Deus Ex Is 15: Memories Of Ion Storm’s Classic FPS

Deus Ex is 15 years old, which means it’s almost old enough to move out of our house and stop having to do what we say. For now though, John, Alec, Adam and Alice decided to celebrate the relentless passing of time by jotting down some memories of Ion Storm’s beloved immersive sim.

John

Returning to Deus Ex, and chronicling my time, shook my faith in the universe. Unquestionably the Best Game Ever, the only fault I remember its having was the poverty of its graphics. Turns out, it’s riddled with issues, flaws, mistakes and ropey sections. What now?!

But gosh, despite all that, it’s still incredible. It’s still up there as one of the best games ever. The Emperor is wearing some pretty fine clothes, as it turns out.

It holds up. That’s the key thing. 15 years on, it’s still an engrossing, entertaining and mentally stimulating game. The shooting might be crappy, and the balance for stealth all over the place, but its level design is sublime and its story a splendid treat.

Alec

Deus Ex is, for me, inextricably linked with my first-ever attempt at games journalism. I penned an email to a mercifully now-defunct magazine (mercifully only in the sense that hopefully that missive no longer exists), absolutely convinced that it would be chosen for publication and I’d win a fiver or an oversize black t-shirt or whatever the prize was, and almost certainly be offered a job too. The letter was not published, presumably because some 90% of it was angry ranting about how bad Deus Ex’s ladders were and the remaining 10% was about murdering cats by jumping on them from great heights. I failed to even mention any of the elements which made Deus Ex such a landmark game. Yes, you’re right, I haven’t come along in the slightest in 15 years (I would in fact write my first published games journalism later that same year, but that’s another and altogether less laddery story).

The ladders are awful, though. The rest of the game’s pretty good if I recall correctly. I know there are a hundred reasons to praise it – the fidelity of its environments, meaningful choice of behaviour, talking to the monsters – but the abiding reason I feel so warm towards it is that, together with Half-Life, it was perhaps the first action game that had me feeling as though I was on a journey, full of unexpected turns and surprises, and which felt personal as well as merely combative. I felt I was doing something more than simply play through the levels of a videogame until a conclusion was reached. It all seemed to matter this time. This created an expectation (or entitlement?) which remains with me to this day, God help me.

Adam

My experience with Deus Ex is similar to Alec’s. I didn’t write a letter about ladders but Denton’s cyberpunk adventures elevated my expectations about what games could do.

I bought Deus Ex at a time when games were precious commodities, things that I saved for and stuck with until the end, bitter or sweet. I didn’t play a lot of games back then but the games that I did play were constant companions. Every detail mattered, and every nook and cranny was placed under a microscope. I tried everything, experimenting with abilities and AI quirks, pushing everything in the game until it broke. And things did break from time to time, but they usually did so in a way that fit the internal consistency of the world. More than anything else, what I remember when I think of Deus Ex is how convincing its rules were and how much I believe in its world.

Little did I realise, Deus Ex is one of the few games that supports such close scrutiny. There are points when its limits are uncomfortably clear but, on the whole, it’s a game that supported whatever playstyle I threw at it. This, I thought at the time, is how games work now. Good.

Whether age has been kind to Deus Ex or not, I can’t say with any certainty. It still feels like the game I loved when I first encountered it and I’m incapable of removing my rose-tinted super-cool-in-the-nineties shades. It’s one of the games that set the bar as to what I expect from first-person games of its kind though and that’s a good thing. It made me more demanding, sure, but it also made me appreciate the craft of generous, open-ended game design.

Deus Ex taught me to look closely and to question every element of a level’s design and a digital world’s integrity. It’s an education.

Alice

I petulantly avoided Deus Ex for almost a year. With chums chattering about opening lockers with crossbow bolts, finding secret routes, and skipping entire boss battles, I’d assumed it was one of the stat-heavy classic RPGs I found tedious – I didn’t even look at screenshots. I only played it when a pal thrust a burnt copy upon me, insisting I’d like it. I bought it very soon after.

Deus Ex trusted me and rewarded my curiosity. I found new routes and secret things because I went looking, not because I passed a perception check. People liked me because of things I’d done, not because of a charm stat. Its weapons, tools, and skills let me play as I wanted by changing my loadout rather than rerolling a new character. I woke, and euthanised, a man in cryogenic suspension because I was nosey.

We had a disagreement in the RPS treehouse recently over the opening level. Alec said the promise of Liberty Island was what we remember fondly recall about Deus Ex, while I said Liberty Island is awful guff and Hell’s Kitchen is when Deus Ex opens up. It felt like a larger world I was moving within, picking my way through it and uncovering mysteries by poking my beak in – and I’d surely never understand everything going on.

Deus Ex put me in a world and encouraged me to be curious. I wasn’t trying to min-max levels, find treasure, or clear a quest log; I wanted to see what I could do, find and learn.

65 Comments

  1. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I litterally played it start to finish 9 times in a row, all with Red Hot Chilli Peppers Californiacation playing in the background. To this day when i hear that album I’m back at Vandenberg or Paris or one of the other levels depending on the track. I’ve still never seen any ending other than the transcendence one.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Please tell me you at least stop the RHCP and let the game soundtrack reassert itself in Hong Kong. Losing the UNATCO HQ theme is bad enough.

  2. ResonanceCascade says:

    While I am a big fan of Human Revolution and am very excited about Mankind Divided, it will always make me a little bit sad that there will never be another Deus Ex game with the same aggressive design ethos as the first. None of the games since have dared me to break them or push their boundaries to see what I can come up with in the same way.

  3. x25killa says:

    What a shame.

    • JB says:

      I speel my dreenk.

    • Monggerel says:

      Tried to play about five years ago. Got the part where Paul dies/doesn’t then just kinda stopped playing. ‘S cool. Dreams of a future that never was. Longing where there shouldn’t be anything. Frankly I would have been fine without.

      • Monggerel says:

        that was not supposed to be a reply, but hey.

        I vanted orange, it gave me augmented memes

  4. ChairmanYang says:

    You know what makes me feel really happy? Deus Ex is still great and truly special, but it’s gradually starting to feel a little less great and a little less special.

    That’s a good thing because it means the industry is finally delivering games that capture much of what made Deus Ex so singular and peerless. Human Revolution, on its own, didn’t do it, but it came close, and made lots of brilliant advancements of its own. Dishonored went part of the way, too, and again, pushed gameplay further in directions that Deus Ex couldn’t have imagined. The sequels to both of these will likely be incredible. The obsessive detail of modern open worlds (the Witcher 3, especially) makes Deus Ex’s feel threadbare nowadays. Reactivity and open, emergent gameplay are popping up everywhere, mostly in indies, but in big productions too.

    In 2009 or so, things looked very different, but a few key AAA games and the Steam/indie/Kickstarter revolutions changed everything. Deus Ex is no longer quite as special as it once was, and that’s because games have never been more promising.

    • xalcupa says:

      /agree

      Fantastic at the time but less so now. Recently tried to replay it but got annoyed at the level design, mainly the endless corridors.

    • montorsi says:

      Ah, yeah, sort of. It’s no longer among my top five games — and thank god for that because it stood alone for so long — but it’s still very special. There were years and years where I wouldn’t even have to think twice. Favorite game? Deus Ex. What else could it be? Now we’ve had stuff like Dark Souls, Mass Effect, etc, and I’m thankful the gaming industry finally discovered it could develop non-military shooters and make a few bucks in the process.

      • Premium User Badge

        Aerothorn says:

        While I wholly agree with Yang, Mass Effect is not the answer here – that’s a game that wholly ignored any of the design lessons from Deus Ex. Bioware does not make immersive sims, has no interest in immersive sims, and does not value the design philosophy represented by immersive sims.

        • jezcentral says:

          You don’t value narrative being affected by decisions made in-game?

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Reading this I got to ask controversial which great AAA titles of the last years we owe to being kickstarted/crowdfunded. And did any of those invent a new genre instead of being “sequel to beloved…”.
      There’s no Mass Effect 1, The Witcher 1 etc. There are some nice indies but no big revelation. Gotta wait for Tides of Numenora but that’s Torment 2 anyway.
      Divinity: OS was 90% finished in early access, Wasteland 2 is a mixed bag I heard. Leaves us with titles from Betheda, Ubi, EA, Rockstar and CD Project for the heritage of Deus EX with Deus Ex HR and Dishonored being closest to the explorative Action RPG formula.

    • kyrieee says:

      I think Dishonored was fantastic and I don’t want to criticise it for what it wasn’t trying to be, but to me it’s pretty damn far from anything approaching Deus Ex. In Deus Ex you can skip the entire second mission (just hop on the train straight away) and the game accounts for that, it’s so much more than an ability based stealth FPS like Dishonored.

      • kyrieee says:

        I forgot to add, if you skip Battery Park, go to Hell’s Kitchen, then go back to BP Anna will tell you that she found the Ambrosia herself!

      • Farsi Murdle says:

        Dishonored is the most Deus Ex-like game out there. These games are about giving players a set of tools to solve problems laid down by the level designers. They never tell players how to solve them, they present problems, give tools, and players take it from there. That’s what player agency is all about.

        • LionsPhil says:

          Yeah, Dishonored made me forgive Harvey Smith for Invisible War.

        • kyrieee says:

          I didn’t say it wasn’t the closest thing, I said it wasn’t nearly close enough for my tastes.

  5. mpk says:

    I got bored somewhere around one of the grey bits. Have never returned to it.

    I can appreciate the warmth the game evokes, but I found it really, really dull.

  6. Cockie says:

    15 years? But I’m going to play it for the first time soon!
    (I’m a bit behind :D )

  7. Premium User Badge

    Serrit says:

    Brilliant game – going to just pick one thing I love about it though, and that’s the computer network at UNATCO HQ. Being able to log in to all the computers there, typing out username-and-password attempts from memory / a notepad rather than selecting them from a in-game-list presented to you; finding someone’s password on a datapad, then remembering you saw an email from them on a publicly accessible terminal from which you can grab their username…

    Small details, but really helped build that office as a functioning place, that I could pry into :-)

  8. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Happy birthday, JC.

    Back then when games weren’t yet downloaded I found Deus Ex in a bargain bin. Didn’t ring a bell to me as reviewers focused on the game being a bad shooter rather than praising it for being a classic so it wasn’t very popular.
    Almost finished 10 times now and know the script from memory. Started even more times but Hongkong is such a bog.
    Also characters are really cool and JC > Neo. Game also predicted 9/11, the war on terror and the rise of the secret services. Such vision.
    Yeah, ladders are bad but also in GTA5 and Witcher 3 – maybe that’s just a video game thing. I prefer the climbable ivy texture variant to the slower “grab ladder then slowly creep up and down” approach.

  9. caff says:

    So many happy memories of Deus Ex. I was astounded to watch a friend playing it on my PC and experiencing a different approach to the game and story arc. I never completed it on release, but I went back to it a couple of years ago and nailed it. The ending confused me a little, perhaps it wasn’t what I was expecting from my playthrough.

    I’m reminded of John’s comments about returning to Half Life 2, and remembering how fun it is to throw tin cans at station guard’s heads then run away giggling. Deus Ex had such beautiful interactions too, such as being able to place a stack of plant pots on your boss’ head. Why don’t games let you do this any more?

    And another thing it had was EXCELLENT crouching. You could crouch properly behind tons of stuff – not just desks, but small boxes and things. It was of insta-crouching of an almost fairground contortion level.

  10. piedpiper says:

    No, I won’t beat 5th time.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Minsc_N_Boo says:

    Deus Ex is a masterpiece, but like Fallout, I didn’t understand how brilliant it is until I talked about it with friends. They played the game differently to me, and discovered new paths and different locations or solutions to missions. I read an article by Kieron Gillen where he discussed the mission with your brother *spoiler* I never realised you could save him if you ignore his “save yourself” speech

    • phlebas says:

      Yup. The easiest way I found to save him is to shut yourself in the cupboard and let him deal with most of the opposition before letting yourself out and mopping up.

  12. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Happy Birthday Day of Sex. Brings a tear to my eye. 15 years? Half my life, youch. I really assumed I would have moved on from videogames by now. And I wouldn’t still be lauding Deus Ex as the greatest game ever.

  13. aoanla says:

    I must say, I’m glad that Alice is around to champion the position that Liberty Island was a terrible opening level – like her, I’m very much of the opinion that Hell’s Kitchen (and then the later levels) are where Deus Ex is at its best. I honestly almost stopped playing when faced with Liberty Island for the first time – the promise that Alec remembers in the open-solution design is what I remember as a hopelessly confusing interaction, with clunky stealth and dying almost instantly to a security robot (I think I was trying to hack a door at the time), dying a second time when I failed to throw high explosives at said robot to kill it, and then repeatedly finding myself discovered by guards when I tried to sneak up on them. I even remember resorting to kiting the NSF militia out into the docking area so that the UNATCO security robot could kill them, because I couldn’t. Liberty Island was just a repeated lesson, for me, in that I wasn’t actually good enough at anything to actually achieve any of my creative plans. (In the end, I cheated through Liberty Island by amping up all my skill points so I could actually act with something resembling agency.)

    Once I got to UNATCO HQ, things got a lot better, but I always felt that Deus Ex was hampered by having such horrible combat and stealth, while also wanting you to explore around and read all the items that are scattered around. (UNATCO HQ is great because of the terminals you can log into, Hell’s Kitchen is mostly awesome because of all the things you can discover in it – and the later zones are only improvements on this. But many of them are spoiled, for me, by also getting shot at a lot, especially where there’s lots of interesting things to look at – Paris, and Versalife are both particularly annoying examples of this.)

    While Deus Ex: HR is more about designed solutions than open creativity, it also nailed better (for me) the balance between “having lots of things to explore” and “having things for the player to stealth past/hit very hard”. Unlike the original, I didn’t have to cheat once to get anywhere in it ;)

    • baozi says:

      DX:HR stealth is so much more boring IMHO, because of third person view but also because it tells you when you’re in the range to do a takedown; there isn’t really any room for error.

    • Continuity says:

      nah, Liberty island was the perfect opener for Deux ex. it put its wares on the table right up front, and if you’re a certain sort of gamer, it was irresistible.
      Sure there were probably a lot of people who bounced off the opening level, but I’m a firm believer that a great game can’t be a game that works for everyone, if you cater to everyone then you never really please anyone.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Can’t say so. You could get a rocket launcher from the beginning, sneak by it or skip it entirely. Plus compared to Deus Ex HR (or again Dishonored) the enemies are blind. Esp. in the later levels there is this tv station building (?) in HR where you essentially have to save scam your way through also enemies can see you in partial cover at wide distance (average difficulty).
      And I disliked the huge xp bonusses both for stealth takedowns and ghosting levels in HR. This means you’re really meant to play it that way and are punished for playing action-style.

      • Chaoslord AJ says:

        Edit: the stealth takedown in the original doesn’t really work consistently unless you invest in related nanotech and hand to hand damage. So that’s true. The taser however works always in 1-2 hits.

        • kyrieee says:

          Weapons like the Baton to 10x more damage to enemies who are unaware of you, so if you alert them it’s more or less useless. It also does less damage to the head for some reason.

      • aoanla says:

        Well, I dunno, I found it much easier to 90% ghost HR than to do any stealth at all in the original. (The TV station is one of the worse areas, but you get some prep time before people show up, so I spent a bit of time rearranging the furniture and fixtures to restrict their movement and give myself better cover).

        And, re the optional GEP gun in Liberty Island – sure, I tried that too, I think, but it took so long to prep and fire it that I died in the process. (As for sneaking by it… did I mention that I had huge problems with stealth in the original Deus Ex?)

      • Amazon_warrior says:

        Definitely agree re DX:HR’s weird XP allocations for nonlethal/stealth play. And I *like* being stealthy! :/ What I don’t overly like is being told “Play any way you like!” only to find that I’m being punished if I don’t choose to only play in one particular style. That’s very not Deus Ex. Was quite annoyed to see the same bonuses showing up in that recent clip of DX:MD, presumably lots of other people found it less irritating than I did?

        • aoanla says:

          But, again, whilst I agree that DX:HR is a bit too “engineered with 5 specific solutions to every problem”, I genuinely found that DX’s Liberty Island felt like it was doing precisely what you complain about here – punishing me for trying specific solutions to problems. The lesson I learned from it was to… not experiment too much, because I was going to die a lot more (and to cheat up my weapons skills, admittedly).

          • Amazon_warrior says:

            Interesting. I always tended to take a back-door, sneaky-sneaky approach with Liberty Island (and indeed most of the rest of DX), and never found it to be a problem (although I wouldn’t hold up Liberty Island as “the bestest bit of DX EVAR, OMG!!!”). Maybe I found it ok because of the ridiculous amount of Thief 1/2 I’ve played – I think they left very definite neural pathways that have been both blessing and curse in other games. :) Once I get my desktop back (am between houses right now), I might have to try DX and Liberty Island with a more aggressive frontal assault approach and see how it goes.

          • Amazon_warrior says:

            ‘Nother thought (I really shouldn’t drink and post stuff on t’interwebs), I really liked (and miss) the skill-based stuff in DX. Maybe I’m funny like that, but I could really get behind being kind of rubbish with a sniper rifle to begin with and being a bad-ass master with it by the end stages of the game. Something I found really lovely about DX was that, no matter what it presented you with, you could usually sort your way around it based on skills, items and/or augmentations in a way that HR didn’t seem to acknowledge with its “Here are your n prescribed and carefully designed routes through this experience!”

          • aoanla says:

            Sure, I should say that I’d never played any of the Thief (or System Shock) games which form part of Deus Ex’s DNA at the time I played Deus Ex. I did, much later, pick up Thief and tried to play it, and bounced off its stealth similarly to Deus Ex’s though, so it might well be a common-interfaces thing.

          • Amazon_warrior says:

            Ah yes, System Shock! <3 I can't remember if I'd finished System Shock 2 before playing DX, but I'd certainly played enough to be familiar with things like Inventory Tetris. :)

            Certainly does sound like a clash of expectations though. Similarly, I could never into Hitman because I just couldn't get my head around the "hide in plain sight thing" or the way it lethally critiqued my sartorial decisions: "Oh NO, Daaaaar-ling! iThat gun with that jacket? Did you even look in the mirror before leaving the house this morning?” D: Played a couple of levels, said “Fuck this noise” and never went back for any more.

    • Farsi Murdle says:

      Your own ineptitude doesn’t make a level badly designed.

      • aoanla says:

        When it’s the first level in a game, which is supposed to be introducing the exciting concept of open level design and limitless possibilities in solution… it kinda does.
        (While I accept I’m not the best gamer out there, I had managed to get almost all of the way through Halflife the previous year, so it’s not like I was utterly incompetent at 3d games involving moving around. And, more recently, having managed to 90% stealth my way through Deus Ex : HR, and get all the way to the Daud mission in Dishonoured playing nonlethal/stealth, I’m not really sure the problem is 100% with me here…)

  14. Continuity says:

    really, more fucking deus ex.

    Seriously, it one of my favourite games but it seems to be getting more coverage this year in RPS than most magazines gave it on release.

  15. kyrieee says:

    Having just finished a playthrough I think it holds up very well and there are so many things it does better than Human Revolution. While I’m sure the fourth one will be a good game I doubt it’ll be a step towards Deus Ex. I still desperately want another game this ambitious, this reactive.

  16. Rao Dao Zao says:

    I remember I couldn’t play the demo of Deus Ex because there was too much glare from the skylight over our PC.

    Then we got a blackout blind and I racked of 1GB of savegames over a long period of time, intricately exploring every facet of Liberty Island.

    Then I got the game for real. The rest, as they say, is history. For all the games industry is finally catching up, to me it remains unsurpassed as a complete package. One day, we’ll get there.

  17. poisonborz says:

    I wish someone would make a sequel for this game…

  18. Fenix says:

    I didn’t have a ton of money to spend of games the days when Deus Ex was coming out, and I remember seeing a dozen-or-so pages long preview of the game on a gaming magazine I used to buy, but all the screenshots looked so bloody dark I decided I would not spend my ‘2-3 games a year’ money on it and would instead buy Shogun or Heavy Metal FAKK or some RTS with mechs whose name I forgot.

    I played ir for the 1st time 2 years ago, and while the flaws of the game were glaringly obviously, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the level of detail present in the game and progressive gameplay ideas (that do not work all the time) in the game. Had I played it upon release, I am sure I would be as obsessed with it as most people that did so are.

    • ansionnach says:

      Played it on release and liked it quite a lot but was never as enamoured with it as most other people seem to be. The pacing is all erratic, as if you’re building up to something but then you’re thrown all over the place… and then the game ends and you didn’t get to use those skills you’d invested in much. It’s as if it wasn’t anywhere near finished but they had to throw what they’d done together for release anyway. Hong Kong is so tiny it obviously wasn’t done. What had me really disappointed was that I’d only gotten around to plying Ultima Underworld and (the first) System Shock shortly before Deus Ex was released. They were way better.

  19. thedosbox says:

    We never asked for this. But I’m glad we got it.

    I too loved Liberty Island for the possibilities it offered up. It felt properly massive on the first playthough, and offered up new secrets on subsequent sessions.

  20. tonicer says:

    Wow 15 years old and still no successor. Only those shitty console games that try and fail to be the new deus ex. Meh with some love (mods) it is still pretty playable.

    • tonicer says:

      I mean the old game is playable with mods. The newer deus ex games are just terrible.

  21. drewski says:

    The combat was always too shitty for it to really click with me. I tolerated the gameplay to live in that world. Once the really good world building stopped – basically once you finish Hong Kong, although Paris isn’t terrible either – I basically zipped through the end just to finish it.

    Always felt it was a little overrated. Much as the sequel, Invisible War, is underrated largely for it’s massive technical flaws – but I would argue that the core gameplay is in some ways superior. Most of my really best memories for the series are from IW, actually. IW and Battery Park.

    When I eventually get around to HR, I’m interested to see how I feel about it.

  22. Dealey says:

    Ah… One of the few classics I haven’t played yet. Seems like a good time to fix that, especially after I’ve been spoiled by The Witcher 3!

  23. astromoose says:

    My defining memory of Deus Ex was sneaking slowly up through a rather well defended building to do something at the top, then realising I’d not buffed up my combat skills enough to shoot my way out in one piece.

    I had, however upgraded the hell out of my legs for some reason – so I took a run up, leapt the off the 4th story roof and activated my cyber-ankles.

    Big slam, health down to 25% but limped away into an alleyway to a background noise of alarms and gunfire. Not many games give you the opportunity to do something as utterly daft and get away with it :)

  24. Scandalon says:

    My main memory impression is one of fascinated bewilderment -For some reason I decided I should play it on the hardest difficulty level to properly enjoy it. I played it obsessively for a few days at a time, didn’t touch it again for months, repeat several times, probably took a couple years to complete it. Oh, and this was the mac port on a 400Mhz G4 – DeyeuSex was creaky enough on Windows, in retrospect I was probably playing at 15fps or something similarly bad.

    Other outstanding memories:

    That intro screen and music, pitch perfect, and probably has some sort of subliminal mind-altering component. :)

    My observation/curiosity being rewarded in the tutorial section.