Here's a typical scenario in Deus Ex: Two guards, a turret and a patrolling Mech guard an important door. Players can usually do one of the following:
Of all the strong features in Deus Ex, it's this sort of plasticity that is the most impressive. Not only does each problem have several different solutions, but these solutions depend on the wide range of abilities available to players. There are several different nanotech augmentations found throughout the game that can be used to upgrade our hero, and most of these augmentations can in turn be upgraded to four different levels. For example, the first level of vision augmentation provides night vision while the fourth level allows players to see enemies right through the walls.
- Activate their invisibility and silent-run augmentations and slip by unnoticed
- Take out the guards with a silenced sniper rifle and then make a run for it
- Lob some grenades
- Find the security system and order the turret to attack the enemies
- Shoot the toxic barrels nearby and blow everything to smithereens
- Toss a scramble grenade at the Mech and watch it butcher the guards
- Sneak through the ventilation system unnoticed
- Slap on the armor, go in and duke it out
In addition to the augmentations, players can choose from 11 different skills, each with four levels of proficiency. Combined with the right augmentations, players can become silent disembowelers with the sword, master riflemen, or amazing demolition experts impervious to almost all pain. Furthermore, the weapons themselves can be upgraded. Throughout DX there are modifications for weapons that increase magazine size, adds a scope or laser sight, decreases reload time or furthers the effective range. By the time we finished the game, our skimpy pistol had become a true boom stick.
All of this customization occurs in a plot that is largely, but not totally, linear. Players are given primary objectives that must be completed to advance through the story and gain skill points, but there are also secondary objectives that broaden the plot or allow the adventurous to explore more of the world. It is surprising how many actions have consequences in the story. Walk into the women's restroom, and the chief will mention it the next time you talk to him. Shoot down the friendly soldier at the top of the Statue of Liberty, and the chief will launch an investigation. Some actions, like your relationship with UNATCO's doctor, won't have consequences until much, much later. This sort of limited but interesting variability exists throughout Deus Ex, right down to the three different endings.
Those different endings point to another equally impressive juggling act: the story. Deus Ex has an intriguing plot that wonderfully balances elements of treachery, conspiracy, the French Underground, Hong Kong Triads, euthanasia, rebellious AI, hacking, skulking, sabotaging oil tankers, mech battles, hostage rescues, Area 51, shadow governments and even quotations from Voltaire. The layers upon layers of conspiracy will likely have some players rolling their eyes at the complexity of it all or chuckling at some of the overheated dialogue. But we were absorbed throughout by a story that has flavors of Neal Stephenson (author ofSnow Crash and the amazing Cryptonomicon), The X-Files and even the anime Ghost in the Shell..
All of this complexity, both in the story and gameplay, is handled effortlessly by the interface. Every needed action can be hotkeyed to a player's preference. There are nine "utility" slots at the bottom of the HUD, which can be filled with any sort of object. Moving between those slots is easy with the mouse wheel, and augmentations can be turned on and off with the function keys. Every important nugget of info, from a player's total credits to the goal of the mission, can be quickly and easily accessed. Quick saves can be done anywhere, and there are an infinite number of save slots. Players should be warned, however: Save files are huge and range anywhere from 4 to 17MB each.
Those sizable save files aren't the only glitch in Deus Ex; its chief technical problem comes from the Unreal engine that powers the game. Unreal was optimized for Glide and never did all that well with Direct3D; players who don't have a 3dfx-powered video card may experience frustrating choppiness or even the occasional lockup. Players with a GeForce card may want to think about downloading the demo to see how smoothly it will run on their systems. We played Deus Ex primarily on an Athlon 700 with a Voodoo3 3000 and got utterly smooth framerates at 1024 x 768 with all the details maxed out. Strangely, even with the gamma turned way up, the game is still very dark, which was rather annoying at times. Aurally, DX supports both surround sound and 3D Audio, and, with the right sound card and speaker setup, totally immerses the player into the experience.
While the audio is generally very good, the graphics are only ordinary. The human models all look rather clunky, with their lips not even coming close to matching spoken words. The animations are stiff, especially in the many in-engine cutscenes, which show the characters standing rigid as posts while discussing world domination. None of the weapons are all that impressive visually, with the stealth pistol looking like the sort of pop gun they used as a phaser on the original episodes of Star Trek. And the voice acting, particularly of main character JC Denton, is rather monotonous at times.
There are other minor nits that can be picked in Deus Ex. Players who recoil in horror at the sight of crates won't be too thrilled with the game's many containers. Fortunately, there are no required crate-stacking puzzles. We also wondered why, if JC Denton is some sort of super agent, can't he hop more than two feet off the ground or pull himself up a ledge? The swimming skill is relatively useless; those mutant chickens are a pain in the ass; and why do some of the most advanced and secret labs in the world have 40s of malt liquor in the storage closet?
But these are obviously trivial objections that don't take away from the game. What you do take away from Deus Ex is a title that's epic both in scope and length; every time we thought the game was near a conclusion, another page was added to the story. It is a rich and compelling game, but most of all, Deus Ex is a hell of a lot of fun.