Deus Ex (PC) review
"Deus Ex knows what it is. It's a computer game, through and through. There's a reason why the new big-name releases boast about multiple routes and character-shaping; in-depth, branching stories; moral and practical dilemmas. This is that reason. And, in acknowledging how games work and confidently playing to such potential, it shines."
Videogame philosophers drive round and round subjects like an American at a roundabout, but an idea that rears its head particularly frequently is an awkward comparison to film. Specifically, there's a fixation with Orson Wells' 1941 debut, and the way it revolutionised the cinema world in one swoop. The question, invariably, is thus: why haven't videogames had their Citizen Kane?
The response from both sides is vehement. It's because games are still fixated with immature, boyish amusement, and their unwillingness to tap into more serious issues stands in their way! No, it's because the inherent interactivity of the medium, and the central focus on the player, means it can never achieve true artistic status! No, not that: it's because games are evolving at a more pedestrian pace than the incredible rise of film in the early 20th Century! Like, obv!
Thing is, the very question itself triggers an infuriating presupposition. Citizen Kane was so important because it told a clever story in a way that was entirely unique to its medium, and all this chatter is based on the assumption that we don't have anything comparable.
Only we totally do.
Worrying about whether the nature of videogames prevents comparisons to more respected forms of art and culture is the biggest stumbling block of all. It doesn't matter, and the sooner we all realise this, the more readily the acceptance will grow. We need to truly understand what makes videogames work, what drives their appeal, and there is no better example than Deus Ex: the first truly emergent, player-centric computer game; the one that really understood what mattered.
Cast your mind's eye back to the year 2000. The Millennium Bug never came to be, but the technophobic paranoia of the late 90s continued to dominate the minds of the populace. The Matrix hit cinemas to rapturous applause; X-Files continued to inspire with its odd sci-fi plausability. Conspiracy theories grew in number and support. Deus Ex landed.
Decades later, in a dark grey near-future, a becloaked super-agent without a first name sets about ridding the world of its evil nemeses: the archetypal terrorist, the corrupt government and the deadly plague.
That's your basic plot. Your blurb-on-the-back material, and the inspiration for your cover art. It's marketing talk for the average, pop-culture-oriented citizen; the stuff that sells. And if that sounds right up your street, you'll love Deus Ex - for its mysterious, twisting story arc, its big bad weapons and silent sneakery, and all the hyper-cool shades everyone wears.
That's Deus Ex at its most basic level. Which is completely acceptable territory in which to treat it. After all, there's a gun poking out of your screen, you can crouch and hide in the shadows to evade your enemies, and - yes - everyone does look rather fantastic in those darkened spectacles.
But to see Deus Ex at its best, you have to go deeper.
You have to realise you can access that building not just by sneaking through the back door or blowing the front one up, as the briefing suggested, but also by making friends with some locals and trading a few beers for a security code. You have to notice the reams of literature dotted around every environment, page upon page itching to be read. You have to extrapolate the stories of individual characters by hacking into their email accounts and sifting through their communications. You have to take time out to visit a bar, play pool, listen to some music. Or shoot hoops on the basketball court in the slums.
Except you don't have to do any of that. You don't have to do anything, pretty much. That's the point.
Deus Ex asks what you want to do while you power through, sneak around, or all-but-ignore its 14 globe-trotting missions. It's not just that its RPG elements and alternate routes allow for a staggering amount of playing approaches. It's that the world and its fiction are as deep as you like, and that it allows you to riff off them in a spectacular number of ways. In Deus Ex, you choose what type of game you want to play - be it an all-out shooter, a Thief-esque stealth-em-up, a traditional RPG, a literary companion, a work of fine art or other-please-specify. Each option is equally viable, and you're never punished for experimentation. You're given a wide, open template, and it's yours to play with.
And if you're about to point out that myriad games before and since offer an open-world sandbox to explore, might I remind you that there's a big difference between being able to go anywhere, and being able to do anything.
Deus Ex works because of the tightness of its design. Though the freedom is unfathomably grand, you're restricted physically to a series of arenas that funnel you along a central narrative. So progression is mainly linear, beyond the many multiple routes around these levels. It allows the designers to set up a collection of possible approaches, and cater them to the possibilities of player choice. Even though you are, to some extent, guided by the developer's hand, it never feels that way. It's Valve design expanded: each route you might take feels like a natural one, and - for the most part - the ways that are blocked are ways you wouldn't want to go anyway.
A combination of traditional action-RPG skill points and more substantial character upgrades, in the form of nano-augmentation devices, allow you to shape your J.C. Denton to whichever playing style suits, and each mission has more than enough ways to exercise your new creation. There is a slight stealth bias, but guns-a-blazin' is still a reasonable option, particularly on the lower difficulty settings. Within each general sway, be it sticking to the darkness or firing through the masses, there's the opportunity to specialise in certain areas. Do you want to hack computers, sentries, security cameras? Or learn the art of lockpicking, and find your way into otherwise inaccessible locations? Do you want to specialise in standard firearms or massive explosives? Any choice you make is the right one, always providing just enough opportunity to show off.
You really do have to specialise, as well: being a jack-of-all-trades is out of bounds, given the four-tier skill system. In a lesser game, this capping could have resulted in a proverbial wall too early in the experience. In Deus Ex, it's so finely tuned that it becomes a real positive. You're always thinking one step ahead, always conscious of what type of game you wish to play. Levelling up takes a substantial amount of time and effort, meaning you're still forced into pragmatic choices, right up until the endgame.
If there's a downside, it's that the skills really only amount to tuning your actions, not your words. In a game with so much conversation, it seems a shame you've not more power to manipulate, coerce or befriend the various denizens of this gritty universe. But the dialogue is interesting and intelligent enough to ride on its own successes. Even the questionable voice acting finds favour. Everything expands into a crazy, multi-faceted tale, one in which you can never trust anyone or anything. It's all so gloriously silly, and the hammy accents only add to the wondrous effect.
In a film, it'd fall short. It's terribly derivitive of the American B-movie, as well as a handful of notorious AAA releases. But the way it tells this story - the way it all unravels via a series of interactions only games can produce, in a place where the player is always, always central to the experience - makes it totally unique. There's a section later in the game where your actions define whether a main character lives or dies. If you keep him safe, he continues to appear until the finale. If he perishes, the rest of the cast mourn his passing. Deus Ex is the videogame sneering, middle finger raised, at the film. "You can do that? Yeah, well we can do this."
Suspect AI and occasionally clunky combat would cripple most shooters, but Deus Ex transcends such matters. Though it's superficially an action game, it's not really. It's a game that treats the player as important, assumes a certain intelligence and thoughtfulness. Science-fiction silliness for serious grown-ups. Serious grown-ups who like running around with rocket launchers, or sneaking around with a sniper rifle, or hacking into government mainframes. Serious grown-ups who enjoy chatting up half-cyborg women in bars over a glass of whisky; or reading philosophy in the office of a notorious terrorist. Serious grown-ups who like serious choices.
Choices that are only possible because Deus Ex knows what it is. It's a computer game, through and through. There's a reason why the new big-name releases boast about multiple routes and character-shaping; in-depth, branching stories; moral and practical dilemmas. This is that reason. And, in acknowledging how games work and confidently playing to such potential, it shines. It's our Citizen Kane and then some.
Ion Storm should be bloody proud of that.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (May 20, 2009)
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