It’s difficult to describe why this is the best game I’ve ever seen. It’s not perfect, but, it is. If you take it apart and analyze it that way, you’ll see many flaws. But, in its entirety, it’s perfection, at least for me it is. The story, the gameplay, the countless options, the atmosphere, the music, the design, the conspiracies… You have to play the game to really understand why it’s brilliant.
I’ve played through the game many times, but I always find new ways to solve problems, sometimes new places and characters too, or more details about some things. For example, like many others, I had no idea I could save Paul at first. Or that I could make a run for it, with him coming along. I haven’t found Morpheus at first either.
Or there are the many moral decisions you have to make. Right at the start of the game you’re offered a choice by Paul. Will you take a stealthy approach or go in shooting everybody. After the mission, if you killed a lot of people, the quartermaster won’t give you more ammo and your brother will have a few words with you about it too. It was a really great surprise for me. Or later on, when you find a former leader of the Illuminati, you’ll have a tough decision ahead of you. He will ask you to shut down the machine that’s keeping him alive. What will you do? Why will you do it?
There’s a great article over at PC Gamer, Taking Liberties: a Deus Ex story. Here are a few cool bits from it:
Well, this is awkward. I’m looking at a security monitor that shows three armed terrorists all pointing their guns at one man. A man who’s looking at a security monitor. If I look up, I’m a dead man. This isn’t a normal shooter; a gunshot to the head is the end of your life.
But terrorists in Deus Ex are polite: they won’t shoot you when they can see you’re busy. “Hold on, guys, he’s clearly in the middle of something. Let him finish.”
The turret pelts each gunman in turn until they have a change of heart about standing there with a gun to my head, and run off. Until it gets to the last one. It fires enthusiastically in his direction, but the wall’s in the way. He’s safe, which means I’m not. I’m stuck looking at this damn monitor.
The old line about Deus Ex is that it’s great because it gives you lots of options. It certainly does, but that doesn’t fully explain why it hasn’t been surpassed. … I think it’s because we misunderstand what keeps Deus Ex exciting. It isn’t a wealth of options, it’s that the game is tough enough to produce moments when you find yourself with none.
When you can’t do anything sensible, you start to look really carefully at the stupid. It forces you to think about every possible consequence of what you can do with Deus Ex’s fairly rudimentary systems. Opening a door from a security console, for example. It doesn’t seem to have any particularly interesting implications, until you realise your would-be killer is standing directly in front of that door.
I open the door, causing it to swing into the final gunman, knocking him into the turret’s field-of-view, causing it to hammer him to death. At last, I close the console and look up.
As I walk into Gunther’s cell, he trundles towards me. I do the manly thing and throw my pistol at his head.
The terrorist is dead, Gunther is gone, and the gun turret is shooting the shit out of a chair. Heh. OW!
The moment the chair breaks, the turret starts shooting me. I must have set it to target ‘Everything’ when tinkering with it to take out those terrorists. I exit the room badly shot up. Textbook, Denton, textbook.
Actually I’m not really sure what they say after that, because I’ve invariably sprayed a fire-extinguisher in their faces and shot them both in the head.
That was the first moment I realised Deus Ex was something special: these two had killed me several times in a fair fight, and I found myself actually studying my inventory trying to figure out how to tackle them. They’re just two basic enemies. In how many games does that situation actually require you to stop and think? When I came up with the aforementioned solution – blinding them with fire retardant to give me time to line up point-blank headshots on each in turn – it worked. I was in love.
Of course, it’s only after I’ve fire-extinguished the both of them that I remember my rule: no direct killing. Damn. They’re going to get the foam out of their eyes in a sec, and I rather badly need them to not be alive by then. Ooh, an explosive barrel!
When I say things go wrong in Deus Ex, I don’t mean the way they sometimes go wrong in a game like Half-Life, where you might run out of ammo or get knocked down to 20 health. I mean ‘stand an inch too close to something you’re blowing up and you’ll lose both your legs’.
I lost both my legs. I have no legs. The guards have no bodies, granted, but I thought backing up a few paces would make this a relatively cheap win. Instead, it cost a leg and a leg.
I sit there on my stumps for a second, reminiscing about long walks on the beach.
Well, no use crying over spilt legs. I’ve only got two more flights of stairs to haul my bloody bumps up before I can interrogate the terrorist leader, and then drag the surviving half of my body back to HQ for repairs. Charge!
… When you reach him, the leader of this cell of the National Secessionist Front is chatty. It’s actually a great conversation, with just enough merit to the bad guy’s argument that you start to wonder about your objectives, but also with some reassuringly measured realism from JC instinctively defending his employers. But, like most Deus Ex players, I’ve heard the exchange a fair few times now.
“Don’t shoot!” Skip!
“So you think-” Skip!
“You’re too late-” Skip skip!
“Except send you back to the people – in a body bag.” Wait, what? Did I just threaten to kill him?
I just threatened to kill him. I pressed Space one too many times, and accidentally selected the option where you start a fight with the man you were sent to capture and interrogate. The NSF leader shoots my arm off. Fuck!
With only one remaining limb, my options are limited.
I shoot him in the head. He drops out of sight with a gurgling scream. My no-direct-killing rule didn’t last one level.
“That might have been over the line, JC,” UNATCO comms jockey Jacobson croaks in my ear. You think? “I don’t know. Better head back to base. Objective complete.”
…and all the way to the brother I was supposed to impress back at HQ. He doesn’t share Jacobson’s moral ambiguity.
“You’re a complete jackass.”
That’s the last wonderful thing about Deus Ex, something that makes playing it feel like a process of discovery nine years and twenty play-throughs later. It doesn’t just let you take liberties, it expects you to. There’s no reason to kill the man you’re sent to interrogate, but you can, and so there’s a special line for those who do. Whatever absurd thing you try to get away with, every now and then you’ll find the developers anticipated a batshit player like you would find a way to do it, and wrote a specific reaction just for you. It’s more than just a pat on the head for experimenting, it’s the creators of this game world looking down and saying, “Heh, we can’t believe you did that. Have a cookie.”
There’s a line for if, after being told to stay away from Walton Simons, you break into the cell where he’s interrogating prisoners and kill them: “Jesus Christ, Denton.”
There’s a line for if, when you finally get to fight Simons, you just run past him. He crops up in a later level, snarky about your slippery tactics, and you get to mock him.
“You take another step forward, and here I am again, like your own reflection repeated in a hall of mirrors,” he says.
“That makes me one ugly son of a bitch. How’d my face get all messed up?” Oh burn.
And there’s even a line, it turns out, for if you murder the UNATCO agent sent to relieve you in the Statue of Liberty.
“Did you see what happened to the soldier we sent into the statue?” boss Manderley asks after the debriefing. “He turned up dead.”
JC Denton automatically covers for your lunacy.
“No sir. Friendly fire?”
Lines like that makes me feel like the game knows me. Someone at Ion Storm Austin thought “Well, some asshole’s probably gonna try killing the UNATCO agent we send up to the statue, so we’d better have JC Denton cover for him with Manderley.” Thanks, guys. Apparently I am that asshole.
Some hilarious/awesome things you can do in Deus Ex: http://www.it-he.org.nyud.net/deus3.htm
One of the epic moments from the game: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgOKduU05t4
Oh, check this out too: Deus Ex - The Recut