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Review by: Chris Harding
Published: July 3, 2000
Deus Ex is a Latin term used to describe a person or thing that appears out of nowhere and unexpectedly resolves a great conflict. Pronounced Day-Us X, Ion Storm’s third release takes place in a futuristic setting and is home to the most elaborately detailed world ever created for the home computer. Created by well known producer Warren Spector, famous for his involvement in titles such as System Shock, Wings of Glory and Thief, Deus Ex isn’t like anything you’ve played before. While at first glance it strikes a similar pose to its creator’s previous works, under its trench coat of many mysteries, Deus Ex introduces us to a world so rich and unique that comparing it to any other game would serve as unfair criticism.
As the player in Deus Ex you assume the role of JC Denton, a new recruit in the elite anti-terrorist organization UNATCO, or United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition. Crime, terrorism, and disease are all out of control, ravaging the Earth’s population quicker than the agencies of government can react to them. One disease in particular, called the Grey Death, is spreading like wildfire across all major cities, causing people very slow and extremely painful demises.
At the beginning of the adventure, the world’s most dominant terrorist organization, the NSF or National Secessionist Forces, have intercepted and stolen a government shipment of Ambrosia, the only substance known to cure the Grey Death. In this future the government controls the distribution of Ambrosia, a product manufactured by the U.S. corporation VersaLife. With limited availability and extreme value, the origins of Ambrosia are unknown, but it is believed to be a combination of substances so rare that only minute amounts of the vaccine can be produced. Conspiracy theories, rumors of government involvement in the creation of the Grey Death, and the loyalty and ties of certain UNATCO personnel are all part of a layered storyline that unfolds at the player’s discretion based on his or her involvement.
From this foundation, Deus Ex expands into hundreds of directions, and like blood vessels in a body, the veins of its storyline provide passageways for the elements of exploration, artifact discovery, character development and interaction. The development of the storyline and how it evolves through the player’s actions is one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had. All role-playing games are supposed to possess this attribute, but few actually deliver. Deus Ex sets the standard for how a player’s action should affect NPCs (non-player characters) and the environments they interact with. In Deus Ex for example, the player is frequently presented with the dilemma of dangerous encounters. In almost all cases players can choose to kill, incapacitate or completely avoid enemies, and more often than not there are benefits and consequences to each alternative.
Deus Ex consistently provides the player with choices; they come in all sorts of flavors, many of which are gameplay-related. These include such things as deciding what weapon will work best against a certain foe, or which of the multiple points of entry will give the player the best chance for survival. But many of the choices Deus Ex asks players to make run much deeper, and deal with things such as morality, values and political ideology. There is a lot of dialogue in Deus Ex and much of it is critical to the sequence of events that take place and to the story’s eventual outcome. There are a number of critical NPC encounters that will alter the state and flow of the adventure, giving each player an opportunity to personalize his or her experience with the product.
This sort of dynamic in gameplay, however, is not entirely new. Looking Glass’ Thief series practically introduced us to the elements of avoidance and stealth gameplay, but in retrospect provided little to no benefit for players who prefer more violent-oriented approaches to resolving encounters. Deus Ex on the other hand, wonderfully choreographs each enemy encounter by providing players with different risks and rewards based upon their choices in dealing with certain situations. For example, at one point in the adventure you’re tasked with terminating a terrorist presence in the subways of New York City and at the same time rescuing and protecting a number of civilians who are being held hostage there by the NSF. The terrorists, who have threatened to kill the hostages at the first sign of force, are armed to the teeth with automatic rifles and flamethrowers, plus have booby-trapped the subways with explosives and trip wires. As the player, there are a number of ways you can tackle this situation; the number of possible choices available is directly linked to the variable outcomes. How fellow UNATCO agents and superiors deal with you, as well as civilians and troopers will be based upon how you sequence the events.
Having played all of Deus Ex multiple times using different strategies each go around, I was able to alter the course of the gameplay. Using the subway as an example, the first time I used as much stealth as possible and I maneuvered into the subways through an underground ventilation system. Using a combination of EMP and Gas grenades I incapacitated the guards and their electronic booby-traps before the terrorists were able to react; I was successful in saving all the hostages. In this scenario I received commendations from fellow UNATCO agent and humanist Paul Denton — yes, your brother works with you — but received harsh criticisms from UNATCO agent Anna Navarre, who felt that my actions showed too much compassion and lacked fortitude. Playing the same sequence again, I used a more action oriented approach, overpowering the terrorists with weapons and using their explosives against them. I sacrificed a few hostages in the process, but nonetheless accomplished the primary objectives of the mission. The outcome of these actions was decidedly different. Here I received praise from Agent Navarre but rebuke from my brother.
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