Nostalgia gaming: Deus Ex

My vision is augmented...with HD texture packs

I haven’t written on here for ages, in fact not since Frozen Synapse blew me away with its logical brilliance earlier this year.  The usual excuses apply (I’ve been busy and I’m naturally lazy!) but there’s also been a relative lack of anything particularly interesting grabbing my attention in the gaming world over the summer.  Certainly nothing I really felt like writing about.  One game that always gets my thought engines churning into life again though is Deus Ex and having recently started replaying it with the excellent New Vision HD texture mod (plus this DirectX10 mod and the partially complete DX:HD texture pack mod) I once again find my mind wandering through all things Deus Ex.  With the much-hyped prequel on the way in about a fortnight it seems an apt time to look back at the game that started it all and why it’s still considered by many to be the best video game ever made 11 years after its release.

“God was a dream of good government.”

So what’s it like returning to Deus Ex after all these years?  I should point out this is now my 4th full playthrough of the game.  I got it upon release when I was still a spotty 15 year-old boy and loved it so much that every few years the urge to return to it has grown so strong I’ve found myself reinstalling again, starting once more on that dock on Liberty Island.  Returning to an 11 year old game is certainly made easier by the mods mentioned, there’s something very pleasing about returning to a game I originally played in 800×600 resolution and being able to crank it up to 1920×1200 with 16x anti-aliasing and all the other bells and whistles the DirectX10 mod allows.  It’s no Crysis 2 but the texture pack and lighting effects can make some (though not all) of the locations look surprisingly modern.  The characters, though, will always look like lego men wearing oven-gloves.

I, however, am not one to let some dodgy graphics stop me from enjoying a good game and my god it really still is a superb game once you get past the opening level.  The starting area on Liberty Island has been much talked about for its freedom and multiple pathways but it’s probably the worst part of the entire game.  It almost feels like an obstacle put there on purpose to deter less persistent gamers from the good stuff that’s to follow.  It’s too open for stealth to work (it’s a bit tricky sneaking up on people when the nearest thing to hide behind is 50 yards from the guard you’re trying to stun) and your shooting skills won’t be honed enough to gun your way through either, so instead you find yourself sprinting from shadow to shadow and crouching in the gloom behind shipping crates feeling about as far from the nano-augmented super-secret-agent you’re supposed to be as possible.

Taking Liberty's“No, I wanted orange!”

It is strange returning to a game I know so well after all these years.  Since my last playthrough the mass of Human Revolution previews have made fun of many of the game’s sillier elements, bringing to attention the endless memes about 0431 door-codes and JC Denton’s dead-pan delivery of such classic lines as ‘What a shame’, ‘A bomb!’ and ‘My vision is augmented’, which is all something I wasn’t really aware of when I last played it, making this playthrough seem a lot more comical than the game ever felt before, or was ever meant to be.  In fact knowing the levels and characters so well makes replaying it again a whole lot more laid-back and playful.  It feels like wandering through the set of a much loved film, or going back stage at one of your favourite sitcoms and seeing all the characters for the actors they really are.

Before I used to ponder every choice and make sure I followed the path I thought I would follow if I was in the same situation.  Now though I’m trying everything I hadn’t before and exploring every pointless exercise I can think of just to see if it can be done.  I’d never actually been in the ladies toilets in my previous playthroughs (why the hell would I have?) but this time strolled in grinning when I saw the opportunity, knowing full well the game would have an answer for my actions.  “How unprofessional!” a fully clothed woman sat in a cubicle with the door open shouts.  You can talk! I thought, not knowing the best bit was yet to come: Being briefed by UNATCO boss Manderley on your next mission, only for him to mention before you leave “And another thing, stay out of the ladies toilets!  That sort of thing embarrasses the corporation more than it does you!”.  What a line!  I might have to use that next time I’m telling someone off at work.

Chatting to Gunther and Agent Navarre in the canteen feels strange and poignant when you know full well you’re going to have to kill them both in cold blood before the game is over.  Where can I find agent Navarre’s killswitch anyway? you think as she tries to appease Gunther’s paranoia about the lack of orange soda.

“You mechs may have copper wiring to reroute your fear of pain, but I’ve got nerves of steel.”

So what makes Deus Ex so good?  Many people have given their opinion over the years, often talking about the freedom of gameplay options, the branching narrative and the interactivity with the environment, all of which are true, but for me the most overlooked aspects are the basics which all games need and which Deus Ex gets so absolutely right:  The story, the characters and the setting.  The story is a bit clichéd, sure, the kind of thing that would probably grace an all-out action film if it were in the movie world, but in gaming terms it is still very unusual for a game to set you up as one protagonist only to then pull the carpet from under you on your way to ending up as something completely different.  Replaying the early sections reminded me how much you were drawn into the idea that you were a secret-agent for UNATCO (the kind of ‘story’ most action games would happily base an entire game around) but then slowly and cleverly plant the seeds of doubt in your mind about your employer’s goals and morals, teasing you into the feeling that maybe you’re not fighting for the right side before it opens the gate and gives you the chance to jump ship to the other team.  It’s one of the only linear parts of the story, your inevitable defection to the NSF’s cause, but it’s done so well that it too feels like just another one of those many choices you get to make along the way.

Talking of choices and branching narratives, this is the one element of Deus Ex that appears to have had the most impact on games in the decade since its release.  The Fallouts, Dragon Ages’ and Bioshocks have all made narrative choice a big part of their gameplay but many of these games lay the story branches out on a plate for you to mull over, usually with alternative methods of completion clearly marked as ‘optional objectives’ in a journal, and the consequences clearly spelled out before you make your decision.  Deus Ex rarely sets out its stall beforehand and any options available in a branching narrative are so well written and made to fit so well with the rest of the story that on an initial playthrough you are often unaware that there was any choice at all.

For example, on my first 2 playthroughs my brother died.  Having been told he was dying of the plague and that I might want to see him before he snuffed it I wandered about exploring the New York suburb of Hell’s Kitchen knowing games never actually mean it when they imply you ought to rush somewhere, I was sure that particular set-piece would only start when I get to his apartment.  And sure enough both times I entered his apartment just in time to hear his parting words as he slips away in his armchair moments before his front door is kicked down by gun-toting thugs, just like it would happen in the movies.  It’s so carefully scripted it never occurred to me that there was any other possible outcome.  It would just be too big a deal to write in such an important character to the rest of the game, right?

Right?

Well, this being Deus Ex, no.  On my third playthrough I got the small vial of plague vaccine, Ambrosia, from the NSF compound and this time raced to his apartment when the opportunity arrived.  Climbing the fire exit and entering through the window to avoid the thugs in the apartment block’s hallway I arrived in time to administer the Ambrosia, defend his apartment from the thugs that kick down the door and watch him recover to full health!  And he survives!  For the rest of the game!  He appears a number of times at certain intervals and where previously allies shared their sadness at his passing they instead spoke of his good work continuing.  It must have been such an incredible amount of work to create the 2 alternate realities of Paul dying and surviving, it must have been hard for Ion Storm to resist the urge to bring attention to the fact that the option was available.  This is probably why so many games since have failed to so subtly introduce branching elements to the story without sticking neon signs on each narrative option stating ‘STORY AFFECTING PLAYER CHOICE FOUND HERE!’.

Greatest game location...EVER“Now everyone will see why I needed a skull-gun”

Just focusing on the narrative choices you can make in Deus Ex is to miss the point though.  Given enough care and forethought multiple narrative paths can and have been introduced into games before, and especially since, Deus Ex came on the scene.  What can’t be copied is the free rein Deus Ex gives you to complete any task.  Most of the levels within the game appear to have been created to match some real-world, useable design and the designers then went “here you go, do what you want in it”, but anyone who’s played GTA4 or Oblivion or Fallout 3 will tell you that when this promise is often made the player very quickly hits a brick wall when trying to do something, that in real life would work, but in the laws of the game’s design won’t.  Time and again Deus Ex removes these walls, and that is why it is still the best game ever.

Anyone who has played it will have their favourite example, but mine is during the Hong Kong city hub.  Shortly after arriving in Hong Kong you are tasked with meeting Maggie Chow, a well known celebrity and budding politician with supposed connections to the triad gangs you are trying to infiltrate.  She lives in a penthouse apartment on Tonnichi Road and upon arriving you quickly realise there are a number of ways to get in.  1st, walk in the front door and take the lift.  Not as easy at it seems because the concierge won’t let you in and the lift is locked, but there are ways and means of getting round both these problems.  2nd, a maintenance door at the back of the building lets you access a ladder up the lift shaft, and ultimately Maggie’s apartment or the roof where further access can be found if you have the right tools to get in the locked door.  3rd, you can enter the building next door and find a flat, which happens to belong to your helicopter pilot/chauffeur Jock, from whose balcony you could climb across to her window and break in.  And literally through my first 3 playthroughs these are all the routes I found.

Playing again now though I found a 4th option:  Opposite Maggie’s apartment block is a derelict highrise you can access that has the sole bonus of having a sniper rifle and some ammo on its top floor if you were at all bothered to make your way up there.  From here you can peer across the street and see, a good 10 floors below you on the other side of the road, the grand glass windows of Maggie’s penthouse suite.  I’d been up here before but never had I considered what occurred to me then as I watched the light escaping her window.  What if I could jump from here into her penthouse?  I weighed up my options.  I had unlocked the augmentation that allows you to fall great distances without taking damage… and I knew from previous playthroughs that was definitely her window.  Hell, I have the power of quicksave, lets give this a go…

And so, having activated my aug and brandishing my pistol, with as big a run up as I could get from the broken scaffolding of the derelict skyscraper, I leapt full-tilt across the divide, flying 300 feet above the bustling high-street below, blasting wild shots at the window that just managed to smash in to splintered shards in time for me to land with a thwump on Maggie Chow’s deep-red living room carpet.  Her startled maid pulls a gun on me and gets off one shot before I have my bearings back and unload the rest of my magazine at her.  As she crumples in a heap of crisp house-maid uniform I turn my attention to Maggie, “Mr. J.C. Denton… in the flesh. As dark and serious as his brother.”  Err, yeah, i guess.  Didn’t you just see my jump through the fucking window and gun down your cleaner!?

Now that’s all fun and games, but lets put it in a game design perspective:  The only players who will be making this cinematic entrance are those that meet the following criteria:

1) They’ve had the inclination to even consider going up that block of flats, for which the game gives no enticement or reason

2) They’ve noticed that the top of the building is directly opposite Maggie Chow’s apartment

3) They even beleive that the enormous jump is at all possible

4) They have the augmentation that allows you to survive big drops (This is a complete 50/50 chance depending which of the 2 augmentations you choose to use from that canister)

Then consider it required the design and creation of an entire highrise block of flats (albeit deserted) to give you somewhere to jump from.  The design would have then needed to be tested and tweaked to make sure it was the right height and distance for a player to jump across the street to the window.  Then bear in mind that after all that time invested, for that small percentage of players, this is the 4th of 4 methods of entering the flat of an, at best, moderately important character… in Hong Kong… but in the grand scheme of the game isn’t important enough to even get a mention on the wikiquotes page.

It's good to talk (you get free gas grenades)“I AM the people!”

So why, in many people’s eyes, is Deus Ex still the best game ever and why has it still not been bettered?  Firstly, it’s a case of timing.  Deus Ex was released in 2000, at the end of a decade when the immersion of 3D gaming was introduced, and at the beginning of the decade of High Definition visuals and detail.  While it would have taken some days to add the above mentioned highrise block into Deus Ex, to do a similar addition to a modern game such as Crysis 2 would have taken weeks due to the detail artists would be expected to go into when creating it.  To even remake just the opening Liberty Island level in a modern engine would require a huge team of designers and artists to fill in all the details and graphical fidelity we have come to expect from our modern games.  To go through all that hard work, and more importantly expense, only then to watch a player dash through it in 10 minutes, skipping the optional objectives and routes to your goal, would be so galling nobody dares to take on the task.

Secondly, Deus Ex is not a perfect game, it has a number of issues that luckily my nostalgic, rose-tinted glasses manage to hide.  A modern game trying to imitate Deus Ex would not be able to do so without addressing the simplistic AI, the voice acting, the ‘big-room’ feel of the outdoor locations, the greasals, the ‘regardless of your previous actions please choose which ending you would like’ ending, and that ridiculous fetish gear plus trenchcoat look.  What you would be left with after changing all that, though, would not be Deus Ex and has every chance of being a worse game for all the changes that brings.

“I believe I will enjoy this.”

What does this mean for Deus Ex: Human Revolution then?  The developers have certainly talked the talked.  The branching, conspiracy laden narrative, the gameplay options, the open hub areas and interactivity all seem to be in place from what the many trailers show.  The first reviews are starting to trickle out and some have been very good.  I’ve certainly got my copy on pre-order, but I’m trying my best to ignore the hype, I don’t want to assume it’s going to be something it’s not.  I don’t need it to be better than Deus Ex, I just want it to be a really good game.

Deus Ex doesn’t need replacing, I already have Deus Ex and always will.  Replaying it again now, 11 years on, I’m still enjoying it as much as I did then, though perhaps for slightly different reasons.  Deus Ex was a game of its time and the chances are that the game that replaces Deus Ex as the best game ever (because something will eventually) is not going to resemble the first-person immersive sim in the same way Deus Ex didn’t resemble X-COM (the game I think many would say held the throne until 2000).  Perhaps it will be an MMO that finds a way to mix Minecraft-style procedural generation with single-player FPS style set-pieces, in the same way Deus Ex so seamlessly combined the elements of role-playing, action and stealth games.  Perhaps it will be something as yet unimagined.  Who knows.

All I do know is soon I’ll have finished my 4th playthrough of my favourite game ever and I’ll no doubt uninstall it and put the disc back on the shelf for another 3 years whilst I get on with other, less interesting things.  Altogether now: “What a shame”.