Deux Ex Review – Timeless Game Design

Games have come a long way. They are bigger, prettier, and far more expensive to produce than ever before. We live in a time where selling millions of copies might not be enough to generate enough profits to continue a series. We live in a time where ambition is stifled in the Triple-A industry because the risk of failure is simply too great. Piggybacking off what works and letting other people innovate is the name of the game.

This wasn’t always the case, and during the second golden age of innovation which took place somewhere between the 90s and early 2000s, games were doing some bonkers things. We are talking about creating concepts that would live on for decades. We are talking about the birth of genres at an alarming rate. Not only that, we are talking about the release of Deus Ex. 

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What can be said about Deus Ex that hasn’t been said before? It frequently gets mentioned as the greatest game of all time. A game whose story transcends time itself – prophetic in its delivery to a degree that could be considered harrowing. A masterpiece the likes of which the world had never seen, and then proceeded to never see again. Blinding in its incandescence, and widely accepted in its greatness. It was the dawn of the Immersive Sim as we know it – the father to Dishonoured, Prey, and Bioshock. 

But I had never played it. Not even for a second. It was before my time. I was 9 when Deus Ex was released, and I didn’t have a PC capable enough to run something so groundbreaking. So it remained until the other week when I decided, on a whim, to buy it for 69p on sale. I was curious to see how this game was – if its continued critical acclaim was warranted, or if the legend had just been repeated enough to be assumed fact. 

After a shockingly smooth patching process that got the game running flawlessly on modern hardware, I jumped right in. At first, I wasn’t too impressed. The first level was Liberty Island. It was large, and open, sure, but it was also archaic. Deus Ex had odd controls, and very little was explained. Stealth barely worked and my stun baton didn’t make sense. If I am an augmented human – transhuman – then why am I so pathetic compared to my lesser-evolved enemies? 

I got through it though, and then I went to bed. The thing is though, I couldn’t sleep – not soundly in any case. No, my mind was racing at the possibilities. What my critical brain was missing, my emotions were absorbing like crazy. What initially started as a fairly straightforward level, became something I had to replay when I got up the next morning. Surely there was more to find if I just let the game in. 

This led to one of the most profound experiences of my gaming career – playing all of Deus Ex. The second time through Liberty Island was an eye-opener. I didn’t rush it like the first time. I looked at my challenge and explored ways to complete it. What I found was staggering. The number of ways through Liberty Island was like cutting into a cake. Layer upon layer of decadent sponge interspersed with a creamy dollop of player choice. The secrets to being found, people to meet, objectives to complete. It’s all here, and how you approach them is always up to you.

Nothing in Deus Ex is signposted, because it trusts you, the player, to carve your own path. Do you sneak in like a ghost? Break in through the front door? Scale the side of the building? Rewire the automated turrets? How about exploring the island and getting vital information? Which skills do you start with? Which weapons? Do you save Gunther, if so, how? Do you give him a weapon? Do you kill the Resistance Leader, or talk to him? Do you kill your allies? Who do you believe? 

Not only is all of this, and more, perfectly valid and supported in the game, most of it is recognised in the story. Killing allies leads to investigations being opened up. Killing your target before interrogation results in a different outcome. NPCs will react in different ways based on how bloodthirsty you are. Saving Gunther, and deciding to arm him or not, gives new dialogue. Liberty Island in a vacuum is fascinating in execution but also manages to be the perfect vertical slice. Liberty Island is Deus Ex condensed into 1 level. 

Deus Ex is a game so dedicated to choice that you could replay this level – let alone the game – countless times and still find something new. But the genius of Deus Ex is in its story. Not because it is some profound work of player-driven choice and moral conundrums wrapped up in a binary morality system, but because it is linear to the extreme. 

The story in Deus Ex will play out the same no matter how many times you play it. You will always go to X from Y, and from Y to Z. Your choices don’t affect the grand story, they affect the gameplay first and foremost. This is where the strength of Deus Ex shines because it doesn’t care for morality – it cares about freedom. What is sacrificed in narrative choice, it makes up for in mechanical. 

But there are times when these two things collide perfectly. Characters in Deus Ex will react to your actions, and whilst these won’t derail the story, they will give it a hefty bump. Make you feel like what you did was noticed – that it affected the world. Sneaking into the women’s toilets leads to a scolding by your boss. Noticing abnormalities in an environment can lead to plots being thwarted by your unguided actions. Assassinating NPCs early can cut threads, events, and encounters entirely. Small bumps along a perfectly straight road.

But this also transfers over to the world itself. There are hundreds of emails, newspapers, and books to read in Deus Ex, and not indulging in them is a mistake. Early on you get access to a work email. It’s full of mostly mundane nonsense, but if you check it regularly, your emails change. If you are checking them regularly, you – the player – gains information they shouldn’t have. 

You will eventually receive a message from your brother warning you about a conspiracy. UNATCO, the company you are working for, is going to frame him and you should trust nobody. Whether you read this email or not, the events of the story will continue regardless. The difference is, if you read the email, you as a player, no longer trust UNATCO. Or, at the very least, the seeds of doubt have been planted.

I found myself working as a double agent – actively doing what I could to stifle UNATCOs efforts. I was murdering their soldiers, killing their agents, and doing everything I could to not conform to the mission. The game let me, and whilst none of this was tracked and I was never told to do anything of the sort, I felt compelled. I found myself roleplaying – naturally roleplaying – and it was like nothing I’ve ever played. 

Of course, UNATCO will betray you eventually, and depending on what you’ve read or done, you will either be in shock, or you will be expecting it. The story plods on, but your experience was impacted nonetheless. 

Speaking of conspiracies, Deus Ex is all about them. Every 90s conspiracy you can imagine appears in Deus Ex. Area 51, invasive surveillance, The Bilderberg Group, and The Illuminati, to name a few. It weaves its tale around these conspiracies and nails a shockingly coherent world and narrative that hits home. Not to mention, several of these conspiracies have real-world ramifications. 

The Patriot Act? It’s in Deus Ex. The state of the economy? Deus Ex. The fear of AI? Deus Ex. A global pandemic that disproportionately targets the poor? Deus Ex. Seeing a game from 23 years ago “predict” what we as a society would be going through is disturbing, even if it is coincidental. It gives Deus Ex this unique uncanny air that resonates in such a way that carries the story, even when the characters themselves are mostly forgettable. 

Most characters in Deus Ex are throwaways. JC Denton, your character, is a mixture of Neo and Arnold Schartzneggar’s Terminator. Deadpan to the point of hilarity, and not that relatable. The voice acting overall, however, is top-notch. As is the subject matter that is often discussed as it is deeply rooted in philosophy, the human condition, and morality. It’s just a shame that the actual plot is a bit by the numbers – almost predictable at times. 

I’ve talked a lot about stories and themes, so let’s jump into mechanics. Deus Ex is clunky, although this is clearly by design. Everything is stat-based, so shooting a gun is incredibly difficult until you’ve increased your mastery. You can’t move very quickly, nor can you jump. Stealth is difficult, and hacking is a waiting game. Right off the bat, first impressions are not great. 

You start weak Deus Ex, and you are expected to operate in difficult environments without much help. This weakness, like so many things, forces specific player behaviours. You are encouraged to think outside the box. But as an RPG, you are also meant to grow in power – expand your abilities. How can you appreciate god-like power, if you never got a taste of mortality? Deus Ex defines power in two ways, Skills and Augmentations. 

Skills govern all of your actions. How fast you swim, your lung capacity, your ability to use certain weapons, or the ability to hack terminals. Augmentations allow you to break the game – make you more than human. Jump higher, run faster, become invisible, and rapidly reknit damaged tissue. By the end of the game, JC Denton is the threat the world feared – you are the ultimate weapon able to shatter global organisations both physically, and electronically. 

Mixing and matching skills and augments can drastically alter how you play the game, and these choices are permanent. Once you level up a skill, you aren’t getting those points back. The moment you install an Augment, you won’t be able to remove it. What makes this system so good, however, is how it ties into player choice outside of a simple menu. 

You gain Skill Points by exploring the world. Finding strange ways into stranger places. Exploring each vast level and discovering its secrets will reward you with more points. Not only that but many Augmentations can be found by exploring as well. Breaking into Nano-labs, or uncovering some information on a missing shipment for example. Absorbing the world and exploring it in turn leads to more power. You are encouraged, without any prompting, to look for different paths. Just like how being weak at the beginning nudges you in the same direction. 

Combo this with the resource limitations of Deus Ex and you have yourself something that is forcing decisions on you at every turn. Bullets are hard to come by, and you can run out. Rockets and EMP devices are plentiful, but do you have enough to take out every Mech? Do you even have the inventory space to hold a Rocket Launcher since it’s limited? That door is locked, can you afford to use a valuable Lockpick to open it – is there another, more exposed way inside? 

Even your Augmentations require resources, so overusing your abilities can leave you high and dry later on. What if this resulted in damage? Damage is split across your torso, head, arms, and legs. Take too much damage to your head or torso, and you die. But if your legs are injured, you can’t even stand. Arms? Good luck aiming. Consider using a medkit, but remember medkits can only be applied to one part of your body at a time – what do you heal if you are falling apart everywhere? It all weaves into this glorious tapestry of immersion. Nothing you do comes without consequence, and the beauty is that no one way of playing is right. 

In fact, bottlenecking yourself to just play one way, to just be a stealth character, or a killing machine defeats the entire purpose. Because your abilities are so diverse and are accessed in so many ways, reacting to the situation how you feel is best, instead of being rigid, leads to exhilarating moments. The game has a quick save feature, but I highly recommend just going with the flow more often than not.

Finally, we have the levels themselves, which are always large and multi-layered. Whether you are on a mission breaking onto an enemy ship to destroy it from the inside, infiltrating Area 51, or simply exploring Hong Kong and getting tangled up in one of the many plots and betrayals that permeate that area. Deus Ex never lets up, and even when it reuses certain areas, it expects you to tackle them in new ways as it introduces new challenges. It forces you to use what you’ve learned on previous visits to effectively navigate later on. 

Hubs like Hong Kong and Hell’s Kitchen in particular are highlights and allow you to stretch your creative legs and explore. Become a detective and piece together mysteries and interact with the world. There are side quests everywhere, and outside of that, there are hidden pockets of intrigue littering every corner. Keep your eyes open, and you are bound to find something worth doing.

Deus Ex is magnificent. It’s a game that has its low points for sure. Early on, the game is clunky and doesn’t feel great. The story and characters are intriguing, but it’s mostly linear. The strength of Deus Ex comes from its gameplay and refusal to let its areas be narrow corridors that funnel you from area to area. The freedom to interact with the world how you want to. To this day, very few games have managed to achieve what Deus Ex has, but so many games have taken from its bottomless well of innovation. 

Deus Ex demands to be played and deserves to be completed. It’s a game with a singular vision executed to near perfection. Not only is Deus Ex one of the first Immersive Sims, but it also manages to be one of the best even as the genre has gotten prettier, and managed to shake off the clunk. 

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