I once visited a mental institution a few years ago for an assignment. My memory of it is as vivid as the walls there were white. I asked if I had the liberty to look around and observe the patients during their recreation time. I was in the juvenile section, so there were lots of kids. But there was this one guy my age, whom Ill call "Steve" for privacy purposes, and he had scars on his wrists. He had a nice complexion and was quite fit. We struck up conversation, getting rid of all the expository stuff. When I felt comfortable, I asked him why he was here. He said he was HIV-positive, and was in consultation. Before I could even struggle to say anything, he looked at me and said, "Look, all I want to do is die now. I just wish someone would kill me."
Imagine my horror when I was faced with a similar situation in Deus Ex, the award-winning PC first-person adventure ported over to the Playstation 2. A good number of people you encounter early on in the game are infected with Gray Death, a worldwide plague not unlike AIDS. A bum walks up to me and begs for me to kill him. Because its just a game, I shoot him in the face, and then he screams and falls dead. That is a scenario that would be described by some people as funny, especially with the unattractive character models, unrealistic blood and in a post-Grand Theft Auto III context. But having experienced Steve, that scenario was devoid of humor, and it didnt even feel like a game anymore. Then I started to wonder why this bum and Steve would even think about assisted suicide, and what was it that made them come to that decision.
Deus Ex is about decisions and how to deal with them on a minute-by-minute basis. You assume the role of JC Denton, an agent following in the footsteps of your brother Paul in the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). Currently there is a worldwide plague called Gray Death. A terrorist group, the National Secessionist Force (NSF) claims the government is blocking the cure, starting a string of events and conspiracy theories this game digs into. The complex plot works on many different levels, taking many twists and turns until it hits an equally dizzying conclusion that ends with one more decision. Deus Ex transcends the traditional formula of an FPS, and even conspiracy fiction, providing a gameplay experience that is nearly beyond description.
The gameplay is best described as mixing elements of first-person shooters and role-playing games, redefining what each of the genres could be. It offers true role-playing, giving you tough decisions in every turn, allowing you the freedom to tackle a situation to your liking. There are many infiltration missions in the game, giving you a multitude of options. You can find your way through the vents, use your lockpick, hack into the security systems, or just blast your way through, all possible depending on which strengths you would like to modify.
Players earn skill points based on their actions, and can be used to strengthen a number of statistics in true RPG fashion, including hacking ability, marksmanship, ballistics smarts or even swimming. You also have the ability to have other abilities, or augmentation upgrades, that can increase things like strength, lung capacity or speed. Are you lacking in hacking? You can use that microfibral muscle upgrade to move that big box and climb into the vent. Your weapons are limited in capacity, adding a strategic element, and can also be modified.
Decisions are the name of the game here, however. And throughout the game you are bombarded with choices. The game is not totally non-linear, and despite the many branching paths, you always eventually get led back to the main plot, which remains mostly unchanged. The game is based on the minute to minute decisions you make, and every consequence is localized and immediate. Each time you play the objectives remain the same. The difference lies in the approach, implementing the skills you chose to augment and upgrade. Running out of ammo for your pistol, which you are a marksman with, means youre forced to use a weapon youre not as skillful with, like the shotgun. Sometimes you can just steal your way in, or if youre patient, you can ask around and someone might give you a password or key. That a game of this nature is so remarkably balanced is an achievement. And even its refusal to deviate from the main plot shows focus, not constraint.
The illusion that you are in a living, breathing world is upheld thanks to the many interactions with your environment and its denizens. A great deal of voice acting is in this game to satisfy the amount of choices and possible interactions with citizens, other agents, your boss and other main characters. The dialogue is often lengthy, detailing the nuances of this future world. Fortunately, the dialogue can be skipped, and is written well. The voice acting accurately portrays many manners of speech, from professional to street. The citizens are also diverse, from baseheads to prostitutes to pimps to gangsters, although the game does have some of the worst Chinese-English voiceovers ever.
A problem with the choice driven gameplay lies within the fact that sometimes you dont have a choice. The game almost forces you to proceed stealthily because ammo can be quite rare. When you do try to gung-ho a room, youre often overwhelmed. And because of the ability to save anytime, this often results in trial-and-error playing to avoid frustration. Often times it is frustrating that the game resorts to gameplay cliches like meaningless fetch quests (when youre forced to do that so you can get this to go there). In terms of plot, the characterizations are often successful, however some characters get lost within the twists and turns. Many prominent characters from the first half of the game are shuffled away in the second half, whereas one of the main antagonists of the game is mentioned only in passing during the first half.
Other problems are technical, and there are many. Since this is a port of a relatively old PC game, the game engine and graphics are a little outdated. Sometimes it looks like everybody has the Gray Death. Also the AI isnt really up to snuff. Enemies would often blindly charge down a hallway getting picked off. The controls are competent when it comes to a console FPS, but on harder difficult levels, sharp-shooting is a must (and an impossibility on the Dual Shock 2) because of the many headshots the AI would take. The increase in difficulty doesnt make the enemies smarter, they just hurt more and can shoot better, forcing you to turn on the auto-aim, or even some cheats. If youre really skillful, you can try to sneak your way through the game, which is impossible because of the programmed action sequences that you simply must play through. The menu system also took some time getting used to, however it is functional once you do. I also dont understand how relatively small areas are chopped up by long loading times. The bigger environments of other PlayStation 2 games like Grand Theft Auto III, or even Oni, load relatively painlessly, but here the loading times are horrendous, especially if you mistakenly take the wrong path. The fact that little things like touching up the graphics and AI, along with adding what should be unnecessary loading times, show that this is a lazy port of the PC game.
Dont let any of these detractions stop you from playing the game though. Deus Ex is a potentially enlightening experience that works on several different layers politically, socially and philosophically. Questions about the role of technology in a postmodern society are sparked in an interesting philosophical conversation between your character, a manufactured human, and an AI prototype construct. It neatly ties all the rogue themes of the game together, and explains the title of the game. Issues about class, role of the government and its people, euthanasia (when a significant character asks for you to pull the plug on his support unit) and police brutality are also raised, showcasing the scope of corruption in society, and how all of the suffering are logical extensions of it.
Deus Ex also deals with my friend Steve, with its deadly Gray Death disease. Sure theres a cure for it, and even a clinic that treats it. But it is too much of a financial burden for the lower class malcontents, and there is no social support. So what are the infected to do? The government has control of their cure, along with their lifestyle. A recent survey of terminally ill patients who have requested euthanasia was conducted in Oregon, currently the only state in the nation with an assisted suicide law. It revealed that patients usually ask for death not because of their financial situation or depression. Its because they want to control the circumstances of their death. When a patient is terminally ill, their area of control shrinks, so with their decision to die sooner, they reclaim some sense of dignity and independence.
I dont know what happened to Steve. I can only imagine the claustrophobic nature of having a fatal illness in a world that is becoming increasingly smaller yet more difficult to comprehend. There is a multitude of factors why Steve would be compelled to die before the disease takes him and a longing for control may be one of them. Deus Ex for the PlayStation 2 is a flawed port of a conceptually magnificent game that provides players control over how they reach the inevitable. In an industry where games are often forced to confinement within the context of its particular genre and its potential profit, this game provides freedom to a genre, and medium, that sometimes practically beg to be killed. Deus Ex is practically alive. It thinks laterally, not fatalistically, and remains focused despite unalterable circumstances. I can only hope Steve came upon a similar fate.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.