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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.
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.
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.