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Deus Ex: Invisible War

Hmm…

I think…

Well I didn’t…

Hm.

Would it be weird if I said I sort of enjoyed this game?

I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as its predecessor, mind you. It doesn’t come anywhere close to standing up against that shining gem. I wouldn’t call it great. I don’t think I’d even call it good. But I had fun with it, sort of, sometimes.

Gameplay-wise, it’s alright, I guess. Stripping away the skill points and simplifying the augmentations basically just made it a somewhat clunky stealth shooter with some serious balance issues. I heard people complain that ammo is overly scarce, but I maxed out the melee augmentations and could tear everything apart with my mighty laser sword. The game threw in giant robots to make things harder, but there’s a certain augmentation that allows you to take control of machines by smacking them with whatever melee weapon you want, so they really only made the fights easier for me.

Still, though, it was kind of impressive to see what Ion Storm could do with the tiny map size limits that they had. Some of the levels actually feel kind of complex, about as much as some of the smaller areas of Deus Ex 1. And while the restrictions did mean that a lot of the exploration and combat was far less interesting than what we’d had before, the game still allowed me to roleplay a Jedi ninja hiding in shadows and stabbing guards with a lightsaber, so I have to at least give it credit for that.

However!

I already linked to the Errant Signal episode on Invisible War. Here, I’ll just put it down below.

I agree with a lot of his points, but there are two things he says at around the 13 minute mark I have to object to.

“One of the things the game manages to do …okay is the story.”

I disagree with that…

“Narrative was never one of Deus Ex’s strong suits, so the bar was never set that high.”

And I strenuously object to that.

MILD SPOILERS OF BOTH DEUS EX 1 AND INVISIBLE WAR AHEAD. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

There’s a sequence in Deus Ex 1 in which you accompany a young woman named Nicolette DuClare to search the abandoned mansion where she used to live. See, Nicolette is the daughter of Elizabeth DuClare, who was a leading member of the Illuminati. As a result, the mansion is absolutely filled with secret stashes, trap doors, and emergency levers and buttons. As you search the mansion Nicolette makes comments about her childhood, how she used to see strange men in suits all the time, how her mother was always on edge, etc.

It was basically a character study, a window view into the life of a child whose mother is involved in a global conspiracy. And it was fascinating. It really fleshed out both the character of Nicolette DuClare and the world she inhabited. And this is sort of indicative of the game as a whole; it’s huge and it has quite a large cast of major characters, and yet the world feels rich and all those major NPCs have depth and diversity.

In Deus Ex: Invisible War you meet Nicolette DuClare. She’s one of the leaders of the Illuminati now. She delivers some plot exposition and then sends you to your next quest objective.

That’s it.

There aren’t many characters in the game that actually feel fleshed out in any meaningful way. Once again, there’s quite a sizable list of them, but most of them seem like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts placed into the level to move the story forward. Some of them are written fairly well, but you never really get any time to know them. This, to me, was the most disappointing thing of all in Invisible War: It just doesn’t feel like a world filled with people in the same way its predecessor did.

I suppose you could blame this on the game itself being significantly smaller, but if you have a smaller game, give it less major NPCs so we can have the proper time to get to know them. That’s what Human Revolution did, and that game has some of the strongest, best developed characters I’ve seen in awhile.

Invisible War didn’t satisfy me, but like I said, the game did amuse me to a degree. Like a bag of chips. I really can’t bring myself to hate it, though I suspect that’s because I had such low expectations to begin with, but somehow it still ended up disappointing me.

I don’t know if I can ever look at Deus Ex again now that I have this stupid sequel in my memory. Can I really just pretend none of that stuff happened and that JC Helios instituted the Heliocracy and everything was lovely? Or is it not that simple?

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Deus Ex: The Ending

I have a fairly simple distinction to judge whether a movie is great or merely good: A good movie is one that can entertain me, while a great movie is one that can force me to think critically. I watched Aliens awhile back due to the various recommendations I got from readers, and while I certainly will agree that it’s a damn good movie, I wouldn’t consider it great. It didn’t make me contemplate the nature of human relationships like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did, and it didn’t help me come to terms with my own masculinity like Fight Club did. It was just an entertaining diversion.

If I were to apply this same distinction to video games (and I don’t, for innumerable reasons) Deus Ex would be one of the only truly great video games I have ever played. I’ve made it clear in the past that Deus Ex is my favorite game of all time, and I’m sure the ending played a large part in that. It made me realize something about myself that I hadn’t realized before. It made me ponder concepts like authority, the rights of individuals, the needs of the many, and the cost of independence.

WARNING: I’m about to spoil the ending of Deus Ex. If you haven’t beaten it and intend to do so one day, I highly recommend you don’t read on ahead. Seriously, man. I don’t want to spoil this for you.

Ahem. Anyway, I’ll try to recount the situation at the end of the game as best as I can. Sorry if my memory is fuzzy.

You’re in Area 51. Area 51, through a series of complicated events, has become the home to a global communications hub and an artificial intelligence that refers to itself as Helios. Bob Page, who serves as the game’s lead evil douchebag, wants to merge with Helios in order to take control of Area 51 and thus control all nanotechnology everywhere, essentially becoming a god.

Helios has contacted you and told you that it doesn’t want to merge with Bob Page; it wants to merge with you. Helios believes that if it merges with you, it can gain an understanding of humans and use that to take control and run the world in a benevolent dictatorship.

Morgan Everett, the leader of the Illuminati (the secret shadow government that runs everything behind the scenes), contacts you and tells you that if you kill Bob Page, you can join him and rule the world with an invisible grip hidden behind corporations, bureaucracy, etc.

Then Tracer Tong, an ally of yours throughout the game, contacts you and says you should destroy Area 51, thus disabling all nanotechnology and plunging the world into a second dark age so that nobody can use the machines to control one another.

This is the choice you have to make: Global anarchy, benevolent dictatorship, or corporate conspiracy?

I was able to rule out the Illuminati option right away. I have a fairly pessimistic view on politicians, and the rule of the Illuminati sounds like the absolute worst case scenario for the world to be in. When the fate of the world is in the hands of a select few, the few will inevitably get 99.9% of the wealth, privileges and power. People are corrupt. People are selfish.

The Helios option also sounded like a no-go, until I heard Helios’s argument for it. Here, just watch the first half of this video and listen for yourself.

Two lines in particular stand out for me:

“The checks and balances of democratic governments were invented because human beings themselves realized how unfit they were to govern themselves. They needed a system, yes, an industrial-age machine.”

“I should regulate human affairs precisely because I lack all ambition, whereas human beings are prey to it.”

We’ve seen about a million incarnations of the Evil Rogue AI trope, and I think we’ve become so accustomed to it that when we see an AI coming to its own independent conclusions we automatically assume it’s going to try to eradicate all human life. But here’s an AI that has logically concluded that it should rule and guide humans in order to bring society to peace and prosperity.

And I’ve got to say, it has a point.

I considered Tong’s plan, but the idea never appealed to me. The big issue Deus Ex addresses here is that people can use technology to seize positions of authority and power and control the freedoms and lives of others. As far as I’m concerned, eliminating all nanotechnology only postpones the issue, because eventually people will reach this point again. Maybe they won’t get there in the current generation, but they would eventually, because technology moves forward.

Helios, on the other hand, seems less like an immediate solution and more like the logical evolution and conclusion of government. We form governments and economic systems in order to organize ourselves efficiently and provide prosperity to as many as possible with our limited resources. The problem is that the humans who end up running these governments are susceptible to corruption and greed, and inevitably our systems end up becoming more damaging than they’re worth.

But if we can have an incorruptible machine, then maybe, just maybe, it could truly bring about a strong, peaceful, prosperous, and happy society.

In the end, I merged with Helios.

This ending felt perfect. It was ambiguous enough to let you come to your own conclusions, while also appropriately wrapping up the game’s themes. This was my ending to my Deus Ex, and it remains my favorite video game ending ever.

This isn’t to say that my ending is the correct ending. I’m sure you can think of many logical reasons for why giving all the power in the world to an artificial intelligence is a risky move. But that’s the point, really: there is no right answer, and the answer you choose shows something about yourself, something you may not have even realized.

I’ve seen Deus Ex: Invisible War on Steam sales a number of times. I’ve heard it’s nothing but a pale imitation of the original game, but I’ve learned not to accept others’ opinions on old video games as fact. (Exhibit A, B, C.) And even if I ended up hating the game, it could still make for an interesting blog post comparing and contrasting it with the original, since I only first played Deus Ex 1 less than two years ago.

But I’ve refrained this whole time because I know that they retconned my ending, as well as the other two endings, by attempting to cram them all into one story. (JC merges with Helios, then blows up Area 51, then Illuminati take control in the ensuing chaos.)

I’m baffled that they would do something like this. Deus Ex is not a game to make a direct sequel out of in the first place, since the ending you choose literally dictates the future of the entire fucking world, but what they did effectively ensured that nobody‘s ending was the canonical one, which is a sure-fire way to anger every single one of your fans.

Well, fuck you, Ion Storm! I thought. I’m not giving up my perfect Helios Ending just so you can cram another game down my throat!

But then I watched Campster’s video about it, and I must say that the burning hobo clip at the 35-second mark made me giggle like a schoolgirl. It made me realize, maybe I’m looking at this with the wrong mindset. Maybe I can just pretend it’s from an alternate universe, or a bad dream JC/Helios had after successfully instating the Heliocracy. Or maybe I’ll pretend it’s an entirely new story. One about burning hobos in narrow corridors!

So I got the game today, mostly because it’s available for $2.50 on Steam right now. Expect me to rant about it on Twitter in the near future, and maybe write a post about it here.

The way I see it, if the game even manages to feel like Deus Ex, even for a moment, this will have been a victory.


2011: NGD’s GOTY

I sure do love me some acronyms.

You know, for awhile I was all but certain Deus Ex: Human Revolution was going to win the prize for my Game of the Year (the value of that prize being somewhere in the negative zone). I loved that damn game. I even said it was better than the original Deus Ex.

But looking back on it, I think I may have jumped the gun. DX:HR had far more refined and functional gameplay than DX1, especially in the stealth department. I still stand by that statement. It also had a fun hacking minigame and a shockingly interesting and intuitive persuasion system. But on the whole, I just feel like it wasn’t quite as memorable as DX1. HR does pose some very interesting questions surrounding the concept of transhumanism, but DX1 had a myriad of ethical dilemmas and a wonderfully complex web of conspiracies, and I still rate the ending as the best ending of any game ever, and a perfect example of how to do the whole Big Ending Choice trope correctly.

I think the reason I loved DX:HR so much was because it’s such a perfect fit for me that I sometimes wonder if Eidos Montreal made the game specifically for me. It’s a stealth/shooter RPG set in a cyberpunk dystopia where you get to jump abnormally high, backstab unsuspecting guards, and wear a badass coat. I honestly can’t imagine anything that would be more appealing to me personally, except maybe if it also featured space pirates or ninjas. But it seems like nobody else liked the game quite as much as I did, and I guess that’s fair enough. Maybe it wasn’t that amazing.

But hey, you know what was kind of amazing? Bastion. A brilliant independent action-RPG with a virtually unprecedented art style and method of storytelling, one that presents a thoroughly fleshed-out world and an engaging, sometimes heart-wrenching narrative while rarely interrupting the flow of gameplay. This game took a lot of risks and played with a lot of big ideas, and it’s refreshing to see how well it sold and how much acclaim it received.

Honorable mention goes to Portal 2 and Skyrim. They were both great, if for very different reasons, but I think Bastion deserves the pedestal today.


Deus Ex 3 Anticipation

Well damn, the world didn’t end. Guess I have to talk about something now.

This was released recently as part of the viral marketing campaign for Deus Ex 3 (or Deus Ex: Human Revolution, to go by its proper title). The game is scheduled to release in late August of this year, and they’re reportedly getting close to finishing it. It’s set up as a prequel to the first Deus Ex.

I feel the need to remind you all that Deus Ex 1 is my favorite game ever. And with that in mind I must say, I am way more excited about this game than I should be.

Deus Ex 1 was developed by Ion Storm. This game is coming from Eidos Montreal. The publisher is even different; DX1 was from Eidos, DX3 is gonna be from Square-Enix. None of the new developers were involved in the creation of the first game. They certainly liked it, and they reportedly have taken influence from it, but it’s from a completely new set of people. The game looks like a completely different game set in an entirely new world. It seems like I have every reason to be pessimistic and cynical about this.

But I practically got giddy with excitement when I saw that ad. I’ve been following news about the game for awhile. I preordered the game a week or two ago, and the game isn’t coming out for months. And I didn’t just preorder the game; I preordered the collector’s edition of it. I’ve never done that for a game before.

So why am I so excited about this game?

Well, the developers have been saying all the right things. You can tell from trailers that they know what the fans liked about the first game. This isn’t like Fallout 3, where they thought all the fans wanted was more Super Mutants and Nuka-Cola.

They devoted an entire team to the PC version of the game to make sure it feels like an actual PC game and not just a PC port of a console game. The interface for the PC version looks rather similar to that of DX1.

But more importantly than all that is the fact that damn near every critic that’s gotten to play the preview has been speaking wonders for this game. PC Gamer. Rock Paper Shotgun. Destructoid. Susan Arendt talked about her experience with the game on Twitter. Pretty much everyone has unanimously agreed that it feels like Deus Ex. And they’re not just saying this game is pretty good. They’re saying this game is fantastic.

Although I have high hopes for this game, that RPS preview has me worried about two things.

1. They say it has a bit of an over-reliance on cutscenes. This I predicted from the start. I know they picked up on all those things that fans loved about DX1, but out of all the praises I’ve heard for that game, I think I’m the only one who I’ve ever heard saying “it has no cutscenes in it” as a point in its favor. So of course this new game is going to have cutscenes all over the place, because that’s how games work nowadays.

This doesn’t make the game bad, per se. It just takes away one aspect of the first game that made me adore it so much.

2. They say the preview ended with a mandatory boss fight. This is something I didn’t necessarily predict but was very worried about. Unskippable boss fights were the kiss of death for Alpha Protocol, a game I liked very much otherwise. In an action RPG that encourages alternatives to combat like stealth and dialogue, forcing them to fight a big epic boss just seems needless and silly.

I’m not sure how they’ve done the boss battles, and all I’ll say is that there’s potential for the fights to not suck if they do things just right. Nothing we can do but wait and see, I suppose.

In any case, I’m still really excited about this, and you should be too.


Choices and Sequels

If I could enact one game-related law, it would be this.

If the game you developed features one or more choices that majorly affect the story, you are not allowed to make a direct sequel to that game.

You can make a prequel. You can make a spiritual sequel. You can do what Knights of the Old Republic did and make a sequel that takes place years and years after the original game. I don’t care. Just don’t make a sequel that directly follows the story of the first game.

You see, when the developers decide to make a sequel to a game that involves big choices, they can either take the Mass Effect approach or the Deus Ex approach. Obviously neither of these games were the first to use these methods, but I’m going to use them as examples.

If they take the Mass Effect approach, they make it so that none the choices you make in the first game have any effect on the gameplay of the second game, and only change the dialogue and cutscenes. This means that they can make all the choices work, which means you can let players export their files or choose which choices they made in the first game when they start the second game.

If they take the Deus Ex approach, then they pick whichever choices they like the most and follow those. This means they get to focus entirely on one story arc.

The problem with the Mass Effect approach is that the choices you made in the first game end up being so trivial that you’ll be doing the same things in the second game no matter what. The problem with the Deus Ex approach is that if you happened to choose a different ending than the one the developers chose, your ending means nothing.

I think both of these methods are terrible, because they effectively ruin the impact of the first game’s choices, but I think the way Bioware did it with Mass Effect is the lesser of the two evils.

I don’t want to spoil anything about Deus Ex, but let me tell you, the choice you make at the end is huge. You’re essentially choosing the fate of the entire world, and no answer is the right answer. It makes you contemplate the nature of humanity, and I’m not aware of many games that have ever been able to pull that off. The ending I chose taught me something about myself, and that means a lot to me personally.

I noticed that Deus Ex: Invisible War was on sale for $5 on Steam recently. I’ve heard people say that the gameplay was not nearly as good as that of the first. I would be perfectly willing to buy it for $5 and see for myself whether or not it lives up to the standards left by the first game, but I’m not going to do that, because I know that they didn’t choose the ending I chose, and I don’t want to have my ending for Deus Ex ruined.

In my book, Deus Ex: Human Revolution will be the second game in the Deus Ex franchise. It’s going to be a prequel that takes place a long time before the first game, and that’s how it should be.

Knights of the Old Republic 2 is the only game I can think of that didn’t diminish the effect of the first game. It worked because it took place so long after the original game that the choice you made didn’t matter anymore. Either ending could fit into the timeline. I was actually happy with that. So if you absolutely must make a sequel to your game, at least do something like that.