The Bartender reveals much about this games depth.
There's a key moment in Deus Ex which told me I was playing a great game, one that tries to achieve loftier goals than most. It's a minor one, easy to miss and bears no influence on the plot. It's a conversation with a bartender, I can't remember which bar – there are a lot in the game. Rather than the usual filler dialogue you instead engage the bartender in a deep philosophical conversation about what's happening in the game and whether the organisations in the plot are right or wrong. It's a wonderful chat that came out of the blue. Talking to my friend who I'd borrowed the game from he remembered the conversation too, so it must be quite profound. That it was possible to have that kind of conversation displayed that deep thought had gone into the story and the setting.
I had already realised this by the time I reached that bar, Deus Ex had me hooked despite seeming initially disparaging. The setting seemed so-so like a limited Blade Runner rip-off, it too is set perennially at night - seemingly to limit the amount of detail needed. The first level seemed impossible, as I was endlessly gunned down in an overly-punishing mission that nearly made me give up – but I'm glad I persevered.
After completing this token opening the game completely opened up. No longer was I playing an awkward action game, now it was an adventure-RPG hybrid that seemed to be trying to suck the most out of it's engine. Part millennium conspiracy theory, part stealth adventure, Deus Ex tries to present a plausible near future full of doubt. I'd not played a game before which made you question your actions within the game only to possibly regret them later, creating the strongest aspect to the game. It's a smooth RPG, no levelling up or quests and side-quests - this is about your character. You naturally customise the protagonist the nano-enhanced super soldier JC Denton in his weapons and skills (including non-lethal ones) as you gradually mould his personality and actions to suit your playing style.
The story has conspiracy at its heart and has you travelling the globe to New York, Paris, Hong Kong and more as you unravel the mystery behind NSF terrorists and the 'Grey Death' virus. Before you know it you have to question your motives and why you exist. Ultimately the course of fate lies in your hands.
This is all handled through superb dialogue and creative writing which pops up in newspapers and elsewhere. There's even sections of a novel within the game which questions the games premise. The missions are all open levels, there's no set method or route through allowing you to improvise in a style that suits you. Often guns blazing is the worst but can be satisfying. The open levels are also persistent allowing you to come back later and pick up that important item right where you left it.
When I wrote that the game squeezed the most out of it's engine, it's possibly because the engine seems so cumbersome in places. The graphics look blocky with low poly-count models who move in a stiff manner. This is in a world that is always dark, dawn is about the lightest it gets. Whilst I'd like to believe it's purely for mood I'm sure it's also to get away with lower quality textures. It counters the large scale feel to the levels as much of them are shrouded in darkness.
My only other real problem with the game is that opening level which is just too hard. Before I had a handle on the possibilities within the game I had to survive an onslaught with no real indication of how to succeed.
The Bottom Line
Deus Ex deserves recognition as a classic game. It set the tone for open-ended level design, and level design that felt like part of the real world, not simple a set for stunts. The RPG elements work well as you tailor abilities to suit play style. It really improved the standard of game writing making you feel that you had choice – influential choice in a living breathing game world where you could literally change the fate of civilisation. It did all this by putting some serious thought into the question 'why?' a real rarity and in doing so created the best conversation I've ever had with a bartender.