Thursday, June 24, 2010

Byte: 3654 Days'o'sex

This week is Deus Ex's 10 year anniversary. RPS's Verdict is probably all you really need to read about the game, but that's not going to stop me from talking about my memories, both old and recent.

Deus Ex is one of those rare games that I keep coming back to, despite the fact that I've completed it. Though the story of how (and when) I completed it is a tale worth telling in itself. I bought the game the week it came out (thanks to KG's legendary review of it in PCG) and it was the first game that ever really made me see the potential that videogames had as interactive storytelling devices. (Note that I hadn't actually played Half-Life at this point)

The first level (Liberty Island) was a marvel, though predictably, I initially tried playing the game like Doom and ran into the steepest learning curve I'd encounter in a game until playing EVE Online - though my first memory of Deus Ex (after the hideously animated, but intriguing, opening cutscene) was of Paul Denton running up to you at the beginning and asking you to pick from a sniper rifle, a GEP gun or a mini-crossbow. I was horrified. I'd never played an RPG (on computer, at least) so while I knew from the review that it wasn't your average FPS, I wasn't expecting to have to make a decision quite that quickly. How was I supposed to decide based on so little prior information? I took a punt on the GEP gun, which probably turned out to be the best decision I made in the first 15 hours of the game, in all honesty, since you don't get the opportunity to pick another one up for hours, while the other two are freely available to be picked up from NPCs in the first level. Hurrah for out-of-context problems!

Anyway. My first attempt at wending my way through the NSF ranks to get to the top of the statue was an absolute disaster. I didn't twig the RPG accuracy mechanics and ran out of ammunition before I'd even killed two terrorists. And then I got slaughtered. The number of times I died trying to beat that level the first time... I'm not sure I can even give a reasonable estimate. But we're talking dozens. There was something compelling about the game, though. It took me probably about six hours to explore all the options of how to complete that one level - the front door, the crate climb at the back, the air ducts in the tower foyer, hacking ATMs, lockpicking medbot hideaways, using the turrets to blow away the NSF guards... The game just gave you so much scope. Once I'd grasped the mechanics of the game - by playing that one level for longer than it takes to complete Call of Duty: Modern Warfare! - I was absolutely hooked. The game also tapped into the whole X-Files-inspired government conspiracy theory zeitgeist of the late-90s, early-noughties (this was pre-9/11, though much was made of the lack of the World Trade Centre towers on the Manhattan skyline in the opening level - eeriely prescient, looking back), so it was easy to overlook the manifold technical flaws, because it was just so different to everything else I'd ever played.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for me at the time was the fact that once the initial mission was over, the game didn't simply whisk you off to the next one. Instead, you got to go back to base and kick around the HQ, where you'd be able to listen in to the idle chat of your co-workers and their paranoia about the vending machines, read papers and "accidentally" finding your way into the ladies toilet... (and getting your wrist slapped by Manderley for it) It had an absolutely coherent game world and the transitions between maps made total sense within the context of the game, making it a relatively seamless experience.

The game really comes alive in Hong Kong (despite the dreadfully cheap voice acting) and there are some brilliant levels - not least the infiltration into the MJ-12 research lab. Hong Kong is also the first place where you meet the absolutely rat-bastard, hard-as-nails MJ-12 Commandos, who have wrist-rockets that would make Boba Fett proud. If you haven't got a scoped, silent pistol or a sniper rifle at this point to take them out with headshots, you're going to have a hard time with them, even with the ballistic protection mod. Of course, the real Deus Ex hardcore insist on only killing people with the lightsaber (sorry, Dragons Tooth sword) that you pick up in Hong Kong, or indeed, not killing anyone at all (I never had the patience for that). I think Hong Kong is many people's favourite section of the game, and I'd probably agree with that, though there are still several standout levels in the rest of the game.

The Naval Base infiltration when you get back to New York, so that you can sink the tanker carrying the plague virus is a real corker. Security bots, lots of mobs, and several ways into the submarine pen, each with their own distinct challenges. Then when you're actually on the tanker, there are plenty of things to do in there beyond just cracking the seals to sink the ship. I doubt it would make many people's favourite level list from Deus Ex, but for me it was one of the most memorable, because by this point I'd ploughed enough points into the support skills (Computer, Lockpick and Electronics) to really have a go at every single entry point and open up all the options in the game.

After that, it gets a little mental with the conspiracy theories and the plotting (but in an endearing way), when you go back across the pond to Paris, where there are some even more spectacular moments in the annals of atrocious videogame voice-acting. Oh lord, the accents. And I thought the faux-Australian of the philosophical bartender in Hong Kong was bad... Keep your ear out from the "I am a Frenchman" clearly voiced by the guy from Paris. Paris, Texas, that is... Brrrr. The Paris levels aren't so great, but the Notre Dame level was a highlight for me, as it was the first level where I seriously tried infiltration, albeit with a silenced sniper rifle. Those MJ-12 commandos didn't last long. And the finale of the mission is a showdown with Gunther, who regrettably doesn't last long either. Not against an assault rifle packing 20mm explosive rounds, anyway.

So while Paris isn't so fantastique, things do pick up again for the remainder of the game. The level where you have to rescue Gary Savage's daughter (before heading off to the Ocean Lab to sort out Walton Simons) is another tight little level that gives you an almost bewildering amount of ways to approaching one particular problem: how do you kill the three MIBs (who explode on death) guarding Savage's daughter, without tipping them off and having them murder her before you eliminate all of them, or have her die in the fight. The Ocean Lab is a bit of a pain in the arse, frankly (goddamn greasy greasels and krappy karkians!) - a silenced sniper rifle is pretty essential if you don't want to get your legs shot off trying to approach the building. From then on, it's a pretty straight run towards the end game in Area 51, which is actually where I left the game and stopped playing. I can't remember what I started playing instead (No One Lives Forever, maybe?) but while I started new characters and tried out different kits (hacker, non-lethal, assault, etc) - playing the game through again as far as Paris - it was years before I dug out my old save game and actually went back to complete the game. I did blog about it at the time (a year or two back), but I can't seem to find the post right now.

In some ways, it was a bit of an anti-climax, as I'd spent the entire game hoarding explosive ammunition, so I wiped through the final level in about half and hour flat, blasting my way through MJ-12 commandos, security and spider bots with absolute impugnity, using my GEP gun and the 20mm assault rifle ammo. I didn't try out all three ending - just the Helios one - though I may go back and try out the other two in time. Given that it's the 10 year anniversary (and also given that I'm on holiday) I am tempted to go back and play it again and really try my best to break the game, knowing what I know now about the levels, story and the way the game engine itself works.

Deus Ex is still probably the most well-designed game ever made, in terms of allowing the player to approach situations and find creative solutions that the designers never anticipated. And it's this that I really love about Deus Ex. Most games give you one tool to do one job. Or maybe they give you a couple of ways of solving one problem. Deus Ex designs in at least two ways of approaching a problem and if you're creative enough, you can use the game mechanics to find at least two more. Whether it's a LAM trap reverse-ambush, a turret hack or simply sneaking through a vent and avoiding combat entirely, Deus Ex can be played if you like combat, or if you like stealth, or if you like trying to find ways of subverting the design. There's obviously a bit of a risk there, in that you throw away your suspension of disbelief and don't take the game seriously, but the story is well-executed, if outlandish. The fact that the designers catered for so many eventualities in the way the story can develop (such as choosing to kill Anna Navarre instead of Lebedev on the 747, or blowing up the hostages - either by accident or design - in the Battery Park subway station) shows just how good this game is.

If you never did play it back in the day (or in the subsequent 3650 days since), it's still a must-play for a PC gamer. I don't think we'll ever see its like again (not with today's blockbuster-or-bust development 'philosophy'), and it will be interesting to see just how well Deus Ex 3 lives up to its heritage (my prediction: shiny, but ultimately a bit rubbish. What a shame.). It still rates in my Top 5 PC games and it's certainly one of the most replayable, thanks to the design. I'll have to get around to playing some of the mods I've missed out on, as well - especially the Nameless Mod, of which I keep hearing very nice things. So how could I sum the game up, in one short, pity sentence that entirely removes any need for you to read that huge mass of text above? Ambitious, intricate, brilliant, flawed, yet more than the sum of its parts; Deus Ex is all these things and many more - I can envisage it still being revered as a classic in another ten years. It's really that good.
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