(left) We're on a mission from God.
(right) Nice monocle.
Whether you like Deus Ex has a lot to do with where your priorities are. Do you just want to play a secret agent no matter how flat his personality? Do you get tickled hearing about loopy conspiracies as if they were even remotely plausible? Are you happy shooting enemies dumber than Doom demons by the dozen? Do you enjoy twiddling RPG-ish attributes with a vague sense that it doesn't really matter? Are you blissfully oblivious to clichés, convoluted meandering stories, diffuse settings, and erratic pacing? Do you thrill at the prospect of playing an action hero who also has to be a stingy quartermaster? Is your neck strong enough to handle any potential whiplash from the stuttering framerates caused by level designers with no sense for how many polygons their engine can reasonably handle? Are you willing to go beyond the mere suspension of disbelief? Are you wiling to hang it from the neck until dead?
If the answer to many of these questions is 'yes', then queue the "Mission Impossible" theme (spare yourself the game's generic soundtrack) and boot up Deus Ex. It'll take quite a while to load, so you can read on.
When I'm Sixty Four
If, however, you have a low tolerance for these sorts of tremendous flaws, then you might want to try a better game. Thief II. System Shock 2. Metal Gear Solid or Tenchu on the Playstation. Even Omikron, Outcast, or post-patch Sin. These are all games that have a better sense of internal logic, games that present a more consistently believable world. These are all games that may not be as ambitious as Deus Ex, but they are more true to themselves: they do not constantly slap you in the face and remind you that they're only games. Imagine a movie where the boom consistently dips into the frame, the actors routinely screw up and start their lines over, and someone keeps bumping the camera. Imagine reading a book where every other sentence is a disclaimer in capital letters: "It was the best of times, THIS IS ONLY A BOOK, it was the worst of times, THIS IS ONLY A BOOK..." Deus Ex consistently screams THIS IS ONLY A GAME. And not a very good one at that.
(left) Buy you a drink?
(right) Come here often?
The most severe problem with Deus Ex is the AI. There isn't one. Instead there are a few canned responses in the game's enemies. If you attack a character and do not kill him, everyone instantly knows where you are. It doesn't matter if you had a silencer on a sniper rifle and attacked from the top of a building half way down the block; they'll know exactly where you're crouching. Place a proximity mine and go hide behind some of the game's many crates. When that mine is triggered, if it doesn't kill the victim, he will instantly know where you're hiding.
This sort of preternatural insight might not be so bad if it weren't combined with colossal stupidity. To evade enemies who have magically sighted you, just duck behind the lip of a doorway. Step into a toilet stall where the AI isn't scripted to open the door. Duck into a pool of water where the AI can't look down very far. Wait about ten seconds and they'll go away, cheerfully stepping over the bodies of dead characters as if they were piles of laundry. It's easy enough for the guards in Deus Ex to see you, but they have a real problem with commitment -- they take to heart the old adage 'out of sight, out of mind'. Or perhaps the world of Deus Ex is just populated with sharp-eyed sentries sadly afflicted with Alzheimer's.
Fixing a Hole
If the most severe problem with Deus Ex is the AI, the most consistent problem with Deus Ex is the way it's steeped in Bad RPG Logic. You can't swing a dead rat without hitting a Tired RPG Cliche. Loot bodies for equipment. Break crates open for equipment. Snatch equipment from people's bedrooms and offices -- they won't mind. Take the pistol from the top drawer of your boss' desk while he's actually sitting there or pinch the shotgun and the money from behind the bar while the bartender looks on. Gather up all the equipment just lying around in the world, strewn like Easter eggs left out for preschoolers: lockpicks in the street, multitools placed on the shelves of tenement buildings, nanokeys in sewer pipes, and perfectly good medkits behind the trash cans in public restrooms.
You're supposed to be a government agent, yet you get most of your equipment by foraging. Keep a crowbar handy, because you'll break open literally hundreds of crates over the course of the game. The world of Deus Ex is one great big warehouse with crates everywhere. These crates will be your stepladders to the waist high platforms you can't reach otherwise. You can push them to solve puzzles. You can use the indestructible crates as shields. Perhaps second only to Trespasser, Deus Ex is a game about crates.
(left) You are here.
(right) Gang warfare.
Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite!
This wouldn't be so bad if Deus Ex weren't trying to portray a realistic setting. For a game to be immersive, it has to present an internally consistent image of its world. That image has to coincide somehow with our expectations. For instance, when I play Final Fantasy, I expect that I'll be able to go upstairs and raid someone's bedroom because that's The Way Fantasy RPGs Work. They've done this for so long that it's an accepted part of the genre. You might as well complain that in a first person shooter, you can't see your feet when you look down. So when Dilbo the Halfling doesn't complain as I take the Potion of Light Healing from the chest at the foot of his bed, it doesn't really register as odd.
When I play System Shock 2, I expect that I'll have to smash open crates to find stuff because I'm on an abandoned space ship. When I'm short on ammo and have to resort to whacking mutant spiders with a wrench, it's part of the dilemma of being stranded. When the AI gets hung in a doorway, it makes sense because it's a mindless zombie or a robot gone mad. The game fiction has prepared me for these things, so they don't bring my suspension of disbelief to a screeching halt.
Deus Ex is set in locations designed to evoke real world comparisons: a Hong Kong marketplace, a gas station, a nightclub, or an office building with restrooms, break rooms, and a receptionist at the lobby. It moves from these mundane real-world locations to familiar landmarks and then to traditional action movie settings. It is trying to recreate an established cinematic genre, the sci-fi action movie. I am a high-tech super agent, some sort of combination of James Bond and Arnie. The director is James Cameron. The production designer is Syd Mead. The script is an homage to William Gibson's cyberpunk cityscapes. Fair enough. I'm ready. Let's do it.
(left) Behind you!
(right) Use the Force, J.C.
And as the game goes on, and I'm presented with cliche after cliche, the illusion dies on the vine. Crates. Keys. Looting the dead. A magic sword. Sewers. Spiders. Mana. Fake doors. NPC merchants. Fed Ex missions. Enemies whose weapons vanish when I kill them. The hard-coded plot point when I get captured and all my stuff is taken away. A world where everyone's talking about four-digit keypad codes. Secret passwords left on desktops for all to see. The competing rogue AIs from System Shock 2, the drug scam from Sin, the scientists and government troops from Half Life, and the unimaginative settings from nearly every first person shooter since Doom: military bases, labs, castles, a missile silo, a cargo ship. The costumes from "Blade Runner", the locations straight out of "Escape from New York" and "The Abyss", the characters from "RoboCop" and "The Matrix", the doves from John Woo movies, and even a hint of "Lawnmower Man". An American dystopian futuristic city, an Asian dystopian futuristic city, and a European dystopian futuristic city, all sparsely populated because the designers blew their polygon limit on huge levels and couldn't afford to put in many character models.
And for all this pabulum, there isn't even a compelling story in Deus Ex. The narrative goes nowhere and takes a long time to get there. At the end of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express", you discover that all the suspects are guilty; each and every one of them is the murderer. Deus Ex takes this approach to cowardly new lengths, taking an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to conspiracies, throwing them all into the mix and refusing to rule out anything. There are precious few reveals. Instead, there are simply additions, as new characters and plots are cobbled onto the storyline like a haphazardly built shantytown -- the result is unsightly conspiracy sprawl. And the denouement cops out in the worst way; this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with your choice of a quote from Milton, Voltaire, or Kahlil Gibran.
Within You Without You
In a misstep of stunning proportions, Deus Ex uses the Unreal engine to render its real world locations. This might have worked better if the level designers had reined in their tendency to make expansive levels with several approaches to huge multileveled rooms surrounded by ducts threading through the walls. This wreaks havoc on framerates, especially during combat, where certain weapons are rendered nearly useless because of the jerkiness. It also leaves precious few leftover CPU cycles for character models. Every now and then a character mutters something like "Boy, there aren't many people out on the streets now that the government has imposed martial law". I figured this was shorthand for "Boy, there aren't many people on the streets since we're using the Unreal engine."
(left) Waterlogged lab a la Half Life
(right) Rock Em Sock Em robots.
Although it's often big, the level design isn't terribly impressive aesthetically. With perhaps two exceptions, the levels are boxy and generic. The levels are impressive, however, when it comes to offering the player lots of options. The design philosophy takes a page from Thief: here's the situation, Deus Ex says, so take your choice of approach and have at it. Unfortunately, stealth and electronic subterfuge are little more than a tease, since Deus Ex constantly forces you into gunplay. The challenges in the later parts of the game are almost exclusively combat-related as you struggle to fight past waves of bad guys to reach the next medical robot. You can accumulate special powers by finding implants and upgrading them, but Deus Ex is so stingy with mana -- make that "bioelectric energy" -- that these powers come into play all too rarely.
A Day in the Life
Deus Ex isn't all bad, though; I'd say it's only 90% bad. There are times when it's fun. You'll be stalking snipers on the rooftops in New York, pushing deeper and deeper into an underwater base, or sneaking past robot sentries around a missile silo. But just as you're starting to get into the spirit of things, something lame happens - a random bum will give you the password to hack the security system, a body will float in mid air, a guard will politely wait for you to finish a scripted conversation before he resumes attacking you, or you'll notice that your character has both hands on the assault rifle while he's climbing a ladder - and Deus Ex reminds you that you're playing a cliché-riddled game with horrid AI that uses the one of the worst possible engines to tell an uninteresting story in unimaginative settings. Other than that, I suppose Deus Ex is okay.
Yellow Submarine. And, MIBOF: Man in Black on Fire.