Deus Ex is a blend of egoshooter, stealth game, and RPG, set in a grim Cyberpunk future. Mysterious groups are vying for power through the use of obscure technologies, including the mechanical and biological "augmentation" of their agents. The player slips into the role of JC Denton, a new agent in the UN security forces, who have been called into the US to help dealing with a dangerous plague and a secessionist movement. In the course of the game, a complex network of competing conspiracies is unveiled, which forces Denton to make a difficult decision at the end.
Gameplay consists to a large degree of infiltrating enemy installations, and exploring urban areas. The maps are fairly large and very cleverly designed - they are full of secret areas to explore, and they usually offer different paths to a goal, which concur to the different ways of developing Denton's skills. The interaction between the level design and Denton's skills is, along with the detailed setting, one of the game's main strengths.
Denton can be trained in various types of weapons (from knives to rocket launchers), as well as stealth techniques like lockpicking, electronics, or computer hacking. Skill advances are "paid" for with experience points, which you earn for completing objectives, discovering secrets, and killing or disabling enemies.
A second tier of character progression is the augmentation system. You'll find cyberware which you can fit to ten slots on your body, and which can be upgraded later. Each item offers two augmentations, but you have to choose one. A wide range of augmentations is available, from simple buffs that let you jump higher, or endure more bullet hits, to nifty tools like a spy drone, with which you can explore areas and disrupt security systems. A third tier of progression is hidden in the equipment system: You can continually upgrade your weapons.
Deus Ex allows for several different character builds: You can play as a rocket-launching tank, as a sniper, as a melee assassin, etc.. The game forces you to make choices on the way: You cannot gain enough experience to train every skill, you cannot apply every augmentation, and your inventory space limits the number of different weapons you can carry. This enhances the replay value of the game, even though it may be a bit too generous in giving out experience and augmentations.
Despite the RPG elements, Deus Ex still remains an action game. The writing is mostly adequate, but nothing special. You can talk to NPCs, but dialogue choices are rare, you cannot even choose a topic to talk about. The game does, however, pick up your actions and works these into the dialogue later - for example, if you disturb a co-worker in the ladies' bathroom, then your boss will address this later on when you talk to him. On a grander scale, NPCs can die at various points, depending on your actions, and this will influence scenes later on. However, you cannot change the main plot and its events.
The story itself is complex, has several surprises, and draws heavily on common conspiracy memes. Fans of cyberpunk settings and conspiracy thrillers should feel right at home.
Deus Ex was developed in 2000 for the Unreal 1 engine. Compared to today's standards, the models are very crude, and the textures blurry. Animations were good for their time, but look slightly wooden today, often because the models simply don't provide enough joints. JC Denton cannot even make a hand gesture, because his hand is just a fixed extension of his lower arm, and his fingers are simply textures on a solid plain. The faces cannot express any form of emotion either.
The game's environment is rather blocky, straight lines and rectangular shapes dominate the view. Thankfully, this goes well with its urban/technological setting.
The Unreal engine allows for open spaces (like plazas, or large halls). On modern systems, there is no limit to view distance, and with binoculars and weapon scopes you can look very far (which allows efficient sniping). The engine also features mirrors and monitors (i.e., you can watch what happens at another place in the current map). The view is locked in first person mode, you only see Denton during cutscenes, which usually feature dialogue.
The game's sound effects are acceptable for a game of this age, but very repetitive. The music is varied, in tone as well as in quality, and usually succeeds in setting the mood without becoming annoying.
The voice acting is cringeworthy in large parts of the game, especially when actors try to fake foreign accents (and fail). These were probably meant to enhance the atmosphere in places like Hongkong or Paris, but they have been faked and overdone so much that they achieve the opposite - if the game wasn't so serious and mature in many other ways, they would make it sound like a parody. That said, the voice acting for the American main characters doesn't suffer from this problem, and is professionally done, if a bit drab.
The voice actors apparently didn't see the full script, so sometimes the lines are spoken in a way that doesn't fit the flow of the conversation. This is especially unfortunate when the characters try to discuss ethical or philosophical positions - their lines sound like a student's replies in an exam, not like an actual conversation. Granted, the writing of these parts resembles textbook passages already.
Deus Ex can be played very efficiently with mouse and keyboard. Each weapon and each augmentation has its own customizable key. Items can be dragged in the inventory with the mouse.
You can revisit past conversations, and re-read important background info you found. This feature comes in handy, since the amount of different characters (and their relations) can be confusing if you don't pay attention to them.
The interface looks a bit drab, but doesn't get in way. There are mods to adapt its size, and to smoothen the font, which looks pixelated on modern systems.
EASE OF USE:
GamersGate currently sells this game without the manual. Fortunately I found one at replacementdocs.com.
You can save and reload at any time.
OTHER THINGS OF NOTE:
Deus Ex is quite long for an action game. While the story does feel padded at times (sometimes, a new enemy you never heard of before is introduced just so you can have an end battle in the map), I found that very enjoyable.
GamersGate's distribution is patched to the latest version (1.112fm). Unfortunately, it also comes with SecuRom DRM, which kept asking me for a CD. I had to manually edit an ini file to make the game work. This may have changed after an update to the distribution, but I don't understand why the game is sold with potentially troublesome DRM still attached to it 12 years after its release.
The game offers replay value for 2-4 playthroughs, through exploring different character builds and discovering secrets previously missed. Fans have also created mods with altered storylines, or with a completely different story altogether.
Recommended mods are Kentie's Launcher (mod manager, DirectX 10 support), New Vision (improved graphics), and possibly Shifter (gameplay fixes) and Deus Ex Enhanced 2.0.0 (font smoothing, graphics fixes).
Deus Ex deserves its place as a classic, and although its presentation shows its age, the gameplay still holds together very well. With better writing (which doesn't age as fast), it would still be worth 5 stars.
Review Date: 12/Jun/2012
Program version: 1.112fm
Progress: one complete, very thorough playthrough (exploring alternatives), 80+ hours playtime