An impressive approach to debate "real-life" problems using the means of video gaming
Without adhering to the usual "best game ever"-ravings, it's save to say that "Deus Ex" is indeed one of the most interesting games of the last decade. Its graphics and animations are fairly well done and there's some interesting lighting, sound effects are all right and its music is, to my opinion, very impressive because it doesn't go for the usual "Hollywoody"-classical score but employs a very "mod"-like type of electronic music. I cherish this nod to a specific gaming tradition (oh glorious sound blaster!) instead of always imitating the way "they do it in the movies". Moreover, it's a fitting choice, for "Deus Ex", though using quite an array of movie clichés (from "Mission: Impossible" to "Ghost in the Shell" and "Matrix") is just that: a game, in the best sense of the word. The three most interesting points of "Deus Ex" would have to be gameplay mechanics, gaming philosophy and a reality-based storyline, combined with the intelligent use of effective symbols and motifs.
1. Gameplay mechanics
"Deus Ex" hardly fits into any specific genre. Though one might argue that it's basically a shooter with RPG-elements (getting experience points for quests, spending them to improve certain talents) and some adventury icing (multiple-choice dialogue), it doesn't really play like a shooter, nor does it play like an RPG or adventure. It merges its different elements so well that it's closer to belonging to an altogether different genre than just being a combination of existing ones, and though it wasn't the first game to do that ("System Shock" comes to mind) it does it extremely well. One feature I especially like is limited inventory space, forcing the player to carry, say, five weapons instead of fifteen. Actually, this could be considered to be an RPG feature as well, for it encourages the player to assume a certain "role", i. e. a certain style of playing the game, since one has to select the type of items/weapons one is going to carry according to a preferred way of getting around problems (like sneaking, paralyzing, sniping, plain killing or completely devastating your enemies). Still, change is always possible, though it will most certainly make the game harder since the amount of experience one can get to increase stats is limited.
2. Gaming philosophy
According to game producer Warren Spector, "Deus Ex" tries to strike a balance between linearity and non-linearity. It's story follows a more or less linear trail of events (ignoring that big choice at the end) but its individual, hub-based levels offer players maximum freedom of choice in getting around any obstacles. Due to that, "Deus Ex" feels fresh and quite "real" most of the time, for one always has to think about which is the best way for your individual character to "get the job done", and that's more or less the way real life works. Just compare it to the set clarity of approaches in, for instance, "Doom" (you shoot), "Thief" (you sneak), "Gabriel Knight" (you talk) or "Monkey Island" (you use the rubber chicken) - in "Deus Ex" all these approaches are basically possible. Well, three of them are.
Moreover, "Deus Ex" takes the player seriously enough to make him/her deal with moral choices, and though these may not always hit the mark, some really interesting dilemmas remain to be solved - and the wonderful ending is just one of them. Also, it's just nice to play a game which at least has a go at confronting the player with the outcome of his/her choices and actions. If one thinks further along that line, the creation of a FPS which could actually make a problem out of the use of violence, while still remaining violent itself, could become a reality (something like a real "anti-war" game, for instance).
3. Reality-based storyline
To me, this is the game's most interesting feature. It's a science-fiction game all right, but it doesn't depict some far-fetched star-world, but a future situated quite close to our present (and becoming ever more so since 9/11). Especially striking about the story of "Deus Ex" is it's mixture between tackling serious political/ethical questions such as the problem of global terrorism or spreading information networks, and wild ramblings on all sorts of conceivable conspiracies. However, these two elements of the story are merged very well and all the fictitious conspiracy stuff is wonderfully used to mirror the "real fears" one may have when looking at the elusive problems of globalization - a process where it is, just as with a conspiracy, hard to pin down who's "pulling the strings" behind all that stuff one hears in the news.
Adding to that, "Deus Ex" is in fact one of the few games which employs meaningful symbolism from start to finish. I mean, this game is all about politics, about democracy vs. autocracy vs. tyranny, about freedom vs. necessary (?) constraints, etc. - and the player's first task is to find his/her way into a decapitated Statue of Liberty (the symbol of democracy if there ever was one)! And "Deus Ex" constantly moves further along this line, elaborating it by certain dialogues, books (quite an amount of world literature lying around in this game), moral choices and, especially, places. One of my favourite ones would, for instance, be occupied Paris, which is consciously used as the main city of "résistance" against a fascist regime - to my opinion, a brilliant use of a heavily "connoted" place (at least in Europe), and in all events remarkable for a video game.
There's a couple of points to mention here, too, though some of the more badly done elements don't bother me too much in "Deus Ex". I can well live with a not-so-hot A.I., although I would have appreciated it being better nevertheless. I can also live with overdone accents, actually, I take that as a symbol of globalization, too (isn't globalization somewhat like "everyone speaks English, but no one's any good at it?"). I also don't mind that there's no freely explorable world, as with "Thief" I think this actually strengthens the game's experience, making the story's flow more focused and keeping it all to the point (which wouldn't be a good thing for every game, but for "Deus Ex" I think it is).
However, I do object to the game's somewhat wavering approach in simulating a "reality". After all, that's one of its strongest points, that's where it's good at. And yet one realizes that the developers must have thought it all a bit too daring and unconventional, so they implemented some "classic" game stuff, too. For instance, there's a whole lot of "secrets" lying around, waiting to be found by the exploratory player. Hey, it's cool to find a battle axe at the bottom of an empty grave in, say, "Ultima Underworld", but the same thing happening in "Deus Ex" is simply inappropriate and encourages a gaming style where the player will try to get to every oh so obscure corner in order to be "rewarded" for his/her sheer persistence in wishing to see every last inch of the game's world. That's very unreal. We don't go about our everyday business looking for health-packs at the bottom of the Mississippi, or for a grenade launcher at the top of the dome of Cologne or whatnot, and neither would a "real" secret agent...or would they? Any secret agents on MobyGames? Anyone?
The Bottom Line
All in all, "Deus Ex" is a brilliant game, and more than that. It has the courage to at least try to be meaningful and succeeds often enough, and that in an industry where you don't get a "Golden Palm" if you miss out at the "Oscars". The only lamentation one could bring forth is simply that it could have still been better. However, think about it: could a medium to large budget game, made in 2001 by financially already waning brand "Ion Storm", really have been any more daring? In fact, let's hope for our future that "Deus Ex" won't get any more relevant to real life than it is now.