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Deus Ex (PC) artwork

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.

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (May 20, 2009)

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zippdementia posted May 21, 2009:

There are some games I'll probably never review. Half Life... and Deus Ex. It's just too hard. They were too big, too iconic. And now I have another reason, as well. I don't think I could write a better review than this for the game. Congratulations.
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Lewis posted May 21, 2009:

Thanks, that's rather kind of you. I'd never have reviewed it, usually. Gary asked me to do one. I wrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it again. In the end, I deleted three whole paragraphs from the beginning because they were just stalling actually talking about the game.
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honestgamer posted May 21, 2009:

Now Lewis can die a happy man! I still have to arrange a few things with Jennifer-Love Hewitt before that can happen for me.
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Suskie posted May 21, 2009:

This is a good review as always, but like Zipp was saying, it's such an over-covered game now that it's very difficult to write a rave review and hit any new territory. It's the reason I skipped this one altogether and went straight for Invisible War.
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Lewis posted May 22, 2009:

It was certainly an intimidating assignment to take on. I'm hoping I managed a bit of a new slant on it, though. It stemmed from a discussion we had on one of the Reso podcasts during GDC, where Heather Chaplin's talk seemed to have totally missed the point in a rather offensive way ("You're all a bunch of fucking adolescents!"). We got talking about what the real reason was why we haven't had our Citizen Kane, and J.D. said "Well, we have. We've had multiple Citizen Kanes." And it got me thinking, 'cause he was totally right. And one of them is totally this.
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honestgamer posted May 22, 2009:

EmP came to Lewis with the suggestion that he review Deus Ex after I noticed that we didn't have a review up for the game on the site, despite it being one of our Top 20 games (according to user ratings). I suggested that we should try to produce reviews for those and EmP was thinking about possibly writing one for Deus Ex, or finding someone like Lewis to write one. I'm glad that Lewis was interested, since this is one of his best reviews to date--perhaps even his best altogether--and really helps me to "get" why Deus Ex is so highly praised.

I don't care how many other sites have covered a game. If HonestGamers still hasn't, it's worth doing so! I think Lewis has proved that rather thoroughly with this review. :-)
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EmP posted May 22, 2009:

I have no problems taking credit for this.
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bigcj34 posted May 23, 2009:

Reviewing a well-covered game simply doesn't bother me. I play big games simply because I want to play it and see what I've missed out, but when I finish it I might as well write a review.
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EmP posted May 24, 2009:

I don't think I've ever looked at a game and decided that it's too well covered for me to write for -- hence why I already have a review for Deus Ex under my belt for the PS2 and planned to do this one if Lewis had no interest. If I have something I want to say about a game then I'm going to say it. In a way, when covering such games, I'm writing because I want to rather than because I think it will garner X amount of attention in the midst of a huge crowd.

Deus is an awesome game to write about and I still remember really enjoying producing my piece some years later. Lew's topped it as far as I'm concerened, but I think it's cool that we have not only stuff coverage of both the PS2 and PC version, but have an awesome Autorock user review that's probably my favourite review from that author and a solid DE one. It's the kind of game that can bring out the best in a reviewer and if you decide not to cover it because other people already had then you're missing out.

Also interesting to note all four reviwers are European. Maybe we're harder to intimidate!
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Suskie posted May 24, 2009:

I think some of you misinterpreted what I was saying. I don't mean that a reviewer should automatically dismiss the idea of writing about a game that has already received a large number of reviews. I mean that if I don't have anything new to say about a game, and someone else has already said it better, than I'm less inclined to review that game. In this case, I love Deus Ex, as does everyone else. It's one of the few games we can all agree on as uncompromisingly awesome. If I were to review it, I'd give it a 10/10, and I get the feeling that my review would largely go ignored. People would say, "Yeah? Deus Ex is great? What else is new?"

I was also under the impression that HG already had a staff review for Deus Ex anyway.
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EmP posted May 25, 2009:

We do. For the PS2. Mine!

We didn't have a PC staff review.

Really, I couldn't care less if my Deus review got one hit or one thousand; it was a game I had something to say about, a review I enjoyed writing and an end product I'm very proud of. I'm going to go ahead and assume the same is true of Lewis' effort, the latter points especially.

Though, as it happens, the review did very well for hits, as is Lewis', proving that these things are still relevant.
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Suskie posted May 25, 2009:

Or perhaps proving that even a nine-year-old game that everyone's played can inspire some attention if it's bewilderingly placed in the focus window.
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EmP posted May 25, 2009:

Ah, my cynical chum; the focus window actually garners very few additinal hits. I'm pretty sure that, even if it did, the two or three days a game spends there makes not a massive amount of difference.

Again, hits are nice, but it's not why I write. It's simply a stupid arguement to bring to bear for reviews that do particularly well in the poplarity stakes.

However, here's an interesting fact: my Deus Ex review has garnered more reads than any review you've written for this site thus far.
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Suskie posted May 25, 2009:

You know what? No. I'm ignoring you.

To continue what I was saying to those non-confrontational users who aren't trying to piss me off, I review because I like writing about games but I want what I write to actually mean something -- meaning that if I've got nothing new to say about a game and I don't have an original way of presenting it, I often just won't bother. Which is more a mark against myself than anything. Lewis did a good job, probably better than I ever could -- which once again is all the more reason why I'll probably never review it.

If you're different, good for you.

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