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A Primer on Deus Ex

Prior to this week’s release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution,
gamers had gone eight years without the release of a new game in the
series, leading to an understandable lack of familiarity with the series
among certain gamers. That’s okay though, because the new game is a
prequel, and does a good job of introducing people who don’t know much
about it to the setting while allowing veterans to jump right back into
things. But if you’re still curious about what the deal is, here’s an
overview of the series, its plot, and the first two games it spawned.

Deus Ex was originally the brainchild of Warren Spector, a famed game designer who previously worked on such series as Wing Commander, Ultima, System Shock, and Thief, and who is most recently known for Epic Mickey.
He eventually got to create the game along with fellow designer Harvey
Smith and the team at Ion Storm, and they ended up making one of the
most beloved PC games of all time. The series is about a variety of
things, from dystopian future societies to artificial enhancement and
transhumanism to conspiracies throughout history, and references a
variety of fictional works and real world concepts. Now some of it seems
sort of quaint compared to what certain developers are doing, but
there’s a certain sort of kitschy charm to the series’ approach to its
setting, an old school kind of cyberpunk that never met a weird sci-fi
concept it didn’t like.

Deus Ex

The gameplay balances between
shooters and role-playing games for its ideas, a concept which is
mundane now with even otherwise purely-straightforward shooters like Call of Duty
bringing persistent character improvement into their multiplayer modes,
but which was still fresh and rare at the time. It goes in on both
better than most games, having real depth in the choices it gives the
player rather than just paying lip service with a simple leveling up
system, and having better shooting than most games that have that kind
of focus like Fallout 3 do, taking when it was released into
account. The series is all about letting the player decide how to react
or approach a situation, giving them multiple viable options and
allowing them to decide which is the most interesting at the time.

The
first mission of the original game is a perfect encapsulation of this.
The player is dropped onto Liberty Island with a weapon of their choice,
and tasked with a simple objective. There’s no arrows pointing you
where to go, you just experiment and try things until you make your way
inside a facility and do what you came for. You can sneak past guards,
take them on directly with heavy firepower, reprogram computerized
security or use hidden vents to sneak past it, anything you can figure
out how to do within the level, you can do. Later the game adds more
interaction with NPCs and optional goals, further increasing the variety
of gameplay possibilities. It’s the perfect combination of freedom of
approach and directness of design that most other games fail to balance.

In Deus Ex,
you play as JC Denton, an operative equipped with nano-technological
augmentations for UNATCO, a United Nations-funded force created to
combat the increasing terrorist threat the world faces in the 2050s. A
disease known as the Gray Death is ravaging the planet, and only
Ambrosia, created by VersaLife, can treat it. Fighting against the NSF, a
group that has been stealing Ambrosia shipments, JC learns that the
disease is manufactured, and UNATCO is intentionally keeping the cure in
short supply. JC eventually defects to help his brother, and gets
caught up in a complicated conspiracy involving everything from the
Illuminati to Area 51. He eventually is given a choice of who to assist
in order to defeat the man behind the disease among those who have
helped him; a hacker who saved JC from being killed by his own
enhancements, the leader of the Illuminati, or an AI that has been
communicating with him from afar. He can choose to destroy global
communications and prevent anyone from controlling everything, allow the
Illuminati to manipulate future events, or merge with the AI to rule
using absolute logic and reason.

Deus Ex: Invisible War

The second game, Deus Ex: Invisible War,
was not received as positively as the first, and in fact was reviled by
many as a complete bastardization of what made the first game good. I
don’t think it was quite that bad, but it made a number of decisions
to pare down and streamline the experience, which was counter to the
level of detail that made the first game exciting in the first place.
Augmentations and skills received less focus, weapons all shared ammo,
and the inventory was greatly simplified. It also bizarrely tried to
combine the three distinct endings of the first game, resulting in kind
of a messy backstory. The game takes place twenty years later, as the
authority from before has collapsed and several different interrelated
organizations have taken power. Rather than a central villain, the
different factions are all constantly fighting, and you can help or
hinder them as you’re given opportunities to do so. You play as Alex D,
an augmented trainee of Tarsus who is thrust into the conflict when the
facility he (or she) lives in is destroyed in an attack on Chicago. Alex
uncovers the truth behind all of the organizations he interacts with,
and eventually learns that he is the clone of JC Denton. The game ends
with another choice for the player on who will rule the planet;
ApostleCorp, the Illumnati, the Knights Templar, or the Omar.

That
game was kind of a mess, and wisely Eidos is avoiding a similar
headache trying to follow up the plot by tracking back a bit and setting
Human Revolution 25 years before the first game, expanding on how the
world gets from where it is now to where it is then. It creates the odd
situation of implying that in only 16 years technology will have
advanced as far as it appears in the game, though they’ve done a good
job of making at least some of it appear plausible. A lot of it is just
extending the functionality of the kinds of prostheses that are
available now, and doesn’t seem to get too far into the nanotechnology
that is still a ways off. I’ve only played a few hours of the game, but
it appears to maybe be the successor to the original that Invisible War
should have been, and a review should be up on the site some time soon.
If you don’t know whether to play it yet, the first two games are
readily available on multiple platforms and downloadable for cheap on
Steam. The first is a bit arcane a decade later but still a classic, and
the second is flawed but possibly worth a look as well.

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