Reviewed on PC
2000’s Deus Ex gets high praise. Over the 17 years since it’s release, it has regularly ranked highly in the oh-so-important ‘greatest games ever’ lists. Whenever it’s mentioned, everyone is required by law to salute and reinstall it. It is a first person RPG, set in a cyberpunk world, with a story based around many popular conspiracy theories, most prominently the existence of the illuminati. You play as JC Denton, a man with nano-augmentation technology implanted into his body. The augmentations give him unnatural abilities; including turning invisible, lifting extraordinary weights, and more questionably, activating a dim flashlight built into his eyes that doesn’t last as long as a standard one.
Alongside your augmentations, you upgrade a set of skills that improve your proficiency in combat and environment traversal, which will help you gain access to the secrets those pesky societal elites are hiding. The non-combat skills allow you to do things like hacking, picking locks and healing with medkits more effectively. Some of the skills (primarily swimming) are quite redundant, since they are so rarely necessary and can be improved with an augmentation if needed. As usual, hacking is incredibly useful and will help you get many of the codes you need to progress, along with disabling security cameras and unlocking doors. The levels are designed to make sure you can progress even if you don’t have the skills to access the simplest route. Finding vents to sneak around in and stacking crates to build platforms are two of the most common examples. The game also accommodates more bizarre methods, such as building ladders by jumping on explosives placed on walls.
While the breaking and entering aspects are immensely satisfying, combat can feel dull. Advancing the weapon skills you prefer is important, because without training you will miss most shots, do negligible damage, and have time to make a cup of tea while you reload. This gives considerable weight to the skills you do invest in, which I appreciate; but even when developed, you have to contend with inconsistent hit detection and a lack of feedback from your attacks. On a positive note, this does mean that you’ll try to be smart when picking your fights, taking headshots while hidden and sneaking past foes whenever possible. One last frustration in combat: the small robot spider that scuttles around way too quickly to hit, while it saps your precious aug energy and health. Like System Shock 2’s psychic monkeys, these deserve a shower of nukes for being so awkward.
Combining augmentations, skills, combat and a bit of your intelligence opens a range of ways to reach your objectives; resulting in a fantastic gameplay style that has been imitated many times since. Obviously, these systems mean multiple playthroughs are worth your time, both for the different methods you can use to complete missions, and ways the story can be altered based on your actions.
Along with the intelligent gameplay, the writing is another huge strength. The story follows JC Denton uncovering increasingly elaborate plots by the government’s elite. A narrative based on conspiracies could collapse into the logical inconsistencies actual theories suffer from, but it manages to remain coherent, whether or not you think this game is claiming these plans are being carried out in the real world. In addition, the pacing is good, and despite the considerable length of the campaign, I always felt engaged. You choose from three endings, and they all make good points as to why you should consider each one, rather than a dull good/evil final cutscene. The dialogue is also fantastic, with Denton’s genuinely funny sarcastic quips being a clear highlight, and elsewhere you can enter thought provoking discussions of philosophy and politics that really make you pay attention. However, the voice acting delivering the lines is nowhere near as solid. JC’s low monotone fits his slightly tongue-in-cheek characterisation, a few of the villains are suitably menacing, but everyone else ranges from sounding bored to speaking in accents that are borderline offensive. The one that I found the strangest was the Hong Kong bartender with a pseudo-Australian accent critiquing the UN.
The music is great, taking you back to the turn of the millennium in a good way, with ambient pads, sequencer synths and hyperactive dance tracks; but also throwing in some Eastern melodies, and I hear some influence from progressive bands like Dream Theater. Two of my favourite tracks are ‘Battery Park’ and ‘NYC streets’ from the early game, and I often find my head bobbing to the more driving pieces. Sneaking around, hacking and discussing politics is even more enjoyable with these tunes in the background.
The default controls will be unintuitive to people expecting standard FPS controls, and there is a long list of actions that you will never use, like using the keyboard to look around. Some of the more functional controls are mapped in awkward places, including semicolon to reload and left bracket for looking down scope. It’s definitely worth remapping controls to suit you better.
The main issue you will have to deal with is getting the game to run properly. When I first launched Deus Ex, I found that the game was too dark, and the frame rate would often drop massively – on a PC that can run 2011’s Human Revolution at 60FPS on ultra settings. It is pretty much certain that you will need to install some fan-made patches to run the game on modern systems. Maybe it will add to the immersion and you’ll feel more like your l33t hacker protagonist. Even with fixes, I still experienced some problems, mainly screen tearing, but also flickering textures and the occasional crash. The game is very old at this point, so you won’t find ultra HD textures and elegant takedown animations here, but the story and gameplay more than make up for the dated look.
Deus Ex is well deserving of the acclaim it receives. The influence of it’s choice based gameplay, environmental interaction and intellectual themes can be seen in a plethora of games that emerged in the years since it’s release. You will probably have to do some tinkering to play it, but your patience will be massively rewarded with a true PC gaming masterpiece.
Shares DNA with: System Shock 2, Fallout New Vegas, Thief 2