Go back to Deus Ex

Written by: Stoo

Date posted: June 30, 2011

As part of our 10-year anniversary celebrations, this article is another in-depth discussion of a game we’ve written about and enjoyed. This time we were looking at Ion Storm Austin’s shooter-RPG, Deus Ex.

Please note this is loaded with spoilers!

Stoo: Just been watching Let’s Play videos…

Rik: Yeah, I’ve been on YouTube also. Played the game a bit too. But it’s a long one!

Stoo: There’s a lot of content. 25 hours plus if you do everything, I imagine.

Rik: I remembered that I was housebound when I actually finished this game. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t do everything, even then.

Stoo: Okay, well, looking through my list of notes, all written…this morning. First thing that comes to mind is the freedom of different approaches to playing the game – as in, the overall path is pretty linear, but there are multiple ways to tackle objectives.

Rik: Personally, I can get bewildered by too much freedom in a game. But I actually really liked the fact you could sort of mess up but still get away with it. Little things like forgetting to have a conversation with someone who could give you a key code.

Stoo: But if that happens, you can hack your way into a system instead.

Rik: Yeah, exactly, you could still use a lockpick or multitool.

Stoo: So scouring the map for every last detail is helpful (saves a tool) but not essential.

Rik: Which helps the lazy or incompetent player such as myself.

Stoo: I like any option that saves a shootout. One of my favourite things to do was if you could ever take over a robot or gun turret, and let it do the hard work You might need some sneaky-sneak and hacking skills, but it’s worth it.

Rik: So, you were a stealthy player, then?

Stoo: Generally yes. Partially ‘cos I don’t like killing people early on, for various reasons we’ll go into. And partially because I have crappy reflexes so like a slow and methodical approach.

Rik: I’m much too nervous to be stealthy. Which really emphasises the point that violence is the coward’s way out. I just felt safer with loads of dead bodies around. Which morally I obviously object to.

Stoo: I went for non-lethal takedowns, and piled people in closets. Did you have a hard time with the tutorial? Ironically it’s not really representative of stealth in the larger game, because normally being detected doesn’t mean you automatically fail something.

Rik: I found the tutorial was much harsher than the actual game on stealth. That accounted for the first couple of years of me not playing the game. Oh, and the first mission I thought was hard. That probably was where I developed my violent approach.

Stoo: On that first map you can lure people to friendly machinegun-toting robots. Hijinks ensue!

Rik: Too clever for the likes of me. I mean, I did feel bad shooting everyone…it’s just that I actually can’t deal with the stress of being stealthy.

Stoo: Later on when up against MJ12 I do admit I was more relaxed about the body count. The NSF guys I don’t like killing so much, it’s more ambiguous at that stage who’s “good” or “bad”.

Rik: I’m sorry, NSF guys, but I’d shoot you again next time as well.

Stoo: If you mess up, you can try hitting them with a tranq dart, then running. They go ARG ARG for a while and chase you. Then fall over unconscious about 30 seconds later. So the crossbow is pretty much my best friend in the first half of the game.

Rik: Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t go out of my way to kill everyone else on the map each time. I avoided shooting if I could. But most of the time I couldn’t avoid it.

Stoo: A good guide to your body count is if Gunther and Anna like you. If you avoid it they call you a pussy, although Paul and the quartermaster guy approve.

Rik: Sam Carter gave me a mild bollocking I recall.

Stoo: I asked him for multitools because he’s a veteran soldier who I looked up to and I wanted him to like me. I’m so insecure.

Rik: I certainly eased up on the shooting after receiving a stern ticking-off.

Stoo: He’s like the Voice of Reason whenever he shows up. Anyway, I get what you mean about how stealth can be stressful. That is why I prefer games that allow it but also allow you to try and fight your way out when it goes wrong. Similar to Thief.

Rik: A combination of approaches is possible. And necessary, unless you’re really good. Like this guy on YouTube, who gassed and batonned everyone in sight.

Stoo: Oh, baton takes finesse definitely.

Rik: Interestingly he moved quickly rather than crouching all the time. The AI tends to notice you only up close.

Stoo: Does he have the run-silent augmentation? You have to choose between silent or fast, which is a nice touch, and I liked how the augs complemented the skill system. Not everything is equally useful but you can shape JC into something that suits your style of play.

Rik: I can’t remember what augs I used. Probably fast running.

Stoo: One lets you throw heavy objects, which can be hugely entertaining…

Rik: Ballistic Protection. Regeneration. Yep, all the cowardly ones, basically.

Stoo: I think I liked radar transparency, to better slip past those goddamn walking tank things that yell at you then minigun you in the face. But choosing that I had to pass up on the invisibilty cloak for stealth around humanoids. So, they’re not all no-brainers anyway, multiple choices can look worthwhile.

Rik: The ‘seeing through walls’ one was quite cool….

Stoo: What sort of weapon skills did you go for?

Rik: Rifle and pistol. Not heavy/demolition stuff though.

Stoo: The assault rifle is surprisingly weedy, but I liked the rifle skill for sniping. That’s my own form of cowardice, shooting people from miles away with a silenced sniper rifle.

Rik: I thought the ‘traditional’ FPS combat was a bit disappointing actually. I blame the Unreal engine.

Stoo: How so?

Rik: I can’t think of a tasteful way to say this, so I’ll just say it: you don’t really feel like you’re shooting people with pistols, assault rifles etc. They feel like pea-shooters. Which was a hallmark of Unreal, from what I remember.

Stoo: I do recall that now in Unreal, lots of guns that made an impressive noise but didn’t do a lot. In DE I thought the pistol was good, if you up the skill and have some precision.

Rik: Well, I don’t want to dwell on the whole “you should really feel like you’re pumping hot lead into your enemies” topic. I guess it just reinforced the fact that you weren’t meant to play it like a standard FPS.

Stoo: I think you could rambo it at times if you liked, but I can see that if you played it that way the whole way through, it would sometimes feel lacking.

Rik: My favourite weapon, actually, was that sword. Even though I didn’t specialise in melee, it was awesome!

Stoo: I liked to drop out of ventilation shafts and hit MJ12 guys with it. Surprise!!!!

Rik: I used it on Maggie Chow. Which I kind of feel bad about now.

Stoo: Heh, she is kind of set up like some kind of major confrontation. Then she dies surprisingly quickly.

Rik: You can just run away. Apparently.

Stoo: You can play the entire game and only kill about 1 guy, if I recall.

Rik: You probably don’t have to slice the poor woman in half.

Stoo: You can even non-lethally take out Gunther. Which I did because I felt sorry for him. He’s tragically disfigured, and the drink machine never gave him orange.

Rik: I felt sorry for him too. I blew him to bits though, I think.

Stoo: Well, that is a lot quicker.

Rik: He was more sympathetic than Anna Navarre at least. I liked the whole tension about them being old mechs, while JC was part of a new line of agents.

Stoo: Yeah, you’re sort of the Golden Boy of UNATCO.

Rik: All the grunts seem to worship you. Albeit in a tasteless, gung-ho way. But you get a lot of shit from the mechs.

Stoo: I did laugh when Anne called JC out on wearing shades at night. [deadpan] “My vision is augmented”

Rik: Heh heh.

 

Weighty plot stuff

Rik: I thought it was the biggest clue that your future lay away from UNATCO when everyone seems so intent on violence. Like the soldiers calling you a wimp if you don’t gun down everyone in sight

Stoo: That and Paul’s softly-softly approach. At one point the grunts complain about him issuing them pepper spray.

Rik: Yep, I remember a bit where someone offers to sell you some non-lethal weapons. Because they’re too effeminate for him to be seen with them.

Stoo: Since Paul is a decent guy, that’s one of those pointers early on, that something’s not quite right within UNATCO. Or at least, maybe there’s something to NSF claims too.

Rik: Even though I’ve already called it obvious, I have to say, I didn’t really expect what happened to happen.

Stoo: I didn’t expect to be outright fighting UNATCO.

Rik: I kind of thought it would be more ‘rogue elements within a good organisation’, if anything.

Stoo: Although something was clearly wrong when we saw Walton Simons was calling the shots.

Rik: Yeah, he had ‘bad guy’ written all over him.

Stoo: I think later on, at least who the bad guys are is clear. MJ12, in evil black uniforms, and an evil hideout.

Rik: Both he and Bob Page are pantomime villains. I mean, Simons is supposed to be some kind of admin desk-jockey. So why doesn’t he wear a normal suit? Instead of that weird trenchcoat thing. You sort of think, “I might have a boss fight against you later”. But, again, I was quite taken aback when I saw him torturing and killing an NSF hostage.

Stoo: Yeah, that’s a further sign that something’s gone wrong. One you might miss first time around, mind you, it’s basically an optional sequence.

Rik: And it’s made very clear that Manderley knows what’s going on. And supports it. Simons isn’t a rogue agent, doing stuff he shouldn’t.

Stoo: The whole institution is rotten, even if the grunts on the ground might not be bad people. Then you find out Paul is outright working with the NSF and your bosses want him dead. And pretty much everything goes upside down.

Rik: There’s that key scene at the airport. I ended up watching Anna kill Lebedev. And then you get bollocked for not doing it yourself! “UNATCO policy protects him” indeed.

Stoo: I think I killed Anna there and then. The bitch!

Rik: “I have some bad news about Agent Navarre…” LOL!

Stoo: I like how from there on you meet various powerful allies, and they help you out. But you’re left unsure if any of them should really be running the world themselves.

Rik: Lots of alliances of convenience.

Stoo: I mean the Illuminati are basically the old conspiracy that looks benevolent just because they’re not so Obviously Evil as the current conspiracy. But, all the badness and suffering of the world before happened under their watch.

Rik: I didn’t have a lot of time for the Illuminati. Everett seemed like a shady character to me. Plus, if you choose to help the Illuminati, it’s quite a regretful JC you see at the end.

Stoo: Well, the Illuminati ending is sort of the “safe option”. If the others look too extreme, we go back to the 20th century style setup. Where at least the shittiness is a known quantity.

Rik: I thought all of the options were fairly unappealing. My initial instinct was to merge with the Helios AI. Which isn’t really in alignment with what I would actually want to happen. But it sort of made sense that JC would do that

Stoo: Helios is the Ultimate Authority. He sees all, has miraculous nanotech construction powers. he’s what you pick if you think humanity needs a benevolent dictator to thrive.

Rik: Which I don’t. But I preferred it to the other options.

Stoo: It is sort of a pessimistic view. But then questions of authority and liberty recur throughout the game.

Rik: JC does say “This is what I was made for”, or something similar, if you choose this option. After everything he’s seen in the events of the game…

Stoo: He’s seen the power of technology, and of corrupt authority. So choosing Helios is marrying technology with a hopefully benevolent authority. The Tracer Tong ending says, this can never work out.

Rik: Tong’s solution seems a little bit extreme to me.

Stoo: It does feel the least appealing, I’d agree. I think to buy into it you have to be extremely sceptical of powerful central authority. (Bear in mind this is a world where such authorities are controlling police states and dumping nanotech plague on people.)

Rik: Narratively it sort of seems a bit of an odd thing for JC to do. Although the world is corrupt and broken, it seems unnecessary to smash all technology – it’s not the only problem.

Stoo: I guess he thinks it will inevitably be abused. But, yeah, it is my least favourite.

Rik: I mean, at the end of Escape from LA, when Kurt Russell does something similar, it kind of makes more sense.

Stoo: Not seen that!

Rik: Well, you don’t need to bother now I’ve ruined the ending. Sorry. But yeah, the world is totally fucked up, and all of the other characters are totally unsympathetic. So he just launches a giant EMP, which turns everything off. His character is a bit more of a anti-authority renegade than JC though.

Stoo: I get the impression Ion Storm were trying to give us three options equally worth considering. All troubling in their own way, but with clear points in their favour, depending on your ideology. Whereas in Invisible War, two endings are like this and two clearly suck.

Rik: I haven’t played Invisible War. Always meant to…

Stoo: Story of similar quality, gameplay not so much. Is the short form. Anyway, I do like the various themes brought up to consider here. Did you find Morpheus, the AI in Everett’s house?

Rik: Yep, Voiced by Tom Hall! [trivia]

Stoo: He goes on at length about humans wanting to be part of a structure with god at the top, observing and judging. And how an AI might take that role. Obviously if your priority is individual liberty, you might resent that.

Stoo: And it might feel like the story is throwing bits of philisophical or polsci musings at you. But at least it’s thought provoking.

Rik: People criticising it as familiar cliché, are being unfair I think. It’s significantly cleverer than the stuff you get in most games. There are areas of grey throughout, and you’re often asked to think about what you’re doing and why.

Stoo: The conspiracy theory stuff isn’t terribly original, but the writing makes up for it.

Rik: The basic, “Ooh, the government you think is so good is actually evil” stuff is fairly familiar. But it’s not like there’s a “good” rebel side to go to and set things right in the world.

Stoo: You wonder, what are we going to replace them with? Will the next government turn out the same way? Do we have to do something drastic?

Rik: You spend time with people who help you. But you don’t think, well, I agree with this guy. You sort of get carried along by events.You have to stop Majestic 12, but what about after that? In some ways, the final choice you’re presented with seems quite sudden.

Stoo: I’ve a feeling there might be something to all those Aquinas references too. Although I’m not familiar with his works alas. Wait you did religious studies A-level!

Rik: That was a long time ago, which reminds me – you need to change that bit on the site that refers to us as ‘twenty-somethings’.

Stoo: I should have 8 months ago…

Rik: Anyway, I didn’t pay special attention to looking up the origin of all of these references.

Stoo: Well you don’t have to, of course, and the two most intellectual conversations in the game are optional, with minor characters. So you can enjoy it as a well-crafted techno thriller or get more into the philosophical implications, if you desire.

Rik: I did make a note of the way one character mentioned that the EU was part of the MJ12 plot. To homogenise European culture and create a single corrupt institution.

Stoo: MJ12 vs UKIP ???

Rik: That thought hadn’t ever occurred to me before. I thought there might be a mission to Brussels. With an augmented Kilroy as your sidekick.

Stoo: Sorry readers we’re descending into British political humour.

Rik: In all the tiresome debating about the EU. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone take the argument to those extremes. Interesting US take on the EU perhaps?

Stoo: Americans like their small gub’mint and liberty I guess. If you met the Aussie bartender, he goes into a rant about such things and how China’s approach worked out better, ‘cos its strong central government has allowed it to not be dominated by the UN so much.

Technical stuff that should have come before weighty plot stuff

Stoo: Interesting points he makes, shame about the voice acting.

Rik: Yep. I liked most of the main cast. But some of the supporting lot are terrible! Particularly: France.

Stoo: JC himself is deadpan as hell but mostly gets away with it due to the nature of his character.

Rik: I liked his delivery, particularly in more bizarre exchanges. For example, when chatting in nightclubs with a woman dressed up as a nurse. I liked Walton Simons too, nice and evil. But God, in France, it’s worse than ‘Allo ‘Allo. The graphics on the other hand always were a bit creaky. But they’ve aged ok.

Stoo: Yeah, Unreal games have aged quite well.

Rik: They made quite creative use of the engine. But when friendly characters lurch towards you to initiate a conversation it looks a bit rubbish especially when combined with the footstep sound. Which does have a genuine practical use but sounds a bit daft at times.

Stoo: Running animations are kinda stiff.

Rik: I must mention the music too.

Stoo: It’s tracker stuff isn’t it?

Rik: Yep, which dates it, but at the same time tracker music has always screamed ‘the future’ to me. Albeit the future as imagined by people in the late 80s.

Stoo: Haha. It does always immediately make me think of mid-90s Amigas.

Rik: Makes me think of The Running Man, or similar. I like the opening theme.

Stoo: It can react in real-time, a bit like Lucasarts did with midi music with their imuse gubbins.

Rik: Yes, I was going to say, it works well. Going from general, tense, atmosphere-building music, while you’re sneaking around, to something more upbeat once you’ve messed up the stealthy approach and are firing shots off at random.

Stoo: I loved the Hong Kong theme. Actually that was my favourite part of the game, just for the ambience and a feeling of being a chunk of real city.

Rik: I liked NYC and Hong Kong more than Paris. The Paris lockdown seemed like a bit of an excuse not to show you too much.

Stoo: You could goof around, go to a club, go trash Maggie’s apartment…

Rik: Did you trash her apartment?

Stoo: I think I threw her sofa out of window.

Rik: “That’s rude and unnecessary”, says the man who killed her with a sword.

Stoo: NYC is good too for the bar, grimy hotel, beating up thugs. It’s sort of a shame the last section is a generic Military Base.

Rik: Yes, I found it a bit disappointing that it all ends with the generic ‘sneaking into bases’ approach that all FPS games seem to go for

Stoo: I guess there’s a sense that the climax of a game needs some sort of fortress or enemy HQ.

Rik: That’s fine, but the buildup seems to go on forever.

Stoo: It makes sense plot-wise but restricts the kind of freedom and atmosphere that we enjoyed earlier.

Rik: There’s not just one base, but loads of them it seems.

 

Summary

Stoo: Okay, we need to wrap up before too long. So how do we sum this one up? Essential of gaming? As much as any game is essential.

Rik: An important, and content-heavy game that’s worth the effort.

Stoo: Successful hybridisation of RPG, adventure and shooter elements, that really hasn’t been followed up on enough.

Rik: Yeah, I’m not sure how much it was commercially successful, which sort of answers that question.

Stoo: Right, I should have said “successful” in a critical sense. It succeeds within its aims.

Rik: I meant, that’s why it might not have been followed up on as well it might. And then the sequel just pissed off the people who liked the first game

Stoo: Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is the followup it should have had, basically. Except, er, with vampires.

Rik: Didn’t that have bugs aplenty?

Stoo: Tons. Enthusiastic fans have cleaned it up.

Rik: Bless ’em.

Stoo: So, well crafted game, intelligent writing…

Rik: It makes you think, because you’re not always sure if you’re doing the morally right thing. And that’s a refreshing change.

Stoo: Thinking on two levels: about how you’re going to get past that giant robot, and also whether or not you agree with whoever you’re currently working for.

Rik: Yep. I guess the one thing I would say is that it could be considered heavy going. I don’t think I’d have got through it if I hadn’t had a dedicated period of time to devote to it. After a hard day at work, I’m not sure I could manage another crack at this, start-finish.But I am really glad I played it. It’s one of the recognised heavyweight classics of recent years.

Stoo: Well, that’s a good endorsement, if it can appeal to those who don’t normally touch RPGs. So: one of the most important events in PC gaming.

Rik: It deserves that title, I’d say.

Stoo: One final thing: did you get bollocked by Manderley for going into the ladies loos?

Rik: That’s the kind of thing I don’t feel comfortable with even in a game, So I never tried it.

Stoo: Great, so we end with me looking like some sort of pervert!

Rik: I think I’m probably in the minority, actually. More likely that I’m a repressed prude. With no sense of humour. Or fun.

Stoo: I thought there might be ammo clips hidden in there.

Rik: Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say.