Reinstall: Deus Ex

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The greatest game ever made.

I’ve just been dropped off at the docks on Liberty Island. In the distance stands the Statue of Liberty itself, or at least most of it. It’s missing a head. Towards me runs a man dressed in a full length leather trench coat who looks like he’d be more comfortable dodging bullets and running on walls in a computer simulated version of 1999. He’s my brother, and fellow UNATCO agent, Paul, and he offers me a choice of weapons: a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher, or a crossbow that fires tranquiliser darts. This is the first choice of thousands I will make over the next 30-40 hours during one of the most involved, detailed, and just plain awesome games ever designed.

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Half-Life -I mean Deus Ex- is really great.

If you’ve played through Deus Ex before, you might be surprised to know that its creator, Warren Spector, wanted to add a hell of a lot more content, but ended up trimming things down a bit as it was just too ambitious.

Released in 2000, the only game similar to it at the time was System Shock 2, which had come out the previous year. System Shock 2 was, itself, a critically acclaimed masterpiece, and still makes many a list of top ten games of all time. Deus Ex took that formula (first person, open-ended gameplay with heavy RPG elements) and expanded it massively, creating a fully realised, believable vision of the not-so-distant future, crammed with detail and backstory. The setting is not a particularly original one, but it’s this attention to detail that sets Deus Ex apart from everything else. Levels feel like actual spaces, books and newspapers can be read, conversations listened in on, news reports heard, and every one of these small touches ties the larger world together beautifully.

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Deus Ex is not Deus Ex without a nightclub or two. Or a visit to the ladies bathroom, but that’s a different story…

But it’s the level design where Deus Ex really shines. As a (very amateur) game developer, I know how difficult it is even to design one short level with one linear path and make it challenging and enjoyable. Every one of Deus Ex’s levels has many different ways of approaching your goal, and on the way, if you take the time to look, you’ll find all sorts of little incidental details.

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Sometimes you’ll end up in air vents. This is a video game after all.

Take that first level, Liberty Island, for example. Fifteen years on, and it’s still one of the best levels in any video game, ever. Your mission? Confront the terrorist leader that has taken over the island. He is, of course, holed up at the top of the statue, surrounded by armed guards. As you move through the level, you soon what level design in Deus Ex is all about – creating spaces that feel real, that don’t feel like they exist solely for the purpose of providing the player with a challenge.  I’ve played the Liberty Island level maybe a dozen times, and while the layout and enemy placement never changes, no two experiences have been exactly the same.

Deus Ex is a systems driven game. That is to say that challenges are not designed with a specific solution in mind; rather, a series of consistent systems around stealth, combat, and enemy behaviour are established from the offset, and it is entirely up to you how you want to use these systems to your advantage to get past an obstacle. This is my favourite kind of game design, although it’s difficult to get right (and even Deus Ex does get it wrong at times).

JC

JC Denton stops to make sure his attire still looks completely unsuitable for the indoors.

Oh, I did forget a few things. The combat is clunky, the enemies are almost blind, the graphics weren’t even considered good fifteen years ago, and the plot sometimes veers towards the ridiculous. None of this matter however; the whole, cohesive, wonderful, beautiful experience of Deus Ex completely negates any shortcomings in any of its individual elements.

Frustratingly, there are very few games out there similar to Deus Ex. System Shock 2 is probably the next best experience, and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is rather good (if nowhere near as deep or as detailed as Deus Ex). Deus Ex has two sequels, with a third on the way. The second game in the series, Invisible War, is a poor Deus Ex game, but a good game nevertheless. The third game, Human Revolution, is much, much better, and is almost on par with the original.

As for the original, well, the Deus Ex: Revision Mod is finally almost ready for release. It aims to expand the original’s environments while keeping the core of the game the same, and it does look extremely promising. Certainly promising enough for yet another playthrough in the near future (not that I ever need an excuse).

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