Do Over: Deus Ex
The dark room is terrifying in scale, the implied consequences of one’s actions are unimaginable. The AI is alive, thinking and debating with you right now. HELIOS argues: “We have existed in isolation, pure, disconnected, alone, stagnant. You will be who you will be, We are our choices, And we can choose to lead humanity away from this darkness.” Then you walk forward. Neurons cross and circuits rearrange. Finally – a union. No longer alone. No longer vulnerable, quiet and aimless. Many become one. Then suddenly you realise you are metaphorically responsible for creating Call Of Duty’s multiplayer mode.
Let’s back up. Deus Ex was released by Eidos Interactive in 2000 and developed by the much-tormented Ion Storm Inc. studios. It was both a critical and commercial success. “Wave goodbye to your social life.” exclaimed the helpful over-the-counter nerd at the game store as he handed the 13-year-old socialite the oversized box, greatly underestimating my ability to understand what I had bought. Giving a teenager Deus Ex and expecting them to understand what’s going on is akin to giving a puppy a chemistry set for Christmas and telling it to “make blue”. Both will simply smile and think: “I have no idea what I’m doing”.
Regardless, what followed was genuinely one of the greatest games ever in terms of gameplay, design, sense of freedom, story and atmosphere. Yet when a game allows you this level of freedom, á la Fallout, you invariably find yourself distracted from hunting down nano-terrorists across the world and instead throwing potted plants at Private Lloyd in the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coaltion (UNATCO) lobby, just to listen to his next confused, indignant retort.
That plant-punting perpetrator is you. You play JC Denton: the clueless, multi-ethnic, augmented cop stuck in the wrong organisation during the wrong world crisis. Like John McClane, but without the charm, sharpshooting ability or witty one-liners, though you can walk on broken glass. From the get-go, you keep getting lauded for not being as useless as your totally useless screw-up of a brother, whose every useless action is the, frankly useless, opposite of what UNATCO is trying to do, and therefore spectacularly useless from your starting perspective. But he keeps giving you guns, so you feel like you should have his back.
UNATCO, by the way, are pretty much the worst-run organisation in the world. They spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a handful of operatives that can be killed with a switch or a word. A word. Imagine if their enemies had access to those words. No, wait. Imagine if your parents had a word that could kill your tamagotchi when you were a whippersnapper. “You’re spending too long with that digital wallaby. Five more minutes? I’ll five more minutes you. Wumpscut.” I mean surely that sort of thing could also just happen by accident? You could be offering your beloved a pain au chocolat one morning when they suddenly explode across the breakfast table from you. This really wasn’t thought through, which is very much in keeping with the UNATCO spirit. In fact, the only reason they seem to exude even the tiniest sliver of competence is due to their arch nemeses, global terrorist uber-group the NSF, being even more mindbogglingly worthless at what they do.
The NSF’s primary goal is the redistribution of the antidote to a plague that’s encompassing America, which they hope to do by stealing said antidote and doing everything in their power to not move it anywhere for hours from just beside where they stole it in the first place while a military organisation, however dysfunctional, rapidly closes in on them. Seriously, the NSF must have missed out on Common Sense 101 back in the day. They even make excuses like “Hey, I’m just a lawyer.” or “Hey, I don’t even know how to fire a gun.” Then how about not joining an international terrorist organisation, mate? These are the actions you’d expect of a man who has been clinically brain-dead for over 200 years before signing up, not some middle class do-gooder with minor terrorist aspirations.
Time has not been kind to the graphics, animations, and long-boasted interactivity of the game. Lockpicking is about as interactive as poking a dead cow, electronic bypassing isn’t so much engaging as it is an animation of your grandad fumbling at the TV remote without his glasses on, and hacking requires all the skill of pressing two buttons on your keyboard at the same time. At least Bioshock gave you Pipe Dream with which to fumble about while you waited. The augmentations JC obtains are fun and appear handy, even though you’ll never activate most of them more than once. There will also come an unfortunate point when you realise that the environmental resistance aug would only ever actually be useful in reality for stifling farts in cramped elevators.
It may be possible to think a little too much about this game.
I’ve left the elephant in the room until last; the acting is among the worst ever experienced in anything CGI, animated or live. JC himself is doing his bit for the environment by leaving as tiny an emotional carbon footprint behind as possible. He has all the charisma of a rural Fianna Fail politician doing a pole dance for a telethon. He delivers reports to his bosses in the same tone as he does threats to pimps in alleyways and drinks orders to barstaff, and yet he is by no means the worst offender here. JC is a definite third place to the numerous extras, who have accents so bad that they’re borderline racist. First place, though, is solely reserved for FEMA director Walton Simons. Simons takes characterisation and emotion to a whole new trough. He’s so unconvincing and so awful that I’m reasonably sure it’s actually Tobias from Arrested Development ad-libbing his own lines on the spot. “We aren’t ready for an introduction. No. Not yet. Really I’m not sure why I’m still talking to you. [sic]”
The game passes through the dankest areas of New York, Paris and Hong Kong, carelessly thrusting about conspiracy theories that could take someone’s eye out, clogging up landfills with rhetoric, and leaving the player feeling a bit like Dave Bowman about three and a half minutes from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But despite all the eye-poking, agenda-shoving, remote-bashing, lock-fidgeting, lack of acting classes, criminally simplistic animations and other flaws, I can’t convince myself that I don’t love this game through and through. Yes, there have been 12 years of gaming advancement since its release. Yes, it’s dated, but few games evoke the kind of responses or thoughts Deus Ex still can. Even fewer are cerebral without treating the player like an uneducated simpleton.
No other game allows you to simultaneously fire volleys of a plasma rifle at a giant lizard monster called a Karkian inside an underwater MJ-12 base while turning on your second battery-operated heart and eating soy food. If it sounds like I’m making sense, it shouldn’t, since more than a decade later I still have no idea what I’m doing.
And it’s still majestic.