Friday, March 20, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Deus Ex by Ion Storm








Dossier: Ion Storm. Deus Ex (2000)

Filetype: Video Game.

File Under: Cyberpunk Derivative

Executive Summary: J.C. Denton is a newly trained United Nations Anti-Terrorism Coalition (UNATCO) agent. He is tasked with retrieving a stolen shipment of the ‘Ambrosia’ vaccine, the cure for the Gray Death, from National Secessionist Forces (NSF). However, J.C. learns that the Gray Death is a man made virus, and someone is controlling Ambrosia shipments to shape world governments. This is only the tip of the conspiracy as J.C. travels around the world to find who is pulling the strings.

High-Tech: J.C. is one of the first nano augmented people in the world. His body is full of nanites that give him superhuman strength, regenerating health, the ability to see in the dark, and cloak, among other augmentations that make J.C. more than human. J.C., however, is preceded by a whole class of people who were mechanically augmented, like your typical cyborg. Still superhuman, but not the future that J.C. represents.

Computer hacking is also a big part of Deus Ex. Though gameplay, J.C. gains experience that he can put towards his hacking skills. There’s no minigame involved, but hacking can be augmented with items such as ICE Breakers, and often reveal story elements as well as useful information such as lock codes.

Sentient artificial intelligences also figure heavily in Deus Ex. Some are allies of J.C. and aid him throughout the game, and others are not. These AI have their own motivations and goals in the context of the game.

Low-Life: The common person in Deus Ex lives in fear of the Gray Death. It leads to a short, painful death as the victim’s body is consumed by the virus. The distribution of Ambrosia is controlled by FEMA and it is a temporary cure. Without a steady supply, the infected can expect to die shortly after it runs out. This makes anyone without a stable source extremely susceptible to control by forces that can interrupt the flow of Ambrosia.

Dark Times: Deus Ex is dense with social conflict. The most obvious is that which is dictated by the Ambrosia vaccine; the haves versus the have nots. The wealthy and those in power seem to have no problem getting a hold of the Ambrosia vaccine, but the poor suffer and die on the streets from Gray Death. This is largely what leads the NSF to steal the vaccine shipments, though not their only motivation. Then there is conflict between the nano-augmented (J.C. and his brother Paul) against the mechanically augmented. Recognizing the nano-augmentation is more operationally flexible and less physically obvious, the mechanically augmented feel like their future is limited. The AIs in the game are also an oppressed class, controlled by their creators but yearning for freedom.

Above all of this, the shadow organizations that seek to control the world are winning. The world governments are still there, but more or less helpless against the power of extragovernmental agencies that exert their control.

Legacy: Deus Ex was a big deal when it came out. It was Ion Storm’s biggest success and won many ‘game of the year’ awards for combining first person action, huge levels with an enormous array of options to complete them, RPGlike progression and a narrative far deeper than most video games, even today. It’s arguably one of the best video games ever made.

In Retrospect: Believe it or not, I finished Deus Ex for the first time not that long ago. I’ve owned it since 2000, but it was too much for me back then. As you might be able to tell, there is a lot to Deus Ex and it’s almost overwhelming. The first level alone allows for so many options and very little direction that it is often a huge turn-off for most people who expect to be spoonfed the gameplay systems slowly until the training wheels come off. There are no training wheels in Deus Ex.

Even if you get past the first level of the game, there is so much going on in the background and the foreground of the game, that it’s easy for completionists (as I’m sometimes compelled to be) to get frustrated. You have to learn to accept that you’re not going to read every line of dialog, open every door, hack every computer, or solve every mystery on your first time through Deus Ex. When I first bought Deus Ex, I was not ready for that game.

However, as I grew older, I came to accept some of my completionist tendencies didn’t need to be satisfied, and I just sat down and played the game. It is an extremely rewarding experience. Play the game however you like, and Deus Ex will probably accommodate you. Are you stealthy? You can play it that way. Do you like to shoot everyone? You can play it that way. Do you want to spend a lot of time underwater or in environmental suits? It kind of works!

This same manner of engagement applies to the story and lore of the game. There is a lot of it, hidden in books, encrypted on hard drives, stored on datapads, and these things are littered all over the levels. It’s a game that relishes in secrets and rewards those who seek them out.

The game does suffer a bit technically. It’s early Unreal engine, and it shows. The game has never been a looker, but you can improve it with a user made renderer that brings some newer Unreal engine improvements. It probably still runs fine without them, but they do improve the experience.

All told, there is a lot of things that other games have copied from Deus Ex, and many of them have done them better, but the number of games that succeed at doing so much is extremely small. Though successes in their own ways, not even the sequels to Deus Ex come close to its scope. In an industry that thrives on iterating to increasing improvements, it is as close as video games gets to a timeless classic.

 

Analytics

For its time: 5/5
Read/watched/played today: 5/5
Cybercoefficient: 10/10

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