Is Deus Ex Still The Best Game Ever?
Part Four: Fratricide, Gratified And Dissatisfied

And so continues my chronicle of returning to Deus Ex fifteen years later, to see if I’m right when I tell anyone who comes near that it’s the best game ever. You can read the whole saga here.

In this fourth edition, I once more fail to save my brother, become increasingly frustrated with the limits of the game’s intelligence, and ponder whether real choice is actually usefully conveyed to the player.

I didn’t save Paul.

Okay, I’ve been resisting writing this yet again, for fear of the groans of re-re-re-sharing an anecdote I’ve told probably more than any other, but I need to, for context. It was the time I talked on the phone to Kieron Gillen about Deus Ex for about an hour.

I was a freelancer for PC Gamer based in Guildford, he was a voice on the phone I’d never met, but seen many pictures of in the pages of PCG. And he was my extremely forgiving editor. We were talking about Deus Ex, having both finished it, and enthusing about our favourite moments. I mentioned, off-hand, how disappointed I was that JC’s brother, Paul, died. Kieron stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Paul didn’t die?!” And it dawned on both of us, on a new level, quite what a game we’d just played.

Now, looking back at it, Paul’s living or dying doesn’t have a genuinely major impact on the game. But it does have a major impact on your experience of the game. For Kieron, he was breaking out of UNATCO HQ, meeting Paul in the medical facility along the way. For me, I was breaking out of UNATCO HQ, via the medical facility to collect a chip from Paul’s corpse. For Kieron, he was heading to Hong Kong to help Paul escape his kill switch, and to eventually learn more about his relationship with Maggie Chow. For me, I was heading to Hong Kong to meet Paul’s contacts, to break the news of his death to Chow. We were, in the end, playing the same game, in the same order. But our motivations were dramatically different.

So, of course, this time I was determined to save Paul. I’d lost him when I first played through the game, and I’d never seen the version of events as it plays out with him alongside. In that hotel, I was ready for the big firefight, and I was determined that I would see Paul survive it. Fifteen years ago I’d believed he simply could not – that the attacks from the Men In Black were simply too strong to escape, and all I could do was flee through the window as Paul demanded I do.

Not this time. This time I put LAMs in the doorway. The MiBs were dead before they could utter their lines. Then I filled the lobby with gas bombs, and – accepting that I was now a murderer anyway – killed every last green guard in the building, until Paul was safely alive in the lobby, instructing me to head out and make contact with Tracer Tong. I’d done it! Paul was alive!

Except when I encountered Gunther Hermann in that forced scripted sequence in Hell’s Kitchen, he immediately told me Paul was dead. No, no he’s fine, I assured myself. He’s a-okay, I saw to that. Then others, upon my escape in UNATCO, told me the same. I was sent to the infirmary, and there he was, dead on the slab. How? Why? PAUL!

It turns out, from a spot of research I’ve done since, that it’s because I didn’t go out the hotel’s front doors. I didn’t go that way, because there were squillions more guards that way, and Paul pings out of existence as soon as I go through the doors anyway. It was a daft way to go, when I could escape to the roof, sidle down into an alley, and sneak my way to the subway via the sewers. Sure, I still get caught by Gunther, but what difference could it make?

It turns out, all the difference. And gosh, what a dent in the side of Deus Ex’s polished memories. Much as how I was accused of murder for walking through the wrong door at the start, here I was without a sibling because I’d taken the sensible route out of the hotel once I’d assured Paul’s safe exit. Come on, scripting! How can you not have seen that as a secure route for Paul’s life? Sure, if I’ve left him in a building full of armed lunatics – as I so cowardly did in 2000 – then yes, he’d be dead. But this is stupid.

Sometimes Deus Ex is stupid.

A member of the Chinese military police in Hong Kong accidentally broke a window near the entrance to the Lucky Money club, causing the alarm to sound and all the cops to start shooting at me. I’m pretty certain this wasn’t intended as a satire of the terrifying nature of the Chinese police force, but rather the AI misfiring. And once you’re inside that club, well…

And sometimes it’s really smart. It’s hard to think of another game before or since that has conversations like,

JC: The separation of powers acknowledges the petty ambitions of individuals; that’s its strength.

Barman: A system organized around the weakest individuals will produce these same qualities in its leaders.

JC: Perhaps certain qualities are an inseparable part of human nature.

Barman: The mark of the educated man is the suppression of these qualities in favour of better ones. The same is true of civilization.

JC: I’ll take a drink.

All of the Hong Kong section is such a contrast. As Graham mentioned on Sunday, James Morgan has written eloquently about why the Tonnochi Road section of the game is so extraordinary. Which leaves it to me to point out why it’s also so ordinary.

I think this speaks of so much of my re-experience with DX. A game with so much going on beneath its surface, such a depth of smart ideas, rippling possibilities, and concealed conspiracy. But a game that actually on its surface, over-simplicity, false choices, and some utterly, utterly terrible voice acting.

Morgan talks about the “alluring mystery” of “how deep the layers went”. What I’ve been experiencing is how so often the game is a puddle on a painting of a swimming pool. There is no doubt that the scene with Maggie Chow is superbly done. (With the enormous exception, as Morgan also points out, of how offensively fucking awful is her voice acting.) The maid on the fringe, who will, if you hang out too long, eventually pull a gun. The tug-of-war in your mind as you try to rectify a woman you want to believe in because of your brother’s affections, with someone you’ve heard is deliberately causing Triad wars, and seems supremely dodgy. For me, it was hacking her computer, and seeing the email from Simons that assured me she wasn’t on my side at all. And for me, that such unambiguity was on offer in her apartment rather spoils the moment. No longer is it a case of wondering if Paul had a reason to trust her, but a binary case of realising that she’s a baddie.

But then, keep reading Morgan’s piece and he might as well have been playing a totally different game. He talks about exploring the apartment opposite, following up on Chow’s lead with the police, and then returning to her place for answers. At that point the maid pulls her gun, the doors slide back, and it’s a secret base filled with armed soldiers. He goes through a super-violent fight, and finds the Dragon’s Tooth sword.

Nope.

I went upstairs during my first visit, having been invited to “look around”, by the maid. But she got twitchy, didn’t like my going into Maggie’s office, so I zapped her with my stun gun. There I learned what Maggie was really up to, and then found my way through a secret hatch into the hidden military base. Sneaking my way around there, I took out the odd guard, and found the Dragon’s Tooth sword. Using hacking and stealth, it was mine, and I silently made my way up onto the roof, and jumped down the sides of the buildings until I was back on Tonnochi Road.

And here’s where I struggle. My experience of playing Chow’s apartment was a bit silly. It was obvious she was lying, I accidentally found a secret base and stumbled on a sword I wasn’t yet looking for, and then got out before it could have a narrative impact on me. It only feels extraordinary when I read about how else it could have gone down. While realising, latterly, how much freedom was actually on offer is interesting, it can be extremely difficult to appreciate when you’re only playing the game you’re playing. Unwittingly pick a disappointing route, and it’s going to be a disappointing experience. Especially when that disappointment comes from the game’s glitching on your actions.

84 Comments

  1. karthink says:

    Comparing Morgan’s, John’s and my own HK hub experience suggests a few observations:

    1. I don’t think a strong narrative and expansive, systemic player choice and freedom can coexist. By the latter of which I mean allowing the player to make choices at multiple levels of play the way Deus Ex does, which excludes Bioware-style straightforward (and entirely developer prescribed) branching in the plot. I guess this is where immersive sims and CRPGs differ.

    2. Deus Ex flubs it in a few places, and the later missions can get dreary once the reactivity in the narrative gets scrubbed out. But has anything else even come close?

    3. Signalling player choice appears to be a hard problem. I’m sure developers would love for players to have the “You can save Paul?” moment, and Deus Ex: HR pulled the exact gimmick with Faridah Malik’s chopper crash. But provide one choice and the player expects them everywhere. (Hey, why can’t I side with UNATCO?) Make the available choices obvious and you get the Bioware syndrome. Make them invisible and you get the Beyond Two Souls problem, where everyone misses them. Brian Bourdeaux explains:

    “Players were just not ready for the kind of responsibility Beyond puts on them to better their own experience. When a game does everything for us, we complain that it doesn’t give us the freedom to express our agency in the story. When a game gives us the freedom to express our agency in the story, we complain because we don’t know how to use it.”

    It’s a hard problem to solve, because the agency players actually possess depends on their assumptions and how they’ve been trained by the fat pipeline of mainstream fare.

    • karthink says:

      A little off topic, but I should probably add what I mean by the Bioware syndrome, because the Internet has more problems with Bioware than their games have choices.

      In this context, it’s that the way their games are structured as Choose Your Own Adventures. You make every choice by literally picking it from a menu. Then there’s some fairly irrelevant, inconsequential combat or exploration as padding before you get to the next telegraphed node in the story. I can’t recall a single realization of the concept that’s as trusting of the player’s intelligence as Human Revolution’s optional “chip upgrade” you can get in Hengsha.

    • Shuck says:

      Your first point is really spot-on. Narrative (in this context) is about pre-determined paths. The more player choice there is, the more impossible it becomes to predict all the permutations of things the player will do. (And at some point, it’s not economically feasible to have the game address all the variations, anyways.) At some point players will be going down paths for which the developers didn’t allow. A game that constrains the players into only the specific branches that were predicted and allowed for is a game that doesn’t provide real freedom of action.

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      Aerothorn says:

      Can you link that Bordeaux piece? I just tried to find it, and while I saw it quoted at Electron Dance I haven’t be able to find the (article? video?) proper.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      All I can say to that is that I’d rather a game gave me too much credit than too little. Not every game has to be an immersive sim, but if that’s what it’s going for, treating me like an idiot and highlighting every potential route or possibility is just going to obliterate that feeling of freedom and choice (which is often mostly illusionary to begin with).

    • midijunky says:

      “Signalling player choice appears to be a hard problem.”

      But it’s an interesting one and the effort is worthwhile. There have been some great examples. I think DX has few equals here. Even so, I also didn’t realize Paul could be saved until I read a fan-compiled manuscript of all the in-game dialogue. I doubt too many people bothered to go that far.

      DX:HR may not have been as revolutionary as DX in terms of player agency, but the bio-chip story was well-crafted, as karthink mentioned.

      The original Witcher game is also worth mentioning. It let the player go about their business as Geralt, and then presented the consequences of their actions in animated vignettes, after the fact. Sometimes what seemed like an inconsequential decision would have big ramifications. Choices weren’t always presented in clear-cut terms with obvious moral implications. I remember siding with Scoia’tael hostage takers in one encounter, taking them at their word that they were freedom fighters. Did their ends justify their means? It turned out that when I sided with terrorists, the result was more terror.

    • Thankmar says:

      Your observations helped me a lot in understanding of some of my own quarrels about agency, branching, and the like. Given the discussions below, you pinpointed the problem exactly.

    • skittles says:

      Really? Really? I would not put Beyond: Two Souls on any paragon of player choice. Not saying it didn’t have choice, but it really cheated while doing so. The isolated chapters and unsequential nature of the game made it really easy to offer choice, as it was only choice within a scene. I don’t recall any major carry overs of choice between any of the fairly short chapters. And then it was hardly ‘choice’ either. Most of the options simply extended a scene if you played the QTE well, that isn’t player choice, that is just a reward for having nimble fingers. And when there was choice beyond this, it was arbitrary in nature. Nor were the choices particularly ‘invisible’, most of them were very apparent and blatantly signposted if you spent any time exploring (what little you could explore).

      • mavrik says:

        There were actually several choices that impacted further events in Beyond: Two Souls and the fact that you didn’t even notice them was exactly what the OP was referring to: players need to have choices spelled out otherwise bitching commences when they don’t even notice they made a choice and that the story can play out in different ways.

        You just confirming his point, not refuting it ;)

  2. Stugle says:

    I’m conflicted in reading these pieces because it feels like death by a thousand cuts: you’re slowly poking holes into the edifice that is Deus Ex, none of them individually being make-or-break level, but it’s starting to add up…

    And I can’t accept that, because CLEARLY Deus Ex was, and is, the Best Game Ever – my golden memories of playing it in the summer of 2000 prove it, dammit!

    But I can’t dispute any of your issues with the game. So I think I’ll just have to lock the memories in my brain and keep them safely there, while acknowledging that by today’s standards Deus Ex isn’t quite as towering as it used to be. Still can’t think of a game that has taken that kind of setting, and that kind of gameplay, that I’ve enjoyed more, though.

    • Bodylotion says:

      Indeed this is exactly what I was thinking. “Is Deus Ex still the best game ever made?”, It seems like you’ve already made the decision it’s not. Deus Ex is still one of my favourites of all time and it probably will always be. You don’t compare this game to todays standards. Yes, some things are a little bit weird since the technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now.

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        John Walker says:

        I’ve made no decisions at all!

        I’ve been wholly honest, about my intentions for writing, and my approach to see if I was right. I was sure I would be.

        • Stugle says:

          I’m fascinated by your writing, and I’m enjoying the ride. I get to reminisce about Deus Ex, after all!

          Rationally, I have no quarrels with the holes you’re poking – what you say is true. However, emotionally I have a hard time accepting your truths, because I have so many happy memories and emotions attached to the game. Still, I don’t doubt your honesty and I will eventually accept that Deus Ex is not the eternal perfection of computer games. And perhaps then, my youth will be buried for good. ;)

          • Elusiv3Pastry says:

            John is doing everyone a great favor with this series by reminding everyone that Deus Ex is not the eternal perfection of computer games; that honor very obviously belongs to Freespace 2.

        • Hanban says:

          Are you okay, dude? Videogames shouldn’t have anyone this upset.

        • karthink says:

          Yeah, are you okay pal?

          The cuddly John Walker also shouldn’t have anyone this upset.

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        basilisk says:

        But it’s not always technology, is it? The script that handles Paul’s dying or not – I don’t believe for a moment that it would be impossible to script it correctly with the tech they had. This was simply the cheap and lazy way out. The same goes for the voice acting. The same goes for the often confused writing. The same goes for very many things that *could* have been done better, but they chose not to, because they thought what they did was good enough.

        I love John’s line about the game being “a puddle on a painting of a swimming pool”. I’ve been saying that for years to anyone who seemed they might listen. People are in love with Deus Ex the illusion, not necessarily Deus Ex the game. But it was one hell of an illusion, and it was smart in showing its hand as little as possible. Because let’s face it – the reactivity has been perfected since then (again, this is the time to bring up Alpha Protocol), but the feeling that the game might be watching and not telling me, epitomised in that brilliant, ingenious yet so very silly little joke about women’s bathrooms in UNATCO, that was something that games could still learn from. Spec Ops: The Line stole that trick, to great effect. But few others have tried.

        If there is something that I dislike about modern gaming (which I love), it’s “Clementine will remember this”. (Which, thankfully, you can turn off.)

        • Emeraude says:

          People are in love with Deus Ex the illusion, not necessarily Deus Ex the game.

          One thing we can definitely agree on: DX works in no small part because of the smoke and mirrors (but not only, I think believing so is a mistake that can only lead to what I consider HR’s misinterpretation).

          I guess where we’ll disagree is that I see the smoke and mirrors as integral part of the game – you need to integrate game-play elements into that. You need that because the player needs that feeling of agency. Sure you don’t know where and when it will work, but you need to think any action might matter. Hence the importance of emergent gameplay – if you manage to frame the game in such a way that any action, even ones the designer clearly didn’t think of, can have a fitting reaction from the world’s game state, then suddenly everything matters.

          Now DX had its fault for sure (I seem to remember Paul being considered dead even if you saved him if you then left the apartment using the window), but I think it often made a brilliant use of cascading, very simple binary scripts to give that illusion.

          One thing I’ve kept repeating about HR is how much I think it suffered from slavishly following DX’s narrative structure and motifs. Because so much its own attempted smoke and mirrors.. well we knew the tricks already. Going into the ladies room ? Been there, done that. Character that seems like it’s getting into a certain death ? Of course, will try to save.
          Not to say everything was a failure, the timer before you actually do the first mission was a really neat idea that needed a call back of sort later in the game if you ask me.

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            basilisk says:

            I may have phrased that badly. I also think the smoke and mirrors aspect is an integral part of the game. It hides its choice moments behind actions in the game, not behind options in a menu. This is the one brilliant lesson of Deus Ex that has been mostly forgotten, and I am sad for that.

            But after all is said and done, it’s a series of very simple tricks that allow the whole thing to pretend it’s much more that what it actually is. My question is, is that enough? Because frankly, I don’t think it is, and didn’t think even when I played the game for the first time many years ago.

            (Also, I think it’s important to remember that this whole, arguably revolutionary, aspect of the game is dropped without ceremony after Hong Kong, and never returns.)

        • Farsi Murdle says:

          but they chose not to, because they thought what they did was good enough.

          Unless you know what their motivations and development process was like, you can’t say something insulting like that. It’s far more likely they did what they could with the time available. I remember Spector saying he had to beg Eidos to give them an extra 6 months to finish the game properly. They were under a ton of time pressure to get the game finished. Don’t insult them by implying they were just lazy. That time pressure probably explains why those kind of narrative choices mostly disappeared after Hong Kong.

          But otherwise you’re right, the actual narrative choice in Deus Ex is pretty shallow, and is just a bunch of scripted triggers, like many other games. I think Deus Ex is the best game ever (not out of nostalgia, but from playing it repeatedly for 15 years), but it always annoyed me when people would claim it had great narrative complexity. It didn’t, the narrative was almost entirely linear and scripted, and that was fine. There’s nothing systemic about the different narrative options like Paul dying or not, it’s just scripted triggers. The way you actually enact those choices is still far better than the “choose from a menu” approach used in so many games though.

          Where Deus Ex stands out is not in the narrative choices, but the moment-to-moment choices you make as you complete your objectives. There is great complexity there that so few games even attempt, and it does give you a certain ownership over the time you spend in the game.

          (I disagree with you about Alpha Protocol. Its “reactivity” is no different from other RPGs. It’s just a huge number of scripted choices and outcomes, there’s nothing systemic about it either. Same with, say, Witcher 2, which has a ton of choices but every one is scripted. That’s a brute force approach to choice, and is nice, but you’re still essentially picking from a menu of options instead of playing with true freedom.)

          • Napalm Sushi says:

            The Stanley Parable does an excellent job of deconstructing the limited and illusory nature of the player’s narrative agency in games like Deus Ex. I can no longer shake the awareness that any notable choice I make in such a game has either already been meticulously prepared for or simply won’t be responded to. I might be able to choose whether or not to save Paul from MJ12, but I’ll never be able to convince Jock to fly me to Damascus instead of Hong Kong. The choices presented might set the boundaries far enough away that they fade into the haze, but I know they’re still there, as infinitely high and thick as ever, and it’s taking an increasingly Herculean suspension of disbelief to unsee them.

          • Jason Moyer says:

            “I disagree with you about Alpha Protocol. Its “reactivity” is no different from other RPGs. It’s just a huge number of scripted choices and outcomes, there’s nothing systemic about it either.”

            I’m pretty sure having a system of intelligence gathering, personal influence, and the occasional non-conversational action which creates a honeycomb of choice/consequence is by its very definition systemic.

          • Farsi Murdle says:

            Fair enough, I probably have to play Alpha Protocol again. I remember I gave up last time I played because I was trying to be stealthy, and got to that point where all your stuff is taken away and it was literally impossible to progress.

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            basilisk says:

            I know for sure that someone at Ion Storm must have listened to Maggie Chow’s inexcusable travesty of an accent and said, yes, this can go in the game. It’s good enough.

            I didn’t mean that as an insult at all. I’m sure the development process had its share of problems – it always does. (This doesn’t change the fact that this could be solved by cutting at least 30% of the game, because in its current form, it’s far too long for no particular reason, and this actually hurts the experience. This is a problem shared by many old games from the time when 20 hours of gameplay was considered the bare minimum.) There’s always a fair share of compromises in the process, and these are Deus Ex’s compromises, that’s all.

          • kament says:

            Playing the same game over and over again for fifteen years or even months actually skews your perception, not sharpens it. You grow to accept or even justify certain things and become completely oblivious of others which may be glaringly obvious to someone with no vested interest in the game and no knowledge of it. Like bad acting or botched scripting that renders all your efforts pointless, systemic though they might be.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      This is my issue too – I feel like John is inevitably convincing himself that it’s not the greatest game ever by focusing on what are really very minor issues which exist in pretty much every game ever. In fact, I bet you could pick any game which might seriously compete with DX for the title, perform this analysis, and have even more of these types of issues emerge.

      In fact, you could take any piece of art or storytelling and perform the same process. Even the Godfather Part 2 or Blade Runner probably have scenes with slightly odd lighting or that go on slightly too long, or fail to explain something quite as well as they could do. Blade Runner’s a good example, actually. Does the obvious mistake made with the number of replicants in a couple of scenes somehow undermine its overall genius? Not at all IMHO. If your art depends on perfect internal logic and perfect execution, then it’s really just the work of a very skilled craftsman rather than artist.

      It’s sort of like explaining a joke – once you explain it, it’s not funny. Once you start looking at the detailed logic and choices presented to you in a video game about an Illuminati conspiracy, of course it starts looking a little contrived. But that’s sort of the point of it – that it does a very good job of maintaining that illusion of choice and mystery, in a way that really no other game has done so effectively before or since.

      • ThomasHL says:

        How many games have you played where the trigger for whether you’d killed people or not wasn’t whether that NPC was dead but which door you went through? Almost none. That’s a ridiculously terrible lazy design decision that we’d laugh a game out of the shop with if they tried that today.

        When playing old games, there’s a filter in our head that tells us that the bad voice acting, bad scripting, glitches, awkward timings, clunky cameras and weirdly balanced combat doesn’t matter because we understand it’s an old game and we’re making allowances for it. It’s the same mechanic in our head that allows us to appreciate KotoR’s graphics but laugh at the Early Access crudware that looks the same because we have different standards.

        You’d have to think a lot before deciding how much that matters, but it’s interesting reading an article by someone whose read to point out that the King Has No Clothes and crud scripting is crud scripting no matter the time. It’s not a technological problem either in this particular case, or at least it shouldn’t be

      • MisterFurious says:

        Your issue is that you’re a blind, devotional fanatic that got told his God doesn’t exist and can’t handle that. ‘Deus Ex’ was several years old when I got around to playing it, and it’s really not that good of a game. It has good parts to it, but overall, the story is dumb and the game was overrated as hell. People are much easier to please when they’re young and most wear nostalgia blinders when they get older because they don’t want to accept the fact that the games and movies and TV shows they so cherished as a child were really crap. And on a related note, ‘Blade Runner’ isn’t a very good movie, either. It looks very pretty but has a terrible plot and characters.

        • kament says:

          I guess Mr. Furious lives up to his name, huh?

        • Raoul Duke says:

          Starts typing a response

          And on a related note, ‘Blade Runner’ isn’t a very good movie, either. It looks very pretty but has a terrible plot and characters.

          Stops typing a response.

  3. Bone says:

    Ah Deus Ex, still alot better than Human Revolution in my book.
    I remember stumbling upon the secret base in the apartment aswell, but you also get an introduction and explanation from Tracer Tong via the future skype. I thought that was an amazing thing to discover, even though I wasn’t “supposed” to be there. Or maybe that’s the very reason!

    • Stugle says:

      I think that was my experience on first playthrough – I stumbled into that secret base, but the sense of “The game didn’t tell me to do this, but it’s still letting me get away with it!!” proved to be more powerful than A) frustration with any poor signposting or B) the inherent ridiculousness of a hidden MJ-12 base in Maggie Chow’s clothes closet. :)

    • piedpiper says:

      Definetely. Human Revolution is too plastic and boring. It is just simply boring. I beat it twice to be sure. While Deus Ex 1 was interesting even on 4th playthrough.

  4. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    I didn’t even try to save Paul. He was a dick, and useless in combat apart from being invincible at times. Thanks for distracting the men in black bro!

    However, in a similar vein to John’s conversation with Kieron, I didn’t realise you could save Malik during my first playthrough of Human Revolution. I was shooting baddies in the ambush, another helicopter load of baddies dropped in and I thought “ah ha, the game’s going to keep spawning enemies until I run away”. Didn’t help that the Malik dying conversation started once I was in the elevator, reinforcing the impression it was all scripted.

    • tomimt says:

      I’ve always thought saving of Malik to be one of the strongest bits of DX:HR. On my first playthrough she got killed and I was a bit sorry about that as I liked her character. The I learnd that I actually CAN save her and even by using non-leathal force.

      It”s a strong scene as Malik is encouraging you to leave and the area does look like, at first, that leavig would be the best choice considering the amount of enemies.

      • piedpiper says:

        It is also the strongest bit of HR because it is hard if you determined to save Malik. The rest of the game is too easy even on highest difficulty.

        • tomimt says:

          There’s that too. DX:HR isn’t a difficult game in any difficulty level. I’d go as far as to say that on my three playthroughs I’ve come to believe that the difficulty system doesn’t really work at all.

          • kament says:

            I think it works exactly as it did in the original: the higher the setting, the faster you die in a firefight, and that’s it.

      • caddyB says:

        I didn’t kill anyone until that point ( well except the unavoidable ones ) but I never even considered not saving her was a choice. It was hard, and took a few reloads but I managed it and after what I had to do to save her, I didn’t concern myself with saving lives of the guilty anymore.

  5. trivial says:

    I, too, was dismayed to later find that Paul could be saved. The game did a poor job of indicating that was even an option. My best efforts to save him don’t always pan out.

    No, Deus Ex was hardly a flawless game. That does nothing to remove it from my #1 slot.

    • Distec says:

      It can be hard to tell what was intentional design or a “happy accident” with a game of Deus Ex’s age, but I thought the lack of signposting was what MADE that scene. The game (through Paul) is telling you to run away, run away! There’s intimidating uber-baddies with strange voices on the other side of the door and the game insists that you have no time to stick around and YOU MUST LEAVE THROUGH THE WINDOW.

      But then you can defy the game. Whereas most people (myself included) probably thought there was going to be some impossible fight if you stuck around, Ion Storm threw a small reward to players who stuck around and rode it out. That’s what makes it brilliant; there was a solution to the problem that the game doesn’t signpost (it actively tries to dissuade the player), but was still entirely valid if you’re not thinking in terms of the usual game scripts.

      Tangent: Just looked up Maggie Chow’s VA and it’s the same lady that did Anna Navarre. I can definitely hear it now.

    • piedpiper says:

      Even its flaws are brilliant. Awfull voiceacting is a good example.

      • kament says:

        It has no flaws, only things that make it memorable, quote-unquote. Is there a schism developing in the Church of Deus Ex?

    • Emeraude says:

      It’s interesting that you’d file it as a flaw, when to so many of us it’s part of what makes the game work in the first place.

      If the game flat out let you in on the idea that you can do it, then the value of doing it would be lessened.

      I think it’s somewhat similar to the divide in liking/not liking achievements to a point.

      Some people don’t like them because part what they like is the experimentation. The exploration of game-play. Trying to see, say, if you can finish Resident Evil with a knife and being told that there is an Achievement for it are two quite different things.

      In the former you feel like you’re pushing boundaries, in the later you feel like you’re completing something inside those boundaries. The field feels shrunk for people that used to be all over the place, and widened for people that would otherwise not go off the trodden path.

    • jecomans says:

      There are many points in the game where not doing exactly as your told can lead to an altered outcome, or just another way to complete the mission. It is such a strength of the game because it is you, as the player and Denton, choosing a different path. Both as a part of the gameplay, and as a part of the theme of the game, that is wonderful design.

  6. Kefren says:

    Bah. Read the comments, saw spoilers for DE:HR which I own but haven’t played yet. (Slow hand clap).

    • Wowbagger says:

      It has been out long enough and this is a discussion thread for Deus Ex after all, your chagrin seems a little misplaced.

    • Zekiel says:

      If it helps I don’t think anyone has said anything that could be considered a major plot spoiler, just a spoiler for an event which isn’t (in the grand scheme of things) actually that important.

    • Josh W says:

      I’m finding this tricky at the moment; me and my brother were playing through it, and (veiled spoilers, don’t worry) hacked all the computers in a club, thus breaking the triggers for a later side quest, necessitating serious backtracking, and we haven’t gone back to it since.

      Basically means I have to avoid all this lovely Deus Ex news, or at least treat it carefully.

  7. 2late2die says:

    To me the ultimate test of a great game is whether or not it holds up years later. I replayed Deus Ex two or three years ago and I had an absolute blast. Despite the old graphics, despite the simple AI, despite all its issues it immediately sucked me with its story and characters. I was having fun leveling up my character’s skills, I was enjoying seeing all the things I missed when I played it before, I was plain having a blast. In fact, to this day this remains my most replayed game.

    With that said, I think this idea of “best game ever” is a bit silly. I mean what qualifies for best? Despite all the replays and hours I put into DX they are dwarfed by the hours I put into Civ 5 alone, and add to that Civ 4 and 3 and you’re looking at 4 digit numbers of hours sunk. And it’s not like it was hours “grinding” – I wouldn’t’ve put all those hours into it if I wasn’t having fun. So maybe that should be the best game ever?
    Ultimately I think the best we can do is narrow down the parameters to a genre. For example, I consider Deus Ex to be the best FPRGP – first person RPG. On the other hand as for third person RPGs, I’d probably say KotOR is the best. And in both cases it’s not because they did everything the best, but because they managed the almost perfect mix of all the various elements that go into a game like that. If you take each of them individually, some might be great, others okay, and some might even suck, but the way they are all put together manages to achieve something that’s basically more than the sum of its parts, and I think that’s where the greatness lies.

    • piedpiper says:

      I got the same feeling with System Shock 2 and DooM this year. It just sucks you in nad does not let you go. Such a rare quality for modern games.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        I would be willing to consider Doom a contender for Best Game Ever, now I think of it. Played it religiously back in the day when I was just a nipper, forgot about it for like a decade or more, grabbed myself a new copy and a couple source ports, and it is now probably the game I have got the most hours out of for money spent, if that makes sense. (FTL previously held that title, for what it’s worth)

        The problem is that I don’t know WHICH Doom I’d give the award to. The first one had the better levels and soundtrack, but some of the enemies in Doom 2, plus the SSG, make it the far better gameplay experience. Plus the community is built far more on Doom 2 than on Doom, and it’s of course a massive consideration.
        Can we just give it to the series as a whole? Oh, but then you have to consider Doom 3, which, while I had an enormous amount of fun with it, is CERTAINLY not “best game” material…

        Ahem. System Shock 2 is also fun.

    • jecomans says:

      Just tonight finished Deus Ex again, for probably the dozenth time. Still absolutely brilliant. Still what I would consider my equal favourite game. The environments, interactions, world building, character building (in terms of NPCs, Denton through your choices and actions, as well as the mechanics of literally building him); I find so much to love in all aspects of the game.
      As to what makes a ‘best game ever’. The experience. Some games take longer to play, some games are easier to play more often. There are games I’ve played more often, and for more total hours; but when I ask myself which is my favourite gaming experience, what resonates with me the most? This is it. It’s not really definable because the terms you must use are personal, and rather esoteric.

  8. kud13 says:

    Ah, the ‘Ton firefight.

    Every time I replay, it’s a turning point. Prior to this, I do my best to be non-violent and sneaky.

    When my employer turns out to be corrupt and betrays me, and turns on my kill-switch to kill me, I go berserk. I become the killing machine they wanted. I relish in the poetic irony of using the gas grenades the UNATCO soldiers gave me in disgust, because they wanted to kill people. Prior to this point, I could quell my dislikes of what I was finding out about UNATCO. No more. Now I incapacitate them, and the pick a headshot with my sniper rifle.

    I fight, and I kill. I play dirty. I don’t give in to Herman until the last UNATCO man and mech in Battery Park are a smoking heap of flesh or metal.

    HR actually did well in setting me up to feel the same about Belltower (the pods massacre). It’s one thing I will give the HR story credit for.

    As for Hong Kong, it was never the story there. It was exploring the market and the Canals for little vignettes and conversations, it was the expansive Versalife lab levels. But never the story. The story peaked with New York section. Only other “spike” was the Ocean Lab, for the horror-y feel of those levels..

    • Carcer says:

      >the Belltower massacre
      Yes, I had exactly the same response on my first play through HR. I had been entirely nonlethal up until that point – but those (goddamned unnecessary) pre-rendered cutscenes play and then control returned to me and I saw what that private police force had done and I made sure that I killed every single one of those dicks on my way out. I still incapacitated them with nonlethal melee takedowns first, but then I would carefully shoot them in the head with my silenced pistol.

      I was amused to discover on my second playthrough where I stuck to the nonlethal approach that the Belltower commander, if he is avoided or nonlethally incapacitated, turns up another two times, with emails in the world showing you how increasingly enraged he is getting that Jensen keeps kicking his teeth in and evading capture.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        “I was amused to discover on my second playthrough where I stuck to the nonlethal approach that the Belltower commander, if he is avoided or nonlethally incapacitated, turns up another two times, with emails in the world showing you how increasingly enraged he is getting that Jensen keeps kicking his teeth in and evading capture.”

        Which is exactly why I don’t kill the assholes.

  9. Unclepauly says:

    Even with this picking apart the game is still above all the others in this style of game. Still no perfect game out there but this one flew pretty damn high in its attempt.

  10. Asurmen says:

    Don’t think this was a bug because it always happened to me regardless of play through, but there’s a 3rd option with Paul. If you die during that fight you still wake up in the cell and Paul is still alive.

    • Bob says:

      Yeah. I found that by accident. I decided to GEP the MIB as he came through the door but was a tad too close.

      Anyhow, I don’t care if it’s not considered the “best game ever” because it was the first game I played that allowed my choices to actually matter and got me playing other genres other than just shooters. That is one of the reasons I love Deus Ex so much.

  11. buzzmong says:

    What I find most interesting about this series of articles is that despite the posted question, it’s actually answering “Is Deus Ex a perfect game?” by pointing out Deus Ex’s various flaws.

    If answering the original question, then I maintain that it’s still one of the best games ever made thus far, probably the best FPS/RPG hybrid ever, and is probably greater than the sum of its parts.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      MUCH greater than the sum of its parts. At the end of the day, the most important component of a game is what you do with it. Games are for playing.

  12. thedosbox says:

    Just want to say that I’m hugely enjoying these writeups as I didn’t play Deus Ex until just before Invisible War came out, and hence missed all initial excited discussion. This series offers a different take on what I missed, so thank you.

  13. Farsi Murdle says:

    I don’t want games to explicitly point out the consequences of every choice, or even flag choices as choices. Reading about the game after and realising there were other options and outcomes is still part of The Experience. Having that kind of mystery in a game is really compelling. Dark Souls is another game with a lot of mystery, and it would be nowhere near as interesting if it explicitly outlined all your options.

    The ability to poke around Maggie’s apartment and uncover her secrets before you otherwise would is a great, great thing, because your actions in the world affect how it plays out. I would far rather that approach than have the game lead us through scripted scenes designed to carefully reveal how clever the writers think they are.

    (Also I warned you in the previous comment thread that there’s a bad trigger in Paul’s apartment.)

    • Raoul Duke says:

      Yep – in fact, the less choices are explained or even explicitly offered, the more “real” a game world is.

      Real life very rarely says to you “hey, you can do A or B, and if you do A the consequences are C, but if you do B the consequences are D”.

  14. MellowKrogoth says:

    All I’m getting from your article is “Deus Ex is a game”. I mean, pick any game (not even with a branching story, a linear one will do), willfully suspend all disbelief and nitpick over all the ways it becomes ridiculous if you don’t “help it tell you the story”: invisible walls, urgent tasks that wait forever for you to complete them, cities with a grand total of three people who have more than one line, NPCs walking into walls or floating, guards who don’t stray from their patrol paths and don’t come running when they hear shooting two rooms across, and so on and so forth.

    I prefer the opposite approach: expect everything to be janky and stitch together the good bits in my mind to create an awesome experience. Deus Ex is great because it has so many of these good bits hidden all over the place, and it helps your imagination along by always hinting at a wider world behind its game trappings.

    • Premium User Badge

      basilisk says:

      This is hardly nitpicking. The “Paul’s death” trigger is a very important part of the overall game, and it’s botched. Shoot/incapacitate all the guards pouring in, leave through the window (which is something I did as well, on my first playthrough) and the game proceeds to destroy your suspension of disbelief through no choice of your own.

    • kament says:

      All I’m getting from your article is “Deus Ex is a game”.

      Couldn’t have put it better myself. Deus Ex is a game, period. Not the-bestest-of-all-the-best-games-evar. Not the most important one. Most iconic? Influential? There’s a lot of other icons and influences out there.

      Sorry guys, but I can’t even say it has the most obsessive fandom of all the obsessive fandoms.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Funnily enough, reading through your list of things that make gaming ridiculous, all I could do was manually tick off each of them and go “Huh. Din’s Curse does none of those.”
      It’s still ridiculous, though. But you might want to check it out if you haven’t.

  15. MellowKrogoth says:

    Also, seriously, stop looking for things to be offended about. The bad chinese accent in Deus Ex was probably because they couldn’t afford voice actors with real chinese accents and asked the ones they had on hand to do their best imitation. Can’t we laugh at the results instead of falling into dismal political correctness?

    Anyways, unless you get into open disdain or hate speech I see nothing wrong in ridiculizing the way someone dresses, speaks or whatever other individual or collective habit they have. If I horribly butcher the chinese language when trying to speak it, I fully expect them to laugh their ass off at my expense and imitate me in a game.

    • Farsi Murdle says:

      The Australian accents in the Lucky Money are hilariously bad as well, but I wouldn’t call them offensive.

      The bad voice acting is also one of the things that makes Deus Ex memorable (“I spill my drink!” etc), so I wouldn’t necessarily call it a bad thing, weirdly. It kinda suits the corny every-conspiracy-is-real story.

    • Sin Vega says:

      “offensively bad” doesn’t mean “This is not ‘politically correct'” (itself a tedious phrase rendered meaningless by dogwhistling idiots – I’d really steer clear of using it if I were you, it’s way beyond saving). It means “this is so utterly poor in quality it offends me”.

      Battlestar Golgafrincham, for example, is pretty benign in terms of racist/sexism, but the writing is so atrocious it is an offence against the craft. A poorly-mortared wall could be offensively bad to a decent bricklayer. A cup of tea could be so milky and weak it’s offensive to any sane human.

      That said, “MEESTAH JC DENTAW, IN DA FWESH!” was a pretty awful moment however you slice it. Just try walking up to a Chinese person and talking like that. A no-win situation for sure.

      • Distec says:

        Is there some other alternative to “political correctness” that I can rattle off in less than five words, or something?

  16. bhart100 says:

    Meh I didn’t save Paul til the second time around either

  17. jonahcutter says:

    Perhaps a better question to ask is: “Is Deus Ex the most important game so far?”

    The dynamic between narrative, agency and mechanics is arguably the core riddle of gaming. Something the overall form presents that is unique to the form. And Deus Ex certainly took a stab at it. A very raw and early attempt, but an important one nonetheless. It succeeded it some ways and fell short in others. And at times just staged some smoke and mirrors. But for all its imperfections, has any other game presented a more significant and successful attempt at solving this riddle?

  18. Shazbut says:

    Real men save Paul by opening his secret compartment and hiding inside while Paul does all the fighting

  19. Wowbagger says:

    Deus Ex is about as pleasing to the eye as chiselled spam these days, and I just can’t get passed that any more.

    Human Revolution is very aesthetically pleasing, and stokes my Bladerunner fanboyism. I can play it just for the sights and the awesome soundtrack.

  20. Joannes says:

    You can also ensure Paul’s survival by dying while trying to protect him. The game will immediately load the MJ-12 prison level upon your demise and Paul will be alive in the medical facility. So when UNATCO raids the hotel, I’d run out into the hallway and stand right next to a dying Man in Black so his exploding corpse would take me out too.

  21. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    I like how you can use fire extinguishers as an improvised alternative to gas grenades, then baton everyone. It’s not super effective as it’s short range and doesn’t cover a wide area but works in a pinch if you’re trying to be non-lethal, and they’re everywhere.

  22. Oooch says:

    I wish you’d stop shitting over this game and blaming you being bad at it on the game

    • KenTWOu says:

      ‘Every time you mention it, someone will reinstall it’ works anyway.

      • kament says:

        Someone (like, me) may indeed reinstall it, but will it work anyway? That’s the question. I ended up waiting on Revision and playing HR to scratch this particular itch in the meantime.

  23. ssh83 says:

    The problem is that for many people, Deus Ex was THE game that blew their young minds. It stuck with them, so as they got older, and go into positions to fanboy their favorite game, the nostalgia helped propel it further up than it objectively deserves. If you ask anyone young or old who had strong RPG experience before they played Deus Ex, they’d probably appreciate the game, but they would not claim it’s the best game ever. They might claim whatever that first game to blow them away was. Maybe it’d be Fallout, mayble Ultima 6, maybe BG2, maybe Planescape: Torment.

    The same thing is happening with Pokemon, Runescape, DotA, and Korean MMO. They’re were largely ignored by mainstream gaming media, but they are starting to creep in as the new “professionals” are from those specific generations. This is why subjective game review is good for starting a coversation, but in terms of real review, it is flawed at its core.

    I don’t know if anyone’s old enough to recognize this, but this is a well-known bias issue and they once called it “the first roll in the hay.”

  24. jecomans says:

    Firstly. Yes, I still think Deus Ex is the best game I’ve ever played (tied with Ico). I could explain all the reasons why, but everyone who knows the game already knows what they are. So instead, I give you this line:

    “I order you to stand in the spotlight and growl at the women like a dog who needs a master”. Awesomeness.