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Deus Ex

Publisher: Eidos Developer: Ion Storm
Reviewer: Ogami Itto Released: 04/08/02
Gameplay: 85% Control: 72%
Graphics: 78% Sound/Music: 91%
Story: 98% Overall: 86%


As gaming evolves, games themselves continue to cross genres, resulting in hybridized titles that defy easy classification. One of the prime examples of this new breed of game was Deus Ex, a PC title from a few years back that has now made the jump to the PlayStation 2.

At first glance, Deus Ex looks like nothing more than another First-Person Shooter. Upon closer inspection, however, one realizes that the game is a merging of a variety of disparate and distinctive gaming genres. Deus Ex is not only an FPS, it’s also an adventure game, an RPG, and more. This blending of genres, coupled with a deep and engrossing plotline, is what garnered the PC version more than 40 Game of the Year Awards from various publications.

Unfortunately, the PS2 version has been released a few years after the PC game, and while there’s still much to like in Deus Ex, the port is less than perfect. Deus Ex on the PS2 often tends to highlight both the limitations of Sony’s hardware and the notion that some PC games should simply stay in that format. Because of this, Deus Ex isn’t quite the experience it should have been—but if you’ve never played the PC version, it’s still worth a look.

Deus Ex Machina—God from the machine

In a dark and foreboding future (one almost eerily reminiscent of our present, with terrorist groups operating on American soil and plots to destroy American landmarks), civilization teeters on the brink of collapse. Secret shadow organizations fight for power, using our own democracy against us, and the average man watches his freedoms slowly slip away in the name of a faceless bureaucracy.

A plague, the Gray Death, is sweeping the country—thinning the population and weakening the spirit of the people. There is a cure, an engineered drug called Ambrosia, but the government is only doling it out in small amounts.

In response to the rampant terrorism, the United Nations forms an agency called the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). You take the role of JC Denton, a new breed of UNATCO agent, one biologically enhanced through the use of nano-technology. JC’s first day on the job will have him meeting with his brother Paul (another nano-enhanced UNATCO agent), infiltrating the Statue of Liberty (which has been taken by a terrorist group known as the National Secessionist Forces—NSF for short), attempting to take out the bad guys, and rescue a fellow agent.

But, that’s just the beginning…by the end of the adventure, JC will uncover a plot that would make the average conspiracy theorist dance with joy—a plot so intricate and ultimately deadly, that the fate of mankind rests in his hands.

As far as stories go, Deus Ex features one of the best I’ve seen in quite some time. As I mentioned earlier, the game’s story eerily mirrors recent history in a number of ways, but it also takes some of the most prevalent conspiracy theories of the past few centuries (the Illuminati, the Majestic 12, The Knight’s Templar’s banking system) and weaves them into a rich tapestry that’s bound to suck the player in.

Deus Ex is a shining example of what game storytelling can do and how it can rival the power of cinema in many ways. The plot is doled out in small chunks, through story interludes, cut scenes, and in the numerous books, emails, and newspapers littered throughout the game. How much, or how little, of it the player actually experiences is determined by the gamer himself. One can run through Deus Ex getting only the most rudimentary view of the plot, or they can take their time and savor the intricately detailed backstory. It’s almost entirely up to the gamer…which is something of a rarity in terms of player freedom for a console title.

The plot itself is well conceived and executed. Clearly, a lot of thought went into this game, as almost everything seems to have some kind of symbolic meaning. From the title, Deus Ex (which emanates from the Greek phrase Deus ex machina—a plot device that was often used in early dramas), to the main character’s initials being JC (the religious amongst you can probably guess the implications of that) to his brother being Paul (again, a biblical sort of reference), everything in the game seems to be there for a reason. Couple that with some decent philosophical pondering, and Deus Ex becomes an incredibly deep story experience.

Despite the game’s flaws (which I’ll get to shortly), the story here is so good that it supercedes a lot of the problems. Gamers who enjoy involving plots in their games will definitely want to give Deus Ex a test drive. The story is that good.

Gameplay

Yet, while the story is an amazing one, the gameplay is one of the categories where the title really suffers.

In an attempt to blend together different genres (primarily the FPS and the RPG), developers Ion Storm have succeeded in making a game that fails to excel at either. For a first-person shooter, Deus Ex is relatively devoid of the insane action often associated with the genre. While there are enemies to kill, they’re not all over the place, like they are in games like Halo.

For an RPG, the battle system is incredibly simplistic (in theory, if not always in execution). Fighting often boils down to simply running around and blasting everything in sight. The simplicity of the battles in Deus Ex makes the mouse clicking of Diablo look like Grandia 2 in comparison. Because of this, one can’t help but get the feeling that this game could have been something more if it had stuck to one genre or the other—or had simply tried to emulate the best elements of both.

Instead, gamers wind up with a mission-based title that doesn’t feature nearly enough combat or action, but does feature loads of fetch quests and puzzle-solving expeditions. In the second act, particularly, the flaws become painfully obvious as JC has little more to do than infiltrate one place after another with very few enemies in his path.

On the other side of the ledger, the game does quite a few things well—and that keeps it from being a total wash.

Perhaps the most impressive element of Deus Ex is the game design. The developers have gone to great lengths to create an open-ended gaming experience. Everything JC does or doesn’t do seems to have implications somewhere down the line. Because of this, weighing each action takes on a lot more importance than it does in a standard RPG—where scripted events generally take any kind of freedom out of the gamer’s hands.

For example, depending on how JC acts in the game, people will have different reactions to him. After an early mission, if you kill most of the bad guys, some of the grunts will congratulate you on your fine work, but the guy in charge of the ammo depot won’t give you more bullets. Moments like this abound in Deus Ex and add a lot of replay value to the title as the player will want to run through certain parts again to see what avenues open by making different choices.

Taking that even a step further is the gameplay itself. JC has a multitude of augmentations that he can find and utilize throughout the game. These run the gamut from increasing his proficiency with different kinds of weapons, becoming a better swimmer, developing computer skills, picking locks, and so on. Some of these elements can be trained to higher levels with the points JC acquires from completing various missions. Other augmentations are discovered in nano-canisters littered throughout the game and can be upgraded only when he finds augmentation upgrade canisters.

Because each body part can be augmented in different ways, one has the freedom to make JC into the style of character best suited for their own playing tendencies. Want to be a stealthy sniper? Pick silent running and increase your proficiency with rifles. Want to be an elite hacker? Computer skills are what you should concentrate on. Because of this, you can play through Deus Ex a number of times without having the exact same gameplay experience. JC can almost be custom tailored to fit a player’s particular approach. In the early going, his skills don’t make a huge difference—but in the game’s later stages, the choices made will begin to affect how the player approaches different situations.

While that’s an ambitious idea, the game succeeds in pulling it off. Nearly every situation in Deus Ex has a variety of solutions. JC can rush into rooms with his guns blazing, he can sneak past enemies, subduing them but not killing them, or he can bypass battle altogether in a number of spots. If JC comes to a locked door, he can pick the lock, look for a security code or key to get through, or simply blow the door right off the hinges. It’s really an amazing system.

It’s not without flaws, though. While one could theoretically run through the game on stealth alone, it doesn’t truly seem feasible. The enemy AI is poor in spots, with JC being able to walk up to an enemy in plain sight without being noticed in some instances, yet being spotted even as he crouches in the darkest corners in others. Because of this, the player never really knows if he can deal with the situation by avoiding confrontation or not. Conversely, killing an enemy will often have one of his cohorts walk right up to the dead body and completely ignore it. In some situations, they’ll notice, but most of the time, they act like nothing’s happened.

More troubling still is the penchant for the enemies to run around like chickens with their heads cut off should you hit them with a shot that doesn’t prove immediately fatal. In most cases, they’ll trigger an alarm and alert more troops, but there are times where they’ll just run around until you finish them off.

In that same vein, the game has an annoying habit of putting the information you need nearby. While that in itself isn’t a bad thing (who wants to traipse across an entire city just to find a code?), the way the information is revealed is. In too many instances, JC stumbles across an email or a datacube containing some vitally important piece of information. The game relies on this tack far too often.

It should be noted that none of these flaws ruin the game, but when added in with the lack of action in some segments and the endless quests to find an item or talk to an NPC, they certainly do detract from the overall experience.

Graphics

The game’s visuals would be best described as ‘first generation Dreamcast’—and that’s probably being generous. While the story might be an amazing thing, the look of the game is not.

Deus Ex strives for the stylish look of The Matrix or Blade Runner—a sort of post apocalyptic neo-noir, but the graphics are simply too generic to pull it off.

The PS2 version reportedly has improved character models, but they’re still largely unimpressive. People are ugly in the future—there are no two ways about it. They’re blocky, they move stiffly, and they look unnatural with their gaunt features and weird facial angles. This is even more noticeable in the game’s numerous cutscenes, wherein the characters animate so stiffly that they might as well be mannequins.

Compounding the problem are two things—first, the mouths aren’t even close to matching the dialogue (which is a minor issue), and second, the characters seem to have only one hand gesture that they make repeatedly while they talk. Is this being nitpicky? Probably. But, after about 25 hours of watching JC and whomever he’s talking to make the same hand gesture, it gets a little tedious.

The game’s environments don’t fare much better. The majority of the game’s areas are laid out with a simplistic amount of symmetry that is made worse by the low-resolution textures. While the neo-noir look of the game requires a certain amount of darkness, there are lots of spots where this game is simply too dark.

Since the PS2 has a limited amount of memory space, gamers will be treated to the loading screen on a number of occasions. Levels have been broken up into chunks so that the system can handle them, which means more load times as you traverse from one area to another. This isn’t much of a problem when JC’s going into an area (because he’ll be taking his time and scoping things out), but coming back out (when it’s a clear shot through the area), it does become an issue. About the only positive here is that after each new area loads, if you die, you’ll start back at the beginning of that area (provided you haven’t saved somewhere further along already).

The opening and closing CGI scenes aren’t very impressive, either, but I suppose that’s to be expected with PC games. Consoles seem to own the market on quality CGI sequences, and Deus Ex will do nothing to shift the balance in that regard.

Add all of that in with some erratic framerate in a number of spots, and you wind up with a game that is really showing its age in the graphics department.

Control

If there’s any category that definitively proves that porting Deus Ex to the PS2 was a bad idea, it’s this one. The notion of transferring all the functions of the mouse and keyboard to the Dualshock 2 controller was a bad one.

Moving JC through the game is no problem. He’s fairly responsive to commands (although timing the jump and crouch move to reach some of the areas can be aggravating) and he moves about with no problems in the collision detection department.

Battle, however, is another story entirely. Trying to aim in the heat of battle by using the analog stick on the controller is a nightmare. While an auto-targeting function has been added in an attempt to counterbalance this issue, it doesn’t really work. The auto-targeting feels like cheating, and frankly, even when using it there’s no guarantee that you’re going to hit anything. Trying to line up a simple headshot with the sniper rifle and the scope is a challenge—even when the target is standing still. Trying to hit a moving target is far harder than it should be. In a game where you want to take out a bad guy with one headshot so that he doesn’t have a chance to sound the alarm, you’ll be missing on a discouraging number of shots.

The one area where the PS2 controller does seem to work is in the inventory management. Switching between augs and weapons isn’t a problem, particularly since play pauses whenever you bring up either screen.

While a valiant effort was made to make the game control well with the Dualshock 2, the end result is a game that has a ramped up difficulty level not because it’s a harder game, but because the interface itself is so clunky.

Sound/Music

While Deus Ex may not be much to look at, it certainly sounds good. The game features an interesting soundtrack filled with ambient music that is at times reminiscent of techno, and at other times reminded me of the prog rock of Italian horror film legends Goblin (particularly in UNATCO headquarters). Music isn’t a constant throughout the game, but when it is there, it adds to the mood without being obtrusive.

Deus Ex’s voice acting is equally noteworthy, with a small cast voicing a multitude of characters—without it being painfully obvious it’s the same people.

Sound effects are also impressive, with guns making different noises depending on whether you have a silencer equipped or not. Footsteps make different noises on different surfaces, and moving stealthily is always better than running about as the enemies are bound to hear you. Beyond a doubt, the sound work is one of the game’s strong points.

Conclusion

I’m not really sure what to rate Deus Ex. On the one hand, it’s an amazing story that’s complemented by an ambitious style of game design that actually works in most instances. On the other, it’s a game that’s starting to really show its age, and its blending of first-person shooters with RPGs could have been handled in a more effective manner. Add in the aggravating control scheme, and you’ve got a game that seems to have more flaws than virtues.

However, the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts. While the PS2 version of Deus Ex certainly has some problems, it does some things (things that aren’t often easy to do) well. Ideally, I’d recommend the PC version (it’s cheaper, and the mouse/keyboard interface works a lot better than the Dualshock 2), but if you’re not into PC games, then the PS2 port remains a viable option. There’s enough story and replayability in this title to make it worth checking out. If you can get past the flaws, there’s a lot to like in this game.

Ogami Itto

Watch out for those security bots.

JC chatting with a local triad gangster in Hong Kong.







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