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August 1, 2011 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Anomalous Materials: Deus Ex

Released at the turn of the millennium, the original Deus Ex was met with massive critical and commercial success.

Building on the innovations of its predecessors, namely the System Shock games, it was the first shooter/role-playing hybrid that really struck a chord within the mainstream gaming industry. While most shooters of the time were still peddling different takes on the template set in the early ‘90s by games like Doom and Quake—essentially, you shoot things and they die—Deus Ex offered a much more cerebral first-person experience, one that garnered unanimous praise, and over 40 distinct Game of the Year awards.

In retrospect, the most immediately striking aspect of Deus Ex is its enigmatic plot. The game takes place in the year 2052, a dystopian future where civil unrest is at an all-time high, and from shadowy governmental branches come whisperings of post-humanism and new world order. You are cast as JC Denton, a stoic, nanomachine-augmented agent working in the anti-terrorism unit of the United Nations. As you become further embroiled in combating an increasingly prevalent worldwide “terrorist” presence, the more questionable your motives become. The slow unravelling of this conspiratorial mystery is driven by excellently written characters, who transcend their presence as mere gameplay objects and actually become figures within the narrative of the game that fluently represent its wider thematic implications. It’s easy to get caught up in empathising with these characters and their ideals, and when betrayals happen, they are shocking to say the least. It’s seriously heady stuff for a genre that even today is fraught with lazy, threadbare plot devices to move you from one objective to another.

Its brilliant setting aside, experiencing the depth of Deus Ex’s core gameplay for the first time was astounding. The game inserts you into what feels like a real, reactionary environment, with places to explore, people to talk to and conflicts to resolve. What’s more, the choice of how to fulfill your objectives is entirely up to you. As an upgradeable super-agent, you can choose which skills and bodily augmentations best suit your preferred approach. If you want to take a no-bullshit, guns-blazing approach, you could build yourself to be skilled in the use of heavy weaponry, and upgrade your metabolism for increased health regeneration. Alternatively, you could take a stealthier approach, augmenting your legs for ultra-fast and silent running, and specialise in hacking computers or picking locks. Notably, the fact that you can take multiple approaches is consistently factored into the environment design—If you want to sneak around, there will always be a secret route to uncover or a security system to bypass. It’s actually possible to go an entire playthrough without killing anyone—an incredible feat of game design for its time.

While the original wowed gamers and critics worldwide, its sequel, Deus Ex: The Invisible War, received a comparatively lukewarm response. Expectations were understandably sky-high, and although it garnered generally positive reviews, it was entirely overshadowed by the impact of the original. Most people felt disappointed in the simplification, or ‘dumbing down’ of the elements which made the first game so engaging. The plot was less dense and involving, and drastically reduced character customisation hampered its role-playing elements. These were essentially the things that made the formula of Deus Ex so successful, and thus, Invisible War was not remembered with nearly as much fondness as the original, and faded into obscurity.

However, this was not to be the last heard from the Deus Ex series! Eleven years on from the original, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, technically a prequel, is to be released at the end of next month. Preview builds demoed at press events and over the internet give the impression that its developers are trying to faithfully recapture that essential playing experience that made the first game beloved by all. That, alongside the inclusion of both impressive art design and current conventional game mechanics should make the game both fun to play and an exercise in joyous nostalgia. Both Donnie and myself have been waiting in anticipation for quite some time, so expect full coverage from Anomalous Materials come September!


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