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.