Deus Ex is an old favorite of mine, but I hadn’t touched it for several years before playing through it again for this review. As it turns out, I had forgotten everything about it with the sole exception of the first level, so I had a unique opportunity to experience the game as though for the first time. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest, because despite a few annoying hiccups early on, Deus Ex is every bit the amazing game it’s always been.
It’s Ion Storm’s best game
Ion Storm is known primarily for the original Deus Ex, and there’s a very good reason for that—few of their other games were any good. Anachronox in particular was such a gut-wrenchingly clumsy jRPG emulation that it made me glad that Ion Storm disappeared, and Daikatana will be forever remembered as one of the greatest video game failures in the industry’s history. Saying that Deus Ex is their best game, then, doesn’t really do justice to how good it is; given the developers’ obvious ineptitude, it’s a bit of a miracle that Deus Ex turned out as great as it did.
First, its greatest triumph
With the game’s heavy focus on conspiracies and double-crosses, all of the involved characters need to be likable, or at least interesting enough to prevent the player from becoming totally detached from the world. This is something that the third game in the Deus Ex series, Human Revolution, really drives home; by filling its world with shallow characters who were difficult to care about, the third game wound up feeling hollow and empty (and I doubt I’ll ever return to it because of this). Cold, futuristic games need to make up for how disconnected the world feels by including worthwhile characters who you can’t help but like, and this is one area where the original Deus Ex succeeds in a big way.
For starters, JC Denton is a great main character. He’s capable, but has an “everyman” quality to him that never veers into the melodramatic due to his ability to take everything in stride. Then there’s JC’s brother, Paul, who is basically the same as JC, but with a heart of gold. Even minor characters like Nicolette DuClare, who is only present in a relatively small portion of the game, receive a surprising amount of characterization. For example, in Nicolette’s case, you wander around her childhood home and listen to her reminisce about growing up there. Little things like that end up adding a lot to the game and its characters.
Second, its greatest flaw
The most obvious and annoying “feature” of Deus Ex is the forced RPG element. RPG elements are great when they’re implemented well, but in Deus Ex, the RPG system affects your accuracy with weapons, and this was a seriously bad idea. The game all but forces you to level up your skill with pistols and/or rifles by making it virtually impossible to aim otherwise, and the inability to accurately aim until you’ve spent valuable skill points in the relevant skills makes the early levels unbelievably frustrating. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of people gave up on the game early on because of aiming difficulties.
The mechanics of aiming and shooting become far more solid once you’ve leveled up your relevant skills to the “master” level, but the game’s early aiming frustrations sucked even when the game was new, and gamers used to more modern games will likely be turned off of Deus Ex because of this. However, it’s definitely worth fighting through—everything about Deus Ex gets bigger and better as you make your way through it.
Skills and augmentations
Shooting skills are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to skills, because there are also skills to help you pick locks, override electronics, heal more damage, swim underwater for longer, hack computers and ATMs, wear hazmat suits and thermoptic camo for longer, and do more damage with explosives. Since many of the obstacles you’ll face in the game can be overcome in a variety of different ways, there’s never a “right” skill to invest in, which lends a personalized feeling to gameplay and allows for multiple playthroughs to feel different.
Augmentations are another aspect of the game that allows subsequent playthroughs to feel unique; while I found a number of different augmentation canisters littered throughout the game and ended up with quite a few augmentations because of that, I couldn’t find very many upgrade canisters to make those augmentations more practical. Because of that, I had to choose one or two to upgrade and then rely on those throughout most of the game.
Augmentations come in many different flavors, from one that helps you stay underwater longer to one that regenerates your health while activated. There’s also a cloak to hide you from enemies, shields to reduce the damage you take, and even an augmentation that reduces your footstep noise. Using augmentations depletes your “bioelectric energy,” which can be replenished using certain machines and the bioelectric cells you find littered around levels, so you’ll most likely end up relying on them only when absolutely necessary (though upgrading some of them up will reduce the amount of energy they drain).
One of the few things I remembered about Deus Ex was that many NPCs could be randomly attacked. This was (and still is) exceedingly rare, especially given the game’s first-person perspective. It’s particularly noteworthy that you’re not only given the freedom to attack random adult civilians if you wish, but also children who are wandering around. This is something that you’d never see in a modern game, and even the early Fallout games were censored in some areas because they allowed this same freedom. Now, random violence against NPCs is often viewed as an unnecessary feature, but I’d argue that it allows for more realism; even if it’s something that few will engage in, not offering that kind of freedom is an unnecessary restriction, and no one ever looked back at a game and went, “Wow, I sure loved how few things that game let me do!”
While important characters are invincible (and sometimes become hostile when attacked, very often resulting in you dying), there are a few notable occasions where you’re able to kill an important character like in the video below. It’s not always obvious when certain characters switch from being invincible to killable—and there are a few who never become killable no matter what—but thanks to Deus Ex allowing you to save whenever you want, you can experiment and then chuckle at how some of the dialogue changes after your feats of savagery. There are even a few instances where your indirect actions (such as choosing to go out of a window instead of fighting through a door) affect who lives and dies.
It gets better and better
Despite rediscovering my love for Deus Ex, I also rediscovered how much I don’t enjoy a few portions of the game. These all occur fairly early on, with one of the sections I don’t enjoy being the first level and another being an early section that sends you into some underground tunnels. While these initially caused me to have a slightly negative impression of the game as a whole, the later sections more than made up for all of that. This is truly one of those games that you have to play all the way through before judging.
This is an old game from the days when games in general were still making the awkward initial jump from 2D to 3D, so the textures are blurry and the characters can tend to be a bit on the blocky side. The game is also quite dark, as the screenshots will attest. All of that aside, I really like Deus Ex’s graphics as a whole. Sure, there are all kinds of fan fixes that update the graphics to be more modern, but there’s just something about the blocky, blurry graphics that I find incredibly charming. Even if you don’t, however, there are the aforementioned fixes out there that can make the graphics a bit more palatable.
The music is great
Quite a bit of the game’s music is more atmospheric than melodic, though the atmospheric stuff somehow manages to be quite memorable thanks to several distinct themes that play periodically. While much of the soundtrack is comprised of that dark, tense-sounding music that matches the graphics and story, all of that is occasionally broken up by more upbeat tracks such as this:
All in all, the music manages to set the mood while retaining a great deal of its musicality, and it kind of reminds me of Planescape: Torment’s (excellent) soundtrack in that regard. There’s just something about Deus Ex games that seems to inspire great soundtracks.
Here’s what you should do: