Deus Ex: A Video Game Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes out in only two short weeks.  It has been a long time coming, ever since the first Deus Ex was released in 2000.  Deus Ex has always been a popular series, unique at its release, and influential by today’s standards.  The first game was particularly great, while its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War is not as fondly remembered.  Even in spite of a relatively poor sequel, the series still stands tall and is hailed as a classic franchise.  Even over a decade after its initial release, the first Deus Ex still holds up as an impressive and immersive game.  Hopefully, this means that Human Revolution will follow its lead.

The first Deus Ex was a truly influential game for a long list of reasons.  It’s one of the first games to really blend Role Playing Games and First Person Shooters, had an incredibly deep plot that respected the intelligence of its players, allowed the player to make choices that felt like they really mattered and were not broken into “moral choices,” and had some of the best gameplay of its time.

Deus Ex followed up two of the most revolutionary games of all time, Half-Life and System Shock, and took great influences from each, while remaining its own game.  The influence of System Shock should not be surprising, as both games were created by the same team, Harvey Smith and Warren Spector.  From Half-Life, Deus Ex was able to create an immersive storyline where your interactions with characters can affect your chances of survival.  From System Shock, the game took on a full suite of role playing upgrades and bio-augmentation.  However, Deus Ex vastly expanded on each of these to prevent itself from merely being a clone, by crafting a story where these elements were central to the plot.  As main character JC Denton, your bio-augmentations set you apart from the rest of the characters, and also act as a source of conflict at many times, whether from other agents or just people on the street with which you interact.

However, Deus Ex’s strong point wasn’t just in its story; it was also in the way the story was told.  As JC, you had a lot of choices to make, and many of them were not black and white.  The game encourages you, rather than being good or evil, to be yourself as if you were JC.  This comes through in both branching dialogue choices, plot decisions of who to kill or who to save, and even in gameplay decisions, which, personally, are my favorite element, as they are what really make the game stand out from the pack.

In almost every level, you have the ability to choose your path.  If you prefer a full scale assault, then by all means, take the G.E.P. Gun, level up your heavy weapons skill and go wild.  If you prefer a stealthy approach, take the crossbow and use hacking and patience to get you to your objective, or if you want to balance them out, then do that.  Deus Ex was one of the first to present players with levels that really encouraged exploration.   If you explored, you could find entire new ways of tackling objectives, which was a good strategy, no matter which method you chose was almost always rewarded.  The player was encouraged to use different types of ammo or their different augmentations to complete objectives.  One of the clearest examples of the vast player choices is early on in the game, where instead of fighting through the front doors of a terrorist base you could find a basement in a warehouse that led to roof access and had a clear sniping vantage point.  The game encouraged the player to think for themselves and tackle an objective any way they wanted to.

As the game goes on, the RPG character evolution elements are subtle enough that when increased, it really does feel like JC is getting better at his skills.  In addition to this, it also altered the dialogue.  Every character you run across is not only interactive, but also has personality, be it an NPC on the street in Hong Kong or one of the important guys in New York.  Deus Ex took this cue from Half-Life and then expanded on it in open environment settings to really make the game world seem alive.  It was really the first game that showed that this kind of interaction could not only be done, but done well.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that Deus Ex has an amazing story line.  While it is occasionally convoluted, it never gets to the point where the player is ripped out of the game.  The near-future cyberpunk setting really helped make the more fantastical elements of the story acceptable, but the game also took all of the conspiracy talk that was central to the point very seriously.  JC’s own ignorance of the conspiracies underlying the plot really helped as he learns about the various factions and plots around the same time the player does.  While the story does twist and turn, one of its most admirable traits is that it also does not insult the player’s intelligence.  Players are rewarded with extra information by hacking computers and reading email, but the core points of the plot are always explained in ways that make them seem viable.  Players are treated as if they truly are JC Denton, and as such are rewarded for making decisions based on their own intelligence and not on what the game suggests they make.  For example, if you know that enemy troops are closing in on a character with whom you’ve built a solid relationship, and that character tells you to run, you don’t have to.  The game almost encourages you to not play by its own rules.  Even by today’s standards this is rare and the whole concept of player trust was recently explored in games such as BioShock.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a lot to live up to.  The developers know this and it is one of the reasons why they have been stressing its similarity to the structure of the original Deus Ex.  However, due to Invisible War’s failures to successfully replicate the core of what made the first Deus Ex game such an impactful entry into the medium, I am still wary.  Invisible War will be discussed next week, but suffice to say, one of the things it lacks is the true freedom that made Deus Ex so great.  Human Revolution is a challenging game to make correctly, because the trick with conspiracy theories is that they don’t necessarily play by their own rules.  The game has to let players make a choice for themselves and then the game has to force the consequences of those actions on the player for better or worse.  If it can successfully make its characters dynamic, follow through on the promise of open ended gameplay and have player choices, then Deus Ex: Human Revolution will be the game that Deus Ex fans have been waiting for over 10 years for.

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Scott Lipowitz

Scott just graduated from Law School. But he didn't let that stop him from gaming, a hobby that he has stuck with ever since he received his NES at age 5. His favorites are Metal Gear Solid, OutRun, Half-Life, Deus Ex, Ratchet and Clank and most recently, the Mass Effect series.

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