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Is Deus Ex Still The Best Game Ever?
Part One: Memories And Hardware Renderers

Deus Existential Crisis

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When asked, “What is the best game ever?” I always give one reply. “Deus Ex.” Back in the days when my passport still allowed me into PC Gamer Top 100 meetings, I would furiously argue that it should be no. 1, and indeed become furious whenever it did not. While I may pick another name if asked for my favourite game, when it comes to “best”, I always say Looking Glass/Ion Storm’s greatest moment.

But what if I’m wrong?

I mean, when last did I play it? Deus Ex came out 15 years ago this year, and I’ve certainly reinstalled it and gone back in a number of times over that decade and a half. But all the way through? Honestly, maybe I’ve only done that the once.

It feels like so much more often, because I’ve talked about it so damned frequently. From the hour-long phone calls with Kieron back in 2000, when he was my reviews editor, a man I’d yet to actually meet, to those angry Top 100 meetings, to the other day when a friend came around for dinner. I’ve talked about those magical moments of realising someone else played the same game but had a completely unique experience of it. I’ve recalled the kid in a youth group I ran at the time, who was furious that he was forced to flip to the National Seccessionist Forces when his morality aligned squarely with UNATCO. And the many arguments we had after that. I’ve played the sequels, enjoyed them, but been certain they weren’t a patch on the original. But what it seems I haven’t done is sit down and play it from start to finish since it first came out.

So I’m going to do that. And I’ll write up my experience as it goes along, and I’ll be honest with myself, and with you, as I go. I feel like it’s a game that will hold up. I feel like if it doesn’t, it’s going to be weirdly personal.

When Deus Ex came out, I was 22. I was also pretty ignorant about a lot of things. Two things especially: philosophy and politics. Schooling in the 80s and 90s had never tried to teach me either, and I’d not caught up. And then along came this game that was bursting with both, presenting multiple perspectives on multiple matters, both argued by conflicting characters, and indeed in the reams of books, newspapers and electronic notes you find throughout the game. Where usually such narrative detritus attempts to add “flavour” to a game’s world, in Deus Ex they were like teaching materials. Micro essays, wonderfully written. Bite-sized pieces of brand new information, pouring into my brain.

I’m actually a bit afraid to go back in, as a still pretty ignorant 37-year-old, to see whether this content holds up. Does it really offer the dazzling array of views and information that early-20s me was so entranced by? Or was I flattering myself?

If Deus Ex isn’t as great as I remember, maybe I’m less of a person with it?

But before any of that, I’ve got to get it working.

The years have not been kind to Deus Ex. No, not the clunky graphics or obtuse interface – they weren’t kind to Deus Ex on launch. It’s the technological years.

My plan was to play Deus Ex as it was launched, vanilla. It doesn’t seem fair to question whether Deus Ex is still really the best game of all time if I don’t play it as it was intended by its developers. The most recent official release was the Game Of The Year Edition, on 8th May 2001. So that’s the version I wanted to go with. It’s also a version that could barely run.

A common issue running DX on modern machines is the dialogue cutting off mid-sentence in cutscenes. That was certainly happening, the game seemingly trying to run itself five times too fast. It was also refusing to run in fullscreen, and would only load in far-too-small square windows. Not really amenable to playing. The OpenGL version was essentially dead, and the Direct3D option was messing with the resolutions. The cure for all this, it seems, is updating the hardware renderers. And the only way to do that is to start fiddling with mods and launchers.

So there went the vanilla plan. I got hold of Kentie’s wonderfully named Deus Exe, which immediately adds a collection of options for resolutions, renderers and rescaling the UI to suit larger displays. It’ll also let you meddle with field of view, and run the game on a single core if that’s causing issues. But, even with this running, I was still seeing the dialogue skip. Unless I switched down to the absolutely crummy software modes, and that was too much to bear. So I ended up going deeper.

I got 2012’s New Vision mod by Dave Watts. This was far farther than I had intended, entirely redrawing the game’s textures. But it also integrates with Deus Exe, and updates it to run Direct3D 10, which in turn fixes the resolution issues, lets it run at my enormous native desktop scale, gets rid of the dialogue problems, and – yes – makes what was always an ugly game a little bit less ugly.

So, okay, I’m no longer playing the original version. But, importantly, these are only aesthetic fixes. While there are many mods out there that will fix bugs, rebalance levels, change weapons, and so on, I’m not going to touch any of them. And thank goodness the hugely ambitious Revision mod is still delayed a year after being about to be released, because that might be too much temptation to bear.

But it works. It still looks like the mad-old tangle of the Unreal Engine it always was, but slightly smoother. Now to climb the Statue Of Liberty once more.

Part two coming soon. Obviously.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and general hero of humanity.

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