It’s not often that they come around, but every once in a while some company releases a first-person shooter where you really have to live the game to survive. These are games that focus very much on atmosphere, but also where the gameplay is more or less open-ended. Examples are Half-Life, the Thief games, System Shock 2, and Deus Ex. All of these games are classics, but Deus Ex was one of those games you could call an “acquired taste”. You had to invest a lot of time to really enjoy Deus Ex, to understand the choices, and master the fairly original challenges.
In the first game you played as JC Denton, a not too humorous guy who got involved in a number of organizations, got his body packed with biomods, figured out that some nasty guys wanted to rule the planet, and did something about it. In the sequel you play as a covert op trainee by the name of Alex D. At the start of the game you see the destruction of Chicago, your hometown. You begin playing in the covert op academy, which is soon attacked by the same terrorists. After escaping you slowly start solving the puzzle of who the attackers are, why they’re attacking, and a whole lot more. Just as in the first game you’ll spend much of the time dealing with different factions, such as the wealthy WTO, a highly religious sect called The Order, and a group of people called the Templars, who despise anything related to biomods. I don’t want to spoil too much of the storyline, but suffice to say – there are plenty of plot-twists, although the majority aren’t too surprising if you’ve played through the first game.
If I had to summarize the game in one word, it’d have to be “choices”. To elaborate, when playing the game there’ll always be several ways of handling a situation. For instance, a dark corridor may have a guard somewhere along it. To get past you could for instance hide in the dark and try to walk past. But that corridor might have an air duct, so you could go through a vent and start crawling. If that sounds boring, then you could charge right in firing off a couple of shotgun shells, or maybe stay at a distance getting a clean headshot with a sniper rifle. Or you could do like me, use a cloaking biomod to get nearly invisible, sneak over to the guard, and chop him with an electric blade – pure sci-fi ninja style.
The storyline is also affected greatly by the choices you make. When playing the game you won’t have to swear a blood oath to one of the factions or anything like that, but by choosing to help one you might have an easier time getting past a certain challenge, and it can also affect your friendship with story related characters. I’m sure that those of you who played Deus Ex a fair number of hours remember the sometimes very difficult choices one had to make. Well, Deus Ex 2 is no different. A lot of people’s lives will be affected by the choices you make, but I personally think that having played through Deus Ex 1 is almost a requirement if you want to make a good choice. You do get an idea of what went down in the first game, but I’m fairly sure there are people who will ponder a bit at why things in the story happen the way they do.
Quite a few changes have been made in terms of gameplay, but it’s hard to say if it’s for the better or worse. I’ll start with the interface, which it’s safe to say looks very different from most games. If you'll look at an in-game screenshot, you’ll see a lot of stuff occupying the left and right side of the screen. To the left you have the inventory hotbar if you will, where you store items you need quick access to, such as med-kits, weapons, and so on. You can use the mouse-wheel to cycle between those, or press the 1-6 keys for direct access. On the right side of the screen you'll find the biomods-bar, which lets you activate or deactivate what you have installed, but more on those soon. The right bar can be accessed using the 3 button on your numpad, and be cycled using the 5 and 2 buttons. For direct usage you can use the F1-F6 buttons, which is at least in my experience much easier.
Inventory management has also been altered, and I’m fairly confident it’s for the worse. Pressing the v button brings up a window with another bar next to the left one. In this window you can select items, equip them, drop them, move them to the left hotbar, and install mods in the weapons (improved accuracy, silencer, etc). The problem is that it feels really inefficient at first, and it only gets somewhat better with practice. I think a lot of people would’ve preferred the structure of the first game, where you had a rectangular matrix of slots, and the items occupied a certain number of slots. I’m sure it was meant to simplify the game, but in my opinion you just have to press too many buttons to have the interface do as you want. And speaking of too many buttons – when saving you have to press escape twice to get back into the game, when it should've just taken you directly into the game.
Also, all the ammunition in the game is now unified, meaning you’ll only pick up full or partially full ammo clips, which you can then use with any of the game’s guns. What this essentially does, is that it lets you keep playing more. You won’t have to manage many types of ammunition, which is convenient, but what about when you run out of ammo? If that happens, you’re pretty much screwed. However, I’m fairly sure that’s what Warren Spector intended. When you’re low or out of ammo, you need to resort to a different style of gameplay, such as being stealthy, using grenades instead of a SMG, and so on. This can be fun, but can also be somewhat frustrating when you’re getting close to the end and the only sane way to kill the enemies is by using guns. Also, the weapons are fairly well balanced in terms of ammo usage, meaning a sniper rifle with the power of a one-shot kill uses a lot of ammo, while a single shot from a SMG uses much less.
When playing the game you'll meet a number of people, some important, some far from important. It’s important to have a reasonable amount of money, so you’re very likely to do small jobs. These jobs can for instance require you to get rid of a robot, assassinate someone, or maybe eavesdrop on someone. If you’re hired to assassinate someone you could just go ahead and do it, or you could talk to the person, explain the situation, have him pay you to keep you off his back, and then sneak back and kill him for the original reward. As you see it’s mostly up to you how much of a bad or good-guy you want to be – it’s all about choices.
Graphically, Deus Ex 2 stands out from the crowd in several ways. For starters it uses dynamic shadows on a lot of objects, and regular shadow maps on some of the environments. It really is an awesome and even useful effect, since you can hide and sneak in the shadows as you please. There also seems to be a blur / depth of field effect going, which makes the game seem somewhat “different” in atmosphere, but in a good way. The texturing is really well done, some of which also seems bump-mapped. In my opinion many more of the textures could’ve been bump-mapped too, but perhaps it’s possible to tweak the game to look even better.
You see, to actually get the game running well, you’ll not only need a very good PC, you’ll also need to edit the default.ini file. You can of course play the game without doing so, but the in-game options only cover a fraction of what’s interesting. I highly recommend changing MouseLagTreshhold=75 to a value of 0, because doing that will make the cursor a great deal more fluid. Those without a high-end PC should be glad to know that by tweaking the default.ini file you can turn on and off the dynamic lighting, change texture quality, etc. It would’ve been nice to do this from the in-game menu, but as long as you know what the technical terms mean it’s not a problem to navigate the default.ini file. And to be honest, there are still some pretty evil bugs in the game, including one that makes it crash for no reason on a number of machines. But thankfully there's a workaround for the latter, all you'll need to do is set the game to run in Debug mode from the same default.ini file – this will make loading the levels slower, but will at least insure that you'll be able to play the game.
The characters look very nice, at least for the most part. The animations are also quite good, but what makes them special is the physics engine. Not only the game features ragdoll physics for the characters, but you can also pick up and throw many of the game’s objects. A lot of the game’s objects can also be destroyed, so if you run into a locked door that requires a multitool (which you of course don't have), you can try and find an explosive crate, place it by the door, and shoot it. There are a few doors you can’t open this way, but for the most part it’s a viable solution. Being able to manipulate so much of the game you’ll also be able to find new solutions to problems. Commonly this means that you can for instance stack crates on top of each other to reach things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach.
Sound-wise the game does a pretty commendable job as well. There is as you would expect surround support, and the game makes good use of it. Every character in the game is voiced, even ol’ JC Denton. There isn’t a great deal of background music, but what’s there is high quality, and appropriate for the location you’re playing in.
Well so far the game sounds good, right? The problem is that it just doesn’t feel as grand in scope. You do have a lot of choices, there’s plenty of action, and impressive graphics. On the other hand, it took most people about 30 hours to finish Deus Ex, but it only took me about 9 hours to finish this sequel, so more content wouldn’t have hurt it.
But then again, this is a game with a lot of replayability, since those with a lot of time on their hands might want to play the game again as a different type of character. It has been said that you’re supposed to be able to finish the game without killing anyone, but I can promise you that you’re in for a world of frustration if you try that yourself.