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The Denton Dynasty

The past, present and future of Deus Ex

"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?

Well.

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.

The idea was thus: why did you like Deus Ex? If you liked it because it was initially a PC exclusive, well, then you're an idiot and I don't want to talk to you any more. If you liked it because of its conspiracy-laden plot and shady array of characters, then sure, I can get behind that, but Deus Ex's aesthetic was never its strongest suit for me. If you liked it because of its RPG elements, you'd probably be disappointed by the sequel. But if you hoped that sequel would be an unusual but ultimately loyal continuation of the Denton dynasty in a more conceptual sense, then you - like me - would have been on top of the world.

It's nothing to do with the restrictions of any individual gaming platform. People blamed the Xbox's inferior processing power for Invisible War's claustrophobic and disconnected level design, but the truth is that console handled things on a far larger scale, and much more convincingly, than Ion Storm managed to exploit. Just as Deus Ex's successes were all those of an exceptionally smart developer, its sequel's failures were the result of a team who couldn't quite fit their ambition into the template set before them.

What they did, however, was keep the Looking Glass spirit alive by never resting on their laurels. It would have been all too easy to make another Deus Ex, pull the level boundaries in a bit, show off the new Unreal tech's fancy lighting techniques and palm it off as a true next-generation experience. And it saddens me to think that, really, that's probably what a lot of people wanted. Deus Ex might have been the child of a long ancestry, but there's very little else like it, even today. More of the same would have been more than enough.

Instead, Ion Storm made ruthless changes to the formula. The inventory system switched from space-based to slot-based, allowing you to cram an unreasonable amount of hefty weaponry onto your person. Ammunition was merged into a single pool, with the same clip working in every gun, but wasting away at differing rates. The levelling system was replaced with BioMods, which paved the way for - say - BioShock's use of upgrades. No longer did you have to stick to the shadows most of the time; playing it as a straight shooter was often perfectly reasonable. And no longer did you have to meticulously scan well-guarded areas for subtle entry points: almost every mission provided you with a clear set of options right from the start.

It didn't do this because the Xbox couldn't handle anything else. It didn't do this because Xbox fans couldn't handle anything else. Invisible War was crafted this way with absolute and intentional precision, and the result was a game whose focus differed from that of the original.

Deus Ex touched on it, but Invisible War really was a game about choice. You can talk all you want about how its consequences were never as severe as it wanted you to think, and how all freedom is an illusion, but it's that illusion that's important. Within half an hour of starting the game, two different factions are begging you to ignore the other. You complete the same missions, in largely the same manner, and the story progresses in much the same way. But it's asking you to put faith in your own judgements, and question your own line of thought as you make those decisions. Are they really terrorists, or do they just want freedom? Did the academy really want to protect you, or were you a mere pawn in their masterplan? That transfers to the mechanics of play, as well: which suits your purposes better - the lockpick in your inventory, or the grenade locked inside that cabinet?

All the options are clear. What's obfuscated slightly is the morality and practicality of choosing any one of those options. But even then, it gives you a pretty good idea. When you sit back and examine it, the reason Invisible War was the way it was becomes abundantly clear. It was never a game about Ion Storm. It was never a game about the Denton family. It was a game about you.

So when you chose to keep the lockpick instead of using it to get that grenade, that's because you made a very intentional decision about the way you wanted to approach the next section of the game. When you decided to side with the apparent bad guys, that's because you wanted to play as a bad guy. When you explored, it's because you wanted to explore, and when you didn't, it's because you wanted to shoot terrorists in the groin. I spent more time in The Greasel Pit - Invisible War's ultra-cool, ultra-seedy bar - than any other location in the game. Why? Because, man, I fancied a goddamn drink.

And no, it didn't always work, even for me. Parts of the environment were incredibly contrived. Its script was phenomenal, but the acting wooden. It was considerably shorter than Deus Ex, but some sections still stretched out uncomfortably. And, yeah, you know what? It probably was just a little bit too easy, too simplified.

Invisible War's problems were a product of its own design. Consolisation is a myth. You can take the most incompetent technology known to man and, if you're ingenious enough in your approach, still make something remarkable. Invisible War was a great game but, to many, not the sequel they'd been craving. And whatever its eventual quality, that is inevitably the problem Deus Ex 3 will face too.

We already know it's supposedly going back to the series' roots. The developers of Deus Ex 3 have indeed acknowledged why people think Invisible War sucked. It's an RPG again, with full character customisation and multi-faceted level design. They're trying, admirably, to understand why Deus Ex worked.

They're also changing things. "Health regeneration, third-person cover, multi-kill augmentations with 'cool moves'," writes that same forum user - "same disease, different symptoms." But the disease isn't consolisation. The only disease is a chronic urge for experimentation. And whether it works or not, I'm right behind that ethos, all the way. After all, if there's one thing Deus Ex was founded on, it's that new ideas are always attainable, and the future is where we really begin to take back control.

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