Robert Anton Wilson would be proud.
Have you ever heard a low voice you didn't recognize while you were on the phone with a friend? Have things ever come together or fallen apart with unusual coincidence? Have your teeth ever included transmitters that broadcast your daily diet to unknown parties? Do you ever have the feeling that you are being watched, followed, and probed nightly? Is it all just coincidence, serendipity, the "funny way life works out some time?" Yeah, sure, believe that if you like. Some of us know what's really going on...
Deus Ex is a game of mystery, story, and freedom set in a world in which every conspiracy theory is true. From the Illuminati to the Knights Templar to even the Rosicrucians, the world of Deus Ex is a place about which Robert Anton Wilson has written. It's a place where Fox Mulder would be right at home, and it's safe to say that we're all happy he isn't.
This is also a game of stunning design, which isn't that surprising considering that it's the latest from Warren Spector, one of the chief designers on legendary titles like Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief: The Dark Project.
Deus Ex is an exclusively single-player first-person game. You play the role of Agent J.C. Denton, a biomechanically enhanced and upgradeable operative of UNATCO, a peacekeeping force. After just your first day on the job you find that things are not quite right at UNATCO and defect to the resistance. I wouldn't dare reveal too much of the plot, but the central issue involves a man-made nanovirus, the "Gray Death," the cure, Ambrosia, and some FEMA hijinks straight out of the X-Files movie.
The game is designed primarily with the principals of choice and cause & effect in mind. You are able to choose which skills and augmentations (special abilities) to specialize and advance in as the game goes on. Do you want to be a shadowy, sneaking sniper who hacks computers and disables security systems? Do you want to be the quiet thief who picks locks and slips in the back way? Do you want to be Arnold and face the oncoming rush head on with a rocket launcher and a "born to kill" attitude? You can make Denton whatever you want him to be, and the game is set up so that whatever path or paths you choose, there will always be a way most suited to your talents.
For example, let's say you're faced with laser wires that trigger turrets. Do you A) thrown in a LAM grenade to destroy the trip wires, B) bypass the security grid with a few multitools and your electronics skills, or C) find a convenient ventilation system to crawl through and come out past the problem? The answer? Any of the above.
That is just a very small-scale example. The entire game, at every level, is set up along these lines. There are always several options for dealing with every objective, minor or major.
In Deus Ex, cause and effect is king. If you can't unlock something, detonate it and achieve the same thing. Guards can hear and see you much in the same way as Thief, requiring you to consider your every step, stance and attack. Shoot a guard in the head and he goes down; shoot him in the back of the head and he goes down silently. Shoot a guard in the arm and he drops his gun. Get shot in the arm and it's tough to aim; get shot in the legs and you might have to crawl. Deus Ex never succumbs to the common game syndrome in which an obvious solution is not allowed because it was either too hard to program or the designer wanted you to do something else. If you think it's possible to do, chances are it is.
What all this means is that Deus Ex has the greatest, most fully realized gameplay ever in a first person game, shooter or otherwise. Its level of user customizability and open-ended feel makes for a truly unique and exemplary game. But unlike System Shock, Deus Ex doesn't have the drama to back it up.
While the story is complicated, deep, and also adhered to the cause & effect principle - you only encounter plot points or conversations that you 'choose' to run into, and the game never refers to something that you didn't encounter but will to things that you did, even if they are off the beaten path - it's curiously devoid of humanity. Your brother gets killed and you shrug and say something in your usual deadpan. This is somewhat understandable; since you are half-machine, the human in you can't even come out at key points. Still, it's disconcerting.
As good as the gameplay is, there is never any meaty feeling of danger that usually makes this sort of game fun. In System Shock you were made to feel as a confused, manipulated, terrified human, but in Deus Ex you are an impassive machine. Who cares if The Terminator gets it? There's always a replacement model. Who cares if the world gets the "Gray Death?" They seem like a bunch of sneaky bastards anyway. Finally, there just isn't a villain as hellishly evil as System Shock's SHODAN to give you something concrete to oppose.
There are also small problems with presentation. The graphics, while not a detriment to the game, are fairly bland and lack atmosphere, which is surprising for an Unreal engine title. The voice acting is almost exclusively calm and devoid of much emotion. The music is the same sort of tinny-sci-fi-techno that worked fine in Unreal, but just feels disjointed here and should have been replaced with something more adept at evoking themes of intrigue, betrayal, and peril.
In addition, there are some slight technical issues; slowdown with D3D cards is especially vexing as Unreal Tournament has fine D3D support.
Yet despite these flaws, there is no denying that from a gameplay standpoint Deus Ex is utterly revolutionary. It's long, it's malleable, and it demands repeated playings with new approaches. It is, as a game, everything you could ask for... and it's absolutely a blast to play. But it is not, as an experience, as enthralling as it could have been. What it does well, it does better than anything else and what it doesn't do well it still does passably. This is likely to be the best first-person game you'll play all year. Go now, embrace the conspiracy...the eye in the pyramid is calling out... for you.