\\ Deus Ex was not a game that I sought out. Instead, it came included with several others (Thief, MDK2, Unreal Tournament) when I purchased a SoundBlaster Live 5.1 card several years ago. For no particular reason, out of all the pre-packaged software that came with the card, I decided to give Deus Ex a spin first. Maybe it was the intriguing name. Maybe it was the CD that reeked of The Matrix. Maybe it was blind luck.
Whatever it was, I had the game installed and running. After an opening movie that didn't really make sense yet and some training, I set up my character. "John Costeau - what a great name to use," I thought to myself, believing that I was clever for using the initials "JC" in the character's name. I picked a shade of a character a hair darker than myself, set some stats that I really didn't understand, and set forth on one of Liberty Island's docks.
After a brief conversation with Paul and grabbing a sniper rifle, I hopped onto the grass, aimed a weapon, and suddenly the game seemed familiar. I did know this game. In fact, I'd read a preview about it in PC Gamer before. What tipped me off? I remembered reading that as the game's character became more skilled, he'd have better control of his weapons. Right now, there was a pretty large targeting area on the screen that bullet fire could fall into. Holding still would shrink it up a little, but there was still a ways to go before firing would become really accurate.
I gradually trudged my way through Liberty Island, running like hell from anything robotic or turret-based, using the sniper rifle to pick off my enemies. My shot was so horrible that I started to quick save after I scored a hit. Gunther was behind left as I made my way to the top of building, where the terrorist was holed up.
Much to my surprise, the "ending" of the first level was an ideological conversation with the "terrorist" - definitely a little out of the ordinary for the average game, let alone a first-person shooter. Though there'd be many more of these conversations on politics and philosophy throughout the game, this gave a preview of what was to come. But there was another point where I really saw how Deus Ex was more than meets the eye.
After clocking a few hours into the game, I had hit a stride. Maybe I wasn't great or discovering all of the little tricks and conversations, but I was having fun, and maybe more importantly, not getting my ass completely kicked. By now, I was sneaking around, discovering the wonderful abilities of the electric prod and tranquilizing arrows. Story wise, Denton had made rivals out of mechanically-augmented agents Anna Navarre and Gunther Herman, and had managed to track Jaun Lebedev, a suspected terrorist leader.
At this point, the orders were to take him out. Obviously, kill Lebedev and the mission is successful, and life goes on. But the guy starts pleading. And Navarre starts getting angry, spouting that if I don't kill him, she'll do it herself. Nervously, a thought came across my mind, "What if I took her out instead?" Would this even be possible? And sure enough, before I had a chance to do the deed, Navarre took him out and started badmouthing me.
Ok, so maybe that wasn't the greatest story. So I reloaded my last save, worked my way back up to the same point, and tried again. Navarre went down, but not without a fight as her self-destructing body nearly killed me. But the game didn't stop. It didn't stop me from killing off a major character. It simply shrugged its shoulders and said, "So what?" Soon enough, Alex came over the intercom, shocked by the scene: "Holy shit, did you really do that? I'll cover for you, but what the hell were you thinking?"
I can tell you exactly what I was thinking: This is unreal. No other game had given me a choice like that. Deus Ex didn't spell out the solutions and say pick one. Instead, it let that little voice in the back of my head try something different, and then life goes on accordingly. I began to wonder, will the plot fork and will this be a completely different storyline from here on out?
Now, as it turns out, Deus Ex is actually a very linear game. The plot and story stays exactly the same, with only different conversations, areas, and reactions for sub-events on the way through. More importantly than actually granting the ability to do anything, though, is creating that illusion. Despite the linearity, the game feels like anything is possible, that every action will have an appropriate reaction, that there is true freedom - all without having to sacrifice a deep involved story.
This is enhanced by the game's approach to mundane obstacles. Need to get through a door? You don't necessarily have to turn the handle to open it. You could perhaps pick it with a lock. If you're good with explosives, you could blow it open. Maybe after scoping the area, there's another way in. Talking to the locals or hacking a computer may yield a passcode to unlock the door.
Character customization further builds on this. The first time through, I did what most others probably do. I grabbed the sniper and picked off all of my enemies. It probably is the easiest way to play the game - keep a distance, kill everyone so they won't bother you later, and rush towards the next goal. As experience is gained (by accomplishing objectives and exploring), points can be used to increase the character's skills in certain areas. Add more to swimming skills and JC can swim longer and faster. Gain experience with demolitions and he'll be better able to use explosives. Crank up the weapons skill and make him into an expert marksman.
A friend had taken a completely different approach than I. After grabbing a sword in the game, he never let it go, instead deciding to go medieval the entire time, slashing enemies and cranking JC's physical abilities. No way to shock an enemy better than jumping over a wall in a single leap and landing a fatal blow onto a confused enemy.
My second time through the game, I decided to take a different approach. I would try to avoid killing anyone. I made it to the top of Liberty Island just by sneaking past every enemy. Later, when things got trickier, I resorted to less-lethal solutions like the stun gun and tranquilizer darts. Sometimes, just throwing a pack of cigarettes in the other direction was enough to distract the enemies so that I could get where I needed to go.
The paranoid, cyberpunk atmosphere really lends itself well to the game. Set in the not too distant future, the Statue of Liberty has been bombed by a local terrorist group. An incurable disease is infecting many of the homeless, and the government is relatively ineffective at solving the problems, only leaving cities in a militarized state.
In steps JC Denton, a new form of government agent. Nano-augmented, with small mechanical beings running through his body, he looks normal, minus some pale eyes and occasional blue spots on his body. Only a handful of folks have these nano-augmentations, which allow a person to upgrade their bodies, adding new attack and enhanced features - almost like Frankenstein on a molecular level.
At the beginning of the game, JC encounters several people who are more than willing to ask some philosophical questions about his line of work and his approach to it. "Remember, these terrorists are still people, too." Conversations between guards can be overhead debating whether they're doing the right thing. Drug dealers and addicts wander the street, all willing to share their opinion. The dystopian atmosphere perfectly suits the conspiracies that inspire the story.
JC soon learns that his brother Paul is helping out the terrorists, shifting his entire viewpoint of the situation. After that, the game whirlwinds from Paris to Hong Kong in a paranoid dash to figure out who is trustable and who is the real enemy, all the while, thinking, debating, and discussing morality, what it is to be human, and what effect government should have on society. And this is only the tip of the iceberg... How deep does the rabbit hole go?
Regardless, Deus Ex is a must-play. Even if the graphics and combat don't hold up so well by today's standards, the engrossing story, character development, outright attention to detail and sense of freedom are equaled by no other game.