The Nameless Mod (PC) review
"The Nameless Mod truly is an incredible achievement. Nearly 200,000 lines of fully voiced dialogue. A story that branches drastically around an hour in, resulting in two radically different fifteen-hour campaigns. An abundance of clever videogame commentary, woven seamlessly into the daft but surprisingly affecting narrative. A player-centric, opportunity-filled playground of gritty adventuring. Seven years of hard, voluntary work with a notoriously fiddly engine have resoundingly paid off. It's often ludicrously good -- which makes it even more disheartening when an essential door wedges half-open, or an important message doesn't appear, or the game crashes to the desktop for the umpteenth time that day."
I'm reminded mainly of Vampire: Bloodlines. Not because of any fanged, seedy, gothic resemblance -- The Nameless Mod is as cyberpunk as cyberpunk gets -- but the similarities are there. They take the form of the best and worst bits of this incredibly ambitious amateur creation: an action-RPG of limitless creativity, effortless intelligence and, sadly, a number of design issues and game-destroying glitches. Like its fellow genre-breaker, The Nameless Mod is particularly depressing: it wows you, regularly, before gradually collapsing from the inside out.
It's important not to get carried away with the faults, though. The Nameless Mod truly is an incredible achievement. Nearly 200,000 lines of fully voiced dialogue. A story that branches drastically around an hour in, resulting in two radically different fifteen-hour campaigns. An abundance of clever videogame commentary, woven seamlessly into the daft but surprisingly affecting narrative. A player-centric, opportunity-filled playground of gritty adventuring. Seven years of hard, voluntary work with a notoriously fiddly engine have resolutely paid off. It's often ludicrously good -- which makes it even more disheartening when an essential door wedges half-open, or an important message doesn't appear, or the game crashes to the desktop for the umpteenth time that day.
The first few hours are remarkable, as you learn the ropes of this fantastic world, a physical incarnation of the Deus Ex community. Set in Forum City, The Nameless Mod tells the story of a powerful moderator, absent and unaccounted for. Without his presence, the flame wars are spiralling out of control, and various factions of the community are caught up in vicious conflict. Returning to the scene after a lengthy period of leave, Trestkon -- a freelance agent, a rogue forum cop -- is called in to investigate the disturbing disappearance, and hopefully restore order to a world inhabited by reams of unstable Deus Ex fanatics.
What sounds initially both preposterous and pretentious turns out to be an absolutely fantastic concept for a videogame mod. For starters, it allows for streams of clever references, knowing nods and hefty appreciation for the mother game. There are tonnes of in-jokes, sly digs at Deus Ex's foibles and a healthy dose of over-the-top conspiracy. As an avid fan of Ion Storm's millennial classic, I found The Nameless Mod to be regularly, laugh-out-loud hilarious, but there are plenty of humorous jibes for those less deeply entrenched in the fiction. What's more remarkable, though, is how cogent a place Forum City is. While its meta tendancies provide a solid backbone for the experience, it's easy to brush them aside and completely buy into The Nameless Mod's universe. If anything's a stunning achievement, it's that.
It all makes for what is probably the most honest and convincing portrayal of internet life I've ever seen. Board guests roam the streets, asking stupid questions and speaking in incomprehensible gibberish. Smug elitists mock your lack of in-depth Deus Ex knowledge. And the game's various communities -- including Planet Deus Ex, Deus Ex Online and, later, the GameSpy network -- all vie for control, the more abhorrent members launching vicious attacks against opposition forums. Anyone who's ever laughed at the inevitable Angry Internet Men will get a real kick out of this. Anyone who's ever got caught up in such idiocy might find it a stark wake-up call.
That each and every character in the game is based upon an actual member of the community that worked on it is largely incidental. Those involved will smile at the references, but the fiction is complete and accessible enough not to feel like some exclusive party. Besides, within a couple of hours, you feel like you know everyone anyway, as you find yourself dragged into the malicious depths of this fascinating world.
The script is intelligently written and, for the most part, professionally voiced. There are a few dud accents and unenthusiastic deliveries, but we've heard far worse in acclaimed commercial releases -- not least in the awful Hong Kong dialogue of the original Deus Ex. In fact, a lot of The Nameless Mod's quirks are those native to the mother game, and I'd stress the importance of revisiting that first to get a grasp on how the two experiences compare. Despite being Officially The Greatest Game Ever In The World, Deus Ex wasn't without its problems. Here, the most obvious issues relate to the technology: the AI is ludicrously bad, but it was in Deus Ex too; the visuals are bland and unimpressive, but they were hardly groundbreaking nine years ago. The ingenuity of pitching The Nameless Mod as a wry commentary on Deus Ex shines through here: the problems become an intrinsic element of the comedic stylings, and form the basis for heavy sections of the narrative itself. Whilst clearly being a love-driven homage, it makes no qualms about slyly mocking its inspiration.
I have no grievances towards these issues. It would be foolish and unfair to expect such drastic engine alterations from a team of amateur developers. Unfortunately, The Nameless Mod's problems are more deeply rooted. Even the regular bugs and crashes, though annoying, aren't that soul-destroying. But as The Nameless Mod progresses past its halfway point, a number of ugly design choices begin to surface.
Assuming you side with the good guys, as I did, the first disturbances occur during what should have been a fabulous System Shock 2 parody. Deep underground in an abandoned server complex, a malevolent AI stalks you around the corridors, luring you into traps and mocking your very existence. The suspenseful atmosphere skyrockets, despite the shades of silly humour, but the mission collapses in on itself. There are at least two occasions where entering a room causes your instant death. There's another section that gives you no choice but to soak up a load of bullets from a turret, particularly devastating if you've opted not to install a speed boosting augmentation. And the finale requires you to use a total of eight multitools to disable security fields, when only five or six are available to collect nearby. If you picked up enough up before the mission began, it's fine. If you didn't, or if you used them earlier in the map, it's disastrous and game-breaking.
Later, a character directs you into the ruins of a now-defunct Deus Ex forum, in search of a mysterious and powerful artefact. Only his instructions are unforgivably vague, and the obvious route takes you into an incidental complex, full of collectable goodies but absolutely useless in terms of forwarding the story. After wandering aimlessly around the area for a whole hour, assuming I had to restore power to an elevator at the heart of the facility, I was forced to turn to the developers for help. It turned out I was in the wrong place entirely, and should have taken a small, hidden tunnel into a different part of the complex. The game never told me this.
These troubles continue to build until a finale which sees you onboard an elegantly designed space station, undertaking a mission that absolutely insists on excessive force. If you've trained yourself as a sneaky character, you've not a hope in hell of succeeding, and the exclusively alien opposition leaves no ammunition or weaponry to collect. By this point, I'd resorted to the invulnerability cheat as the only way to stay alive. This isn't just me being rubbish at the game. It's a serious design oversight, one that totally undermines the freedom of choice encouraged from the outset.
Credit must go to the developers for actively seeking out criticism, and suggestions on how to improve the game for an updated release in the future. If the missions are rebalanced sufficiently, The Nameless Mod could rocket skywards in terms of quality. But it's going to be a lot of work. Time will tell whether they succeed, but what's here is already a fine achievement. It's taken a lot of people seven years to craft The Nameless Mod, and it shows, resoundingly, at almost every turn. It's not easy to make a game like this. You have to be impressed that they even saw it through to completion, let alone made vast portions of it so astoundingly good.
Perhaps the most depressing thing of all about The Nameless Mod is that something like this could only ever be possible in its current form: user-created, community-driven content for an existing release. And, with the Deus Ex engine rapidly ageing and no similar games on the horizon, it could well be the only time we see anything like it. That's why it's so important to give The Nameless Mod a chance, even though it's broken and ugly and so very far from perfect.
Download The Nameless Mod for free from www.thenamelessmod.com.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (March 24, 2009)
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