As the manic panic of the new millennium began to pull back into the sea of collective paranoia, Deus Ex reminded players of the many needs to be wary of in a tech-driven future with a prescient tale of intrigue that combined feckless governments, ruthless corporations, and intelligent men with too much ambition. The 21st century promised to be one of promise and advancement, but this cyberpunk narrative has given us more than a decade and a half of worrying about technology and those who control it. Deus Ex has since been regarded as one of the best role-playing games ever created, but is it deserving of that title?
The year is 2052. Nanotechnology has found a home in the flesh. The line between man and machine is blurred. And in this high-tech future, people with power seek to exploit this reliance on technology to change the course of humanity forever.
JC Denton, an agent for United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO) fused with nanotechnology, is assigned to dismantle the National Secessionist Forces (NSF) while they attempt to exploit the chaos spreading around the globe from the “Gray Death” plague. After shipments of the Ambrosia vaccine are stolen by the NSF, Denton is charged with tracking them down. While working with his brother Paul, also a UNATCO agent, JC learns that his brother has defected to the NSF. Paul believes Gray Death is man-made, and Joseph Manderley, UNACTO’s director, is using his agents to ensure Ambrosia is available only to the world’s elite.
Learning of his agent’s defection, Manderley tells the Denton brothers a killswitch has been implanted in all UNATCO agents. Paul’s had already been turned on, and it will end his life in a matter of hours. Though Manderley orders JC to Hong Kong and to locate Tracer Tong, a hacker who’d supplied Paul with Intel, JC returns to his brother. Paul knows his time is short and asks JC to join the NSF and assist in their cause. But before the brothers can make a pact, Walton Simons, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), triggers JC’s own killswitch and UNATCO arrests them both and locks them beneath their headquarters on Liberty Island.
Soon after his imprisonment, JC is contacted by Daedalus who helps him get free. As he advances, JC learns that UNATCO doesn’t work for the United Nations but the Majestic 12, a committee that has broken from the Illuminati, seeing technology as their means of controlling the world. JC eventually makes it to Hong Kong where Tong deactivates his killswitch. The hacker asks JC to infiltrate Versalife, the corporation behind Gray Death. JC is successful and manages to steal their plans for the plague while also crippling their ability to manufacture more of it by destroying their Universal Constructor, a device that allows them to reach people all over the world.
By studying their plans, Tong learns that the Illuminati were involved in the production of the virus, and sets off to Paris to meet with Morgan Everett and hopefully recruit his help in stopping the Majestic 12. Through Everett, JC learns that Gray Death was an intended augment, but Bob Page, industrialist and rogue Illuminatus, used his influence to take control of the Majestic 12, steal Gray Death and make it a disease. Now that Versalife is out of production, Everett knows where Page will attack next, which sends JC to Vandenberg Air Force Base. X-51, a group of scientists who were once stationed at Area 51, have set up shop there. JC arrives just in time to help defend them from an attack from the Majestic 12, earning him the favor of Gary Savage, X-51’s leader. It’s Savage who reveals to JC that Daedalus, the mysterious figure who freed him from UNATCO’s clutches, is an AI designed by the ECHELON program.
Everett attempts to use this knowledge by weaponizing Daedalus and releasing him into US military networks, disrupting all communication between members of the Majestic 12. When Daedalus is released, he encounters Icarus, an AI Page had placed as a countermeasure. The AIs merge into a new entity known as Helios, which is now in control of all communication across the world.
JC is busy helping out Savage who needs schematics to repair their universal conductor which was destroyed by the Majestic 12. When JC tries to transmit what he’s found to the scientist, Page is alerted and launches nukes at the X-51 scientists, ensuring that he alone controls the last Universal Conductor. But JC is given just enough time to redirect the weapons at Area 51, where the Majestic 12 are hiding. During the final confrontation with Page, JC learns the former Illuminatus plans to merge his consciousness with Helios, allowing him to take control of all nanotechnology and ascend to his earned godhood. To defeat him, JC considers plans offered up by Everett, Tong, and Helios. JC must kill Page and restore the Illuminati to its rightful place as the shadow government that rules the world, thus maintaining order; destroy the global communications hub, destroying Helios and plunging the world into a much needed dark age, free from technology and the people who would abuse it; or JC could merge with Helios himself and use his own godhood to decide the fate of the world.
Despite this conspiracy meandering across the globe and plenty of side quests to distract the player, the conspiracy in Deus Ex is a tight, coherent narrative that reminds players that technology can be scary, mostly because we know so little about the people who make it, their intentions, and how it can be applied against the masses unaware.
What helps Deus Ex drive the paranoia home is its use of conspiracies that originated elsewhere. Some clearly works of fiction, some pieced together by filling in holes from news reports, and others coming directly from information provided by governments and corporations. It lends a sense of credibility to a world that could very well be coming, one where preferential treatment for the elite was known to the masses, terrorist attacks targeted symbols of America’s place on the global stage, and even sites like Paris being a stage for acts of mass violence. At many points, it seemed that Deus Ex was looking a handful of years into the future at a time and relayed some troubling things we’ve seen come to pass in the 16 years since its release.
Beyond the tin-foil ravings of conspiracy theorists being presented in an engaging way, there is a plethora of philosophical musings concerning the application of technology at the turn of the century and man’s place in guiding that future. It was something people were already wary of, because the internet, this thing that was supposed to be for nerds and businesses, was spreading like grey goo, consuming everything in sight. After just avoiding the end of all things that could’ve resulted from Y2K, the year 2000 was the perfect time to introduce this conversation. It’s one we’re still having now.
Though distinct in its style (for a time), upgrading the tech-noir feel of Blade Runner to a more industrial look of hard leather and cold, minimalist designs of vast open spaces, Deus Ex was an ugly game. Even for its time, other developers managed to utilize the Unreal Engine in ways that made characters easier to look at. And the limit of design is more apparent when looking at characters beyond the main cast; most are varying shades of taupe and brown of the same man or woman. It’s no wonder why nearly all soldiers and officers have their faces covered. But many of these issues were addressed with the PS2 port, Deus Ex: The Conspiracy in 2002. An updated engine did a lot to improve animations, character models, and really overhaul cutscenes.
However, in the sixteen years since release the very dedicated Deus Ex fan community has released so many mods to overhaul the visuals that it’s merely an issue tracking down the right mod and tweaking settings to sharpen the visuals.
Ambient sounds aren’t strong in the vanilla game. Steps were scored by what I can only imagine was a sack of coins dropped from hand to hand, enemies grunt cartoon-like when hit, and action effects sound lifted from a bad kung-fu movie. But the score… The music in Deus Ex is a mash-up of Vangelis and VNV Nation, taking a retro sound and updating it for the new millennium with an ominous flair that communicates the despair of this dark future. Tracks have been remixed and sampled dozens of times over, and even packaged in Deus Ex’s GOTY edition due to fan demand.
Though there were limits on its looks, and its use of foley may have suffered from budget constraints, Deus Ex was never hampered in its gameplay. To this day it’s in an elite category of games that are designed around choice, allowing the player to rely on their creativity to solve problems.
Since JC is a cyborg secret agent, and this is an RPG, Deus Ex allows players to select augments to suit their playstyle. Focusing on body augments leads to a stronger JC that can withstand explosions and bullets. A JC taken down the cerebral route will embrace technology and access secure locations and sensitive data. Whether being aggressive and violent or stealthy and tactful, the player gets to decide. And whichever path was chosen, players will encounter an AI that was sharp for its time. This made for dynamic scenarios to play out, showing that they were never limited to the options they could see right in front of them.
However, the actions the player makes shapes JC and the perception others have of him. Not all support the Terminator style approach, and others don’t tolerate a weak cyborg that would let NSF terrorists live. This also carried over to conversations. Knowing the personality of the character they’re engaging with, when to be brutish with questions and when to be coy, could mean the difference between a player finding an ally or making a new enemy. But the decision is always up to the player.
Leo: It’s all in the numbers. For a hundred years, there’s been a conspiracy of plutocrats against ordinary people.
JC: Do you have a single fact to back that up?
Leo: Number one: In 1945, corporations paid 50 percent of federal taxes. Now they pay about 5 percent. Number two: in 1900, 90 percent of Americans were self-employed; now it’s about two percent.
Leo: It’s called consolidation. Strengthen governments and corporations, weaken individuals. With taxes, this can be done imperceptibly over time.
JC Denton: I guarantee you that the interrogation staff at UNATCO will not be as forbearing as I am.
Leo: Yeah, the secret police. You’re just bullies for a completely illegitimate government in Washington.
Developer Ion Storm never set out to make a pretty game with visual polish that could stand up against its AAA contemporaries, but Deus Ex’s allowance of player agency made for an RPG that still sits on a lonely shelf with only a handful of games that manage to be as robust. Players are expected to weigh each action taken against the possibility of consequence and the needs of their strategy before committing to them. Failure to do so not only resulted in a game ended but in a world changed forever.
Deus Ex – 10/10