RIP DEUS EX. Recalling fondly(and Eulogizing) our favorite franchise.

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One of the worst things on the internet this month was the news that DEUS EX had indefinitely been put on hold (read: completely dead for the foreseeable future) and that Eidos Montreal would be focusing all its energies on a new Marvel’s THE AVENGERS game, leaving Adam Jensen’s story unfinished and effectively putting the fate of one of the best, most ground-breaking franchises in the history of games in complete uncertainty. As of now, DEUS EX is no longer a priority for the company and it’s going to focus on (what seems) are licensed games for the time being.

Now without using overt memes and ‘I never asked for this’ quips, we will reinstate, just like most people on the internet that this is indeed very, very, very sad news indeed. It’s always sad when the things that speak the most personally to you die a sad, ignored death but to see it happen to something like DEUS EX hurts far beyond than any psychological wounds from my childhood. For a certain group of us, DEUS EX wasn’t just a gaming franchise, it was so much more. Something that seemed like it was made to directly hack directly into the mainframe of my sensibilities using an ice breaker (pardon the pun).

For people like me who are somewhat cynical, periodically wary and occasionally misanthropic (okay scratch that, always cynical, consistently wary and frequently misanthropic), putting on sunglasses (at night) and trench coats and going on globe-trotting spy adventures to expose global corporate/government conspiracies felt less like recreation and more like therapy. The original DEUS EX wasn’t a perfect game by any stretch but it felt like a manna from heaven that our lord in heaven Warren Spector and his team at ION STORM had conjured up in his free time to provide a sense of relief to all my jadedness over the years. It’s sense of unmatched experimental gameplay (later rechristened as ‘emergent’) along with it’s dark, multi-layered, plot-twist riddled, awesome storyline that had relevant thematic depth and socio-political commentary felt so ground-breaking  back in the day and to this day, still makes 99% of most modern AAA titles feel like a waste of time and money. (Including ALL Metal Gear Solids. Solid Snake doesn’t even hold a candle to the legend that is JC Denton)

Sure, it took a while to wrap your head around but once you did, you were treated to complete immersion into a dark, neo-noir, trans-continental, cyberpunk landscape with a seemingly in-built ecology and ruleset that seemed like reacted to every decision you made in the game .Choices seemed to affect the ways in which the game world responded to you. And the decisions you made throughout the course of the game seemed to really affect the overall story in ways both transparent and not-so transparent. Some things would pay off instantly, whilst others would have a long reaching effect that won’t be visible until different scenarios later in the game. In that way, the game really succeeded in putting the onus on you, the player and letting you choose on how to progress through the game. Whilst, it was a linear game with a linear story line, it felt like the exact opposite.

You could do one single thing in seemingly endless amount of ways. Including killing story-line bosses in multiple ways:

Not everything was polished (fuck those stupid ladder physics and the somewhat buggy stealth) but the fact that even the most far-reaching stuff seemed perfectly logical made it a game like no other. It was a game that had immaculate world building, scenarios and storytelling but put player urgency first above everything else.  It built it’s all enveloping world by mixing a complicated interface that included multiple ways of interacting with the world (combat,stealth,hacking,lockpicking) and let those be the tools to connect with its sprawling, multi- tiered level design to ensure that every player will have his/her own approach towards solving a problem/overcoming an obstacle.

It’s wasn’t so much fun to play, as it was fun to figure out. Often times, you would consistently try a single approach and fail, only for you to switch gear try something else and clear an objective within seconds.

Hell, you could circumvent the entire game, if you wanted to. Spector and his team kept the core philosophy of putting player input before everything else, knowing full well that a lot of times, most savvy players would be able to break the game to their hearts’ content if they customized their character builds in certain specific ways. And to be fair, they did. Leading to years of fun.

The narrative was also smartly integrated within the framework of the gameplay as opposed to being a completely different entity from it (*cough*UNCHARTED*cough*). It was a smart poignant storyline that dealt with prevalent issues that have become infinitely pronounced over time. The game presented a world that was plagued by conglomerate takeover, propagated media manipulation, economic divide, class warfare, Artificial Intelligence and government corruption and manipulation that may have been apocrypha back in the day but now has all but become the real, actual world in the year of 2017, which nowadays seems on the brink of total annihilation. Aside from being a great game, DEUS EX also deserves full credit for being a genuine futurist piece of media that now seems like we desperately need more have in a world filled with disposable commodities and cheap thrills. (*cough*UNCHARTED*cough*).

The cherry on top of the package was an absolutely incredible soundtrack.  Scored by Alexander Brandon and Michiel van den Bos, it featured a mixture of synthesisers, techno, classical and electronic music that provided just about the perfect ambience for every one of the game’s scenarios and immersed you into it’s dark, moody, twisted cyberpunk world. DEUS EX wasn’t really known for its’ graphical fidelity and was severely under-lit in many places but it didn’t matter because this song playing whilst traversing a Paris nightclub looking for Nicolette DuClare says more about the environment and the surroundings than any HD texture pack ever could. More importantly, it is cool as all hell.

DEUS EX was followed by a Harvey Smith-led sequel called INVISIBLE WAR that according to the internet narrative these days was an unworthy follow-up. Its simplified mechanics, restricted hubs, technical shortcomings, lame protagonist and somewhat less variable gameplay received plenty of criticism from the gaming press and a LOT of it from the hard-core fan base, which instantly deemed it a massive step back and a pale shadow of the original. And whilst some of it is duly warranted, it’s a game that I feel is duly undervalued by a lot of people. Especially, the fan base.

Part of it has to due with the iconic nature of the original and the weightage it carries. When you make a hyper-detailed world with complex microsystems and let you preside over philosophical and political implications so a nigh perfect degree the first time, missing the mark even a little feels like a betrayal to the same overzealous, hyper-demanding fanbase that not only endeared themselves to it but declared it as a sort of a quasi-religion. There’s a reason why PC gamers worship the first DEUS EX more than their parents and unfortunately, it’s the same reason why they are repelled by its first sequel. And that reason is: expectations. INVISIBLE WAR had an impossible hurdle to clear to begin with but it didn’t do itself any favours by playing it somewhat tangential to the philosophy behind the original game.

DEUS EX fans liked complexity. They did not want the series to be nerfed down. Adding to the fact that it was clearly made to cater to the booming console market and was made first with them in mind, there was no hope in hell it could ever live up to the original. So when playing it first time, even veterans like me were flummoxed by the somewhat lame AI, same-y looking areas and hubs split into smaller sections. It sometimes felt like a game that’s trying to rip off DEUS EX, as opposed to being a sequel. And speaking of the hub areas, they don’t seem nearly as well designed as the original and lack serious detail, making them a chore to explore often. And that is kind of counter –reactive to the philosophy behind DEUS EX, where exploration and experimentation is a primary part of the experience.

It’s that reduction is complexity is what hurts it the most, in my opinion. DEUS EX itself wasn’t a mechanically perfect game by any stretch, but it was understandable due to its’ ocean-deep, often seemingly limitless depth and it was easy to ignore some of it’s sloppier elements. INVISIBLE WAR being somewhat clunky and less deep on the other hand, magnified it’s flaws for everyone to see with naked eyes. I’ll be the first one to admit that things like the ‘unified ammo system’ and the borderline broken AI at times feel like HUGE steps back and the fact that you can now break the game so easily (and not in a ‘fun’ way like the original) at times feels like sacrilege to all of us who lived and breathed DEUS EX for most of our lonely, brooding existences.

Now with all that said, INVISIBLE WAR is still overall a very good game. And even despite the compromises, at its core, it’s still DEUS EX. The design is still on the ambitious side and the story if anything, offers more choice than the original, in which you can ally yourself with multiple factions (a game mechanic a lot of future RPG’s borrowed from it) and features extremely interesting side quests that are still fun to play to this day. Its simplicity is a lack of overthinking and risk-taking, not laziness (*cough* DRAGON AGE 2 *cough*).  It has much cooler stuff in it than 99% of most games today. Like NG resonance, for example:

The writing is also very interesting and very much in line with the original’s emphasis of posing big philosophical questions. When Alex D finally meets the demigod version of JC Denton at the ice sanctuary, the monologue that follows is just as legendary as anything in the original game. It also has a fantastic soundtrack as well, living up to the one in the original but is often forgotten due to the lack of iconic moments to put into context to.

Ultimately, history will remember INVISIBLE WAR as a sequel that really tried. It tried to tweak the formula and set it apart from its predecessor during the time when such games weren’t being made. (There was no market for ‘emergent gameplay’ during the mid ‘00’s and Looking Glass studios had folded in 2000). Most of the games that were popular around the time were Console RPG’s, shooters and action games (very good ones, too). The fact that a developer had the balls to even attempt an ‘immersive sim’ at that point deserves a round of applause. Sure, they made some blunders in even those circumstances but INVISIBLE WAR still is a very good game. One that nowhere near lives up to the original in any capacity but does NOT tarnish the name of DEUS EX. I would rather play it that any other BIOWARE game in the last six years. It hurts me to see it still being lambasted all around to this day when people give crap like DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION a pass.

Despite its many problems, it’s still worth checking out even now. whatever the fanboys and internet groupthink narrative tell you, it’s a damn good game that takes risks and tries to show its audience new things, which is something that games almost never bother to nowadays.

They made Harvey Smith apologise for it, for god’s sake. Which is borderline ridiculous.

After the ‘disappointment’ of INVISIBLE WAR, DEUS EX disappeared for a while. And for a while, I mean many, many years. The legacy of the entire franchise had now been centred around the original game at this point and public narrative stated it as an iconoclastic classic that stood apart from the rest of the pack as a progenitor for advanced game design. One that only Spector and his team at Ion Storm was able to crack. The ‘failure’ of INVISIBLE WAR further enshrined it as a singular entity. It was the sort of gift gamers were supposed to feel blessed to have been given once and asking more would have been a crime. As expected, YEARS went by and there was no news on the franchise. Many fans resigned to the fact that 2000 was as good as it gets and learned to move on.

Then in 2010, this happened:

The announcement of DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION by Eidos Montreal was met with a polarised reception on the internet at the time. And it had a protracted, mysterious development cycle that raised more than a few question marks throughout.  The idea of a real life, modern DEUS EX game in a market saturated by console shooters and dumbed down RPG’s seemed almost unbelievable. Even it is’ good no one will buy it, I used to think. I didn’t think there was any way you could make a modern DEUS EX game, simultaneously port it to consoles, cater to a large audience and not alienate the fan base.

Luckily, Eidos Montreal proved me dead wrong.

HUMAN REVOLUTION felt (and still feels) less like a game and more like a miracle. Not only does it completely revivify the DEUS EX franchise for the modern audience but it also reintroduces it to the older, hardcore fans in a fresh way without ever betraying Warren Spector’s original design ethos or pandering to modern AAA trends. It stands tall as the only one of its kind last generation: A big-budget, heavily marketed title that is genuinely complex and deep. Standing tall amongst the mass market, barely interactive, linear shoot-fests as well as mediocre, overpraised copy/paste ‘open worlds’ with sloppy, unrefined mechanics.

Some concessions are made of course. The game has less of the giant open-ended levels that were so prevalent in the original (although those that are there are great). But that is not a detriment, as there is now more detail in those said levels than there ever was before. HUMAN REVOLUTION makes ample use of its technology and art design to create a fully-realised cyberpunk world that is on par with BLADE RUNNER and would make Ridley Scott jealous in its meticulous attention to detail. Every piece of environmental design seems handcrafted and seems meticulously designed to a micro-inch, giving the player an incredible sense of place

In classic DEUS EX fashion, You can play both as a murdering asshole or a silent ninja cyber-spy. And thanks to refined stealth mechanics, it is possible to beat the game first time fully non-lethally. Taking place 20 years before the original DEUS EX, it creates a rich, vibrant world for you to explore with many interesting characters and side quests and multiple ways to traverse its superb, multi-layered hubs. You can customise the character to your preferences using the augmentation system, which lets you have jurisdiction over what abilities/powers you acquire throughout the game.

All of that without any sort of cognitive dissonance between its narrative and gameplay. Supporting all of its’ various function was a superb story that not only housed various interesting characters and an unpredictable, engaging plot but also explored genuine socio-political themes in a smart, layered way. (Newscaster Eliza Cassan being a propaganda spewing AI is such a perfect summation of our current news landscape). And it also benefitted from Adam Jensen being a genuinely interesting and human protagonist, whose plight and moral quandaries were relatable and like JC before him, looked badass in a trench coat and sunglasses.

Whilst HUMAN REVOLUTION wasn’t a perfect game. It was pretty much perfect in all the ways that really mattered. It brought back DEUS EX in major way. Pulling off a complex, ambitious piece of game design in the modern era whilst still keeping it cutting edge and up to modern standards. It was a triumph for not only hard-core DEUS EX fans but also newcomers who were successfully introduced to the franchise. Not only did it live up to its’ forbearers name, it positively improved upon it in myriad ways. The soundtrack this time, was also stunning. With Michael McCann providing what is easily one of the best game soundtracks ever. I will always think of ‘Hengsha daylight’ when I infiltrate a Chinese corporation next time:

HUMAN REVOLUTION’s success secured the future of DEUS EX in a major ways. It’s success (and amazing post credits cliff-hanger) all but ensured that we will be a getting a sequel. The brand also significantly expanded into other forms of media like comic books, merchandise and (terrible) mobile games. All of that was fine and good. After all, who doesn’t want DEUS EX to be globally recognised?? But what we really wanted was a true sequel. And we got that too, with DEUS EX: MANKIND DIVIDED.

Problem is, it took five long years.

Now I’m not going to talk about MANKIND DIVIDED in detail here. The story around it will become clear over time. But it’s clear that some of its’ weaknesses are the result of perhaps too many cooks in the kitchen, a mysteriously long dev cycle and most probably Square Enix’s corporate meddling. Whatever the case is, it’s pretty obvious that it was getting increasingly hard to make games that strove for greatness like DEUS EX with inflated budgets, more shareholders and marketing responsibilities. And whilst MANKIND DIVIDED is a good game, it is now unfortunately considered an let-down in the eyes of the fans due to it’s’ flaws and in the eyes of the shareholders, due to its’ underperformance.

And so DEUS EX seems to be DOA for the near future.

And now it’s time for the sad part of this article:

Look, even in the current topsy-turvy, up-is-down and black-is-white sort of world we live in, it still is kind of outrageous that of all the franchises that are biting the bullet are the ones that are trying to say something about it. I’m fine with video games having multi-million dollar budgets and being marketed to the mass audience. But this very insistence on them being homogenized products for widespread consumption is indirectly what’s killing their propensity to move towards any sort of higher artistic plane. Especially one that they were predicted to ascend to when they first started showing maturity and evolution.

Most people buy 3-4 video games per year and all 3 or 4 of them involve shooting people in the face or running them over with an automobile and that’s all well and good. But it often feels like when games mastered that, they either forgot to, or stopped wanting to learn how to do everything else. The medium will never evolve if games completely give up on trying to do anything else besides the bare minimum.

The DEUS EX franchise felt like an antidote to all of this mediocrity. It was noteworthy in somehow combining the sum of its’ parts and coming up with something that went beyond each of them. All games seemed to have been made by a team of incredibly passionate people that sought to make a huge impact on the landscape as opposed to just a couple of boardroom execs that checked a list of things that sell and then proceeded to invest in funding those. It not only had ambition but the courage to hold on to its’ convictions, even if the majority of people were repelled by it.

The DEUS EX franchise was never destined to have the sort of mass appeal as some of the biggest franchises in gaming. The fact that it found a large audience speaks to how universally excellent it was across the board. It was the closest thing to a purists’ game there ever was. Effortlessly juggling many great things like superb level design, sharp writing, poignant social commentary and boundless replayability. It was not only a gamer’s game but a game made for people who were truly interested in what the medium was truly capable of. And it was all this all throughout without once compromising on what it was and was supposed to be. It was a game that not only was fun to play but had a lot of things to say about the world and humanity in general. And this was an ethos that this incredible franchise carried through ALL its installments, MANKIND DIVIDED included. Be it compromised by ambition or corporate greed, it seemed to hold on to what it believed in in both its highest and lowest moments.

And now it’s gone.

 

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