(this post is originally published on my tumblr blog: thedoglion.tumblr.com)
Deus Ex...I reinstalled it, and am playing it again. Currently I finished the Hong Kong chapter, so I would be about half-way through. So I have some thoughts on the game.
One thing that is very apparent is that Deus Ex's graphic engine is the original Unreal engine, and this allows for very large game environments to explore with few loading times. I think that this is a real strength of the game. It has this early PC FPS feel to it, you know, from an era where shooters weren't ports from consoles and actually had huge, elaborate levels.
Also there is no real physics engine to write home about, this has only become a mainstream feature around the time of Deus Ex 2. I like the simple, clean look of the game, and the little eye candy there is, really literally shines. You know, Deus Ex is famous for it's awesome shiny floors and iconic level design.
In Deus Ex, you really feel like a badass agent, especially when you infiltrate a top-secret location like a science lab, a terrorist hideout or a shady government agency. This is similar to Thief 2, where the game just sort of dumps you into an environment, gives you a goal and then lets you figure out how to reach it.
The game accommodates a decent amount of different ways to do things, but it does nudge you towards being stealthy and rewards exploration with goodies like skill points and items. At no point did it feel like the game was handholding me or looking down at me, like so many games do these days.
Overall, the title comes off as confident of itself, of its own quality. Excessive handholding and teaching the player explicitly how to do the dumbest things is one thing I really hate in games, and it reeks of insecurity on the designer's part. As if they feel that their game sucks so much that they could lose the player at any point, and feel forced to constantly show me the way so that I don't quit out of cluelessness. But I digress.
Deus Ex respects the player, and this is not only apparent in the game design, it is also apparent in the writing and exposition. If I want to, I can hack into people's computers and read their emails, often containing delicate details that concern my character and that he's not supposed to know, sometimes containing a kind of "lore" that helps flesh out the fiction.
The conversations between characters are well written and in a kind of level that feels grown-up. Things are only explained to me if it fits with the overall context of the game. The fiction of the world does not bend over just to try to accommodate me the player, requiring me to put a bit of effort on my part to enjoy the plot. I appreciate that.
Then there are several instances where I can make decisions, and these are very elegantly integrated into the story. I find that Ion Storm really knew well to give me just the right amount of story choices to make me feel like I'm really acting out the story as JC Denton without completely making him feel like a blank slate.
Then there are lots of little things that when added up, really complement the experience. I love the sound effect when I get a transmission and the little text field that pops up on the upper part of the screen, pulling me into the story without taking away my focus from playing the game. I love the little interactions that NPCs have amongst themselves. I love the wall textures (I recommend using a texture mod) that don't look like shit when you get up close. I love finding new ways in a level only to realize 5 minutes later that it was an alternate route to a place where I'd been before which I could've seen if I'd just paid more attention. I love the little memos left that always have a new explanation or story point for why once again, I can have a handy number code for a keypad ahead.
Deus Ex is by no means a perfect game. I'm not sure if it is the best game of the decade from 2000 to 2010. There's many things that can and will be made better in games in the future, such as more sophisticated simulation aspects, more non-linearity through better NPC AI etc. These are technical problems that still need solving.
What is commendable about this game though is that Ion Storm knew how to make this game work given the limitations they had at the time. This game stood head and shoulders above its peers at the time, and many of today's games. Replaying it in 2012 shows just how much good design and game writing is more important than fancy presentation and gimmicky features that seem to hog modern games.