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Deus Ex


Overview

For those of you who have been living under a rock, the award-winning Deus Ex (DE) is a sort of first-person-shooter (FPS) game, sort of role-playing game (RPG), sort of first-person sneaker game, etc. with all sorts of twists. While it is a very good game overall, I don't think it merits quite as many of the awards and fuss as it has garnered because, frankly, it's just not as innovative as so many have claimed. I'll try to defend that claim below while still giving you good reason to play.

Analysis

Visuals

The visuals are pretty darned good. They're not excellent, but they're pretty darned good. The game is powered by a modified version of the Unreal Tournament (UT) engine, and, as such, it is cut from sturdy cloth. What holds DE back in the visual department is a kind of unrealistic sheen and somewhat grainy textures. Many of the non-player characters in the game have a certain unrealistic sheen to their clothing and, in some cases, their skin. Perhaps the artists made such choices in the interests of realism, but it strikes me as just goofy looking. It is almost as if everyone has been sprayed with some kind of sealant. When it comes to textures, some of the details are rather grainy looking. For example, the obvious implant wiring along the skin of Paul, the protagonist's brother, just looks bad on my system.

The developers have also made some strange UI choices when playing at higher resolutions. When playing at 1280 x 1024, for instance, the portions of the HUD that display currently available items, the player's health, power levels and so forth are just plain ugly. I assume that the developers found those portions of the HUD to be too small when playing at such high resolutions, and thus they increased their size accordingly. In so doing, however, they created eyesores that take up far too much of the visual field in my estimation. It would have been nice for the HUD size to be an option given the ugliness and their much larger relative size. I would like to play the game at a higher resolution, and my system would support that, but it's just not reasonable with the huge HUD.

Where the visuals really work, though, is in conveying a relatively realistic world. Despite the couple of flaws I've mentioned, DE does quite a good job of making a somewhat futuristic, but ultimately real-world setting believable. The world is populated relatively densely with everyday objects (e.g., plants, papers, cups, etc.), something many other games simply don't do. And what's more, almost all of these objects can be picked up, used and so forth, which raises the immersion factor considerably. The modeling is nicely done, the animation is pretty good, save for how silly the bad guys look when the AI has them running pointlessly in place, the in-game cut-scenes are handled with aplomb by the engine and so forth. In short, though everything looks not as good as I think it could, it looks good enough to get the job done.

Audio

The audio in DE is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the developer went to some lengths to make sure that footsteps sound differently on grass, pavement, metal and so forth, and sound somewhat realistic at that. A little more variation in these sounds would have been nice, as they are relatively prominent in the mix. The sound effects are generally quite well done, and seem quite appropriate to the in-game events. Further, the positional audio features are very nicely handled by the UT engine. It is easy to tell, particularly with a four-speaker setup or with headphones, from precisely which direction each sound source is emanating.

The one not-so-bright spot to the audio is the music. I realize the developers were going for a certain futuristic kind of mood with the entire game, and so the heavy use of synthesizers seems entirely appropriate. What is lacking, however, is any "weight" to the music. The techno-soundtrack is certainly tech-ish enough, but it just feels "light" because of a lack of any decent percussion, strings and so forth. I think the developers could have done a much better job of giving the project a more epic feel had they gone with a techno-enhanced, yet relatively sparse orchestral soundtrack. Of course, that's a pretty fussy observation by someone who has been a musician for years, so perhaps most people can simply ignore it.

Interface

The interface for DE is as powerful as it is functional, though with that power comes a certain unavoidable complexity. To survive in the world of DE, the player must learn to walk, run, crouch, manipulate his implants, configure his inventory, manipulate and use all of the various interesting objects and tools, etc. The use of the two mouse buttons to distinguish use from pickup helps prevent error, though it does take some time to grow accustomed to it. For those persons who played System Shock 2 (SS2), the overall feeling will be quite familiar, though DE does bring some welcome improvements.

The menu system is pretty typical, and is wholly functional. I particularly like some of the nice little touches like being able to select a color scheme. The control mapping is as easily managed as one might expect from a game using the UT engine, and everything is configured pretty easily. For the most part, the interface provides all the information the player needs, and is easily mastered with a minor to moderate learning curve.

The one serious complaint I have with the interface is that it can be quite onerous to activate/deactivate implants. By the end of the game, one will have likely installed lots of useful implants, and turning them on or off is a matter of pressing function keys by default. If one approaches the game from a fighting mindset, the combination of combat strength, speed enhancement and ballistic protection is extremely effective against most of the enemies in the game. If the player has specialized in melee weapons and uses these augmentations, then he can put down lots of bad guys in a big hurry.

The problem is that activating those three implants requires pressing no less than three function keys. That's not such a big deal when in a position of safety, but try doing that when combat has already erupted! It's one keystroke worse if one is low on "batteries" and needs the power recirculator augmentation as well. With as many options as the augmentations provide, it would have been nice to be able to activate/deactivate groups of implants with a single keypress. I was able to accomplish this through the use of Game Commander 2, which I recommend highly, but not everyone is willing to pay for or use voice-recognition software.

Game Mechanics

The game mechanics are brilliant, flawed and derivative all at once. They are utterly brilliant insofar as Warren Spector, the game's mastermind, has managed to put together a varied and interesting set of tools with which the player can approach a number of interesting puzzles and problems in many different ways. This is his hallmark as a game designer, of course, and his mantra is that playing a game must ultimately provide an interesting set of choices for the player.

DE is the culmination of this philosophy insofar as no other game made to date provides so many different ways to accomplish one's goals. Games typically hold the player's hand if not outright force him to proceed exactly as the developers wish, but DE allows the player almost complete freedom to approach the situation as he will. Is sneaky gameplay your thing ala Thief? You'll have plenty of opportunity to use stealth in DE. Or do you think stealth is for ninnies? You can instead guide your character into the role of jacked-up bionic badass instead, preferring to run in with guns blazing rather than thinking. Those extremes, and everything in the middle, is provided with ease through the game mechanics in DE.

The big complaint I have along these lines is that it seems largely impossible to me to avoid stealth altogether. If one goes the hacking or soldier routes, there are still some situations where stealth seems utterly unavoidable. This wouldn't be such a bad thing, except that choosing implants is always an exclusive-or situation; i.e., one route or the other, but not both. It can make some of the missions rather tricky at times, doubly so because of the flaws with the whole stealth modelómore on that just a bit.

The skill system is particularly well-balanced toward this end. Accomplishing mission objectives, exploring, and various other in-game events are rewarded with points that may be spent on a number of different skills. Putting lots of points into hacking skills will make lockpicks and multitools more useful, but it will do so at the expense of fighting skills and so forth. The system as a whole allows so many different ways to develop a character that the flexibility is as welcome as it is wonderful.

With a game as polished as DE, all of the basics work so well there is little need to comment upon them. That is, the basic movements available, interface management, weapon management and upgrades, etc. all just work the way they should. A nice but minor innovation is the use of the keyring to manage all of the various keys one ends up acquiring. It sure would have been nice, though, to have some similar, centralized tool for maintaining known login ID/password combinations.

What doesn't work very well, as indicated previously, is the game's handling of stealth. There are plenty of places in the game where it would be very useful to sneak around a corner when nobody is looking, duck past a camera while it's turned and so forth. But DE doesn't provide enough of the mechanisms and feedback necessary to make this an enjoyable experience. This is a somewhat tricky subject, so I'll try to use examples to make the point clear.

The stealth model in DE is flawed insofar as it is either too unforgiving or too underequipped. Let's say the player has to get past some kind of watchful, mechanical device. A game like Thief II: The Metal Age helps the player along by the use of a tool the player can throw and see through to determine when the camera is turned the other way. The Deus Ex spy drone augmentation can sort of fulfill that same need, but the player doesn't even have access to that technology until the fifth mission or later, which is almost halfway through the game. Alternately, a player can simply try to be a bit more brave and dash back into hiding when seen. This works pretty well in SS2, or in either of the Thief games, but in DE the soldiers are simply too quick on the draw. A half-second's indiscretion can easily bring down a world of hurt on the player.

This too wouldn't be such a problem if it were more obvious when the player is at risk. To continue citing games that get stealth right, the Thief series gave the player pretty good feedback regarding precisely when he was visible and audible, but DE gives no feedback whatsoever along these lines. In some dark corners, I thought for sure I wouldn't be seen, only to have a guard start blasting away at me with his machine gun. Similarly, footsteps sometimes seem to echo much farther than one might otherwise think. If the stealth model were a bit more forgiving of error, I think the game would be much improved.

Finally, what I find oddly frustrating, as DE only continues to be praised for its innovation, is that this has all been done before. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad that DE was made. It's a lot of fun to play, and the game mechanics are truly brilliant. But DE is ultimately the same game Warren Spector has been making for years. Anyone who has played SS2 will know exactly what I mean. DE does improve upon SS2 in several respects (e.g., thankfully ditching the annoying weapons-degrade-radically-with-use feature), but it's ultimately a very similar set of mechanics. That's not a bad thing, I think, but I really don't understand why so many reviewers praise DE as something revolutionary when it's largely been done before.

Story

The story is a pretty important element for DE. The whole conspiracy-theory thing has been (and is being) overdone in games, but DE does it about as well as it can be done. Yet again, a government-sponsored plague is keeping the citizenry in check so that powerful forces can continue to rule, though so many different sets of powerful forces appear in DE, it isn't clear precisely who is really in charge! Nevertheless, the designers are to be complimented for having created an interesting story filled with techno-anarchy, plot twists and intrigue. It's a nifty yarn, and it's integrated thoroughly into the game.

Content

The content in DE really shines rather brightly. Though there are a total of only thirteen missions in the game, each mission features an enormous wealth of detail in varied and interesting environments. I would be willing to bet that the level designers ran into the limitations of the UT engine on more than one occasion simply because of the level of complexity of some of the architecture, the plethora of objects and doo-dads to be found lying about, etc. And of course, as mentioned earlier, there are plenty of different ways to approach each mission. Suffice it to say that the gamer gets a great value for his money in buying DE. The replay value is pretty high.

There are a couple of drawbacks, however, that require mention. First, though the game provides the player with three different ways to end the story, none of them are particularly desirable. When your choices include throwing the world into another dark ages, ruling the world from behind the scenes with the Illuminati, or ruling the world as a man/machine (god?) hybrid, I choose (D), none of the above. The message contained therein seemed to me that humanity simply cannot stomach both progress and freedom; one must choose either a free dark ages or a degree of Orwellian control that would embarrass the world's tyrants. That doesn't give much incentive to finish the game.

Second, as with so many other games these days, DE includes a you-must-die-to-move-on encounter. I can't even tell you how many times I tried to save Paul before I finally gave up in frustration and checked the web for a walkthrough. Here is a big note to developers: if the protagonist has to lose a fight to move on, then take control away from me in the first place! The outcome is already outside my control, so why confuse me unnecessarily with a battle I can't win? The only game that has done this kind of thing right, in my estimation, is Half-Life (HL). In HL, the player walks into a room, the lights go out, and he gets beat up, none of which can be stopped or altered in any way. In DE, the player has no reason to think that if he gets killed, the game won't just end in failure, and therein is the frustration.

Multi-Player

The multi-player aspect to DE is an interesting but underwhelming addition to the original game. I've had a chance to play around with it a bit, and while the various combinations of augmentations, weapons and so forth do make for fun gameplay, it feels like it's about half-implemented. I think it would have helped a lot to pursue a different approach, along which the player can customize his character from the outset, play one of the characters he has developed in the single-player game or something like that. As it stands, it seems rare that a player can equip himself before getting killed, and that takes a lot of the fun away.

It also doesn't help that so few people play the multi-player aspect. There are hardly any servers available as of this writing, and there doesn't seem to be any reason to expect otherwise. The single-player aspect of DE is surely worth the full purchase price, and is even more worthwhile on sale, but I wouldn't suggest buying this game for the multi-player component. To do so would be simply disappointing, I think.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, DE is a great game. Hands down, it is one of the most engrossing cross-genre games ever developed. It clearly lifts much of its mechanics from SS2, another big hit from Warren Spector, and I hope that DE will someday spawn a sequel. Just do me a favor and don't prattle on about how revolutionary it is; play it instead.

Reviewed by Phileosophos
http://www.geocities.com/phileosophos

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