Deus Ex: The Originals

FBT finally plays one of the most revered game series’ of all time. Hope he takes it seriously.

*This is a playthrough review, so there's Spoilers*

Deus Ex is the best game I’ve never played. Its reputation is almost godlike, it's the Adam to System Shock’s Eve; pretty much every game since is the ‘spiritual successor’ of one of them, and amazingly they both share the same Dad - Warren Spector, and even more amazingly, the first Deus Ex came from ION Storm. It might not have been the first game to feature an open world, non-combatants, branding storylines, moral choices or multiple endings but it was the first to pull it all together and do it right.

I avoided Deus Ex at the time. For me, gaming peaked with Doom. I was quite happy over here replaying Half Life thanks. But now, its influence is undeniable; every modern game I love was influenced by Deus Ex. It’s time I paid my respects.

Deus Ex -

It’s the 2050s and the world is gripped by disease and famine, with terrorists openly opposing what’s left of the governments. Basically, the place is a mess. The UN tries to keep order but they’re manipulated by the Illuminati, who are losing their grip in the face of technology – you know things are bad when even the Illuminati are struggling. The biggest tech leap of all is ‘augmentations’, aka Augs, cyber elements grafted on to humans.

FBT is JC Denton, United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition officer. We meet our bro, Paul who like JC has Augs up the wazoo. He sends us into Liberty Island to put down a terrorist event, telling us to use non-lethal measures. Sure, I got this bro.

Within seconds I’m blasting everything in sight. The hardest thing is actually getting out of the Quake era mentality. It looks like a 90s shooter and I’m constantly triggered to pull the trigger. I also blame the setting – the statue of liberty has been destroyed and NY’s downbeat tone keeps reminding me of Escape from New York. I am Snake Plissken not JC Denton. But while Paul’s pissed, the beauty of Deus Ex is I can be Snake if I want. Or prime-era Steven Segal.

DE is clearly 20 years old; the graphics are basic and the AI wonky - they’ll get shot and take off, bleeding-out which is a nice touch, but they’re just as likely to stand still, completely unaware I’m right there. At times I accidentally triggered a cut-scene and all the bad guys got auto-killed by my backup. Still, you quickly forget how old it is; I’m amazed at how much freedom it’s managed to build in; I keep thinking ‘it won’t let me do that’ but it always does. Back at the base, I spend ages picking things up and hurling them about, activating everything and nosing around everywhere, even the women’s toilets.

After being bollocked by the boss for going lethal in the last mission - and for entering the woman’s toilets - I’m sent off to another terror outbreak, where I meet Aug’ed up Anna Navarre, who has a more bloodthirsty approach; my kinda girl-robot. As a shooter, DE does show it’s age; it’s a crapshoot and that’s partly because you have to gain skill points to build accuracy and resistance. Until then, JC gets killed a lot. Don’t the Augs help?

JC’s Augs are ultimately a more advanced version of the inventories we saw in games like Heretic. Actionable, you activate better hacking, survival rates, bump up abilities, increase weapons and accuracy and so on, all of which require batteries to run and need managing since you can have more Augs than JC has plugs. It’s a nice little system but it’s a bit over complicated and often you forgot what JC can or can’t do. To be honest, it’s a bit of a gimmick; RPG is an overused term in gaming, but DE is true Role Playing. I am deciding the fate of the world and building the hero who saves it. This is the future.

JC discovers there’s a cure for a disease sweeping the world but someone is blocking its distribution, ensuring only certain elements of society get access; the terror attacks are actually a resistance group. That explains why Paul wanted us to go in non-lethal, he’s actually a double agent for the resistance. Sorry about that, I just wanted to impress Anna. JC turns his back on the UN and goes rogue, intent on exposing the conspiracy and the Illuminati’s end-game. I think.

A plot where you realise you’re on the wrong side and join a rebellion trying to stop the Illuminati using a disease to control the world is one thing, but when you throw in a sentient AI which merges with another AI for some reason, a Triad turf war we have to solve to get access to a hacker who reveals JC and Paul are actually cloned prototypes intended to experiment with human-tech assimilation so the Illuminati leader can merge himself with the uber-AI and transcend consciousness, and is also technically our dad, you get a bit dizzy. But then there’s also the Majestic 12 who are also controlled by the illuminati (I think), fighting another terror group dedicated to stopping the various biological nasties they created (I think), you start searching for a plot-explaining Aug. Oh and it ends in Area51 where we find Aliens. What?

If there is a criticism, besides the messy menus, it’s that DE is at times too open. Not in the way Skyrim is too open, but the stuff that JC can do to find alternative routes or explore is almost too much; modern games nudge you in a direction but DE doesn’t hold your hand and often you’re just completely lost or finding deadends that might not be deadends. You’ll get pulled into a mini-adventure that’s completely separate to the main mission, or might have some impact on it or might not be anything, and you can disrupt something that has a impact – or not – later. You can accidentally kill key characters or miss huge parts of the story, but again, DE has it covered; there’s nothing game-breaking, just progress changing and you’ll never know; DE is up there with Mass Effect for never having the same playthrough.

Deus Ex has aged but it’s more than respectable and if nothing else, it’s exciting; this is where gaming got interesting. Playing it now is like visiting a Gamer Museum where you see where everything else came from. Side missions, dialogue choices, multiple approaches, lethal and non-lethal paths, branching storylines and a multiple choice ending all in a non-linear shooter/RPG - it was a quantum leap in gaming and while it’s not as impactful as it was then, it’s worth a go just to know where your favourite game came from.

Deus Ex Invisible War - this was always going to struggle as a sequel. Everything is present, and in many ways, it streamlines and improves the original. It hits the same beats, it’s respectful to DE’s narrative while striking out on its own … but it never escapes the shadow of its big brother. It’s just another free-roam Shooter-RPG that Deus Ex inspired.

It’s twenty years since JC and Helios, the mega-AI came to an agreement. Regardless of which option you chose, here JC took the symbiosis route but also destroyed Area51, covering pretty much all the DE endings and triggering a meltdown of civilisation. From there, two leading groups emerged; the WTO which rebuilt society’s structure, and The Order, which provided a more spiritual leadership.

We’re new recruit Alex D (who we can play as male/female), being evacuated from Chicago after a terror attack decimates the city. No sooner is Alex getting comfy in her new digs in Seattle when another attack happens, this time aimed at their facility. It seems various factions want to use Alex, and what she might become, for their own ends. All good, except I never really understand what Alex’s ends are.

Whereas the original had the kind of plot The X-Files loved to explore, IW is just incredibly unfocused with no sense of threat or pressure to figure it all out. We’re facing similar situations to DE - untrustworthy allegiances, terror attacks and larger conspiracies - but it never gets going, or at least when it does, you don’t really get Alex’s part in it all. For all her mystery, Alex is a complete non-character to play; we learnt during the escape that the academy was treating her, and other Augs, as lab rats rather than trainees, and that’s a very cool way to start – but Alex doesn’t seem to have much interest in solving it all, other than getting revenge for the death of her foster parents in the Chicago attack. As she tells anyone who'll listen.

It’s like ‘My parents are dead’ is the future version of ‘I’m a vegan’, she manages to slip it into every conversation and it quickly becomes obvious that the fact she's fostered is a plot point. DE demanded you pay attention but in IW you can skip entire scenes and still not really miss anything, because we’re just going through the motions before a final twist and until then, nothing matters. We got that great reveal at the start but everything else is sign-posted, made worse by Alex’s indifference.

Worse, Alex doesn’t seem to have any impact on what is happening. Like all crappy RPG Free-roamers, all we’re doing is going through the motions; this isn’t a Chose Your Own Adventure, this is a non-linear game with a linear story. There’s some side-missions, but most you won’t do because you don’t gain enough info to resolve them, and after one too many dead ends and empty streets you just give up and push into the main mission.

IW is a by-the-numbers RPG and it’s insulting to think this followed DE; IW was originally built for the Xbox, which at the time was pretty restrictive compared to PCs and resultingly it was pared back and simplified. Compared to the original, this is practically a DLC. It leaves a lot to the cut-scenes rather than us, and while the story has great potential, it’s only important when we reach a final multiple-choice decision which isn’t dependant on anything we did before. If DE was Mass Effect 2, this is Mass Effect 3.

Invisible War undersold on release, and an in-development sequel was eventually rebadged as a new franchise, Project Snowblind; which is a lot better than IW but sold even more poorly. The series was then shut down until the Prequels, which are a master-class in missing the point. IW isn't a bad RPG, it's just a bad Deus Ex game.

Having now played all the Deus Ex games, I think Human Revolution is the best DE sequel – it was at least fun to play - but I'm glad I played those before DE because then I would have really hated them. They did nothing to expand or set up what happened in Deus Ex and really, they're just playing off the name. I do feel bad bitching about the prequel's Adam never taking his shades off though; he was just trying to be JC, but no one could be JC, except me – and that’s what the other games missed. Deus Ex is gaming royalty. I owe it every game I’ve enjoyed since, and it deserves its reputation. Guess now I have to play System Shock …

Deus Ex

2000 | Developer, Ion Storm Austin | Publisher, Eidos Interactive

Platforms; Win (Steam, GoG) | PS2

Deus Ex Invisible War

2003 | Developer, Ion Storm Austin | Publisher, Eidos Interactive

Platforms; Win (Steam, GoG) | XBox