It may look clunky as hell thanks to the original Unreal engine, but Deus Ex was a pioneer in videogames because it gave the player so many choices to make. It resulted in one of the deepest gaming experiences of the time, because it went to great effort to show the consequences of those choices. The story was spread across many ‘hub’ levels, giving you total freedom to approach your objectives whichever way you wanted, aided by an RPG style upgrade tree that you invested in as you played. Wanna finish it without killing a single soul? That is entirely possible. Prefer to tool up with a rocket launcher and just murder your way to the end? Nothing could stop you. Your NPC allies would respond differently back in the Unatco base, depending on what you did out in the field. This level of responsiveness was unparalleled for a long time, to the point that even if you walked into the ladies toilets, your boss would scold you for it during the mission debrief later on. It was many little moments like that which made the game so memorable for me.
The story is awesome too. Proper cyberpunk dystopian conspiracy tale involving secret societies, private military organisations and terrorists all vying for power, and you end up caught right in the middle.
*Spoiler warning – I’m trying to avoid spoilers in these memories, but sometimes its unavoidable. And Deus Ex is so old it should be exempt from such a warning but there it is anyway.
The NSF twist about one third into the game remains one of the best in gaming, up there for me with Bioshock’s “would you kindly?” and Heavy Rain’s reveal of the Origami Killer… Realising that your own brother has been working for the terrorists the whole time, and that Unatco are really the bad guys turns the entire game on its head. I remember feeling devastated on my first play through because I’d been recklessly murdering all the good guys in my misguided attempts to save the world from a global threat. During my many replays of the game, I prided myself on being able to finish all of those early levels without killing any NSF soldiers. My Unatco comrades would comment on my sympathetic nature, claiming it to be a sign of weakness, while Paul Denton praises you for being merciful. It’s such clever writing that if you’re paying enough attention on your first play through, you might be able to see the twist coming. I was just amazed that the game was able to distinguish between different playstyles and then respond accordingly to it, adding layers of insight to its characters that could only be fully appreciated on a second playthrough.
Those comrades of course wind up becoming your biggest enemies, and confront you in what are essentially boss fights. But even here the game rewards the smart gamer. For if you’d been paying attention and carefully examining your surroundings throughout the game you might stumble upon a terrifying discovery much earlier than the majority of players. It’s revealed that every augmented agent (including yourself) has a kill phrase embedded in their system. Uttering the kill phrase within earshot of the agent in question will cause their bodies to literally explode on the spot. You can murder both Anna Navara and Gunther Hermann using their kill phrases if you are clever enough to uncover them as you play. It makes a hilarious mockery of their confrontations, in what are otherwise devastatingly difficult boss fights between 2 of your fellow Unatco super soldiers.
Other memorable moments involve saving certain characters. The biggest one is Paul Denton, JC’s brother, who gets ambushed in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. He tells you to escape via the window, sacrificing himself to the MiBs that come crashing through the door. You are completely free to abandon him. In fact, it’s by far the easiest option, but Paul dies if you do. It is possible to save him, however, if you stick around and fend off the fierce cyborgs. This was the first instance of a game presenting such a choice to me and I’ll never forget it. Later on, you might bump into a suspicious mechanic tinkering with your pilot’s helicopter. It’s almost a throwaway moment, something you could either never see, or just assume means nothing. But he’s planting a friggin bomb on the chopper. If you don’t kill him, the helicopter explodes later, killing the pilot, Jock. I only discovered that it was possible to save him after I played the game for a second time.
Deus Ex is simply fantastic, and I only wish there were more games like it. The recent sequels have come close to recapturing some of what made the first game so special, but for me, none has quite managed to beat it. Deus Ex remains the original, and best example of the FPS-RPG hybrid.