Monday, December 7, 2015

Deus Ex - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

Every now and then you may hear this sentiment: "I wish I could forget all about [certain piece of media] so I could experience it all over again." In that sense, there's an ironic fortune than one cannot appreciate when touching a revered classic for the very first time. Deus Ex is one of those well-regarded masterpieces that I had played a bit of as a teen, but never completed: the game felt clunky and aimless, while the gunplay was lackluster and getting spotted meant instant-death. I mean sure, having branching power-ups is cool and all, but this was no Half-Life... were my thoughts at the time.

So that's why it was important for me to revisit it in 2015 and go beyond the first few NYC missions; I needed to understand what made Ion Storm's dystopian cyber-future special and why people would give their left arm just to play it all over again with a fresh set of eyes.

Alright, so Deus Ex is goofy. It has a really solid foundation that actively encourages you to play to your skills, meaning that you should pick a few traits and hone those. Whereas in my first playthrough as an adolescent I went into areas with guns blazing, I decided to go for the stealthy takedown approach this time, utilizing the police baton and dart gun. Since I wanted to bring down my foes with melee combat as fast as possible, I focused on upgrading my hand-to-hand training first, and then pumped points into other abilities to help me navigate around the world (lockpicking, electronics, hacking). I tried my best to commit to a non-lethal playstyle, but the game pushed back hard against me—how are you supposed to tranq a cyborg?! So, being a stealth-amateur, I had to abandon my pacifist ways at the ocean base and unleash the might of the Dragon Claw laser sword.

Where the game gets silly is mostly during the spontaneous little moments you don't expect. The first explosive LAM I used destroyed a door and the unconscious body of a guard through a solid wall, thus ending my no-kill run quite early. When you use gas grenades on enemies, any damage you do to them will break them out of their "wiping face" animation cycle and allow them to shoot at you for a split second, before they realize their eyes hurt and return to rubbing. At Versalife I (in plain sight mind you) freed a bum and some dinosaurs from their cages, and while everyone in the entire facility panicked I stole a handful of augmentation enhancements. In Paris I asked a hobo for directions, thinking I had dodged the nearby patrolling guards, but mid-conversation a cyborg ran up to me with his guns primed, forcing me to panic-click through the rest of the dialogue before dying swiftly thereafter. And I shall never forget the glorious duel I had with the game's major antagonist Walton Simons, where I paused the game, activated my augmentations, and... defeated him in a single attack. Whose augs are outdated now?!

Oh, and you end up joining the Illuminati and fighting Roswell-looking aliens (which may or may not be enhanced apes) in Area 51.

And the stun prod animation is hilarious.

This is not to undermine the game's accomplishments—rather, they compliment them. Deus Ex is hailed as a pioneer of player choice, and nothing makes that more evident than when you're brushing up against its systems in a unique way (like with my Versalife experience). And the non-emergent aspects of the game that are comical—like the Chinese & French voice acting—don't necessarily interrupt the flow of gameplay or break the immersion either. The game is wacky at times, but you can still approach it with a serious demeanor and easily get invested in its cyber-conspiracies. It was cool that the story revolved around a world already knee-deep in augmentations, and I thought its portrayal of how the shift to industry left multitudes of the poor behind to rot was brilliant. The dialogue was also great for the gamut of topics that get covered, though occasionally weird in its delivery and brevity.

If there is one thing I can grill the game for, it's that the augmentations are bound to the horrendous function keys. I know this is before the days of weapon wheels and the like, but having to reach for F3 to dampen damage in the heat of battle never worked out in my favor; the amount damage enemies can do to you in this game is pretty insane, so being nimble on your powers is a must. While you can pause and activate your upgrades independently, this slows the gameplay down considerably and makes what should be a central mechanic to the game a chore. On the flipside, I did enjoy how useful these powers were and that the game forces you to choose between two distinct abilities for each body part.

Something else that surprised me was that the game isn't as open as I thought it was—there's only about 2-3 "routes" for each area. It's not really a grievance per se, but I didn't have the inclination to try and run through the game with a different "build" when I finished, especially since I thoroughly explored every map during my playthrough. Thankfully, the staggering amount of missions and places you'll visit provide a great sense of variation, and even as a linearly-crafted story, it remains thoroughly engaging all the way to the end. My favorite moment was in the chapel, where I read about Gunther crying all alone in the basement and festering in his anger towards me for the murder of Agent Navarre (it was self-defense!)—I actually pitied the poor lug. I mean I still wound up killing him (it was self-defense!), but it served as an effective, emotional story beat that made me detest MJ12 that much more.

While debating philosophy with the bartender you see in the screen above, I came upon the realization that Deus Ex really was doing something really unique at the time. What I failed to appreciate as a teenager wasn't just how robust and customizable the mechanics were, but how adventurous the game's spirit was. Nowadays it's easy to get spoiled by the saturation of RPG systems in FPSs and stories about government conspiracies centered on technological advancement, but it was a novel combination back in 2000 before the likes of Morrowind or Metal Gear Solid 2 were known. In that sense, that's why the droll moments of the game only add to its charm and luster—few other games were brave enough to attempt something as wild as this. And not only did Deus Ex pull it off, but its legacy can still be appreciated (and enjoyed!) by today's standards as well.

... So now with the original under my belt, Invisible War has to naturally follow, right?

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