Deus Ex: A Satirical Troll Retrospective

What can be said about Deus Ex? I mean do I really need to do a retro review of Deus Ex? That would be like doing a retro movie review of Scarface or Jaws. It’s just one of those classics that needs no introduction, going as far to be named PC Gamer’s greatest PC game of all time thrice. But, I’m in the mood to talk about some retro games so what better than to talk about one of my favorite games of all-time? Plus, we can pose the question of does Deus Ex hold up under modern standards?

In 1996, John Romero broke off from ID Software to form his own development company, Ion Storm, which split into two branches. Ion Storm Dallas was pulled into John Romero’s Icarus flight to the sun, blowing money on penthouse offices, expensive company cars and taking out full page magazine ads claiming that John Romero would make us female dogs and to “suck it down” releasing the infamous failure Daikatana in 2000. Meanwhile, Ion Storm Austin, clearly getting everybody in the company with humility and realistic time management skills, released an instant classic in Deus Ex the same year.

There’s the old internet joke that every time Deus Ex is mentioned, somebody reinstalls it, and that’s why millions of people are no doubt intimately familiar with the first level of the game because they redownload it and think “Huh, I don’t remember the game looking and playing quite this much like complete ass cheeks” before giving up. Yeah, we might as well get this out of the way now, the game has a lot of age-related quirks that are frankly hard to ignore. It’s not one of those games that’s just aged poorly, no, it looked like complete ass even by the standards of the time it released. The levels all look like blocky cement hellscapes, there’s only like 5-character models, and if your reticle didn’t change colors when targeting enemies vs allies, you’d never in a million years be able to tell which is which. On top of this, the game is extremely poorly optimized and runs like complete garbage in some areas, even on modern computers and all it takes to completely break the engine is stacking a few boxes on top of each other. We did get the free Revision update a few years ago which is a compilation of fan mods that greatly enhances the visuals and fixes a few of the performance issues. The levels don’t all look the same any more, and while it still looks like trash, at least it looks like shiny, high-res trash.

On top of this, the core gameplay isn’t the best by today’s standards. Most of the guns have zero weight and feel to them, especially the stealth pistol which feels like shooting spit balls out of a slightly crooked straw. The shooting mechanics are very lackluster even for the time of release, and there’s a high chance you miss even if your targeting reticle is dead in the middle of their body. Plus, the tranquilizer dart just makes them run around screaming like an idiot for 20 seconds before collapsing, so that’s hardly a stealth weapon. It’s also the kind of game where you basically have to save scum every 3 minutes because otherwise, you’re at risk of getting absolutely annihilated in open combat the second one enemy sees you.

“Satirical, are you sure you like this game? You just spent an entire two paragraphs trashing it.” Here’s the thing, despite all its issues when examined under the lens of modern gaming sensibilities, Deus Ex remains an amazing experience. It has an insane amount of depth both in story telling and gameplay. It’s a roleplaying game AND a shooter, not a shooter with RPG elements, and you can tell because you suck at anything you haven’t put any points into, you’re not just modifying your damage by a small percent. It’s like other games of the era such as Thief or System Shock 2 in that regard, except Deus Ex is actually balanced. It’s not like System Shock 2 where you have to have certain abilities to get past particular areas of the game. Deus Ex does an almost admirable job of catering to every possible playstyle. Most of the levels are very open-ended areas in the mold of Goldeneye, but there’s always some way to navigate them with any playstyle, whether it’s climbing through vents or finding sewer tunnels under the map, you can always find a creative way to solve a problem, and the game allows that through organic trial and error. I also love the inventory and health systems. It tracks each limbs health individually, meaning you can be reduced to rolling around with no legs, and it’s hilarious and tense trying to survive with no ability to move faster than a crawl, and the inventory is intuitive and a precursor to RE4’s massively popular system. You’re constantly allowed to experiment with the game systems and the way they interact with the game environment and it just feels really great to solve a problem of your own volition, even if it isn’t the intended way.

While the gameplay is plenty of fun, the story is what makes Deus Ex such a memorable experience. The game starts with you filling in your character’s name like many RPGs, but the game is kind of lying to you because the character you play as is always called JC Denton. Well, your chosen name comes up in emails and audio files, but if you can be bothered to read all that bullshit, you’re a stronger person than I. The story is that you are JC Denton, an agent for UNATCO, an international peacekeeping organization fighting the NSF, a terrorist group fighting for the supposed rights of the working class. This is just the overarching conflict, eventually your brother who also works for UNATCO defects and it sets off a chain of events that leads to a ton of great plot twists involving government conspiracy which I won’t spoil.

One aspect that really puts Deus Ex over the top for me is how your choices are so organic, and don’t seem forced or like there’s a binary choice system. The best example of this is the third level which has you tracking down a terrorist leader. At the end of the level, you meet with the terrorist and have a choice. Follow protocol, leaving him alive to face interrogation, follow orders from a senator to shoot him on sight, or you can kill the named NPC that ends up killing the terrorist later on. What I love about this is how you wouldn’t even know you can change the outcome of the game in a major way, and the game just lets you figure that out for yourself. It shows why games can’t be made the same way now because you know there’d be an executive wondering why you’d be able to completely miss something they spent millions of dollars of development money on so easily. In addition, the side content is nearly indistinguishable from the main objectives because it blends so seamlessly into the world. On top of all this, the soundtrack is awesome and has several remixes of tracks based on what path the story takes.

Deus Ex sadly never took off as a franchise. The sequel, Invisible War, was a massively panned disappointment that dumbed down both the story and gameplay too much. Human Revolution was a good modern take on the franchise, but it was held back by binary moral choice and pre-animated take downs, which are two things that grow on modern games like inoperable cancers. And Mankind Divided… More like content divided. Where the Square Enix prequels drop the ball the most is turning the complex themes of the original into a clunky “augmented people are black people” racism analog which is something in Sci-fi and cyberpunk that grinds my gears like nothing else. How could a narrative about a worldwide pandemic being used as cover for insidious population control orchestrated by political dark money and shadow organizations who wish to widen the societal gap between the poor and the wealthy ever be relevant to a modern audience? The IP was just bought by Embracer Group, and it will be interesting to see where they take it in the future.

Deus Ex remains an all-time great of the CRPG genre, and is still widely considered a classic to this day. The fact that the game and its story is so good that it can overcome the frankly massive age-related issues just proves that it deserves to stand up with some of the best games ever made. Yes, the recommendation comes with an asterisk, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find a deeper RPG with the atmosphere and story that Deus Ex provides.