do that created such a masterpiece?
There’s no way for me to define what Deus Ex is. It is something different to everyone. If I was forced at gunpoint to try and put it into a genre I’d say it was an action adventure, FPS / RPG, stealth, dick-around-um up! Then I’d probably get shot because no such genre exists. In Deus Ex you are trench coat and sun-glass wearing, nano augmented agent J.C.Denton. You work for UNATCO, an anti terrorist police force of sorts. The game takes place in 2052 during a period where a plague known as the ‘Grey Death’ is causing as much death as it is civil unrest. The vaccine is in short supply, except for the rich, powerful or the NSF, a terrorist organisation who stole some of the vaccine, and this is where the game starts. You begin on Liberty Island where you meet your brother and blah… blah… blah.
It’s become immediately apparent to me that were I to write this as I would anything else I’d be totally missing the point. You don’t need me to tell you about the blind panic involved in trying to reload a pistol like he must be trying to shove the clip down the barrel off-screen, or loosing both your legs in a mistimed explosion. The reason that I don’t need to tell you that is because it may never have happened in one of your Deus Ex playthroughs. The reason it may have never happened is the first indicator as to why Ion Storm made such a fantastic game: freedom.
The word freedom currently gets chucked around a lot in gaming. “The freedom to be this sort of character, the freedom to go to this place, the freedom to have this sort of experience.” It’s all so regimented and we don’t seem to realise it and we’re totally trapped in a never-ending cycle of developers creating as many experiences as possible so that they can cater for any type of player. The beauty of Deus Ex is that the player defines the experience. Want to be awesome with your pistol but wouldn’t know the business end of a knife? Stick all your skill points into the pistol attribute. Want to disobey your orders? Go for it. Can’t get past a locked gate because you have no access code? Can’t lock pick it? No explosives? Then stack some crates against the wall and jump over you fool!
Deus Ex was a game designed for the most linear, straight edged, normal person in the world. It was also designed for that massive bastard in all of us. No game I’ve come across before or since its release allows you to do whatever you want to do. It is very linear in the sense that you are stuck in your hub until you complete your objectives. However, how you do that, if you do that, is entirely up to you and that’s a huge part of its excellence. You literally define how you approach any given situation, Ion Storm just provide the tools. Unlike most developers they don’t force you to use them. You choose.
The freedom links well with the next great aspect, which is the depth. The depth and the level of thinking required for this game is huge. Every level has a layer of detail that puts most modern games to shame. Taking the opening level as an example, once you arrive back at UNATCO headquarters, there are newspapers laying around reporting the various problems in the world. Each computer has access to a different account with emails flying back and forth between characters that delve deeper into just what is going on behind the scenes. In order to evidence the perfect blend of freedom and depth in the gameplay take a look below at the multitude of ways you can approach just one situation…
Your objective is to blow up a generator located in basement of the building. You are standing one block over next to an empty building. Most games may present you with one or two, maybe three, options at most. At this very early part of the stage I have many choices in front of me, and they are all more or less appealing depending on what sort of character I’m building. I may decide to activate my speed and cloak augmentations and dash forward like an invisible ninja. As I stalk the perimeter guards, watching their patrol patterns, I come across a basement door which I hack and enter the lower section of the building. I activate my thermal camouflage and walk past the turrets and lasers, straight into the generator room. I overload that sucker and casually stroll out the way I came in as the the place collapses around me.
But… what if I didn’t do it that way? What If I’m not able to be that stealthy? Will the game punish me for that lack of variation in my character? I look up the building and see a ladder. I make my way to the roof and stun a guard and take his sniper rifle – I’m all about stealing items and keeping my equipment low. I’ve not stuck many skill points into rifles so my aim still wobbles like I’ve had six bottles of brandy and I’m standing on jelly. I pick off the roof guards and hop to the next roof where I enter and look down into the open lobby area. A couple of LAM grenades and explosive canisters take out the first two floors. On goes the ballistic armour and out comes the shotgun. The alarms are disabled from the security station I hacked earlier. Everyone’s in a blind panic. Pandemonium. I drop a couple of grenades by the generator and make off out of the exit.
However, I may not have the ammo, the equipment or even the health to pull of such a ballsy task. How am I going to get in then? I break a couple of windows in the building next to the target. I manage to make it to the balcony on the building and pick a lock on a door that leads to a room in the generator building. I locate a computer, hack into it and quickly read about some toxic chemicals stored on the ground floor. Could be handy. I equip the Spy Drone and take out the security cameras on this level and then move outside. One pistol round takes out the canisters releasing the toxic gas. I equip the environmental resistance augmentation and move through the coughing and dying guards to the objective. No-one ever saw me.
Maybe I don’t want that though? Maybe I want everyone to know who they’re screwing with. Time to teach these bastards a lesson. I move around the block to the front entrance. With my machine gun equipped and my ballistic resistance augmentation activated I get stuck in. Re-enforcements arrive but it’s no good. I’ve already reprogrammed the turrets and they’re taking out anything that isn’t tall, dark and handsome in sunglasses. I’m hunting for any survivors. Someone’s in the corner; bleeding, trying to hide. The only thing that drowns out the alarms is the screams of him dying.
After giving it a lot of thought, I’m not ready. I need more weapons and equipment, but the main dealer in town has lost his buddy to some underground government agents. I can come back here later, the generators aren’t going anywhere. I can go back the way I came to get to where his friend is being held, or maybe I’ll go via the clinic and check out the new medical area. I should really deal with the hostage situation and the Ton Hotel, but that may put me right in the centre of fighting in battery park. I’ve got to make a choice. The world won’t save itself.
All of the above are options you can take. Even if you’ve taken your character down a specific route (stealth for example) you can still smash the place up, Terminator style. It may not be as successful but you can still do it. The game never punishes you for taking your character down a certain route and you never experience less of a game for having the character exactly the way you want it.
As much as I’ve mentioned the shooting and explosions, combat in Deus Ex is challenging. Treat this game as Halo and you’ll be on your back faster then a cheap hooker. You need to plan your movement, your interactions, your choices. Unless you put a large amount of skill points into your weapon attributes you will be something of a liability for at least the first quarter of the game. Skill points are rewarded for the completion of objectives and generally advancing through the levels. They can be put into a number of attributes which include some different choices like swimming or environmental training. These may seem pointless, but they really do have their uses in the long term, allowing for the player to craft their character to approach certain situations in certain ways. Once again, Deus Ex allows the player to define the experience.
If all this depth and thinking sounds too serious or not fun enough then think again. Ion Storm have managed to create a game as funny as it excellent. It’s less obvious funny and more laughing at the situations you can get yourself into. Hilariously, this is usually down to either player error or an error with the game. For example, I can chuck a crate of explosives off a ledge onto the floor below in order to kill three men. The crate hits the floor and kills them. If I reload and do exactly the same thing but the crate hits one of the men on the head, the fact it’s an extra five feet off the floor means the resulting explosion hits me and I end up losing both my legs and an arm – all because of a poorly placed throw. That explosion may also destroy a security camera, setting off an alarm, and before you know it I’ve got no limbs, no health, an alarm sounding and people coming to see what all the noise is. Bugger.
The hilarity continues with the A.I, which is spotty at best. Generally they do just fine, but they really have some moments. Stealth, as mentioned, can be (if you choose) a big part of the game. You can be hiding in the shadows less then five meters from them and they won’t see you. You can toss a crowbar at the ground next to them and it will be a case of “Hmm what was that noise?” Most games wouldn’t get away with such blatant stupidity. The reason Deus Ex does is because it just further compliments the style of game, the depth, the freedom. These people will kill you if they get half a chance and the A.I isn’t game breaking, but it can be as daft as a brush at times.
Back when the game was released the idea of not killing the majority of characters that were placed in front of you in this genre was something of a novelty. The fact that this game asks you to decide who you want to kill and changes the story based on that decision may seem common place today, but was unheard of eleven years ago. One section asks you to execute a terrorist leader. When presented with the leader you can kill him straight off and get large reward when you get back to the headquarters. You can just walk straight back out and refuse to do it and be scrutinized by your colleagues. You can also chat to him for a while, learn some secrets and then get rid of him. You can stay in the room and just wait to see what happens. A female agent will arrive and demand that you shoot him. If you do so, you’re still criticised because you hesitated. If you refuse you can watch as the agent executes him. In a fantastic twist, which I only found out about recently, you can actually switch sides and kill the agent that comes in. Didn’t see that coming, did you bitch! The fact that I’ve played this game countless times, never knew I could do that, never thought to do that, is a shining example of how clever Deus Ex really is.
I could talk about this game all day and night. I still wouldn’t be able to convey in words, not only how excellent it is but just the experience that can be taken from it. It isn’t like any other game out there and it is very difficult to define why. I believe, at the end of the day, Deus Ex is greater than the sum of its parts. The story is full of slightly crazy conspiracy theories, the combat is a challenge at times, the A.I is both highly accurate and amazingly deaf and dumb. The graphics and sound by today’s standards are very dated although, considering the scale of the game, were impressive at the time. Combine all of this together, however, and somehow it just works. The depth, freedom and accessibility that allows the player to craft the experience they want is something rare in the gaming industry. This game was so far ahead of it’s time that, eleven years on, only its prequel may be about to match it. There was a sequel (Deus Ex: Invisible War), but it stripped a lot of the good away and replaced it with something that was ugly in comparison. Alone it was a great game, but compared to Deus Ex, it cowered in its shadow of brilliance. I implore anyone who’s about to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution that they play this too. You may look at the original after and decide it’s not worth the effort. Believe me, it really is.
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