The Denton Dynasty
"Have the Deus Ex 3 developers acknowledged Invisible War sucked?" That's the title of a thread which, as I write, sits proudly atop the game's official forum. Deus Ex emerged as a millennial poster-child for intelligent game design. It was a title that assumed you were smart. Its fans appreciated that.
So when Invisible War followed, there was something of an uproar. Now developed for simultaneous release on the PC and Xbox, many felt betrayed by the ways in which this much-touted sequel ripped out a substantial chunk of what made Deus Ex so unique. "The disease is 'consolisation'," writes one user on the aforementioned forum thread. "The symptoms were unified ammo, an awful interface, no experience points and a poor inventory system."
Deus Ex 3 is again set for a multi-format release. That's understandable. There's no money in PC exclusives these days. Branches of GameStation are phasing out PC retail entirely. PC versions of previously multiformat games are being cancelled left, right and centre. It's time for the ferociously dedicated to come to terms with this: a new Deus Ex game could never, ever have been exclusive to their mice and keyboards.
What does that mean for the series, though? And what did it mean that the original game was, to begin with, PC-only - only ported to the PlayStation 2 and Xbox at a much later date? More importantly still, given the anguished cries from thousands of players that Invisible War wasn't a true Deus Ex sequel, what does it really mean to be Deus Ex?
Let's do context first. Deus Ex was the result of a string of design experiments through the 1990s. Ultima Underworld, itself a spin-off from the late-'80s Ultima series, placed fantasy role-playing in the first-person perspective, and provided players with several tools to shape their playing style as they wished. From its ideas emerged System Shock, two years later, which attempted to transfer these elements into something more resembling the modern first-person shooter.
A sequel to that emerged in 1999, but not before now-defunct developers Looking Glass had crafted an exquisite and definitive stealth game, Thief: The Dark Project, which took videogame sneakery to unprecedented levels. Thief II followed in 2000, but by that point Deus Ex was almost finished. It had been in production for several years at Ion Storm, whose name had previously only been associated with the unfortunate catastrophe that was Daikatana. Except their new studio was led by Warren Spector, one of the brains behind - you guessed it - Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief. Also, The X Files was popular, and The Matrix had just come out. And the thinking man's gamers were all huddled in a corner, quietly discussing this new idea called non-linearity, and how that might apply to their digitised wonders of the future world.
That blurb might all sound like the sort of horrible back-story exposition relied upon by the worst of games (and Nintendo), but it's important to get this down from the start. People who claim Deus Ex was magically original have got their timeline muddled up. Deus Ex was so remarkable because it deftly combined a couple of different rapidly emerging game design strands, and thrust them into new, unexplored places. Context is everything. For this series more than any other, that's always been true.
So Deus Ex found its home on the PC because, primarily, all of the threads assimilated in it had been running through the heart of PC gaming. It was the natural platform, just as multiformat - or, alternatively, tightly regimented console exclusives - is the order of the day in 2010. What this meant, though, was that Ion Storm was able to ramp up the game's complexity in what was actually an exceptionally familiar and intuitive way.
Because, for all intents and purposes, it played like a first-person shooter. This was in the pre-Halo days when the only reasonable console FPS was Goldeneye, and seriously, try going back and playing that again now. Atop your standard WASD controls and mouselook sat a user interface that could be easily and quickly navigated with just a few mouse-clicks, with additional items brought up by swift hotkey presses.
But it was a PC game because that's just what PC games were like. The consoles had fighting games, and action adventures, and cute role-playing releases. Where the PC had Thief, the PlayStation had Metal Gear Solid. The audience was markedly split. That players of each format are starting to effuse gently into the others is something I can only see as a great thing... but that's a different matter entirely.
What people often fail to grasp about Deus Ex, and others of its ilk, is that its phenomenal successes were entirely down to Spector and co's intricate understanding of their own design theory. When I reviewed Invisible War, back in 2003, I built the entire piece around an admittedly trite gimmick: a conversation between myself, and various different kinds of Deus Ex fans.