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 blazing; pick the lock and sneak inside; stack crates or use your jump augmentation to reach a high window or roof; crawl through twisting systems of vents; or hack security panels to turn the enemy’s robots against them.
Affordances are heavily dependent on your character build and inventory. Skill points that are awarded for completing objectives or finding secrets can be invested in weapon types, hacking, lock picking, swimming, and more. Augmentation canisters target specific body parts and offer a binary choice: do you want to move more quietly, or quicker? Do you want to hit harder with melee weapons, or lift heavy objects? These augmentations can be leveled up with upgrade canisters, allowing further specialization. Weapon mods add scopes, increase accuracy, or reduce recoil. All of these decisions never restrict you to a certain play style, but instead allow for more flexibility and interesting approaches.
The character you build is the point of view from which you may explore and experience the intricacies of the game’s multi-layered maps. Replaying the game with different skills and augmentations will show you new and surprising facets of familiar places. As an expert hacker and lock picker, there will be few doors that can stop you, but your lack in weapon skills will force you to avoid enemies. Playing as a weapon specialist, you can face enemies head-on, but now you have to scour the maps for keys and clues allowing you to puzzle out computer passwords.
The missions you undertake and places you explore are meaningfully embedded in a world and story no less rich than these individual spaces. As J.C. Denton, valuable asset of UNATCO with his superior nano-technological augmentations, it is your task to untangle a web of conspiracies and lies in a world suffering from widespread terrorism, political oppression and a mysterious plague epidemic. Despite its bleakness, Deus Ex deals neither in moral absolutes nor cynicism. Instead, it offers an uncommonly differentiated world where the lines between good and evil are present but contested.
Your enemies retain their humanity, and the motivations of allies are never above suspicion. Gunther Hermann, struggling against his outdated mechanical augmentations, is a brilliant example of effective characterization through broad strokes. And if you wish to go deep, you can read about and discuss political philosophy, religion, history and transhumanism.
The game’s central themes of paranoia, the hunger for power and the thirst for knowledge are not only talked about, but also evoked by the gameplay itself. World, story and mechanics mesh elegantly, and playing the game is an all-around cerebral and coherent experience. Deus Ex is a vibrant masterpiece that not only achieves what few games – then or now – dare to attempt, but also makes it seem easy.