Tuesday, 16 August 2011

PC: Deus Ex, Looking Back... Part 1

At the end of this month we will be graced with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the third game in the Deus Ex series. Although there is some reason to be wary about the game, specifically the non-involvement of the first two games' designers, Warren Spector and Harvey Smith, previews suggest the game will be true to the spirit of the series including multiple-approaches to gameplay (described by the developers as 'pillars' including styles such as 'combat', 'stealth' and 'social') and a conspiracy-laden plot.
It's hard to decide who is cooler out of the Denton brothers,
on the one hand Paul has a goatee, on the other JC
has sunglasses... at night

As we wait to review the newest title with baited breath, now seems a great time to look back at the two previous games in the Deus Ex series and examine why they hold such a fond place in gamers' hearts (the first title at least!) and in what ways they impacted gaming. 

The original Deus Ex was released in 2000, the product of Ion Storm Austin, a separate branch of Ion Storm to John Romero's hubristic endeavours with Ion Storm Dallas. Warren Spector was asked to head up the Austin offices of Ion Storm following the demise of Looking Glass Studios, the studio responsible for System Shock, a game that Spector had worked on and that is itself responsible for greatly influencing the development of Deus Ex and latterly Bioshock. 

Perhaps one of the first things you'll notice in Deus Ex are the graphics, and the graphics in Deus Ex are anything but a revelation. The game is powered by the Unreal Engine and I was particularly struck in my recent play-through how badly it has aged, the models themselves seem to have particularly low polygon counts even taking into account that it's an eleven year old game. That said, graphics are only one part of a game and there are a number of elements that combine to elevate Deus Ex far above the ranks of mediocrity. The most recognised feature, one we have already touched upon, is the vaunted ability to approach the games' objectives in different ways. For example, you are able to choose the stealthy option, sneaking up and stunning enemies rather than killing them and then disposing their bodies out of sight. Certainly this was the approach I attempted to implement in my recent play-through before being a pretty poor shot meant that I had to resort to that much more familiar gaming trope - the run and gun. 

I remember being extremely impressed at just how shiny
the floors in Deus Ex are...

This implementation of multiple-gameplay approaches is a bedfellow of another important feature - the branching narrative. Deus Ex allows you to make decisions throughout the game about who you are placing your allegiance with, who you trust and what you believe in. Although there are of course limits to how far these decisions can truly influence the game (all roads lead to the same final decision) it meant Deus Ex contrasted markedly with, for example, games such as Half-Life and Half-Life 2 which, despite both being brilliant, are decidedly linear. 

The branching narrative is in many ways influenced by the conversations that you have with NPCs. Many NPCs have branching conversation trees, allowing you to select from multiple options what it is you want to say with your choice often affecting what paths through the game are open to you. In an attempt to make the game as immersive as possible, NPCs won't just spill their information and then start spouting the same generic piece of dialogue over and over, often returning to them will at least reveal a few more thoughts or statements before they become mindless parrots. 

A number of these elements emerge from the simple fact that Deus Ex was, much like the characters within its narrative, augmented. While it looks and controls like a first-person shooter there are significant elements incorporated from role-playing and adventure games. For example, from the offset you are asked to assign 'skill points' to different attributes, a process that requires a fair bit of reading given the detailed descriptions of each attribute. This kind of process is one very familiar to those used to role-playing games, but almost alien to those who were used to the more immediate starts to games such as Quake.

Furthering this role-playing element, Deus Ex allowed both weapons and the player themselves to be 'modified', facilitating a great deal of personalisation in the game ensuring that barely any two play-throughs would result in exactly the same game.

What criticisms that were levelled at the game were almost all related to technical aspects. The game can be somewhat glitchy, affecting the 'immersive' atmosphere, for example early in the game while in a conversation with one NPC, I noticed another NPC's path become affected causing them to be 'stuck' in my field of view. Also, as previously mentioned, the graphics weren't exactly cutting edge for their time and the engine limits how much can actually happen onscreen.

Nonetheless, Deus Ex was an ambitious project that caught my attention eleven years ago and continues to elicit fond memories.. Playing through now means that I am more likely to detect the flaws but also better placed to appreciate the innovation and, to be frank, love that was poured into the development of the game. The success of the title made a sequel almost inevitable and surely enough three years later Deus Ex: The Invisible War was released...

Return soon, the achievements and, some may argue, failings of Deus Ex: The Invisible War will be discussed in Part 2...

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