Retro Rewind: Deus Ex

It’s interesting to me that at several points, I’ve noticed people responding to the popularity and general critical claim of Deus Ex: Human Revolution with the comment, “Eh, it’s not Deus Ex.”

Actually, it’s kind of exactly Deus Ex. If Deus Ex were made this decade rather than at the outset of last, it would pretty much be DXHR. The parallels between the games are many, ranging from moments in the plot with direct mirrors between the two games, to the shot-for-shot recasting of tiny moments in Deus Ex that appear in DXHR. Playing the games back-to-back, as I have been, makes these moments stand out in brilliant relief. DXHR is as much reboot as it is prequel, but easily the most striking thing is how much great stuff there is to lift from Deus Ex, even more than a decade after its release.

In many ways, Deus Ex plays like a game that could have been released last week.

Three things continue to lift Deus Ex in comparison to the titles that have come in the decade since its release. First is its writing, with a deep and engaging plot and a world covered in lore the likes of which is seen in few titles that don’t have “Deus Ex” or “The Elder Scrolls” in the title. Second, its scope, which seems ludicrous given the finely honed and somewhat shorter experiences presented by the games of today, which by their nature are putting more emphasis on the technology of their presentation rather than just bulk of content. Finally, its degree of choice and options, which is rivaled only by the game that serves as its prequel. Deus Ex is the kind of video game that presents the kind of experience that you always imagined when you thought about video games in the future — a world where you make the decisions, that’s deep and unfolding and huge around you. Except that game isn’t in the future; it’s in the past.

So rather than talk exclusively about what continues to work about Deus Ex (its story, its scope, its choice) and what doesn’t (its goddamn tranq darts and flailing in panic AI), it’s much more interesting to talk about the game in terms of a decade of further game development. The people who make video games have had 11 years to improve the market since Deus Ex came out: what have they come up with?

Largely, there aren’t many games out there that continue to offer what Deus Ex does. Take a gander over at the Deus Ex Wiki and you’ll see what I mean: there’s an insane degree of content to be found there, running down characters, timelines, events and locations that aren’t just present in the game, but based (at least loosely) in some kind of real-world history. The degree of world-building to be found in the series is usually reserved for something like World of WarCraft, for which there are people on staff with job titles like Lore Master.

Choice, too, reigns supreme in Deus Ex to a degree that’s almost laughable in games today. There’s an infographic that occasionally gets passed around on sites like Reddit, comparing a first-person shooter map from 1993 to one supposedly common today. Of course, it’s satirical, but it makes the point well

Deus Ex looks a lot more 1993 than 2010 in that example, and it’s easy to blow right past several different paths to the same end, and miss out on some rewards and quests altogether. Very few games reward the player for not just moving through an area, but using his or her head in doing so — and even stealth games that have come after and built upon the Deus Ex framework rarely take an approach larger than “use this shallow vent OR that overhead pipe.” In Deus Ex, you can infiltrate a base and not see half of it, and get the job done just as easily. That’s level design, folks.

But while Deus Ex tends to be much more massive than only the most expansive modern RPGs, it also has a lot less technology to contend with. As I mentioned before, the game often kinda looks like puke molded into the semblance of a video game; it’s clear that graphical expansiveness and pushing the boundaries of 2000 technology wasn’t at the forefront of the development team’s priorities. So the trade-off for hugeness often is the fact that games today are beautiful, with great textures and engaging visuals. It’s also the reason that DXHR and other modern games are so much smaller, relatively, than Deus Ex.

And not to pat Deus Ex on the back too hard, because games have seen some serious improvements in the last decade since it was released. Its stealth gameplay is weak to the point of being irritating at points: there’s no indication of whether you’re hidden other than to hope that you are, and enemies will sometimes pull magic tricks of detection on you. There’s the brutally trying aspect of attempting a non-lethal playthrough, because the non-lethal weapons at your disposal are one shade north of completely useless. And the enemy AI is, at times, abysmal. Enemies cycle between dashing around in panic and sniping you in the face from 50 yards.

But the point is that while the game may not be perfect, playing it is an interesting barometer for gaming in general. How things have changed relative to Deus Ex suggests that while there have been many improvements, not all the changes that we’ve seen since 2000 are for the better, and many of them aren’t necessarily improvements at all. Deus Ex also suggests that gamers don’t need to be pandered to, and they can handle a deep, engaging and largely “find it yourself” story.

Is it a testament to Deus Ex that you can download it today and find it incredibly fun even a decade later? Yes, definitely, but it’s also interesting that unlike many games, in many respects it has yet to be surpassed in a meaningful way. It has become a classic, sure, but the game also stands its ground against the modern, despite more than 10 years of time for the industry, and players, to learn from it. If we all love Deus Ex so much, why does it feel like there are so few games like it?

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8 Comments on Retro Rewind: Deus Ex

Foehunter82

On September 12, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Well said.

Aids

On September 13, 2011 at 1:30 am

what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame what a shame

JosephPS3

On September 13, 2011 at 4:46 am

DEHR was a success and because of that I have no doubt there will be more coming from this studio. Future releases will be bigger and better and improved that it may eventually top DE original in every way.

Nick

On September 13, 2011 at 7:44 am

The OG Deus Ex was, and is to this day, one of the top-10 games of all time. I remember picking it up a few days after it was released, 11 years ago, not really knowing anything about it. After dozens and dozens and dozens of hours later, I was stunned. I played through that game three times in one summer, with it consuming all of my free time.
It absolutely is the perfect measure of how games have changed, and how they haven’t. Loading up Deus Ex again, I am struck by how familiar it feels, not just because it’s like a friend I haven’t seen for a decade and who recently called me up to go out for a beer, but because as I play along I see so many things that I see in today’s games. And not necessarily improved upon.
It’s also weird, because playing through this (ignoring the turn-of-the-century visuals), it feels like I’m playing a game that took the best parts of some of the best games to come out the past few years, mixed them all together, threw in a bookshelf full of conspiracy theory and history books, and Deus Ex was the result.
The combat feels so much like Fallout 3/New Vegas, minus the time-stopping ability; they’re both frantic, do-or-die, have a sense of actual consequence for death, and offer a plethora of ways to mold your character’s fighting abilitys, i.e. firearms or melee? lethal or not? handguns or long arms? etc.
The stealth aspect, while clearly lacking compared to games like Splinter Cell: Conviction (the series having had the full last decade to improve on their formula), still does offer the tension and excitement I remember, with the sense of apprehension/dread about not “if” you’ll be found, but when. This goes a long way into drawing one into the game.
The story… My God, the story… Have there been games between 2000 and 2011 that have a longer story? Yes. A more intricate, layered, elaborate story? Most likely. A more sweeping, grandiose tale of adventure? Perhaps. A more eloquently delivered, carefully crafted, perfectly honed story, one that remains relevant a decade after its release? I don’t think so…

It’s unfortunate that in a rush to out-sell one another, and the seemingly ever-shifting demographic of “gamers” throwing developers from one far end of the spectrum to the other when it comes to things like story, sustenance, gameplay, level design, character design, and action vs dialogue, with very few in the last few years managing to align themselves at just the right markers of each to crank out what is TRULY a quality game. Polished, engaging, involving, and almost “real”. A game that draws you in and doesn’t let go until every last rock is up-turned, every last quest completed, and every last line of dialogue uttered.
Fallout 3/NV, Mass Effect 1/2(esp 2), Knights of the Old Republic, Elder Scrolls, GTA3/Vice City/San Andreas, Half-Life 2/Ep1+2 (come on, HL3!), and many more.
Simply put, Deus Ex is a game to which much is owed, and one of the few games of its era that is just as engrossing and dazzling as it was over a decade ago when it was first printed onto disc. If you haven’t played Deus Ex, you owe it to yourself to spend a few dollars and many hours exploring one of the richest gaming worlds ever to be constructed.

DXFan

On September 14, 2011 at 7:48 am

To JosephPS3 who said “Future releases will be bigger and better and improved that it may eventually top DE original in every way”
I’m gonna say “Only in your dreams, kiddo”.Such a thing is impossible because the Deus Ex had Warren Spector factor and a great talented team that made it possible the miracle called Deus Ex.Since that team has disbanded and Warren Spector is not likely to work on another DX game your claim is laughable at best and ridiculous at worst.
Now go back to playing with your PS3 with its shiny graphics and leave the discussion to the mature hardcore gamers who don’t care about graphics but actual gameplay and scenario.

Craig

On September 15, 2011 at 6:28 am

Iam a big Deus Ex fan, i consider it the best video game ever, i did enjoy HR but to me it felt it had too much inspiration from jap-anime in it, the reason why we wont see anything expansive like the original DX is because current hardware ps3/xbox cant handle a huge yet graphical acceptable game, in todays industry if the graphics is unable to keep a teens short attention span then the game will fail, i own a ps3, xbox, and two computers capable of playing DXHR at its highest settings, todays market care little for expansive stories and more for quick COD like gameplay

Eden

On September 16, 2011 at 3:26 pm

@DXFan, I see your point but not because you made it, your argument is filled with abusive logic and you just come off as arrogant. With today’s technology its pointless to make a game that doesn’t utilize it, and DXHR did so while still staying true to its predecessor. Personally I didn’t play DX when it was released, I played the sequel, but after going back to give the original a go I found it practically unplayable. There were things about it that impressed me, and I wanted to like it more than I could but its just.. I don’t know it was like watching an old movie, it just seemed cheesy. The gameplay was missing elements that nowadays would be considered mandatory, and the story was interesting but would’ve been better as a book.

Games these days are about the experience, its about immersion, your supposed to feel like you ARE this person, and his problems are your problems. Granted DXHR was far from perfect, but as a first go on technology a decade older than the original it did surprisingly well. Later sequels very well may be better to some, but its a matter of opinion, don’t be small-minded.

DXFan

On September 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm

@Eden yeah I get it you are a moron who can’t possibly appreciate the greatneess of a classic and only like a game if it has great graphics as today’s gaems are all about that.”Games these days are about experience” hah don’t make me laugh.