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You will soon have your god, and you will make it with your own hands.

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This started out as a nostalgic look back at Deus Ex and why, for me, it’s the greatest game I’ve ever played. But with more details of Eidos Montreal’s prequel Human Revolution coming out of E3 recently, it’s evolved into something else. Now it’s more a comparison of all three Deus Ex games: what the first did right, what the second did wrong, and how the third might be doing a bit of both.

Ten years later is a good time to look back. It’s all the more appropriate with Human Revolution due for release before long — especially since Deus Ex fans are apprehensive about whether it’ll stay true to the series (by which they mean Deus Ex 1, but more on the sequel later).

Deus Ex was an important game, that was obvious right away. Even before its release it was much hyped in the games media. It was a Warren Spector game with a rich heritage. For people familiar with the Ultima games of the early 90s in particular, there were expectations, and for good reason; Deus Ex has an impressive pedigree. It’s often considered a member of the same family of important titles like Ultima, System Shock and Thief.

It’s been ten years, and it’s difficult to gauge just how significant Deus Ex’s contribution to the medium has been. It’s strange that a game considered a classic and widely praised didn’t spawn a flood of clones. Nothing has followed directly in its footsteps besides its own sequel, and in fact there are some characteristics of Deus Ex that modern games seem to shun. But it’s probably fair to suggest it contributed to the ongoing maturation of the industry. Its near future setting allowed it to deal with real political issues, not just philosophical ones, and Deus Ex’s accessible first person gameplay opened it to a potentially large audience. Its commercial success might have helped pave the way for BioShock years later, and the melding of shooter and RPG is increasingly common now as a method for character advancement. It’s been a significant game in the history of the medium, and arrived at an appropriate time: a game for a new millennium.

My own relationship with Deus Ex has been long and personally important. I didn’t follow the industry closely in those days and didn’t know which games were considered noteworthy. So I hadn’t played the Ultimas, hadn’t played System Shock in 1994, Thief in 98, or System Shock 2 in 99. Deus Ex was my first introduction to this family, and immediately it was something special. I remember it keenly. The first mission, the game loads and places you on a dock on Liberty Island. The sound of the sea, the wind, birds, the boat’s engine idling on the calm water behind; the music evoking just the right mix of suspense and adventure; a dark mood, pale clouds lit from beneath by the city of New York across the bay; and rising above a short distance away, the decapitated statue of Lady Liberty. It was a density of atmosphere I’d never experienced before, and I knew things had changed before I’d taken a step. That was the moment I realised a potential of games I’d never considered.

The start of a great adventure.

Following its release it was immediately praised. The combination of action, adventure and RPG came together to form something new and compelling. It was, in fact, difficult to describe. It puzzled the occasional checklist reviewer who marked it down a little because, well, the graphics were a bit dated. Or the voiceacting was a bit weak. The shooting gameplay was clunky. All true. The graphics were less impressive than other recent releases, character models were generally ugly, the shooter gameplay wasn’t as fluid as Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament, stealth wasn’t as involved or nuanced as Thief.

A lot of the recent previews of Deus Ex: Human Revolution based on the E3 presentation are frustrating for the way they speak about Deus Ex ten years on. Previewers are quick to defend any changes in DX:HR by arguing that, well, Deus Ex was actually really rough and messy now that we think about it. The technology was dated even then, there was a lot that could be ‘fixed’. That’s true. It’s also not the point.

Fortunately at least one DX:HR developer understands that. PC Gamer suggested to art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletete that Deus Ex’s artistic message was inconsistent because greasels and karkians didn’t seem to fit into the world, to which he responded:

Yeah, yeah. But hey, it worked. It totally worked.

Smart man, him. That’s the point that needs to be made: Deus Ex worked. Its ‘flaws’ are meaningless. It’s gone beyond the point of criticising any single part of it as weak or messy. Not even the sum of its parts any more, it is simply Deus Ex. That’s why any changes to the game in sequels or prequels are always dangerous: the moment you change something, even to make it better, it becomes a little bit less Deus Ex and a little bit more Something Else. It’s also why defending changes in the prequel by using the rationale that, hey, Deus Ex wasn’t perfect you know, misses the point entirely. We went through that with Invisible War, we’re going through it again now.

It’s a conundrum for all concerned: everyone wants the ideal followup to a classic game, but how can that ever be possible when every change necessarily makes it something different? The ideal Deus Ex is only ever a dream, the ideal sequel never possible. Not back then, not now. There are some characteristics of Deus Ex that help explain its longevity, however, and which any followup should keep in mind. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by John Pike

23 June 2010 at 11:44 pm