This review is a contribution to Felipe Pepe's crowd-sourced CRPG Book Project. The book is still being updated, but the current version can be downloaded for free on Felipe's website.
I’ll start with a confession: I didn’t play Deus Ex until many years after its initial release in 2000. And even after I discovered it, I remained skeptical at first. After all, it is an ugly game with a drab look that cannot entirely hide behind its age, and awkward animations and voice acting. The first steps taken and first shots fired feel clunky and off, and there’s a gently irony about the fact that a game featuring brilliant A.I.s has NPCs that routinely run into walls like mindless wind-up toys.
And yet: Like its powerful nano-augmentations, Deus Ex has a habit of getting under one’s skin and staying there. I first tried Deus Ex out of historic curiosity, but its dusty appearance belied a game that still was (and still is) vibrant and fresh. Deus Ex received two sequels and has close ties to Looking Glass classics like Thief and System Shock, both in terms of overlaps of their development teams, most notably Warren Spector, and their common genetic heritage as immersive sims. Despite this, Deus Ex remains one of a kind. But pinning down exactly why it’s so compelling and relevant isn’t easy.
You may have heard fans talk about the game’s player agency; the freedom to do things your way. To my mind, however, this freedom is just one of many features that contribute to what distinguishes Deus Ex most: its verisimilitude.
Despite its low fidelity and awkward character AI, I have never played a game in which the player’s presence in a virtual world feels this authentic. Its hub areas such as UNATCO HQ, Hell’s Kitchen or Hong King are rich microcosms. These places may seem small in comparison to open world games, but they are dense with detail in the form of secrets, newspapers and datacubes to discover and study, and inhabitants that philosophize, ask for your help, try to manipulate you, and take note of your actions.
The game’s unmatched reactivity makes these characters seem real: rather than ignoring your action until some Big Binary Plot Decision like most in games, the denizens of Deus Ex will react to your most minute of actions; the places you visited, the problems you solved and the manner you solved them in, the people you met, killed or let live.
The scale and complexity of the main missions’ maps is often mindboggling, the plethora of ways to move through them almost overwhelming. You can blow up a door and go in guns bl