Entry: Deus ex ma·chi·na (day-s-eks ma-she-na)
1) In Greek and Roman drama, a god lowered by stage machinery to resolve a plot or extricate the protagonist from a difficult situation.
2) An unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot.
3) A person or event that provides a sudden and unexpected solution to a difficulty.
Etymology: New Latin, a god from a machine, translation of Greek “Theos ek mEchanEs”
Entry: Deus Ex (day-s-eks)
1) The latest game from producer Warren Spector, producer of Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief: The Dark Project
2) The best game of 2000, so far.
“God was a dream of good government.”
It’s a bleak future. An epidemic is raging – the worst virus that mankind has ever faced, the “Gray Death”, is rampant. Cities and governments hover on the brink of collapse, as terrorist organizations thrive, criminals run free, and citizens riot. To respond to these threats, the United Nations created an organization to help – the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO).
You play a new UNATCO agent, code-named JC Denton. Like his brother, Paul Denton, JC is one of the first agents to use experimental nano-technological augmentations. Thus having the potential for super-human abilities, it’s expected that JC will become one of UNATCO’s top agents.
The game begins on JC’s first day on the job. The National Secessionist Forces have taken over the Statue of Liberty, hijacked a shipment of the experimental Gray Death vaccine, Ambrosia, and hold a fellow UNATCO agent hostage. It’s up to JC to find the Ambrosia, capture the NSF commander, and possibly rescue his fellow agent.
As the game progresses, JC will learn about UNATCO, the NSF, the truth about the Gray Death, and much more. It’s hard to even begin to summarize the plot, because it’s not something that can be easily conveyed without playing the game. Each answer you uncover will lead to more questions, and you’ll encounter a cast of dozens of characters, each with their own goals, motivations, and alliances. It’s a generally linear plot, but you can bring about subtle changes based on your actions.
It’s a truly great plot. Conspiracy buffs will generally be in their element, and there are some fascinating topics covered within the framework of the game. There are several groups present in the game that I want to do more research on, simply because of how the game uses them. Nobody’s motives are entirely clear-cut, and as you find yourself interacting with people, you’ll wonder if you’re doing the right thing or not. You can change how people react to you based on how you play the game, and conversations change based on what you’ve done – it’s nice to get feedback on how you handle yourself. There are even three endings to choose from, and when the time comes, you’ll have to make some hard decisions about what you want to do. Even when you’ve beaten the game once, the plot stands up to a replay, and you’ll find yourself catching a great number of details that you missed the first time. Deus Ex’s plot is one of the best in recent memory.
A Dark Future
The graphics are generally quite excellent, and do a great job of conveying the world around you. The game is generally dark, which is appropriate and done nicely. There are a great number and variety of areas in the game, and each has their own look – from bars and clubs to military bases, hotels, and even a cathedral. Visiting real-world locations is great, as you can recognize some landmarks – the Statue of Liberty is partially blown up, for example. Mirrors are reflective, as are some surfaces, and you can see yourself in them – complete with displays of what you’re equipped with. Lighting is handled nicely, with shadows being a crucial part of the gameplay as well.
Character models are excellent. They’re high-polygon and very well detailed. While there’s the problem of many enemies being similar looking (the only real distinguishing feature of the same type of troop is what they’re equipped with), they’re animated pretty well. Unique characters all have their own models, and some just look menacing – mechanically augmented agents showcase an interesting mix of metal and flesh, for example. You even get to choose JC’s face from a group of five – and Paul’s face changes to match your chosen ethnicity. When characters speak, their mouths move and generally match their words, which is nice. Weapon models are also well done – when you pull out the baton, you’ll snap it out, and when you put it away, you’ll retract it – and there’s something similar for every weapon.
There is no FMV or computer-generated animation – everything is handled within the game engine, which is very nice, and helps to avoid breaking up the flow of the game. Cut-scenes are shown from a variety of angles, and they even vary depending on where you are positioned at the time – if you stand on a table before talking to someone, you’ll get a nice side-view that still manages to show both in the conversation. If you’re carrying something, that’ll be in the scene as well. It adds a depth that isn’t generally found in most RPG cut-scenes.
Did you hear something?
The sound is excellent, and is crucial to the gameplay. Having 3D sound is a great help, as you’ll hear enemies approaching and moving around. Move quickly and you’ll make more noise, and possibly alert guards. You can overhear people’s conversations, and gain information that you might otherwise miss. Voice acting is generally well done, though JC’s monotone can get a bit annoying at times.
Weapon sounds are nice. Half the fun of using a police baton is the solid thump it makes when you hit someone with it. Victims scream in pain as you shoot them, and an enemy that is blown up makes a satisfying splattering sound. Adding a silencer to a sniper rifle or an assault rifle makes a drastic difference in the amount of noise you make, and so forth. Sounds like steam hissing, the crackling of a fire, and the squeals of rats simply add to the ambiance.
Music is varied, and generally quite good. If you go to a club, you’ll hear techno dance tracks in the background. If you’re sneaking through a cavern, you’ll generally hear a softer, less intrusive track. Each area also has an action song, which is triggered by an enemy spotting you – it’s a good way to tell when you’re in trouble, which isn’t always immediately apparent. While some of the action tracks get repetitive quickly, they generally aren’t playing for that long, so it’s not an issue. The music is secondary to the sound effects in Deus Ex, which is a good thing, simply due to how noise is integral to gameplay.
“Watch out, I’ve heard this one’s some sort of mech.”
The true strength of Deus Ex comes from the flexibility of it. While the game as a whole is linear, there are always multiple ways to get through any situation. Let’s take a typical situation – you need to get through a locked door. Depending on your skills and equipment, you could do the following things:
Pick the lock.
Blow it open with explosives.
Search the area for the key.
Break a nearby window and climb through it.
Crawl through a nearby ventilation shaft.
Depending on the situation, there will be more or fewer ways to handle the problem. It’s not exaggerating to say that there’s always two ways to do things, if not more. You don’t even have to fight most bosses, if you’ve kept your eyes open, talked to people, and looked for alternate solutions. While combat is always an option, and it’s generally hard to avoid it, if you’re going for a totally non-violent character, it’s certainly quite viable. Likewise, if you want to play a total Rambo style character with no lock picking or electronics skills, that’s possible too – you’ll just have to keep an eye open for computer passwords and keys that you could otherwise have ignored. While people will react to you differently if you take a “no mercy” approach than if you were a pacifist, it’s largely up to the player to decide what they want to do.
There are eleven different skills. They range from weapon skills (rifles, pistols, low-tech, etc.) to environmental skills (swimming, environmental training, etc.), to other types (lock picking, etc.) Each skill has four levels – untrained, trained, advanced, and master. Skill points are gained as you progress through the game – some for completing quests, others for exploring, and even for simply going to a specific location. When you have enough skill points to advance one of your skills, you can do it immediately, and the results are instant. If you’re untrained at rifles, it’s virtually impossible to snipe someone, whereas a master can get a head shot when one of their arms is totally disabled. Advanced swimmers gain speed and can hold their breath for longer. Masters in lock picking can get through virtually any door with one pick, and so forth. The number of skill points is limited enough that mastering more than two or three skills is extremely unlikely – depending on how many different skills you choose to train. It allows a lot of customization of Agent Denton, and the skills you’ve chosen will definitely impact how you are able to progress through the game.
Aside from your skills, nanotechnology is the other main way to customize your character. Since Agent Denton is one of the new, nanite-enhanced agents, you can gain super-human abilities throughout the game. You start with a few nanotechnology augmentations (a light, a friend-or-foe indicator, and an infolink), and you can get up to 9 more. Whenever you find an Augmentation Canister, there are two possible upgrades, and it’s up to you to decide which you want more. A perfect example is the leg upgrade – you can either get the Run Silent augmentation (which allows you to move without making any sound) or the Speed Enhancement augmentation (which allows you to run at blazing speeds, jump higher, and take little falling damage). Each augmentation has four different levels of effectiveness, and there are a limited number of augmentation upgrades in the game. You’ve got to balance your needs, and augmentations are subject to the same limitations as skills – do you upgrade them all equally, or choose to upgrade a few augmentations to their limits? The augmentations are all interesting and have a variety of uses, and the proper augmentation can help save you in just about any situation.
Rather than measuring JC’s health in terms of a HP total, there’s an icon in the upper left corner that tracks damage. Each of his 6 areas (two legs, two arms, head, and torso) can take 100 points of damage before becoming incapacitated. The effects vary – if your head or torso is incapacitated, you die, losing a leg or two will seriously hinder your movement ability, and it can be hard to use weapons if your arms are lost. Health can be regained via medkits (the amount depending on JC’s skill with them), eating a bit of food, the regeneration augmentation, or visiting a Medbot. The environment can be just as lethal to JC as troops, as a fall can be lethal, as can drowning or radiation. JC’s energy level is also crucial – each augmentation uses a certain amount of bioelectric energy per minute, and when he’s out, he can’t use any of his augmentations. Naturally, certain augmentations use up more power than others (cloaking uses up vastly more than ballistic armor), and multiple abilities can be used at once, so it’s a matter of balancing your needs with your energy reserve (which can be replenished by repair bots and bio-electric cells).
The inventory system is handled very nicely. You only have a limited number of item slots, and different items use up more space than others (a rocket launcher uses a whopping 8 slots, while a crowbar uses 2 and lock picks stack into 1 space). Ammo isn’t held in your inventory slots, but there are still some choices you need to make about what you want to carry. Fortunately, it’s easy to use the items you have – you can select the 10 items you want to use the most and assign them to your belt, which can be cycled through without pausing gameplay. You don’t need to keep going to your inventory screen to get items – you can quickly use a key, open a door, switch to an assault rifle, and gun down the troops on the other side – all without breaking up the flow of gameplay, which is very nice. Whenever you go to the menu, though, everything is paused – so you can stop when you need to and check the menus. Deus Ex keeps track of all your augmentations, skills, your health, and records conversations, notes, goals, and so forth – any important information is automatically stored for you, for use at your convenience.
The joy of such a well-laid out system is well evident, as the screen is largely uncluttered for gameplay – everything’s along the edges of the screen, leaving a wide window open for interacting with the world. The controls are terrific. Since the game is played from a first-person viewpoint, moving through the world is largely the same as any FPS, and is quite easy to pick up (for those unfamiliar with the style of gameplay, the tutorial works wonders in getting you used to the mechanics). The keyboard takes care of the movement, while the mouse interacts with the world – you can quickly use an item you have, switch to another, and continue interacting with the world without needing to do anything fancy. The only times you ever need to go to the menus is to rearrange your inventory or to check your goals – other than that, virtually everything else can be done without breaking up the flow of the game.
There are four difficulty settings – easy, medium, hard, and realistic. The only way the difficulty setting matters, however, is in determining how much damage you take from combat and your environment – in realistic, a head shot can kill you instantly, whereas in easy you can take several such blows. The puzzles, enemy AI, and everything else are the same regardless of the difficulty setting. It’s interesting, because my second play-through, on Realistic, was easier than my first game (on Medium), because I knew how the game worked and how to best avoid combat damage.
The enemy AI is interesting…the best way to describe it is an improved version of the AI from Metal Gear Solid. Individual troops are generally pretty stupid – they’ll forget about you after a while, the bodies of their friends generally don’t faze them (though hiding bodies is always a good idea), and so forth. On the other hand, they’re generally quite good about reacting to your noises, and can spot you hiding in shadows (at times). All bets are off, however, when they’re near alarm switches, or in groups. Enemies have absolutely no problem with running over to set off an alarm, even at the expense of their own health. Groups of enemies work well, with each of them setting up positions, working together to take you down, and so forth. Civilians react unpredictably – some will go set off an alarm if they see you, while others will cower in a corner and try to hide from you. It’s interesting that you can never be entirely sure how someone will react to you, and lends a lot to the game.
Turning Computers Everywhere into Paperweights
There are only a few things that stick out in my mind as being issues.
The system requirements are, to put it bluntly, quite insane. The recommended system is a Pentium III or an Athlon with 128 megs of RAM, 750 megs of hard drive space, and a 3D accelerator (which is actually needed to play the game). Load times are quite long, and given the amount of times you’ll probably die, you’ll be staring at the “Loading” prompt quite often. Save games range in size from 4 megs to a whopping 20 megs each, which can quickly eat up your hard drive space. Even with a high-end system, you may have to keep the resolution turned down, or turn off some of the textures to get it to run smoothly – though a card with Glide really helps the situation. If you don’t have a powerful system, you probably won’t be able to enjoy Deus Ex, which is really a shame.
The control occasionally was problematic… there were a number of cases where crouching and moving (crucial to avoid detection at times) would cause one of the movement keys to stick, causing JC to go out of control until I figured out which key to press again (by which time I had generally been spotted and taken down by guards). I’m not sure if this is a problem others had, but it was annoying.
It’s also inordinately difficult at times to play a non-combat oriented character. It’s certainly not impossible, but later in the game, most enemies are virtually impossible to stun or knock out, which can make getting around extremely difficult if you don’t want to (or can’t) fight.
A Crowning Achievement
I’ll be honest – I’ve looked forward to Deus Ex for a long time. I’ve always enjoyed Warren Spector’s games. This may be his best yet – and that’s a truly incredible feat.
I’ve played through Deus Ex twice already, using different augmentations, strategies, and skills. I’m sure I could play through a few more times and still discover new areas. There’s a ton of stuff to do, from hacking ATMs to hacking up enemy troops. It’s flexible – no two people are going to have exactly the same game.
Deus Ex is just plain fun. The year’s scarcely half over, but for now, this is definitely the best game I’ve played in 2000. Find some way to play it – you won’t regret it.