Deus Ex Review
By Corey Stoneburner |
Leave it up to Warren Spector and his team to pull it off...yet again. Warren has had his fingers in such great first-person classics as Ultima Underworld, Thief, and System Shock, so you can bet your bosom that we were looking for great things out of Deus Ex...and Ion Storm didn't disappoint.
I don't want to give away too much of the story, but the plot of Deus Ex is one of the finest crafted in any game. If you like multi-layered conspiracy, you're going to love Deus Ex. There are so many side plots, twists, and branching narratives going on in the game that it's easy to get sucked in to one plot and then do a complete one-eighty not five minutes later in the game when you uncover another buried facet of the story. In case you haven't read our extensive preview coverage of Deus Ex (and why not may I ask?), you step into the stylish leather boots of a nano-augmented agent for UNATCO, a United Nations-sponsored anti-terrorist organization. You begin the game looking for a highjacked shipment of Ambrosia, the only known substance that can stabilize sufferers of the "Grey Death." Now that's just one ripple in the ocean that is Deus Ex. Like I said, I don't want to give anyway anything further about the story since it's so fundamental to the experience, but let me just say it's like an entire season of The X-Files wrapped into one game (the old X-Files, not that tripe they've been feeding us recently).
I know what you're saying: "Sure, the story might be the best thing since those flying cars we all got earlier this year, but I can go buy a good book for ten bucks. How does the game play, jerk face?" Well, you won't be disappointed here, either. And you don't have to call me names. I have feelings too, you know. Think of Deus Ex as a mix between Rainbow Six, Thief, and System Shock. It's set slightly in the future, projectiles are more deadly than in Quake, and a solid stealthy approach can be much more useful than a full frontal assault. The really great thing about Deus Ex is that you can play it how you want to play it, and you can develop your character to fit your playing style. You gain skill points through completing primary and secondary goals, which can then be allocated to increase a number of different skills including computers, electronics, environmental training, lockpicking, medicine, swimming, and various weapons skills. You can become an expert in perhaps one or two skills, but you can't master all, so you have to be careful about what you pick because it will affect how you progress through the game. And while it may seem obvious that abilities like lockpicking and computers might come in more handy than swimming or environmental training, don't discount any of the proficiencies. My main character was a sniper/hacker type with a bit of lockpicking prowess and medical knowledge, therefore I favored strategies like staying far away from my targets and hacking into security systems. But I went back and played the game to test some of the skills that I hadn't specialized in, and I found that in most cases (why anyone would want to be an expert in environmental training still eludes me...but to each his/her own) there were just as many ways to utilize them as there were any other skill in the game. Becoming an expert doctor kept me in tip-top shape every time I used a single medkit, and the swimming skill afforded me easy clearance through several underwater routes that I had never explored as a sniper/hacker.
In addition to the customizable skills, your nano-augmentations play a big part in the game. You'll find augmentation canisters throughout the game that can give you one of two enhancements, which also forces you to make choices that affect the game. For example, you may have to decide whether you want the ability to run fast or walk silently, lift heavy objects or cause greater damage in melee combat. All of these choices make for greater variety in gameplay, and ultimately makes for an almost endless play experience as you have multiple routes to explore each time you play the game.
Level design is another area where Deus Ex really shines. After games like Thief and System Shock 2, it's almost a given that "sneaker-shooter" is going to have some creative levels, but the folks at Ion Storm have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Like I mentioned before, there's usually something in every level that caters to the various skills, even swimming. From air ducts to underground pipes to super-secure secret entrances, the designers really thought of a number of ways to traverse and interact with each environment so you never feel like you're locked into one route. And the great thing is that no specific way is necessarily the "best" way to go. While a Mech-swarming front entrance may seem like a deathtrap to some, the character loaded down with EMP grenades may find it an easier route than bypassing security and going through the backdoor. It's all about character choice, and that's a great thing to see in a game, especially in a first-person perspective game.
With all of this depth, you might imagine that Deus Ex would be a real bitch to get into. Well, that's not the case at all. One of the first things that really impressed me was how easy Deus Ex was to get up and running. While this could have been an overly difficult game to get in to, it's obvious that the team spent a good bit of time designing the interface, because it's one of the best I've used. For starters, absolutely everything is described in detail with a click of the mouse. This keeps your hands on the game and off of the manual, which is purposely thin for that very reason. The game will also keep running track of all of your logs, clues, codes, and conversations. You'll pay for it in save game space (individual saves can run upwards of 20MB a piece depending on the size of the level), but it's worth it in the end. I'd rather stay in the game than have to go searching through page after page of notes, and if you had to keep track of all of the notes in Deus Ex, you'd fill a composition book in short order.
As good as the gameplay is, visuals aren't one of Deus Ex's stronger points. Since it's built on the Unreal engine, Deus Ex isn't as pretty as other first-person games like Quake III or Soldier of Fortune. The graphics are blocky, the animation is stiff, and the dithering is just plain awful in some spots, but overall Deus Ex certainly looks better than your average game, and I'm certainly willing to sacrifice graphics in favor of solid gameplay, which this game is overflowing with. While the graphics engine isn't the best out there, Deus Ex does excel in creating atmosphere. The entire game takes place at night, which is the perfect setting for an eerie, conspiracy-laden adventure. As you can see from the screenshots, the game is dark, but that's part of what makes it so mysterious. Plus, with your eye-mounted flashlight, you're never completely in the dark as long as you have a bioelectric cell or two in your inventory.
One of the worst problems I ran into with Deus Ex was the high system requirements. Deus Ex ran choppy even on some of the higher end computers we played it on. I had to turn the detail down on my PII450MHz with a Voodoo3 to get a fluid framerate, but after I installed one of the new Voodoo5s, it was smooth sailing with full detail. Of course, I hope we're not getting to the point where you have to own a PIII600 with a $300 video card to play a good PC game quite yet.
Other than the hefty system requirements, there wasn't a whole lot not to like about Deus Ex. One caveat goes back to the choppy animation system. While the team promised real-time lip synchronizing, the final product doesn't live up to what we were expecting. More often than not, the character's teeth moved up and down instead of their lips, so you're left looking at a very Cenobite-ish looking creature who you just want to run from before fishing hooks shoot out of his back and grab you. I also ran into a couple of occasions where my allies blocked my path, preventing my escape from a room. Thank goodness I'm the type who saves often (and I suggest you do if you pick up Deus Ex) or I might have to replay a good bit of the game. There's also no multiplay option, but the single-player experience is so great you won't miss not playing against others. Overall, these are just minor quips, and there's certainly much more to praise in Deus Ex than there is to whine about.
To its credit, its brilliant design and elegant follow through make Deus Ex the best game I've played this year, and I think it's safe to say it's one of the most versatile first-person games ever. Those of you looking for a complex, unique experience will find it in Deus Ex. While I had a good idea that Deus Ex was going to be a winner way before I played it, the team at Ion Storm has gone above and beyond all the expectations I had for this game, and has made one of the most fulfilling single-player games I've played in years. I only hope we see this attention to detail and design in future games from Ion Storm as well as other developers.
-- Tal Blevins