Alex Kierkegaard   Athens, Attiki, Greece
Cybernetic techno-Overman and Supreme Leader of The Cult
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When I first saw the screenshots and read the about the ambition behind Deus Ex, it seemed like one of those games with its head in the clouds and no way to deliver on all the promises it made. The gist of it was that it set out to be a hard science fiction "shooter RPG" taking place in a dystopian near-future setting where terrorism was commonplace, the underclass were being wiped out by a plague many suspected was government-engineered, and a half-dozen shadowy organizations, from the Illuminati on down, were all vying for Control of the World. In the middle of all this was you, and you got to play what amounts to a cop.

That was the set-up, and all I needed at the time. I picked up the game based totally on the strength of its spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2, which I'd absolutely loved, and figured it was going to be more of the same: Encounter baddies in a large, involved environment and solve a number of combat and situational puzzles in your method of choice, while developing your character down one of a handful of skill paths. Play the psychic, the combat guy, or the hacker. Expect spooky AIs whispering in your ear throughout and expect to get some kind of amazingly overpowered lightsaber-y weapon near the end, the option to be good or evil for added replay value, and a healthy sprinkling of journals to pick up so you could follow the backstory if you felt like it.

I was right about the AI and the lightsaber.

This game is basically System Shock 3, but seven years before BioShock and with a much more open-ended slant on the 'Shock style of game. It's really the ultimate expression of DIY character development within a game world, but without the ridiculous handholding so many other games resort to in order to move the plot forward. The focused linearity of 'Shocks 1, 2 and Bio isn't here; you're free to roam, and the plot is there in abundance but doesn't leap into your arms for you. There's reams of dialogue, there's often a peaceful (or at least sneaky) solution to puzzles, and many levels exist solely to further the plot. You're left entirely to your own devices for much of the game, only given a broad idea of what has to happen or which point you need to reach. How you go about that is entirely up to you.

That's not to say the whole game is entirely freeform — it isn't. But it manages a linear design in such a way that you neither notice, nor care even if you do.

Nearly every scenario has five-plus ways to complete it, and half-finished concepts abound. The designers would toss in three or four obvious ways to go about something, then maybe stack some crates to a back window or give you a robot control widget and just let you figure s**t out from there, were you so inclined. The game had enough "open" systems in place to basically compensate for anything you could possibly do.

The Brute Force and Stealth n' Assassination approaches are always viable options as well, so if your tricky Bond-like play of brazenly bulls**tting your way into a huge corporation's main building doesn't work and you get turned away at the door, you can always opt for the unofficial Plan B and just blow the everliving crap out everything in your path. Or, just skip all foreplay before you even get to the prom: Knock everyone's head in from half a mile away with your customized, ridiculously overpowered rifle, then stroll into an empty level and do as you please. No quicksave/reload shenanigans necessary.

On top of that, because of the way the game was designed, smart players are given access to what amounts to the entire plot well before it's supposed to happen, but only if you're clever (and only if you care). You spend a good one-third of the game on the side of Law and Order, so it's a bit disconcerting to discover a huge underground base underneath a manhole cover in the central part of New York City, or maybe a prototype weapon designed by a shadow government in a hidden room behind your dead brother's ex-girlfriend's apartment; but, as you might expect, these places tend to be secretive and require quite a bit of effort on your part to find. None of these hidden areas have big neon signs over them.

Should you not find any of these, the game continues as normal. If you do, though, you get a lovely sense of chucking a giant monkey wrench in the works, when in reality the game is perfectly prepared for the player to find this stuff on the off chance and reacts accordingly. Crack open the developer cheat and take a look at the quest flags: There are hundreds of them, flagging virtually everything you could possibly do, from walking into the women's bathroom by accident to killing off major characters hours before they're supposed to even play their part. Nothing goes unrecorded. This was a herculean bit of coding on the part of the developers, and it's rare you see s**t like this anymore these days; usually, design of even forward-thinking games leans much more in favor of heavily controlled player herding for major plot events, not a "maybe the player will do this" approach.

While the moral lines are not actually color-coded (i.e. there's no "Good Points" and "Bad Points" to accumulate), human nature means that most people will guide their nanoaugmented private-military-science-project-c*m-UN-peacekeeper JC Denton through the game as either a good-guy cop, or a total a**hole. People tend to go for extremes in these kinds of games. Cleverly, the rationale for both makes sense in the game world, so the morality of the choice is totally up to you. No matter what you do, it's never wrong.

As your brother Paul points out early on, you don't need to use lethal force in this game. JC is completely decked out in state-of-the-art nanoaugs and can easily subdue any criminal that regular police would have to resort to lethal force for. JC doesn't need lethal force. He's way too powerful for that. The few times when you do have to kill, it's against some giant killer robot or super nanoaugmented badass who borderlines on the immortal anyway. Lethal force against those far weaker than you should, you'd think, only be used as a last resort and only when absolutely necessary, and the game allows you to pursue this path of your own accord.

On the other hand, you're a multi-billion dollar killing machine. Not only should you not feel guilty about slaughtering an entire island's worth full of terrorists, that's what you were literally made to do. It makes perfect sense in the context of the game world, and it's something the game reinforces positively as you go. The terrorists are certainly using lethal force against your co-workers, the vast majority of whom are just doing their jobs. The United Nations police force you belong to is never painted as any kind of obvious aggressor. Your team aren't a bunch of jackbooted puppy-kicking Gestapo or anything. They're cops, doing their job fighting off a heavily-armed terrorist force. Most of the time they're even outgunned, which is where you're supposed to come in.

So really, where do you draw the line? You're blatantly more powerful than most of the enemies you fight. Those guys you mow down so easily are weak for a reason; they're nothing compared to the kind of kill power you have wired into your very body, and it is literally your job to be a military powerhouse when other measures of crowd control have failed.

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