Ion Storm is an infamous development studio, but you can't attribute said infamy to a lack of trying. With some of the industry's best talent at the time, the auter-based studio's output was mixed, to say the least. From vehemently disregarded like John Romero's time-skipping FPS, Daikatana, to the positive-but-ignored reception of Tom Hall's ambitious-Final-Fantasy-like Anachronox, and of course the duology of console-constrained sequels Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, only one of Ion Storm's games would manage to be both critically and commercially successful: Deus Ex. Very few games claim to have the influence and popularity that Deus Ex enjoys, much less maintaining that reputation for over two decades. Often hailed as a prophetic harbinger of things to come narratively while celebrated for gameplay that would come to redefine the medium, the game is a mixture of many different elements that come together nearly perfectly. I've played very few games that, despite whatever flaws they may have, feel perfect in the way that Deus Ex does, nor come together so cohesively.
Part of this Ion Storm's approach to level design, one which they'd abandon for future games due to the technical limitations of consoles. Calling Deus Ex an open world game would be stretching the truth, but the game presents you with multiple extensive hub worlds (to the degree that the fanbase struggles exactly to define when a level begins or ends) that are dense in objectives both mandatory and optional. There are no waypoints, no handholding, just mission objectives and clues you can find by exploring the maps. Exploring these maps is fun particularly because of how open ended the mission objectives are. The first level, Liberty Island, is perhaps the pinnacle of open-ended game design. Do you want to storm the front gates, or scale the back of the building and break in? You could always take the route to Harley Filben to get the key, but that route is more dangerous. Once you're inside, do you try to save Gunther, and if you do, do you give him your weapon? These sorts of choices, both mechanically and narratively, allow for the player to tailor their playstyle however they want, because the level design allows for it. Every level contains multiple secret nooks and crannies, sometimes featuring useful goodies, sometimes showing entire secret areas crucial to accomplishing side objectives. The open-ended nature of Deus Ex, something even a lot of modern games struggle with, is part of why the game remains so impressive today. Each playstyle, whether it be lethal, non-lethal, or entirely stealth based is largely equally viable, with multiple augmentations that stem towards benefiting. Sure, it's probably easier to cut down enemies with the one-hit Dragon's Tooth laser sword, but self imposed challenges are encouraged, as the game keeps track of how you play and characters will comment on how violent or stealthy you are. The gameplay mechanics do feel slightly simplistic compared to later immersive sims or even later Deus Ex games, but they're still surprisingly intuitive, fun, and challenging (though the game is really not that hard, even on hard mode). I really like how the early game encourages you to play like a cybernetic Jason Voorhees, lurking in the shadows before leaping out at an unsuspecting foe. You're able to fully customize your ablities from augmentations, to skill point division, to weapon choice, weapon mods, etc. Needless to say, Deus Ex is a game where player freedom matters to an extreme degree, more so than most games, from level design to game mechanics.
While these problems feel minuscule at most, I will say that even on hard mode, the game feels like it gives you too many passes. You can hack the computers of important NPCs in positions of power from the very first time you find one with the appropriate skills, aside from some annoyed remarks, no one ever tries to stop you. You can just do obviously concerning things in front of NPCs who would, in future Deus Ex games, become aggro'ed instead of just standing there. This isn't a serious flaw by any means, but it's one of the few moments where player freedom seemingly means lack of player consequences, and I think the game would be more challenging in a beneficial way had that been implemented. I also find the shipyards level pitifully boring and somewhat frustrating to navigate due to the level design taking a sharp drop off, but it's mediocre at worst and ultimately not a long section of the game. Area 51 has some interesting ideas but feels like a similar drop.
Although Deus Ex's gameplay was praised and is highly influential to this day, it's the narrative that people usually connect with the most in the modern day. Deus Ex has a reputation for being near prophetic; an early 2000s prediction into the plights we currently face as a society. Deus Ex is not exactly unique in this regard - many writers from this era made many similar predictions - but it is one of the few video games of this era, even nowadays, to be so thoroughly well-researched with care and effort to make sure the very real facts that line its fictional plot have some basis in reality. The game's scenario writing is intricately plotted, somehow making the ridiculous high concept of "what if a ton of conspiracy theories were entirely true" able to be taken entirely seriously, and even when it's corny it doesn't remotely detract from the experience. While most of the characters aren't particularly deep, they feel very realistic within Deus Ex's world setting, and my allies and enemies alike are burnt into my mind as some of gaming's most iconic. Speaking of the world setting, it's so ridiculously well-defined and written that it feels hyperreal at points. The Unatco bulletin boards feel exactly like something I'd see on the news or any government entity's social media page. It's fleshed out to the point where the writers wrote fake excerpts of in-universe novels that convey much of the game's themes (and even included excerpts of real-life books too, which is beyond cool). The game is also highly politically intelligent, and while I don't always agree with all of Spector's sentiments here, I can't argue that the majority of Deus Ex's political theories aren't well-reasoned or thought out. Every character has their own ideologies and, if the player chooses, they can ask them more and even engage in debates with a few characters, which can lead to interesting revelations. On top of all of this, the game manages to be a globe-trotting adventure with a narrative filled with tension and intrigue, and I was hooked from beginning to end. The endings are a bit polarizing among fans but I like how all of them are unquestionably negative and there's not really a "good choice" among them. I do think they're a bit abrupt and end pretty inconclusively - I would have liked to see the results of your actions. Favorite quote: "God was the dream of a good government".
Although Deus Ex fits pretty squarely into the cyberpunk genre, aesthetically it's a fairly grounded representation. Outside of patrol bots scouting the streets, the majority of the time it looks like something you'd be able to go outside and see for yourself. Focusing largely on downtrodden, poor areas, the most extravagant you'll ever see is Hong Kong, which even so is only livelier due to the different style of lighting. Deus Ex is a game plunged into eternal nocturne, with well-lit areas exclusively reserved for indoor areas and this does a great job of making the player feel small, lost in the game's nighttime atmosphere. The disregarding of past technology (conveyed thematically in Gunther and Navarre, whose mechanical augmentations are outclassed by JC's nanoaugs) as tech gets both more efficient and inaccessible leads to a future that seemingly has regressed in many ways. The character designs are quintessentially early 2000s, with JC heavily resembling Blade and characters such as Navarre looking straight out of the leather-clad Matrix. It's easy to look back on designs with a condescending "its of its time" tone, but I do genuinely think they look distinctive and cool. Graphically speaking, Deus Ex isn't exactly a stunner even for 2000, with its large environments being blocky and sparsely detailed, which I find excusable due to the difficulties of rendering large outdoor environments on PCs where the recommended amount of RAM was 128 megabytes. Animations are somewhat stiff (especially player animations, which to be fair, are rarely seen) and character models aren't exactly extremely detailed, but the game manages to convey its aesthetic through this anyways. That's not saying the game looks bad by any means, overall it still looks quite solid by the standards of the time, and areas like Hong Kong really showcase how beautiful the game can look at points with its bright colors and greater detail due to a more condensed environment. I also think the game has a fairly unique approach to facial animations which do look a lot more realistic than the puppet-flaps of Half-Life or the complete absence of System Shock 2. Ultimately, I do not think the low-key aesthetic exactly demands an extravagant visual presentation, but what they managed to accomplish on Unreal was quite solid, if slightly behind its peers in ways that are often excusable.
Full transparency, I've been obsessively listening to Deus Ex's score for weeks now since beating the game. Lead primarily by composers Alexander Brandon and Michiel van den Bos and building off of their similarly excellent work on Unreal, I feel the need to compare the game's soundtrack to Ennio Morricone's score to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, not because it sounds similar even in the slightest but rather because it has a similar feeling of transcendence. A lot of games go for a more low-key ambient style when trying to approach atmosphere and while there's nothing wrong with that, Deus Ex's emphasis on melody over soundscape distinguishes it and feels very distinctive in comparison. The amount of effort put into making sure each area has a dedicated theme (as well as sub themes for conversations, combat, special rooms, etc.) begins to get a little absurd and there's a ton of variety in not only tracks but musical style. From the angelic vocals in New York City to the Asian themed composition and rhythmic bass in Hong Kong to the screaming alarms of Paris' combat theme to the utter emptiness of the Hong Kong canals, there's something new every time while still tying together into a unified sound and cohesive tone. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the game's club/bar music but that's fine, because they still fit exactly what I'd expect in a club or bar, so I consider it effective nonetheless. Deus Ex's soundtrack is also somewhat dynamic, as the aforementioned tracks do switch up depending on whether you're in combat or talking to NPCs, but its not nearly as in-depth as something like System Shock. Still, the variety is much appreciated. It's a near perfect soundtrack that I struggle to find a single poor aspect of. It melds with the game's presentation perfectly and the fact that it's homaged by future games in the series proves that the music is part of what has stayed with people over the following decades.
Deus Ex is not a perfect game, it's somewhat too easy and there are one or two somewhat questionable levels, but it's one of those games where each of its core elements come together so cohesively that it's hard to find serious fault. It's open-ended level design, emphasis on real and genuine player choice mechanically and narratively, nuanced and complicated storytelling, well-researched political themes, low-key aesthetic and transcendent soundtrack make it an absolutely magical game that feels like no other. I don't care if its "dated" or that it can be somewhat of a pain to get working on modern PCs, it's a game that regularly goes on sale for less than a dollar and should be at the very top of anyone's to play list.