Storyline, plots, characters and more storyline. Developers and press alike are really pushing these areas to become the biggest thing in modern computer games; well there really should be a reason why you just decapitated some gun toting redneck. Games like Goldeneye 007 and Metal Gear Solid really started to kick things off and now Deus Ex, a first person role-playing adventure game from Ion Storm's Austin code shop, has hit the scene with more characters, plots and twists than all the current releases put together. Okay, so I quietly slipped in 'Ion Storm' there but I assure you this is nothing like Daikatana.
Set sometime in the future, you play the part of a global police organisation UNATCO agent named J.C. Denton. UNATCO is a key government agency in the forefront of defending the world against terrorists who operate openly, killing thousands and where drugs, disease and pollution kill even more innocents. A 'Grey Death' viral epidemic is sweeping the globe and Ambrosia, the only cure, is the hottest commodity around with the ability to shift the balance of power. As part of UNATCO you are whisked around the globe to locations like Statue of Liberty island and the urban sprawl of New York to the congested streets of Hong Kong, uncovering an epic conspiracy straight out of the X-Files. Previous iterations of UNATCO troops were physically improved with mechanical 'augmentations' or 'add-ons', but JC and his brother Paul are the first of a new type of agent augmented with nanotechnology. These upgrades are internal and invisible to the naked eye, and JC has these tiny devices throughout his body and, with the right firmware, they can be programmed to perform specific functions.
Deus Ex is a real 'genre-blender' of a game and as the main designer Warren Spector (of System Shock fame) put it "We just wanted to make a game that didn't railroad players into guessing what the designers wanted them to do minute-to-minute. That pretty much dictated that we'd have real-time action, skill use and conversation - and that right there pushed us into the "uncategorisable" category. More to the point, it means some people look at Deus Ex and see a shooter, others see a role-playing game and still others see an adventure game. In the end, they're all right." The game really concentrates on character development, split into two areas. Firstly you are given skill points for reaching certain areas of each level and completing parts of mission goals. As these build up you can choose to spend them on training different skills such as computer hacking, lock picking and weapons handling. The results of training vary from being able to hack computers faster, use less lock picks to get by security door or increase you accuracy and reload time for certain guns. Secondly throughout the game you will find Nanotech Augmentation Canisters, which can then be installed by a Medical Robot. You must choose which are of you body to insert these canisters and therefore whether to improve you strength or speed etc. depending on which body part you select. If you take away all the padding these two systems break down into the usual RPG fare of 'stats' and 'skills' and therefore choosing which skills and stats to invest decides how you play the game. Put all your skills into weapons training and you are going to go for full confrontation. Put them into hacking and lock picking skills and you will be sneaking around, trying to avoid confrontation.
Another area of Deus Ex, which particularly helps this skill system, is the level design. You can really see that the designers have thought each level through and balanced them for all the different skill types. There are just so many different ways to complete each primary goal and you know what that spells - longevity! Replay the game focusing on different skills and you will immediately find new ways of doing things, and there are always new subplots to find out even more information on your character and world he lives in.
The sound effects are a big part of this game; footsteps tell you where enemies are located and get loader as they come towards you (very important if you are playing as a assassin / sniper / hacker) and enemy conversations give you story clues, tell you more about their current situation and more importantly their current feelings, i.e. whether they have spotted you, whether they have stop looking for you or whether they have just collapsed from the effects of tranquiliser gun. The hundreds of lines of dialogue and in-game cut scenes are, for a game, fairly well executed. No shocking 'Resident Evil style' acting. As for the music I found myself turning this down to concentrate on the more important in-game sounds but it seemed fairly good; the usual booming orchestral score.
Based on the now fairly ancient Unreal engine the graphical flare of Deus Ex is a slight let down. The engine has been heavily updated for the RPG environment with support for a sophisticated inventory, skill and augmentation systems, blended animations, real-time lip syncing, advanced AI, a powerful conversation system, a travelling flag system to save the game state between maps, and countless other improvements. But despite all these the frame rate issues on mid to low spec systems are still there and very much evident. The test system was a Celeron 533 with Voodoo2 SLI and the frame rate really started to drop when fighting several enemies at once or the level of detail increased. And even though Deus Ex is set in 'bladerunner-esque' environments the textures, objects and skin designs are too dark and dull. The game falls short of its competitors such as Soldier of Fortune (itself only based on the Quake 2 engine) and Quake 3 Arena, to name a few.
However its graphical capabilities rarely hamper the gaming experience. The inventory, skill and augmentation systems are especially well implemented, storing all conversations, notes, mission goals and giving detailed item descriptions which when coupled with the simple training mission helps immeasurably to get sucked into the game. This potent mixture of l33t skills, an in-depth story, and excellent level design really does complete an excellent futuristic RPG. If you like games that really make you think, like Metal Gear Solid or even Commandos (be it from a different view point), then Deus Ex will definately be for you. A FPS attitude can be taken with this game but be prepared to miss out on the meandering story line, film noire atmosphere and die a lot!
N.B. Just to clear this up for you: Deus Ex is Latin, translated from Greek, meaning 'A person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.' Plus it sounds pretty cool and everyone has a real problem with pronunciation :)