This week in preparation for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Zero Punctuation retrospectively reviews Deus Ex.
Those of you who still aren't allowed to post pictures of your primary sexual characteristics on the Internet are no doubt wondering what this "Deusex" [pronounces it as "Jew sex"] thing is that your mummies and daddies have been talking about. Well, in broad terms, Deusex traditionally occurs after a rabbi has given his blessing and often through a hole in a bed sheet. Another thing you may be wondering about is Day-Uss EX , a cyberpunk action RPG series whose long-awaited third installment will already be out by the time this episode oozes murkily out of your computer screen and up your face pipes.
Well, since it's been over an entire decade since the last Deus Ex that didn't make people want to lay their slide rule-augmented heads down on a railroad track, I figured before I dived into Human Revolution I'd devote a week to a little retrospective. This is assuredly not solely because I spent the entirety of last week in a hotel room watching the Discovery channel without playing any new games, but it's certainly convenient that that was the case.
So let's put Deus Ex in context. The year is 2000. The shooter was still riding PC gaming like a trusted pony, a pony you occasionally have to slap or replace with a completely different, better pony, but trusted nonetheless. With Half-Life, Thief, and System Shock 2, first-person games had been steadily raising the bar, and then a company called Ion Storm released Daikatana and made the bar tunnel right into the ground beyond the wit of spelunker. But then Ion Storm also brought out Deus Ex, which was popularly considered the greatest PC game of all time.
That may seem like incongruous behavior for a game developer, but the thing is, during Ion Storm's creation myth a bolt of magical lightning struck John Romero's hair and the fledgling Ion Storm was split into its good half and its evil half. The evil half was Ion Storm Dallas, which produced Daikatana and devoured children who refused to eat their vegetables, and the good half was Ion Storm Austin, which made Deus Ex and leaves chocolate buttons in the shoes of the good little boys and girls.
Deus Ex does let you put in your own name, but it's kind of fucking with you. The moment you press Enter, it goes "Wrong! Your name is JC Denton." You're a newly-created super secret agent with a body full of nano-tech augmentations, all of which are apparently located inside your throat, 'cause you sound like a shingle beach figured out how to speak. You're assigned to an anti-terrorist organization based in a slightly-ruined New York, because this was 2000, when you could still talk about terrorists destroying New York landmarks without causing the entire civilized world to burst into tears.
Your commander doesn't seem like he can run a bath, and you suspect the older, obsolete cyborgs are all calling you a tosser behind their hands, but JC soon learns that he is but a pawn in an unseen conflict between the many powers that seek to control mankind's destiny. Unseen conflict? Surely I mean Invisible War, the name of the sequel, which sadly didn't make the connection that, whatever the merits of an invisible war, it's not terribly interesting to watch.
But getting back on topic, there's a difference between an action RPG and an action game with RPG elements. Deus Ex is the former; the way you can tell is that you're not just duct-taping on extra ammo capacity or ornamental squeaky ducks to a gun you basically already know how to use. In any skill you're not trained in, you would be laughed out of a school sports day. The amateur locksmith will trail broken picks like Woodcrafting Awareness Week on the Minecraft server, and your aim through a rifle scope wavers like you've just spent the last few days bobbing for apples in a vat full of ether.
But Deus Ex was actually balanced. It wasn't like System Shock 2, where you just have to give up 20 hours in because it's impossible to proceed without having at least some points in flower arranging and you've been trying to specialize in macramé. Any situation could be handled by any character build, within reason - I mean, unless your brain is some kind of permanent consolation prize and you've been putting all your points into swimming and poison resistance in case you have to visit Queensland. There are moments in Deus Ex when a boss character would show up for a fight, but you could just run straight past them and slam the door in their face. Why hasn't any other game character ever thought of that?
But while considered a classic, Deus Ex is the kind of classic whose recommendation needs to carry a very large, swollen asterisk. It's one of those games where everyone who liked it is now incredibly familiar with the first hour of it, because occasionally they'll get an urge to give it a replay and it won't be long before they think "Blimey, I don't remember it looking quite this much like ass!" It hasn't so much aged poorly as it was stitched together with old fishing twine from the word go. Even for the time, the boxy level design looked like the work of a man with set squares instead of hands who was being muscle by the Concrete Texture Artists Union. It's rather painfully obvious that they only made about three character models and just changed the skin, so every character has their hair plastered to their skull and a big flasher's mack.
On top of that, the game's engine is incredibly poorly optimized and about as difficult to break as a wet Weetabix. It ran like a jet ski on gravel even on good computers at the time. And all it takes is a few boxes and wall mines to be able to climb over a wall you're not supposed to and enter the Negative Zone, although I still prefer it to the modern invisible wallapalooza approach, and most of these are just visual problems. Pretty fucking big visual problems that many may not be able to look past, but gameplay's solid. Well, except for the tranquilizer gun. It's supposed to be for stealthy no kill runs, but it just makes enemies run around screaming for five minutes before falling over, and that's not very tranquil. That's like inventing an antidepressant that makes people believe there's free money inside their wrists.
So if any game property needs an update with the benefit of modern technology, it's this one. But the last time that was realized, we got a game about some bender with an early-2000s haircut very conspicuously doing bugger all. Having deliberately avoided any exposure to Human Revolution up to the time of writing, I sincerely hope to be dining on this words with tartar sauce by the time this video goes out, but I don't see how these days you could have a game with anything near as much depth and complexity as Deus Ex 1.
And before all you people who liked The Witcher 2 start pounding your keyboard so hard that it starts snowing Cheeto dust, I meant the kind of complexity that I like, a plot where people can reference philosophy and G. K. Chesterton in really, really bad accents and it has intuitive inventory sorting and a health system where you can get all your arms and legs blown off and have to slither over to a health station using only your lips.
- Invisible Snore, more like: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- So it turns out I was right, the levels ARE ugly and everyone looks the same
- Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of Deus Ex Fortnight