As surprising as it might sound, the very first time that I played “Deus Ex” was in 2016!
In my defence, I think that I once found a second-hand copy of it in a shop back in the day – but couldn’t get it to run on my old computer (which, even for the time, was ancient). Likewise, I tend to write these articles quite far in advance, so I actually played “Deus Ex” last summer.
Still, this isn’t to say that I’d never heard of “Deus Ex” before. It’s one of those games that is widely renowned as a classic. But, there are plenty of “classics” in a variety of mediums that I still haven’t seen, read or played.
In fact, the only reason that I ended up playing “Deus Ex” was the fact that it happened to be on sale on GoG during their summer sale, when I went on a small game-buying spree (so there might be some other retro and/or indie game reviews in the future). Since a couple of the screenshots vaguely looked a bit like “Blade Runner“, getting a copy was an absolute no-brainer.
The DRM-free download of “Deus Ex” ( the “Game Of The Year Edition”) I bought cost about £1.39 during the sale, if I remember rightly. This version also came with several downloadable extras, such as a MP3 copy of the soundtrack.
At full price, it apparently costs £7.99 on GoG. The full-price game is somewhat cheaper at £4.99 on Steam (although, at the time this review went out, there was a winter sale on Steam), although it’s a ‘barebones’ edition – with no extras, and with Steam’s internet-based DRM too.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Deus Ex”:
“Deus Ex” is a cyberpunk sci-fi game from the year 2000, that is a strange combination of a first-person shooter game and a role-playing game.
The game is set several decades in the future, where the world has been ravaged by a plague called the “grey death”. The only reason that society continues to function is because those in authority have priority access to the limited supplies of a vaccine called “ambrosia”.
You play as JC Denton, a nanotechnology-enhanced agent (who looks a bit like Neo from “The Matrix”, if he was played by John Travolta) for a UN special forces agency called UNATCO. For his first mission, JC is sent to recover a stolen consignment of ambrosia from a terrorist group called the NSF….
This is JC Denton. And, yes, there’s even an in-game explanation for why he still wears shades, even though the entire game is set at night.
To say too much more about the plot would be to give away major plot spoilers (although there may be some mild SPOILERS later in the review).
So, all that I’ll say is that whilst current audiences will probably guess one of the plot twists within ten minutes of starting the game, the story contains a significantly higher level of complexity, intelligence and philosophical depth than most games from 2000 had.
Seriously, the game’s story is probably on par with a great movie or a good (non-superhero) comic!
Whilst this may not seem that surprising these days (or to people who have played a few “point and click” games) – for a FPS game released in the year 2000, it was probably quite surprising. This is probably why the game gets a lot of acclaim for it’s story to this day. For the time, it’s story probably seemed even more complex and unpredictable than it is by current standards.
One thing that I will say right now is that you shouldn’t judge this game by your first impressions of it!
In other words, the game gets off to a fairly slow start. Although I think that you can skip the tutorial level, it’s pretty much essential to play it if you want to understand some of the game’s more complex mechanics. Yes, this isn’t exactly your average retro FPS game….
Yay! A tutorial level! Everyone loves THESE! Still, at least you get to re-live your teenage memories of playing “Half Life” in this part of the tutorial.
In fact, the thing that initially made me wary about this game was the fact that the tutorial level contained a rather frustrating stealth-based segment. Since I absolute loathe stealth-based games, this didn’t exactly make me excited to play the main game. However, as I’ll explain later, the stealth mechanics are thankfully only an optional part of the gameplay.
After a cutscene or two (which can all be skipped, if you really want to. But this is one of the few FPS games where you WON’T want to skip them!), the game itself gets off to a relatively slow start with a mission-based level that is set in a very gloomy and mostly generic-looking military base in New York. But, don’t abandon this game! Trust me, if you get through the boring early parts, then it gets significantly better!
If you stick around, then not only will you be rewarded with the complex storyline that I mentioned earlier, but you’ll also be rewarded with some significantly more interesting and atmospheric locations to explore too. My personal favourite was probably the part of the game that was set in a futuristic version of Hong Kong, since this looks a lot like something from “Blade Runner”:
Dammit! Why can’t the WHOLE game look more like THIS?
Still, there are some cool-looking locations in the rest of the game too. Like this futuristic room near the end of the game.
Or the friendly-looking lobby of this joyful meeting hall for local philanthropists, paragons of moral virtue and ardent pacifists.
In addition to this, the mid-late parts of the game are also significantly more fun than the beginning because you’ll have both a greater understanding of the game’s mechanics and also a much better array of weapons, items and nanotechnolgy at your disposal. So, don’t let the first few levels put you off from playing what is actually a really fun game.
The gamplay in “Deus Ex” is surprisingly innovative and it hearkens back to a time when the FPS genre was a hotbed of innovation and creativity. One of the first things that I will say about the gameplay is that it’s surprisingly open-ended.
There are multiple ways to complete each level, depending on your favourite playing style. Even though the game initially encourages you to take a stealth-based pacifist approach, it’s perfectly possible to play this game like a traditional (and mostly enjoyably challenging, if occasionally frustratingly difficult) FPS game.
In other words, if you see a couple of adversaries, you can either sneak past them carefully, render them unconscious with non-lethal weapons, or….
…Charge at them furiously with the crowbar of justice held aloft! No prizes for guessing which approach was my favourite.
This extended player choice also extends to how you complete the objectives in each non-linear level. Most of the time, there are multiple ways to do this.
For example, if your route is blocked by a locked door, then you can either use up some of your limited resources to bypass the lock, you can find a key/passcode, you can (sometimes) blow the door to smithereens, you can occasionally hack a nearby computer and open the door remotely or you can find an alternative route (eg: a window, an air vent etc..) for getting past the door.
At this point, I should probably talk about the passcode system, since many locked doors require a 4-5 digit code in order to open.
Most of the time, you can find these codes via in-game documents or through dialogue. Although I think that the game keeps a record of all documents you’ve seen, it’s often quicker and easier to just keep a pen and paper handy at all times when playing this game. You’ll be using it a lot!
Another minor problem is that the game’s (otherwise well-designed) locations sometimes cross the line from being “atmospherically gloomy” to being “almost too dark to see anything”.
I understand that the copious use of shadows is meant to improve the game’s stealth mechanics (and because it looks really really cool 🙂 ) but, although the game contains a torch feature, this has a limited power supply. So, when this runs out, you can occasionally be reduced to stumbling around blindly in the dark!
This is a GOOD example of a gothic sci-fi environment. It’s gloomy, but you can still see where you’re going.
THIS is either a Metallica reference, or a terrible example of gothic sci-fi done wrong!
Likewise, after you’ve completed your objectives, you sometimes have to trudge back to the beginning of the level (or a specific earlier part of the level) in order to progress. Whilst this isn’t too much of an issue in the smaller and/or more visually-interesting levels, it can be somewhat boring in the larger and more generic-looking “military base” levels.
But, apart from these minor flaws, the level design is absolutely superb. The game quite literally rewards exploration by either giving you points for exploring non-essential areas, or placing extra items in these area. Seriously, I love games that actually let you explore 🙂
If I remember rightly, this area isn’t really THAT essential to the plot, but you can explore it anyway. THIS is why FPS games form the 1990s/early 2000s are better than many FPS games made since then!
One innovative feature in this game is the fact that you have a choice of several upgradable “augmentations” which you can give your character during the game. These allow JC to do things like regenerate some of his health, to spend longer underwater, to run faster etc..
All of these “augmentations” drain a power meter, so they have to be used (and chosen) carefully – but they are one of the major things that makes the later parts of the game significantly more fun than the earlier parts of the game.
The weapons in this game also include a limited upgrade system. But, although there is a decent array of both realistic and futuristic weapons (some lethal and some non-lethal) on offer, you’ll probably just end up using the three or four that you really like (in my case, the crowbar, the dragon sword, the pistol and the GEP gun) because….
Well, at least you can carry more than two weapons….
You also have a limited inventory, with different items taking up different amounts of space. Although items of the same type can thankfully be stacked (eg: seven power cells will take up the same amount of space as just one), this also means that you’ll have to plan your weapon and item choices very carefully. If you’re used to playing old-school FPS games, then this will probably be frustrating at first but it soon becomes an interestingly challenging part of the game in it’s own right.
This theme of player choice is tightly-woven into the game’s settings and storyline too. I’ve already mentioned the non-linear explorable levels, but you can also have some mild degree of influence on the game’s plot too.
This is Juan Lebedev, a senior figure in the NSF. UN law states that you have to arrest him, but one of your colleages has different ideas…
For example, a scene in one of the earlier parts of the game presents you with a moral dilemma. You have been tasked with catching a senior figure in the NSF but, when you find him, he quickly points out that he is unarmed (and that it is against UN law to shoot him).
A few seconds later, one of your more violent and fanatical colleagues shows up and orders you to shoot him, or she will. You then have the choice of either shooting the NSF guy yourself, walking away (and letting the other agent shoot him) or killing the other agent (in order to save the prisoner’s life). Someone is going to die in this part of the game, and it’s up to you to choose who it is.
Seriously, this game has a level of genuine maturity and philosophical depth that was almost unheard of (except for in “Point and click” games, what few of them remained back then) in the year 2000. In fact, a very critical part of the game revolves around making a gigantic philosophical choice that has no clear “right” or “wrong” answer. This is how you make a genuinely “mature” game!
In terms of length, this is a proper full-length game. This is the kind of game which you can play for a couple of hours every day (with the occasional 3-4 hour marathon session too) and it will still take you at least a week to complete it. One of the cool things about retro games is the fact that they are actually a decent length, and “Deus Ex” is no exception to this!
As for the voice-acting in this game, it’s reasonably good. Most of the time, it’s so good that you won’t even think of it as “voice-acting”. However, when you are playing some of the levels that aren’t set in America, expect to hear at least a few dodgy accents (this is probably most noticeable in the levels that are set in France. Although some of the voice acting in the Hong Kong level isn’t exactly stellar either).
Likewise, like in a “point and click” game, you actually get to choose some of your own dialogue sometimes, which is really cool.
Most of the dialogue choices are fairly “realistic” but I love this one which lets you choose whether you want to sound like a cheesy 1980s action hero or not LOL!
In terms of music, the soundtrack is amazing! Whilst it isn’t quite as good as the soundtrack to “Blade Runner“, it is occasionally vaguely reminiscent of some parts of it – albeit with a slightly faster tempo and more of an “electronic” sound. As I mentioned earlier, the download of “Deus Ex” that I bought from GoG comes with a MP3 copy of the soundtrack, and it’s worth buying for this alone!
All in all, I can see why this game is renowned as a masterpiece. Yes, it certainly has a few flaws (especially near the beginning) but, if you are willing to persevere with playing it, then you will find a FPS game that is like no other. You will get to enjoy an intelligent, complex story and have the sheer joy of playing a game that lets you play it the way you want to.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.