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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Things I Think About Things: Deus Ex

Just finished up the most recent installment of Deus Ex, Human Revolution. Since one of the most-viewed posts I've made was a general overview of the Silent Hill series I figured I'd do something similar for the Deus Ex trilogy (well...whatever you call an original, a sequel and a prequel.)

And to keep on the general topic of RPGs I'll give my recommendation on the best RPG system to handle each game in the series. 

Now the original Deus Ex is generally held to be a one of the best games out there and you certainly won't hear any argument on that subject from me. It's one of my favorite games which is even more impressive when you consider that I'm normally fairly turned off by pure sci-fi games. Of course from a technical perspective the game isn't amazing (even by the standards of 11 years ago) but the level of detail, quality gameplay and engrossing story more than make up for any visual shortfalls.

JC may look like the love-child of Neo and a piece of origami but we love him anyway.
The best part of the original Deus Ex is that the focus on choice. The game allows you to customize your character in a huge number of ways through different combinations of skills, equipment and modifications. On top of that the level design allowed you to tackle each challenge and situation in a variety of different ways. It is perhaps the most replayable games I've ever owned and just about every time I do reinstall and replay it I almost always find some new plot element that I missed the first time or an interesting new way to handle a challenge. It's a pretty even bet that someone reading this is going to reinstall the game and give it another run through. The game's multiple endings are another interesting choice, far more intellectually challenging than the simple "good/evil" endings that seem so popular these days.

So how would I play it?
Deus Ex has a fairly strong focus on realism and a wide variety of skills and potential abilities (at least for video games). To me, this says GURPS. Characters could be built like standard, skilled individuals and augmentations (either mechanical or nano-tech) could easily be represented by advantages (or combinations of advantages). Augmented characters will of course have some inherent disadvantages (for nano-augs we're talking minor appearance alterations and vulnerability to EMP, for mech-augs the alteration to appearance will be much worse, as will the vulnerability. There's also a very strong possibility of a negative social stigma). Since augmentations are powered by bio-energy the augmented characters will no doubt need an energy reserve advantage combined with limitations on their augmentation-based advantages to require energy points from that reserve.


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After Deus Ex we get its sequel Invisible War. Invisible War was an above-average game whose main weakness was its inability to live up to the original and inevitable comparison between the two. First and foremost gameplay was much simpler and the storyline as a whole was much shorter and less complex. Obviously, this could be seen as an improvement to some but it was the original game's complexity and depth that made it stand out from the crowd. I certainly wouldn't say it's fair to call the game dumbed-down...but it was definitely a shallower experience.

One of the most bizarre and blatant manifestations of this was in the ammunition. All weapons you pick up use the exact same type of ammo. It's perfectly interchangeable due to it's nano-motile structure that lets it alter itself to suit different weapons. This might make some sense if you're switching loads between a revolver and a rifle...but the same ammo goes in a pistol...in a toxic dart-thrower...in a rifle...in a rocket launcher and in a flamethrower and energy rifle! Why is there any war or poverty? Ammo is cheap and it apparently has the flexibility to change it's structure into various metals to complex chemicals and even explosives or energy sources! How has this stuff not solved every problem in the world...I'm getting silly now, but you see my point. 

The plot wasn't exactly amazing either when compared to the multi-layered intricacy of the original. To a degree this was inevitable. After all the original game was all about unweaving a web of tangled conspiracies...you can't exactly put that genie back in the bottle and the 20 year time gap is hardly long enough to allow any major changes. We know going into the game that there will be shadowy organizations, betrayals and lies so it's hardly shocking when it happens and it seems like it's impossible for the sequel to recreate the amazing twists and turns of the original. Sadly it doesn't seem to try to hard. But like I said, it's a fun game and it still retains a good deal of strategic depth when it comes to handling challenges. If the original Deus Ex was a mystery novel then this one is the action movie adaptation. You know it'll be fun, exciting and pretty...but the fans of the original will always say the book was better (it totally was!).

How do I play it? Invisible War may have been born from a conspiracy RPG but it's got the heart of an action game and it doesn't like to mess around too much with nuts and bolts when it's got things to do! To me, this says Savage Worlds. The augmented would probably be best represented as a different race. Instead of a free Edge they get the Arcane Background edge for free (an augmentation based AB probably would resemble the Super Power AB) and the "default" tech that is built in (light and radio for instance). This is balanced by a distinctive appearance (glowing eyes) and a vulnerability to EMP (probably causes a loss of power points and possibly shakes augmented characters). In addition augmented characters face no restrictions on the purchase of Attributes. They are not limited to a single upgrade a Rank and they can increase them above 1d12. Most augmentations can easily be built using the SW power system.

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Now finally we come to the latest installment, Human Revolution. The game's meant to be a prequel, although any nitpicking fan of the original will tell you that the technology on display is, for the most part, far more advanced than the stuff that appears in the original Deus Ex and sometimes even what you see in Invisible War. And of course it's pretty. Damn pretty. But is it fun?

Well, the short answer is "yes, but..." which leads to the long answer. A lot like Invisible War this game suffers in comparison to the original. In some ways it's a lot closer since it retains a very strong focus on tackling opponents and challenges in various ways and generously rewards players who think outside the box. It's a fun game that seems initially to have a good balance of skill, action and even social conflict.

The game has beautifully made and very interesting settings. Arriving in Singapore made me wonder why video games don't use thunderstorms more often as a setting element...they're very cool. 

However it has two big flaws that prevent it from being great. The first is a complete lack of subtlety, which isn't great for a conspiracy game. For example, one of the very first documents you can read in the game is about a "Patient X" whose DNA shows a remarkable ability to adapt to augmentation without rejection. Considering this is in the office of your ex-girlfriend who is also the head researcher at the augmentation corporation you work for and is making cryptic comments about something she's been keeping from...well it's pretty damn obvious that you're Patient X (especially considering that X's age and gender are also listed and match yours). And since the previous two games focused on a genetic legacy that was capable of accepting augmentation without rejection you can pretty easily figure out that Paul and JC Denton (and later Alex D) will be made possible by your DNA. And that's one of the central "secrets" of the game revealed literally within the first five minutes. Oh, and your name is Adam...reeeaaally sneaky.

Another, slightly more spoilerish, example is later in the game when you're exploring a news station that you will later learn is an illuminati front. If you read the emails in some workstations they explicitly spell out their wicked plans in bullet points! All the cameras in the game are produced by a company called "BigBro". On top of that you've got one of the main villians of the game who has the most affected evil-genius lisp ever...he might as well be stroking a white cat.

The game can't stop reminding you that you're playing a video game too. You'll have vents that connect two rooms and nothing else (because apparently the level designers aren't clear on the actual function of air vents) and office buildings heavily stocked with weapons and ammunition for no apparent reason. One of the silliest examples is a warehouse you run into later in the game which has a large pair of sliding doors with a window at eye level so you can see out...then another window at knee height whose only purpose is to see out if you're crouching (which you will do a lot). In another case I smash through a weak wall and take down a pair of thugs hiding in the room...only to realize that the room is completely cut off. The only exit (other than the hole I just made) is a 3-4 story fall down an open elevator shaft without any ladder...so how the hell did the thugs get there?

The game's biggest problem is a lack of meaningful choices. Like Invisible War there are no skills in this game, just augmentation. Unlike Invisible War you are not at all limited in your augments which ironically means you have less choice. In the first two games installing an a specific augment meant that you were forced to sacrifice two other potential augments. In Human Revolution you can potentially upgrade every single augment if you have enough Praxis...and you will. The game hands out XP and cash like candy and by the end of the game I had enough upgrades to literally purchase every single useful augmentation and then some.

When playing Deus Ex the decision on whether you would focus on combat, hacking stealth or whatever was important because it determined how you could play the game. Combat Brute JC would play a very different game than cyber-spy JC...and that was good and made the game very replayable. However by midgame Adam Jensen can basically do everything. Sure you could gun down the enemy or you could sneak through a vent or you could do both and get even more xp then hack everyone's PCs once they're all dead. The choice to be sneaky or obvious isn't as meaningful when you are completely free to do one or the other or both at the same time.

Also the endings, every single one of them, are dumb as hell. But I won't go into that.

But...all that said it's still a lot of fun and I still enjoyed it. I'll probably still purchase any future deus ex games and if you see Human Revolution on sale (I got it half off on steam last week) then I say definitely go for it...just try to avoid comparing it to the original because it will suffer.

How do I play it? Well...this is a bit harder. Like I said the only difference between different "versions" of Adam Jensen is the order in which you select your augs. By mid-to-late game all players are probably going to start looking the same. Savage Worlds would still be a good choice though. Mech-augs would get additional augmentations or power points in exchange for harsher penalties (more extreme appearance alterations and neuropozyne dependence).

But if you want to be really crazy you could hack Exalted into an interesting cyberpunk system...most of the augmentations could easily be represented by some of the various charms...there's even a social augmentation that allows you to control the minds of others. 


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