Ion Storm was a developer with a very strange list of games in their repertoire. To think that one studio could put out both Daikatana and Deus Ex in the same year, mere months apart, is strange to say the least. Daikatana, as explored in our Looking Back piece, was plain terrible. Deus Ex meanwhile was a revolutionary game that’s not only culturally significant but downright excellent. And best of all? It’s still a blast to play to this day.
Set in a dystopian cyberpunk world in the year of 2052, Deus Ex sees you control JC Denton, an agent at UNATCO (United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition). You are cybernetically enhanced, with unique abilities; abilities that are needed to traverse the hostile world. Real-life conspiracy theories based around FEMA, Area 51, Echelon and more are true and change the way you interact with the world. Deus Ex’s plot centres on a physical and ideological split between the rich and poor as “The Gray Death” ravages the population. The vaccine for it is suspiciously scarce, only going to “important” members of society – you are tasked with retrieving it from terrorist organizations. The story starts complex and just builds from there, wrapping and twisting around its central narrative. This all being said, you are better off going into Deus Ex with nothing and just letting the story confuse and surprise you.
Naturally enough, its research and authenticity in representing conspiracy theories have landed it into some of its own. For instance, when you are sent into missions in Liberty City, New York can be seen in the background. As this game was released in 2000, there is a suspicious lack of the World Trade Centre. The in-game reason was that it was taken out in an act of terroristic violence. So far, so conspiracy theory. This was not a prediction and instead an unfortunate coincidence of limited hardware as there was not enough memory to justify it. The theory was made based on that limitation.
In a sense, Deus Ex is a game made from limitations. It had a huge scope to it and a multitude of ideas, but still managed to deliver a cohesive idea. It’s built on the ideas made by immersive sims of previous years in interesting ways, but then it still felt a little ahead of its time. This is something that can be seen from its memory constraints to its unusual control scheme. The immersive sim is an infamously challenging genre to create as it requires tons of options to be available to the player that they might not even realise they have. It often works like a playground of sorts, allowing you to test and bend its rules to fit your playstyle. Nothing emphasises this greater than the mix of RPG and immersive sim Deus Ex offers.
As you accomplish achievements and complete feats, you are rewarded with skill points. These don’t only affect your combat abilities to shape your build – they invade every facet of your life from your computer skills to your swimming skills. This inherently changes the way you approach each scenario. Would you prefer to crawl through a vent or hack the security? Should you take out the guards or swim to safety? This is where the idea of an immersive sim is made clear. Player choice is a priority above all else and, whilst it occasionally makes the game less balanced, analysing each different way you could tackle a scenario is endlessly interesting.
The combat further cements this point. Upgrading your gun skills naturally makes your shots much better but prioritising your medicine and others can lead to a much tankier build. This combat was only made more interesting with Deus Ex’s music. The use of ambient sounds, techno, and jazz come together to make an eclectic yet vibrant mix of tracks. The pulsating existence of this cyberpunk world is encompassed well in the hive of strange and unique styles. Whilst the visuals are a bit outdated now – after all, this was released way back in 2000 – the music is great, the story so unique and its immersive sim gameplay is award-worthy.
20 years after its initial release, the legacy of Deus Ex is clear from 2017’s fantastic Prey, Arkane’s upcoming “Death Loop” and perhaps my most anticipated title ever, CyberPunk 2077. If you have the chance to give it a go, you absolutely owe it yourself to try it.