Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: which classic PC game is on your pile of shame? Oh, boy. We also welcome your answers in the comments. 

Andy Kelly: System Shock 2

I know this is an important game. I know it inspired some of my favourite developers. I know some consider it superior to BioShock. But still it remains unplayed in my Steam library. It doesn't help that the twist is so frequently, wildly spoiled, like the videogame equivalent of The Sixth Sense. I'd love to have experienced it without knowing a thing about it, and I think that's the main reason I haven't given it a go yet: knowing I'll be getting an inferior experience. Ultimately I think I'd rather just read about this in 'best of' lists than actually dive into it myself. 

Jarred Walton: KOTOR

I'm not sure why or how, but I never got into KOTOR. It's weird, because I liked many of BioWare's other games, and PC Gamer gave it a 91 back in the day. Whatever the cause (episodes 1-3 of the movies?), I skipped it at launch and didn't do the sequel either. Looking to rectify things, I acquired the Steam version of the game in 2009, probably as part of some game bundle. Eight years later, Steam tells me I still haven't even played the game. The graphics now look a bit dated, but that's not necessarily a stumbling block. But as proof of how old KOTOR is, you can even play the entire game on an Android device. Fun fact: I also 'own' KOTOR via Amazon Underground, which I installed on an Nvidia Shield Tablet at one point...and still never played. What is wrong with me!? Maybe one of these days I'll get around to visiting the original, but SteamLeft tells me it would take a mere 150 days of constant gaming to tackle all of my game library. Yeah, I'll get right on that...

Wes Fenlon: System Shock 2

I adore Bioshock, Deus Ex and the idea of the immersive sim, but for some reason I've never committed myself to truly playing through System Shock 2, possibly the best there ever was. I've only dabbled, getting a taste for the game and fiddling with it to run well on a modern PC. I don't even know why. Perhaps simply because it's intimidating. There are so many games I can play half-heartedly, devoting only some of my full attention. Those are often the games I turn to when I come home tired after a long day.But that wouldn't fly with System Shock 2. It demands and deserves commitment. I need to fully explore its systems and space station hallways, commit to mastering some RPG mechanics that are likely a bit clunky 18 years later, and read every scrap of worldbuilding I come across. I know I'll love it... someday. When the mood strikes, and I have the time to give SHODAN the attention she needs.

Samuel Roberts: World of Warcraft

I'm not an MMO guy, and I don't think I ever will be. My many hours of GTA Online are probably as close as I'll ever get, and there's only so much time to spare. Warcraft fell between the gaps of my parents owning a PC that could run it, and that meant that by the time I could afford my own PC in 2009, I was already years behind. Since then, I've resigned myself to the fact that singleplayer games are mostly my passion, despite owning WoW and even having bought game time to try it out.

I'm sure it's very good, but that type of fantasy setting doesn't particularly appeal to me. I'm more likely to try Guild Wars 2 instead. Sorry.

Chris Livingston: Deus Ex

Wow, I hate even admitting that especially since it's such an influential game and definitely the kind of game I would love. I just completely missed it when it came out and I never got around to it. When I finally did try it a few years ago, I was just like, ew. Ugly. I guess I'm a bit of a graphics snob, and have a really hard time playing older games unless I've got some nostalgia for them (the original Half-Life, for example, I can jump right in and feel fine).

Same thing happened with Morrowind. I tried it for the first time a couple years ago and, nope. I just couldn't bear the looks. I am a shallow, shallow person.

Tom Senior: Planescape Torment

I tried, I really did. Whenever I try to get back into this classic cRPG I find myself getting bored halfway through the gloomy opening dungeon. I like the humour and the mysterious premise, but something about those stone grey environments made the idea of sinking another 50 hours into the game seem arduous. From everything I've read about it I know that I'll probably love it if I give it more of a chance. Maybe I will migrate to a desert island with a laptop and maroon myself for a month so I can finally wade into next year's Top 100 discussions having played it. 

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

Warren Spector is stuck in Prey. The director of Deus Ex, who has worked on many games since labeled "immersive sims"—in fact, he coined the term in a post-mortem of Deus Ex—has been playing the modern games inspired by classics like Thief and System Shock. But he hasn't finished Prey yet. Or, as he puts it: "The crew quarters are kicking my butt."

He's enjoying it though, just as he enjoyed the other recent immersive sim from Arkane Studios, Dishonored 2. "I thought they were both excellent examples of what I think of when I say 'immersive sim,'" Spector says. "They removed barriers to belief that I was in another world and they let me approach problems as problems, rather than as puzzles. I'm really glad Arkane exists and that they're so committed to the genre. Without them I'd have fewer games to play!"

Spector's not the only one who'd mourn their loss. Arkane is still around, but there's this uneasy feeling in the air that there's now some reason to worry. Not about Arkane, necessarily, but the immersive sim in general, this genre held up as the shining example of PC gaming at its most smartest and most complex. None of the last three big-budget immersive sims—Prey, Dishonored 2, and Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided—have broken a million sales on Steam.

It's always been a niche genre, defined by player freedom, environmental storytelling, and a lot of reading diary entries. How long can they be propped up by the fact that some designers really like making them?

Arkane's Prey is the latest in the System Shock lineage.

Don't call it a comeback

In the 1990s and early 2000s immersive sims seemed like the future, an obvious extension of what 3D spaces and believable physics and improving AI could do when working together. But they rarely sold well. When Ion Storm’s third Thief and second Deus Ex game flopped, the studio closed. Looking Glass Studios, responsible for System Shock, Ultima Underworld, and the first two Thief games, was already gone. The immersive sim went into hibernation for years.

Despite the love and praise for games like Deus Ex, they're not easy to sell to players. Jean-François Dugas, executive director of the Deus Ex franchise at its current owners Eidos Montreal, says it can be tough even convincing people to make games that let players deviate from the critical path.

"You need to realize and accept that you will build a ton of material that a good part of your audience will miss," he says. "Since you are building possibilities through game mechanics and narrative scenarios, you know that you might not be able to bring all the pieces to the quality level you would like. You have to rely on the effect of the sum of the parts to transcend it all. The GTA series is a great example of that. When you look at all the pieces individually, they’re not the best in class but what they offer their audience when combined is unparalleled. After that, there is a big effort required to convince your team and upper management that spending money on things that many players will not see is a good idea," he says with a laugh. 

Deus Ex's Hong Kong, richly detailed and packed with things to discover.

Spector disagrees with the notion that immersive sims are harder to convince publishers on. "Honestly, I haven't really noticed any particular challenge. It's not like you go into a pitch throwing around geeky genre identifiers. The reality is that immersive sims are action games, first and foremost and most people get that. It's just that the player gets to decide what sort of action he or she engages in and when to do so. Selling action games isn't that tough. Well, at least it's no tougher than selling any other game idea—they're all tough to sell!" 

There is a big effort required to convince your team and upper management that spending money on things that many players will not see is a good idea.

Jean-Fran ois Dugas

After Looking Glass and Ion Storm's closure the influence of immersive sims was still felt, as people who'd worked on those games brought similar ideas to Oblivion, Fallout 3, and BioShock. The immersive sim philosophy survived in STALKER, Pathologic, and the early projects of Arkane Studios, Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic.

And then in 2011 Eidos Montreal's prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution came along, a true immersive sim and one with the Deus Ex name stamped across it. It sold 2.18 million copies in just over a month. The year after that Arkane teamed with Bethesda to bring out Dishonored, a game in the lineage of Thief which enjoyed "the biggest launch for new IP" of the year. Sequels to both followed, as well as Prey, Arkane's spiritual successor to System Shock. The immersive sim was back.

And yet in 2016, Mankind Divided's launch sales were significantly lower than Human Revolution's. In response the series has seemingly been put on hold, though a publicist told me Eidos Montreal are "not quite ready" to answer questions on why it appears to have failed, or whether there will ever be another full-size Deus Ex.

Jensen tried so hard, and got so far. But in the end...

There are plenty of potential reasons why Deus Ex: Mankind Divided sold disappointingly. It launched a long five years after its predecessor. Its microtransactions and pre-order model were unpopular, and though reviews were positive, most noted that it felt shorter and had an even less satisfying ending than Human Revolution. And yet, though they lacked those specific problems, neither of Arkane's immersive sims was a smash hit either. Perhaps Dishonored 2's launch issues on PC hurt sales, though the history of video games is full of rocky launches that sold like gangbusters. As I write this, Car Mechanic Simulator 2018 is still in Steam's top 25 in spite of its bugginess.

Even in their heyday all it took was two commercial failures, Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, for immersive sims to go out of fashion for years. Are we about to see that happen again?

If the future isn't bright, why is Adam Jensen wearing shades? 

Human Revolution and Dishonored both seemed to find an audience beyond traditional immersive sim fans, beyond the people who know to try 0451 in every combination lock just in case. Their success encouraged Eidos Montreal and Arkane to go ahead with big-budget follow-ups, but of course games cost a lot to make, both in terms of time and money, need to justify that with strong sales.

Spector says, "it's clear that there hasn't been a huge immersive sim hit on par with some of the other video games out there. I mean, we're still waiting for the game that sells a gazillion copies! I think part of the reason for that is that immersive sims require—or at least encourage—people to think before they act. They tend not to be games where you just move forward like a shark and inevitably succeed. In the best immersive sims, you have to assess the situation you're in, make a plan and then execute that plan, dealing with any consequences that follow. That's asking a lot of players who basically have to do that every moment of their waking lives—in the real world, I mean."

Dishonored 2 applies the immersive sim's freeform gameplay to combat like nothing before it.

It wasn't just immersive sims that didn't sell as well as expected in 2016, however. Titanfall 2, Street Fighter V, and Watch Dogs 2 also struggled for their own reasons—while big, acclaimed games like Overwatch and Battlefield 1 dominated. Dugas says that "your product needs to be more than 'GOOD' today to be successful—whether you are making a movie or a game. People have options and last time I checked there are only 24 hours in a day. If you are not good enough, your audience has gone somewhere else. Bottom line: I believe that if we make outstanding games, no matter what type of genre it is in, people will be there, whether it’s an immersive sim or not."

It's clear that there hasn't been a huge immersive sim hit on par with some of the other video games out there. I mean, we're still waiting for the game that sells a gazillion copies!

Warren Spector

Jordan Thomas, who worked on Thief: Deadly Shadows and all three BioShocks before going indie with The Magic Circle, puts it this way. "Are immersive sims suffering specifically in the market or is everybody? I lean more towards the latter. I think the games space is experiencing a new boom and the simpler your concept is to communicate the more likely you are to find your demographic quickly because they're seeing hundreds and hundreds of concepts at a time. I think that immersive sims traditionally have struggled a little bit with helping people to understand what they're about because they're about many things. They're about a feeling, a cross-section of ideas, whereas a game that is like, 'No—this is just to quote Garth Marenghi—Balls-to-the-wall horror,' it's easier for people to wrap their heads around from a marketing perspective."

Making games like these is expensive, too. "Looking at something like Prey," Thomas continues, "everything is just sparkling. The sheer amount of salesmanship that can go into all of the different reactions that the player can concoct with their chemistry set—literally, in that game, but you know what I mean. The idea of objects being combined to some clever result, every single inch of it shines."

Prey's artfully constructed space station.

As an indie developer, that level of detail and scope is simply out of reach. "I do think that most indie games that would self-accept the label immersive sim have to compromise because the games that typically are associated with this subgenre were kitchen-sink games."

Perhaps immersive sims are just a particularly tough sell in a crowded market. The next ones on the horizon—a Dishonored 2 expandalone, a spiritual sequel to Ultima Underworld, and both a new System Shock and a remake of the original—might face the same problem. They all have something else in common, though. They're all tied directly to existing immersive sims, whether directly or spiritually. None of them are brand new ideas.

It's said that though few people saw the Velvet Underground live, everyone who did seems to have formed a band of their own. The original Deus Ex sold 500,000 copies, a decent amount at the time, and it can seem like practically everyone who bought a copy became a game designer (or at least a games journalist) after studying from its design bible. Its influence is unavoidable, as is System Shock's. That's not to say their influence makes for bad games. Prey is the best thing I've played this year, even though it's essentially System Shock 2 with zero-gravity bits. But there's perhaps a limit to the number of spiritual sequels to the same games we really need. If poor sales motivate future immersive sims to move further from their roots, to try out new settings and inspirations, that might be a silver lining to their current troubles.

Hope comes in the shapes of games that incorporate some of the core elements of immersive sims without being kitchen sinks. Thomas gives the example of Near Death, a survival game set on an Antarctic research base.

"Near Death is made by folks who worked on assorted BioShocks and Deus Exes," he says, "but it is not oriented towards combat whatsoever. It is set in a world with no magic, just you versus an environment which, arguably, is one of the callsigns you might associate with immersive sims." It's another game that presents problems rather than puzzles, in "a fully realized environment that has rules that you must learn in order to eke out an existence. It is that concept writ large. You are trying not to freeze to death and you are using your wits to combine systemic objects in the environment based on some amount of real-world common sense."

More and more games like Near Death are picking elements of the immersive sim to focus on.

It may not seem like it when you're punching a tree to collect wood for the hundredth time, but according to Thomas there's a direct connection. 

I honestly feel like a lot of the people who are building these ultra-successful early access survival games are influenced by immersive sim design. That notion of systems alchemy is at the core of that.

Jordan Thomas

"I honestly feel like a lot of the people who are building these ultra-successful early access survival games are influenced by immersive sim design. That notion of systems alchemy is at the core of that. When the trend caught on it felt fresh, right? It felt liberated from some of the rhetoric associated with immersive sims and very seldom about story at all. It's if you took the parts of the genre that we used to say we loved, which were that all of the rules of the game could be atomized and combined into new molecules—that's what we told ourselves as developers of these things. 'This is a real place, man! With a sort of mathematics that you can learn to speak and you're gonna express your mastery through doing that!' But survival games are that crystallized and they let go of a lot of the high-minded philosophy and let atavism rule."

Survival games aren't the only place the influence of immersive sims is felt. New open-world RPGs and sandbox games are all obliged to emphasize player choice. Horror games like Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil 7 borrow directly from the immersive sim playbook right down to the environmental storytelling through graffiti, and stealth games like Hitman with creative paths to murder can evoke the same feeling. Indie games like Consortium, The Magic Circle, and even Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon each take aspects of the immersive sim each and expand on them, and so do walking simulators. Both Gone Home and Tacoma take the bit of Thief where you rummage through someone's belongings and read their diary, building up an idea of who they are, and make that the entire game. Tacoma is even set on an abandoned space station, possibly the most immersive sim location imaginable.

If immersive sims become too commercially risky for the current climate, and if they go into hibernation for another decade, they won't really be gone. Thanks to the spread of their concepts throughout games they can't really go anywhere—because they're already everywhere.

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Rick Lane)

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.>

There are lots of things I love about NEO Scavenger [official site]. I love how, despite its lo-fi visuals, it conveys the fickle fortunes and indifferent cruelty of a wilderness better than many technologically superior survival games. I love its ridiculously detailed combat system that lets you rugby-tackle feral dogs. I love the ambient sound effects that convey the misleading serenity of its natural environments; the chirping of birds, the wind in the trees, the soft crunch of grass underfoot. Delightful. (more…)

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

The original Deus Ex is arguably the best the series has to offer from a narrative perspective, however it's not aged well since its mid-2000 release. Adam Jensen now flies the flag for the action role-playing stealth 'em up, however modder Totalitarian has spent the last five years reimagining JC Denton's turn of the millennium debut via his or her GMDX overhaul mod. That's now launched its latest and final version 9.0. 

Billed as a "large-scale" modification that offers the "definitive Deus Ex experience", GMDX (otherwise know as 'Give Me Deus Ex') targets the original game's flaws, applies a layer of polish, and adds "new layers of depth that one would have hoped to see in a sequel."

In doing so, new effects, animations and graphics have been introduced; a new user interface has been installed; the game's physics have been tweaked; and weapon aesthetics and functionality have been refined, among a host of other adjustments—the sum of which can be found here. 

More information, including installation instructions, can be found via the mod's new website and/or its ModDB page. Here's some neat moving pictures too: 

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

If magic isn’t real, you explain why me chanting has just caused sent several dozen people to, without even realising, reinstall the vintage FPS-RPG. But hold up, bewitched nostalgics! After years of development, the overhaul mod Give Me Deus Ex [official site] has launched its final version. GMDX shakes things up with more-advanced AI for a tougher challenge, improved mantling for agile Dentons, expanded physics for fancier mayhem, and new textures and bits for people who say “Ew, is that a pixel>?” If the magic words compel you to return to Deus Ex, you might fancy a few surprises. Observe, a trailer showcasing newnesss: … [visit site to read more]

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

For 17 years, Deus Ex fans have speculated that the 'JC' in JC Denton, Deus Ex's cyborg protagonist, stood for Jesus Christ. Others suggested it might mean Just Another Codename. The ambiguous nickname made enough of an impression that the question still lingers. At Warren Spector's post-mortem at GDC today, a fan asked flat-out what the 'JC' stood for. And the answer? It really was Jesus Christ.

"But there's more to the story than that," Spector said, as the crowd started clapping at the revelation. "One of my best friends is a wonderful writer named Bradley Denton, who you should all go read" he continued. "And if you want to know about me and my friends, he wrote a book called Lunatics that you should go read, and you can try to guess who I am. Anyway, he is one of the nicest humans on the planet. If you ever need help with anything, he's always there for you. He's so helpful it gets annoying sometimes, so back then I would often find myself saying 'Jesus Christ, Denton. Jesus Christ, Denton, don't be so helpful. So when it came time to name the charcater it was JC Denton.

That line is actually hinted at in the game on a couple ocassions, when characters react to your actions with "Jesus Christ, Denton!" and "Jesus Christ, JC!"

There's always been plenty of ammunition to support the theory that JC stood for Jesus Christ. Religious symbolism. JC's brother Paul. The name 'Deus Ex.' But nobody knew 'Jesus Christ, Denton' was a regular Warren Spector quote.

Years later, prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution's hero being named Adam kept the theme alive.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Brendan Caldwell)

Your mate Adam Jensen is telling a story to his psychologist in the latest DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] a flashback episode, if you will. He s telling her all about the time he went undercover in a maximum security prison for augmented people and how that made him feel. But this being Adam, the paranoid wreck with conspiracy theories coming out of his robot orifices, he s likely exaggerated for the shrink s sake. He probably just got sent to the drunk tank for wandering into a clothes shop and smashing all the mirrors again. … [visit site to read more]

PC Gamer

At the start of the 1988 adventure game based on William Gibson's genre-defining cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, you wake up face down in a plate of spaghetti. Well, it's synth-spaghetti because this is the future, but that doesn't make it any more comfortable. Like the book's protagonist Case you're a down-and-out former console cowboy who has lost the ability to hack, though in your case it's not due to traumatic surgery but simple poverty. You can't afford a new computer. Hell, you can't even afford to pay for the spaghetti.

Author Bruce Sterling summed up the cyberpunk genre as a combination of “low-life and high-tech,” and that's a perfect description of both versions of Neuromancer. Later in the game you have the option to sell your internal organs for cash, and hack a computer at Cheap Hotel—its actual name—to pay the rent. Your life is about as low as they get. 

In 1993 Syndicate went in the opposite direction, casting you as the CEO in charge of a corporation bent on global domination. In Syndicate you're the villain at the top of the dystopian food chain.

While most of the games in the genre that followed explored spaces somewhere in between those two extremes, there's been a tendency for them to focus on the high-tech and not the low-life. They get the cyber, but not the punk.

Cyberpunk games are rarely about cool losers. They're usually about cool cops.

Hero complex

Take the heroes of the Deus Ex series. JC Denton is an augmented agent who works for a UN anti-terrorist organization. Alex D is an augmented agent-in-training at the Tarsus Academy with a bright future in the WTO, and Adam Jensen is the augmented chief of security for a biotech corporation. All of these characters go through learning experiences that show their employers are untrustworthy and their world is more complex than they thought it was, but they all start on the privileged side of the fence. 

When low-life characters do show up, they're pushed to the periphery. Adam Jensen walks past some punks gathered around a bin-fire in the streets of Detroit so he can overhear a conversation about getting a dog cybernetically enhanced to take part in a pitfight.

In the Lower Seattle of Deus Ex: Invisible War, Alex D also meets two people huddled around a burning bin, one of whom is Lo-town Lucy—a pierced punk who provides some basic info on the area while reprimanding you for being an Upper Seattle tourist. She points out how out of your element you are in the poor part of town, but in doing so makes it clear you're out of place in the genre as well.

That's not to say that there are no cyborg badasses who learn the law isn't always right in cyberpunk outside of games. Robocop and Ghost in the Shell are both classic examples of this kind of story, but in video games characters like Murphy and Kusanagi aren't rarities. They're the norm.

The heroes of Crusader: No Remorse, Hard Reset, Final Fantasy VII, Binary Domain—all are tough guys who learn the rebels and terrorists have a point. They're Armitage from Neuromancer, rather than that story's actual main characters: Case and Molly, the misfits.

Influential as it is, Neuromancer's not the only flavor of cyberpunk. Blade Runner gave us the archetype of the futuristic investigator forced to see a bigger, more troubling world beyond the next case. Since then, whether detectives like in Psycho-Pass or crusading journalists like in Max Headroom, plenty of cyberpunk stories have been about characters who attempt to solve crimes but stumble into more philosophical questions. Games like the Tex Murphy series, Technobabylon, Anachranox, Westwood's Blade Runner, and more recently Read Only Memories all fit into this category. 

But even here, with shabby heroes who live in cramped apartments the order of the day, the low-lifes often get a raw deal. In Read Only Memories you see two punks named Starfucker and Olli and immediately accuse them of an unrelated act of vandalism and chase them down, after which you're given the option to call the police like some kind of tool of The Man.

If you don’t you get to know them better and learn they’re not bad guys, but then they transition to comedy sidekicks—those two wacky guys!—instead. They feel like a token inclusion, cast aside by the climax, when they deserve to be central.

Over time these tropes have been distilled into the core of the genre: all the imagery, with none of the messages.

In the end it turns out Starfucker and Olli are guilty of the vandalism you accuse them of. But still, it's rough to see the characters with mohawks and shades treated so roughly in a game that's all about evoking the classic retro cyberpunk feel. Like so many games Read Only Memories borrows visuals from Akira, but in Akira the biker gang are the heroes. 

Recycling is an essential part of cyberpunk fiction, its cities full of repurposed junk given new life. The initial wave that followed iconic works like Neuromancer, Blade Runner, and Akira recycled too, using their conceits and visuals in new ways. Over time these tropes have been distilled into the core of the genre: all the imagery, with none of the messages.

Rock & roll, desperate and dangerous

One game where the malcontents and outsiders get to star is Shadowrun: Dragonfall. The Shadowrun series is an unlikely mash-up of fantasy and cyberpunk that exaggerates the cliches of each, where the dragon who demands tribute and the TV personality admired by millions are one and the same, Smaug cast as Max Headroom. Perhaps it's that exaggeration of the basic tropes that makes Shadowrun feel true to cyberpunk fiction, in spite of the elves.

Shadowrunners are hackers and spies who can be hired online, like Uber but for corporate espionage, and in Dragonfall your band of runners have a secret base under a market in the anarchist free state of Berlin. It's as much about protecting the societal dregs who are your neighbours, drug addicts and shifty coffee dealers, as it is about making money. Also, one of the party members is an actual punk, the former lead singer of a band with the wonderful name MESSERKAMPF! 

Shadowrun: Dragonfall gets the heart of cyberpunk right. Quality punks.

Cyberpunk-adjacent games like this weirdly seem more likely to feature the most cyberpunk protagonists. Sci-fi horror games Bloodnet and Magrunner: Dark Pulse are perfect examples, even though they add vampires and the Cthulhu Mythos. The hacker heroes of Watch Dogs 2, Quadrilateral Cowboy, and Else Heart.Break() would all feel at home in glowing near-future cities even though their games are set in the modern day, the 1980s, and a fictional town in Sweden respectively.

As in movies like Sneakers, Hackers, and Inception, they're telling cyberpunk stories about how information wants to be free and unchecked power is real bad, just without the chromed-up settings.

Right now CD Projekt Red is working on Cyberpunk 2077, a game that promises to be so chromed-up we'll be able to see our reflections in it. Like Shadowrun it's based on a tabletop RPG, but this time one with a more purist vision—Mike Pondsmith's Cyberpunk 2020, in which players are cast as anti-corporate Edgerunners and where getting too many implants can cause “cyberpsychosis”.

The trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 features a member of MAX-TAC—cops who hunt those cyberpsychos—arresting and recruiting a cyborg killer. But while the tabletop game has cops among its playable roles, it also features Netrunners, biker Nomads, and Rockerboys and Rockergirls who use the power of music to spread their political messages. It lets players emulate the gang members of Marc Laidlaw's '400 Boys' or the rockstars of Norman Spinrad's Little Heroes as well as Judge Dredd.

There's reason to hope the video game adaptation will follow suit and in doing so, get closer to the under-represented elements of the genre. In a promotional video for Cyberpunk 2077, Pondsmith—who is working with CD Projekt Red on adapting his game—talks about what he considers to be important in cyberpunk. “It's not the technology,” he says, “it's the feel. It's getting that dark, gritty, rain-wet street feeling but at the same time getting that rock & roll, lost, desperate-and-dangerous quality.”

Pondsmith goes on to quote one of Gibson's famous lines from the short story Burning Chrome: “the street finds its own uses for things.” Cyberpunk isn't just about the alienation that comes with future shock, or the questions about humanity raised by cybernetic enhancement and artificial intelligence. It's also about the way powerless people find strength and solace by repurposing the future for their own ends.

Gibson wrote that the street finds its own uses for things, not “people who work for security agencies find their own uses for things.”

The streets and their inhabitants are central to cyberpunk. It's the powerless who suffer most in the kind of authoritarian regimes cyberpunk fiction depicts, and games could do with getting back to the idea that the rebels, misfits, vandals, and people who can't afford a plate of spaghetti matter.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

A new unofficial patch has arrived for Deus Ex: Invisible War, bringing widescreen support and a few fixes to the game that I still think would be remembered quite fondly if it weren’t named ‘Deus Ex’. I found Invisible War technically fiddly and sloppy when I replayed it a few years back, and it sounds like the Visible Upgrade patch by ‘snobel’ fixes most of my gripes. It supports modern aspect ratios, including for folks who tape a dozen screens together, has an adjustable field of view, and fixes a few bugs. Oh, and it includes an optional high-res texture pack. Good stuff! … [visit site to read more]

PC Gamer

In the earliest Deus Ex design document, written three years before the game was released in 2000, Ion Storm established the philosophy of their ambitious cyberpunk RPG. “The key to role-playing is giving players the freedom to act as they see fit,” it reads. “And a deep world simulation that allows them to solve problems in a variety of ways is the best way to do this.” 

And that’s the core of what makes Deus Ex a PC classic. The sheer breadth of its systems and the complexity of its level design is unmatched, even today. A lot of things were cut from that document—including a level set on a space station—but Warren Spector and his team’s original vision of a deep, rewarding RPG set in a rich, simulated world remained intact throughout development. 

When Deus Ex was being developed, The X-Files was deep into its fourth season. And Chris Carter’s cult show is an obvious influence on the game, with its government conspiracies, shadowy secret organisations, men in black, and bug-eyed aliens. The design document confirms this, describing the story as “leavened by its dark, mysterious, conspiratorial tone” and any tinfoil hat conspiracy theory you can think of, from Area 51 to the Bilderberg Group, factors into the story in some way. It’s a world where paranoia about ancient secret societies pulling the strings of government is entirely justified. 

In the ‘high concept’ section of the design document, Ion Storm asks: “Is it better to live free in a world of chaos or live safely in an ordered world of someone else’s design?” And that’s one of the major themes in the sprawling, labyrinthine story. You play as JC Denton, a government agent enhanced with augmentations that grant him superhuman powers. 

When the game begins he’s employed by a branch of the United Nations created in response to the growing threat of international terrorism. But after learning that his bosses have ties to a sinister Illuminati plot, he joins his brother Paul in the resistance against them. “Deus Ex plugs into two popular fantasies,” reads the document. “The millennial madness that’s gripping the world, exemplified by The X-Files and a general fascination with conspiracy theories. And the desire to play with high-tech espionage toys.”

And it’s these toys, as well as Denton’s augmentations, that makes every playthrough of Deus Ex a wildly different experience. The first level, Liberty Island, showcases everything that’s great about the game’s open-ended design and how it rewards creative thinking. It’s smaller than other levels, and I’m still finding new ways to infiltrate it. The statue not only provides a useful navigation point, but her missing head, blown off by terrorists, is an evocative piece of world-building. A clue that maybe everything isn’t totally cool in this dystopian vision of the future.

Terrorists have taken over the island, and you have to deal with them. But how you go about this is truly up to you. There are dozens of entry points into the statue, some more dangerous than others. If you want to waltz in through the front door, you can. But you’ll have to find a key, hack a series of cameras, and deal with a security bot. Or you can stack crates to climb up to the statue and avoid the security systems altogether, but will have to deal with a group of terrorists in an open area without much cover. You learn these things through experimentation, and that’s part of what makes Deus Ex so compelling. You’re presented with these big, complex puzzles and the game leaves you to figure out how to solve them by yourself. And when you do, it’s hugely satisfying. 

Walk and talk 

But it’s not all espionage and infiltration. Outside of missions you’re free to explore, talk to NPCs, complete sidequests, and learn more about the state of the world through documents and news reports. Deus Ex is an enormous game, featuring three massive cities—New York, Hong Kong and Paris—and other locations including Area 51. You simply couldn’t make a game this big today with the visual fidelity expected of modern games. In New York you witness the devastating effects of the mysterious Grey Death virus, while in Hong Kong you team up with Tracer Tong and the Triads to investigate an Illuminati presence there. There are so many secrets hidden in these city hubs—and overwrought philosophical debates to be had with talkative NPCs – that a thorough playthrough of the game could easily take 50 hours. 

But while the levels are huge, they’re not big for the sake of it. This was another thing Ion Storm outlined in their design document as being important. “So many games simulate huge worlds and brag about it,” it reads. “Witness Daggerfall with its hundreds of generic towns, its shallow conversations, and its randomly generated quests. We feel there’s more to be gained by limiting the size of our simulation so we can increase the density of interaction.” 

And this density of interaction is another of Deus Ex’s many strengths. Its levels are filled with things to prod, poke, switch on, and mess with—from incidental details like flushing toilets to intricate security systems that can be manipulated to help you sneak through the level. “This gives the illusion that this is a real, vital It’s all gone a bit X-Files. His vision is augmented. place,” reads the design document. “It makes the levels feel like they have a life of their own, independent of player action.” 

And it has a sense of humour too, often as a result of this freedom and interactivity. If you stumble into the ladies’ bathroom in UNATCO’s Liberty Island HQ – which most players will as they hunt for secrets and hidden items—your boss Joseph Manderley (who recently appeared in Mankind Divided) will give you a stern talking to about it. Ion Storm knew players like to explore every nook and cranny of a level, and they made a joke in response to it. 

It’s a small detail, but one of countless tiny reactive moments that reinforce the idea you’re having an impact on this world, not just existing in it. And who could forget mechanically-augmented agent Gunther Hermann ranting about getting the wrong soda from a vending machine, convinced the maintenance man has a vendetta against him. The story deals with some heavy stuff—mass surveillance, corruption, conspiracies, viral epidemics—but it offsets it nicely with some dry humour.

The illuminati sends a squad of men in black to kill your brother.

A great example of the game’s reactivity can be found in the Hell’s Kitchen level. Denton’s brother Paul, who ends up being hunted by the Illuminati, is holed up in a grimy hotel. It’s called the ‘Ton by the locals, referring to the fact it was once a Hilton, but the ‘HIL’ on the sign has faded away. After completing a few missions in New York, Paul’s safehouse is compromised and the Illuminati sends a squad of ‘men in black’ agents to kill him. 

These guys are armed with heavy weapons and can take a ridiculous amount of damage. Paul tells you to run and escape through the bathroom window, which most players will do when faced with these seemingly impossible odds. If you escape, Paul dies and never appears in the game again. But if you stay and fight, and somehow manage to kill the men in black and the UNATCO troops who’ve invaded the hotel, Paul will appear in Hong Kong. It’s unlikely that players at this stage in the game, especially on their first run, will have the skill or augmentations to win this fight, but the fact you can is precisely why Deus Ex is such a special game. It has a response, even if it’s just a line of dialogue, for almost everything you do. 

All mod cons

One part of Deus Ex that’s really showing its age though, is the visuals. It’s a hideous game, with blocky environments, blurry textures and ugly character models. But luckily there are mods that will sort most of these problems out, including the incredible Revision. This overhaul is free on Steam for anyone who owns the GOTY edition, and as well as fixing bugs and remixing several maps, it makes it look slightly nicer to modern eyes. But it does change quite a few fundamental things, so if you want to play the game as Ion Storm intended it’s probably best to stick to the original version. 

Then there’s Shifter, a mod that adds further depth to an already deep game and exists to, in its creator’s words, “remove the suck” from the the illuminati sends a squad of men in black to kill your brother base game. It introduces a skill point system that rewards you for feats the vanilla game would ignore, like taking out a room full of men in black. It makes enemies smarter and tougher. And it gives weapons alternate fire modes, including launching napalm bombs with the flamethrower. Again, installing this will seriously alter the game, so think carefully before trying it—especially if it’s your first playthrough. Some people don’t like Shifter or Revision at all, but that’s exactly what PC gaming, and Deus Ex, are all about: choice. 

The game is still totally playable without any mods, of course. But you might have to dig through some forums to find out how to get it running at modern resolutions. The Game of the Year edition (whatever that means) is often on sale for a tiny amount of money on Steam, so if you’ve never played it before, there’s really no excuse. 

There’s a long-running internet joke that whenever Deus Ex is mentioned on a forum, someone will reinstall it. And it’s something you should consider. Because 16 years later, even if the visuals don’t hold up, the game definitely still does. 

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