What, exactly, is so great about Deus Ex? It didn't sell amazingly well, and plenty of gamers played it and just didn't see the point. Why all the reverence? Why is this talked about like it's the Mona Lisa of game design?
My exact answer changes each time I write about this, but like any Deus Ex fan, I always end up using the first level as an example. Liberty Island - tiny by island standards, but huge for an open-air game level. It showcased everything that was unique and exciting about the game's open-ended approach to missions, demand for tactical planning, and constant surprises. So I played through that level one more time, the way I like to play, and used everything that happened as a demonstration of why I love this game like nothing else.
This feature originally appeared in the August '09 UK print edition of PC Gamer, and it opened with this image, showing how I got inside the statue. Click for the big version.
Well, this is awkward. I'm looking at a security monitor that shows three armed terrorists all pointing their guns at one man. A man who's looking at a security monitor. If I look up, I'm a dead man. This isn't a normal shooter; a gunshot to the head is the end of your life.
But terrorists in Deus Ex are polite: they won't shoot you when they can see you're busy. “Hold on, guys, he's clearly in the middle of something. Let him finish.” This is absurd, of course, but to me it doesn't matter. It's a rule I can rely on, and sometimes it's these liberties Deus Ex takes with realism that create the game's most entertaining situations. They're not bugs, exactly, just shortcuts that developers Ion Storm Austin had to take to cram so many different systems into the same game.
Take the stealth system: your enemies are nearly blind. No modern game would dare to make its enemies so laughably myopic, and so no modern game blends stealth with gunplay and roleplaying so tightly as Deus Ex.
So I'm pretty much stuck tinkering with this security monitor. I'm inside the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York, trying to break UNATCO agent Gunther Hermann out of the now terrorist-occupied building. And I got pretty close: this is the console to open the door to his cell, though since he's unarmed, opening it might not do him any favours right now.
The only other thing I can do is reprogram the gun turret above me. It won't kill the terrorists faster than they could kill me, but if I just keep staring intently at this terminal, it won't have to. They'll wait for me to finish even as hot lead pummels them to death. Ah, realism.
I'm playing with a rule I've imposed on myself: I'm not allowed to kill anyone directly. It's a way of getting over the daunting freedom of starting a new game of Deus Ex: after playing it through more than 20 times, it's sometimes hard to decide between the hundreds of different ways you can shape your character and playing style. So I create arbitrary rules for myself and see if I can survive the game without breaking them.
It so nearly works. The turret pelts each gunman in turn until they have a change of heart about standing there with a gun to my head, and run off. Until it gets to the last one. It fires enthusiastically in his direction, but the wall's in the way. He's safe, which means I'm not. I'm stuck looking at this damn monitor.
The old line about Deus Ex is that it's great because it gives you lots of options. It certainly does, but that doesn't fully explain why it hasn't been surpassed. Plenty of recent games have given us as many (BioShock) or more (Fallout 3), and yet I come back to Deus Ex after each. I think it's because we misunderstand what keeps Deus Ex exciting. It isn't a wealth of options, it's that the game is tough enough to produce moments when you find yourself with none.
When you can't do anything sensible, you start to look really carefully at the stupid. It forces you to think about every possible consequence of what you can do with Deus Ex's fairly rudimentary systems. Opening a door from a security console, for example. It doesn't seem to have any particularly interesting implications, until you realise your would-be killer is standing directly in front of that door.
I open the door, causing it to swing into the final gunman, knocking him into the turret's field-of-view, causing it to hammer him to death. At last, I close the console and look up.
As I walk into Gunther's cell, he trundles towards me. I do the manly thing and throw my pistol at his head.
Wait, wait, I can explain.
When Gunther talks to you, he asks for a weapon. If you have a pistol, you get the option to offer it to him. If you don't have a pistol, you can offer him a standard combat knife, which is (a) easily replaced and (b) hilarious to see him use. My pistol, on the other hand, is fitted with valuable upgrades, but refusing to hand it over would put me in Gunther's bad books. Better not to have one to give.
After my gun clatters to the floor, however, Gunther just storms straight past me. I turn to find a guard behind: one who might have blown my brains out had Gunther not just made himself the most immediate target. Suddenly feeling faintly silly for throwing my primary weapon on the floor, I bolt for the corner of Gunther's cell and cower until the shots die down.
They don't, so I warily creep out anyway. The terrorist is dead, Gunther is gone, and the gun turret is shooting the shit out of a chair. Heh. OW!
The moment the chair breaks, the turret starts shooting me. I must have set it to target 'Everything' when tinkering with it to take out those terrorists. I exit the room badly shot up. Textbook, Denton, textbook.
Things go wrong in Deus Ex. It's what I love about it most. It's the reason I spend so much of my playing time laughing. It's a logical game: the rules that govern how guards follow their patrol routes, investigate threats and respond to alerts are predictable. But it's just complex enough that you frequently fail to fully anticipate it.
In the atrium, Gunther is sprinting out of the door with three more guards chasing him. Godspeed, agent. I sneak off up the stairs while they're distracted. Two guards at the top are having a conversation that I, and most Deus Ex players, can now recite unthinkingly.
“Did they find the shipment?”
“Yeah, they got the whole supply. You can see the ships lights crossing the bay. Guess you were right.”
Actually I'm not really sure what they say after that, because I've invariably sprayed a fire-extinguisher in their faces and shot them both in the head.
That was the first moment I realised Deus Ex was something special: these two had killed me several times in a fair fight, and I found myself actually studying my inventory trying to figure out how to tackle them. They're just two basic enemies. In how many games does that situation actually require you to stop and think? When I came up with the aforementioned solution – blinding them with fire retardant to give me time to line up point-blank headshots on each in turn – it worked. I was in love.
Of course, it's only after I've fire-extinguished the both of them that I remember my rule: no direct killing. Damn. They're going to get the foam out of their eyes in a sec, and I rather badly need them to not be alive by then. Ooh, an explosive barrel!
When I say things go wrong in Deus Ex, I don't mean the way they sometimes go wrong in a game like Half-Life, where you might run out of ammo or get knocked down to 20 health. I mean 'stand an inch too close to something you're blowing up and you'll lose both your legs'.
I lost both my legs. I have no legs. The guards have no bodies, granted, but I thought backing up a few paces would make this a relatively cheap win. Instead, it cost a leg and a leg.
I sit there on my stumps for a second, reminiscing about long walks on the beach.
Well, no use crying over spilt legs. I've only got two more flights of stairs to haul my bloody bumps up before I can interrogate the terrorist leader, and then drag the surviving half of my body back to HQ for repairs. Charge!
There are two more guards between me and the leader, but I'm able to lug my dribbling thigh-sockets most of the way across the room before they turn and spot me. Shuffling frantically round the corner, I plant a LAM proximity-triggered explosive on the wall in case they try to follow.
When you reach him, the leader of this cell of the National Secessionist Front is chatty. It's actually a great conversation, with just enough merit to the bad guy's argument that you start to wonder about your objectives, but also with some reassuringly measured realism from JC instinctively defending his employers. But, like most Deus Ex players, I've heard the exchange a fair few times now.
“Don't shoot!” Skip!
“So you think-” Skip!
“You're too late-” Skip skip!
“Except send you back to the people – in a body bag.” Wait, what? Did I just threaten to kill him?
I just threatened to kill him. I pressed Space one too many times, and accidentally selected the option where you start a fight with the man you were sent to capture and interrogate. The NSF leader shoots my arm off. Fuck!
With only one remaining limb, my options are limited. I have to hurriedly wiggle round the corner before I lose any more body, then bounce down the stairs toward my LAM. You don't trigger your own proximity explosives, so if I can get past that, the leader will blow himself up trying to get to me. It's about then that the world goes completely white.
The building is trembling with the aftermath of a blast when it fades back into view. Round the corner, I find the corpse of the UNATCO agent sent to relieve me, next to the scorchmark of my detonated LAM. Fuck. The leader runs down the stairs towards me. Fuck. I throw myself down the ladder to the lower level, turn in mid-air and cling to it with my one remaining arm. Fuck. The head of the friendly UNATCO troop I inadvertently killed is hanging over the edge above, staring down at me with accusing piggy black eyes. Fuck. I hear the NSF leader reload above me, and his face pops into view. Fuck.
I shoot him in the head. He drops out of sight with a gurgling scream. My no-direct-killing rule didn't last one level.
“That might have been over the line, JC,” UNATCO comms jockey Jacobson croaks in my ear. You think? “I don't know. Better head back to base. Objective complete.”
So I lug my pegless half-body down the stairs from the corpse of the man I was supposed to capture, scrape it painstakingly past the unarmed cyborg I was supposed to free, and all the way to the brother I was supposed to impress back at HQ. He doesn't share Jacobson's moral ambiguity.
“You're a complete jackass.”
That's the last wonderful thing about Deus Ex, something that makes playing it feel like a process of discovery nine years and twenty play-throughs later. It doesn't just let you take liberties, it expects you to. There's no reason to kill the man you're sent to interrogate, but you can, and so there's a special line for those who do. Whatever absurd thing you try to get away with, every now and then you'll find the developers anticipated a batshit player like you would find a way to do it, and wrote a specific reaction just for you. It's more than just a pat on the head for experimenting, it's the creators of this game world looking down and saying, “Heh, we can't believe you did that. Have a cookie.”
There's a line for if, after being told to stay away from Walton Simons, you break into the cell where he's interrogating prisoners and kill them: “Jesus Christ, Denton.”
There's a line for if, when you finally get to fight Simons, you just run past him. He crops up in a later level, snarky about your slippery tactics, and you get to mock him.
“You take another step forward, and here I am again, like your own reflection repeated in a hall of mirrors,” he says.
“That makes me one ugly son of a bitch. How'd my face get all messed up?” Oh burn.
And there's even a line, it turns out, for if you murder the UNATCO agent sent to relieve you in the Statue of Liberty.
“Did you see what happened to the soldier we sent into the statue?” boss Manderley asks after the debriefing. “He turned up dead.”
JC Denton automatically covers for your lunacy.
“No sir. Friendly fire?”
Lines like that makes me feel like the game knows me. Someone at Ion Storm Austin thought “Well, some asshole's probably gonna try killing the UNATCO agent we send up to the statue, so we'd better have JC Denton cover for him with Manderley.” Thanks, guys. Apparently I am that asshole.
Unlike so many games, Deus Ex makes good on the promise of its first level. It continues to put you in large open spaces that give you room to strategise, guarded by security systems intricate enough to lead to unpredictable tales of dismemberment and failure like this one. It's a great game for giving you the freedom to come up with your own plan, and a superb one for brutalising you with its consequences. Until some other game dares to be that liberating and merciless, nothing's going to beat Deus Ex.
Deus Ex can be a bit dicky on modern PCs; here's the best way to play now.
If it runs too fast or doesn't support the resolution you want, get Deus Ex Fixer. It's easy to use and solves both problems quickly.
Lastly, get the Shifter mod. It adds many neat tweaks such as throwing melee weapons, upgrading augs with dupes, and a Hed-Gun.