UK mag PC Zone managed to get their grubby mitts on Deus Ex 3 this issue. I thought I’d share my thoughts as I read through the article…

Judging from the cover

I used to subscribe to PC Zone, back in the day, until it started to go a bit thin on top and get a little flabby around the middle. With the strange PC Zone-PC Gamer bundle packs the Future Publishing are pushing and the rather shameless sharing of content between the two magazines, not to mention the recent departure of several key staff, I can’t help but think the magazine’s days are numbered. Which is a bit of a shame, really.

If that is indeed the case, it makes the Deus Ex 3 scoop all the more marvellous. Whoever put the cover together has clearly had a good old think, using the 200th issue as an excuse to make everything gold hued and classy. The Deus Ex 3 blurb is  a mixture of sci-fi and frilly fonts that’s a little curious, while the piece of concept art depicts a man with the inevitable sunglasses smoking a fag and sporting a Tony Stark goatee.

Best of all, though, is the little indented metal plate in the guy’s left temple, which looks rather like a damaged Terminator if you mopped up all the blood and gore. Presuming this some kind of augmentation technology, it suggests that the tech will be much more overt – along the lines of Gunther and Anna Navarre from the original game, whose alterations were gruesome and disfiguring, rather than JC Denton’s slick and subtle upgrades. The art style reminds me rather pleasingly of the Half Life 2 posters.

Better than kings…

Jumping back in time momentarily, in case any of you missed Deus Ex or were too young to play it back in 2000, it’s worth remembering just why the game is such a milestone in gaming.

It’s a special game for me in that it was the first game I played having finally made the move to a Windows PC, having enjoyed the brilliant but doomed Acorn platform for 12 years. Other than a borrowed foray into Final Fantasy VIII on the PlayStation I had been away from games since Doom. It also features an extended sequence set in Hong Kong, which I had visited in 1999 having first lived there as a child. Not many games tend to be set there.

Deus Ex is a chimera of a game, trying to be everything at once and constantly defying definition. Most obviously it is a first person shooter, with you filling the role of JC Denton, a nano-augmented special agent for counter-terrorist group UNATCO. On top of that is layered a remarkably detailed RPG system of stats and upgrades, all of which govern your abilities. There’s also the augmentations themselves: special powers that enable you to leap from tall buildings, move at super-speed, turn invisible etc. It’s not all shooting, with considerable time spent engaging in conversation with a variety of characters and indulging in paperwork and water cooler banter between missions. And that’s all before the plot takes a big twist to the left and dives into conspiracy heaven. All the way through you’re given myriad choices of how to complete objectives, often filled with dubious moral choices and consequences.

Time has had a mixed effect on the game. Visually it looks pretty ropey, but then it always did even on release. The level design and concepts are as sound as ever, it’s just the lack of detail and blurry textures that betray its age. The comprehensive voice acting and writing which seemed revolutionary and wonderfully cerebral at the time now feel pretty cheesy in the post-X-Files era, especially in light of the game acting advances pioneered by the likes of Valve, Double Fine, Bioware and the Bioshock crew.

Remarkably, the gameplay itself has yet to be bettered, or even equally. Whether it’s due to the game experiencing slow but steady sales rather than blockbuster numbers, or simply the sheer difficulty of the concept, nobody has got near. Some games have borrowed elements – Bioshock and Dark Messiah’s plasmids and magic are variations on the augmentation systsem. Oblivion and Fallout 3 are trying to meld role-playing with first person action. Adventures such as The Witcher and Mass Effect try to offer the player intriguing choices and branching storylines.

But they’re not Deus Ex.

Shanghai 2027

I can’t include scans from the magazine, alas, otherwise I’d quite clearly get into trouble. Instead I’ll just have to describe the beautiful piece of concept art on the first page of the article. It’s China, twenty years from now and a while before the events of the first game. Shanghai appears to be a city of two levels, one for the rich (above) and one for the poor (below).

Multi-tiered cities of this sort have been a staple of sci-fi for years, of course, but this is probably the first time I’ve seen it done in a game. Concept art can be deceiving though and often disappointingly unrelated to the finished product, so I’ll keep my excitement under control.

Underneath the image is some good news: the article is written by none other than Martin Korda, a writer who has an uncanny ability to transfer his excitement direct from the page and straight into my brain. Handily he’s usually right about what he writes, so fingers crossed…

The first thing he does is remind me of the fact that Deus Ex was released eight years ago. That’s a remarkably long time. I was still at university, for starters. How is it that in eight years nobody has bettered this game?

One comment catches my eye: “NPCs scuttle hither and thither…” Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but does it suggest the possibility of Assassin’s Creed-style thronging crowds? A mega city as depicted in the Shanghai concept art would certainly need to feel bustling and over-crowded, otherwise the illusion would come tumbling down. The Hong Kong marketplace in Deus Ex seemed convincing at the time but would seem strangely deserted now.

Pointing guns at the camera

Movies did it in the 80s and 90s and it seems that games are now the medium obsessed with pointing guns at the camera. The first in-game screenshot shows a worrying example of this, with a crew-cut soldier type pointing a large gun into the camera (now with focal depth!). It’s a bit cheesy and a bit Doom. Sure, Gunther was a grunting marine stereotype in the first game but, as Korda just pointed out, that was eight years ago. How about something new in this post-Bioshock world?

The game could still be a couple of years away, apparently, so it’s surprising to see in-engine shots at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if this character doesn’t show up at all, or if it all ends up looking very different come release.

I have friends in Chicago

Deus Ex: Invisible War was a troubled follow-up, although I’d still argue that it’s not as bad as its reputation would imply. There’s a good game nestling within a deeply unimpressive engine, with an interesting story and locations to explore if you can get past the shoddy graphics, embarassing voice acting, stilted animation and tiny environments. Although the original Deus Ex didn’t feature stunning graphics for the time, it nevertheless made good use of what it had, resulting in evocative and memorable visuals. Invisible War instead makes terrible use of better tech, resulting in a game that has dated quite horrendously in a very short period.

At the very least, Deus Ex 3 won’t suffer from the appalling technical and gameplay restrictions of the Xbox console. Now that the Xbox 360 and PS3 are more-or-less up to the same standard as a decent PC, particularly with regards to high definition resolutions, there shouldn’t be the unpleasant console-PC bottleneck of a few years ago.

Perspective shifting

I recently wrote an article containing five things that really piss me off about games. One escaped the list (I’m saving it for part two), which was my disdain for games that switch the viewpoint for no valid reason. Switching between third person and first person willy-nilly is ludicrous and suggests an innate misunderstanding of visual storytelling.

All too many games switch viewpoint simply to make things easier, because they can’t figure out how to do something otherwise. This is rubbish. The visual perspective should not be at the mercy of unimaginative and limited gameplay design, it should be chosen carefully and specifically to accomplish a particular vision. That’s not to say that you can never switch between perspectives (after all, movies occasionally switch to first person to achieve a particular emotional response), it’s just that you have to have a good reason to do so. And, no, switching to third person for stealth and first person for shooting is not a good reason.

So it rather dismays me to read that Deus Ex 3 will be doing exactly this: “…the action will switch to third-person when taking cover or when executing special moves and abilities…” I nearly speeled my drinkh.

No matter what other good decisions the developers may have, no matter how great the concept art may be, this one design flaw is enough to move the game from the ‘highly anticipated’ category that belongs to the Half Lifes, Far Cry 2 et al and shift it over to the ‘slightly concerned’ category, where it can rub shoulders with the likes of Fallout 3 and the new Prince of Persia.

Games designers should be better than this. They shouldn’t have to resort to cheaply shifting perspective in order to fit their gameplay into the interface. It’s disruptive and pointless and only serves to remind you that you are, indeed, playing a game. In a series that thrives on immersion such as Deus Ex, it is wholly inappropriate.

Given Far Cry 2’s utter dedication to the first person viewpoint, even when looking at the map, it’s a shame that Eidos are being so conservative in this regard. I can’t help but think they’ve chosen the easy route for lazy designers. It’s also worth pointing out that I don’t object to this simply because the original game didn’t do it – I couldn’t care less about that, in fact. As has been pointed out, it will have been a decade since the original game by the time Deus Ex 3 is released and games as a medium have moved on. I want innovation and change and new ideas. But that’s exactly the problem: perspective shifting in this regard doesn’t hint at genius, but a lack of understanding of the finer points of the medium.

Am I over-reacting? Almost certainly. But it’s a fundamental grumble of mine and I’m sorry to see a game with such potential tripping over this first hurdle. It doesn’t mean the game won’t be good, or excellent, even, but it does hint at an attitude of compromise that risks spreading throughout the entire production. With luck I have either misunderstood or underestimated the developers. We’ll find out in 2010.

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Hybrid · October 21, 2008 at 8:50 pm

I can’t help but feel that part of your dislike of perspective shifts is simply born out of not having experienced an instance in which they worked or felt fundamentally important to a games mechanic. Chronicles of Riddick – Escape from Butcher Bay for example.

Simon Jones · October 21, 2008 at 9:02 pm

You’re absolutely correct. Note that I didn’t say that I’m 100% against perspective shifting, though. I just think there needs to be a really good reason for it, especially in a story-focused game. In a non-story focused game it’s not such an issue, as you’re not trying to form a cohesive narrative.

Riddick’s a good example, though, and I liked it in that game. They worked nicely because they were used to enhance the game’s cinematic feel. They complemented the cut-scenes and the general sense of Riddick being a genuine character. The whole game felt structured around a Riddick story – it was telling you about this character. ie, the player character wasn’t supposed to BE the player.

Also, notably, the Riddick game didn’t switch to 3rd person for stealth or anything daft like that, or even for special combat moves. The only times it tended to do it was when operating a machine/door, or when doing a cool acrobatic clamber. Its restrained use works quite nicely, and the way the narrative is told (with Riddick narrating his story to you) backs it up.

Then you have stuff like Oblivion, which supposedly lets you toggle between whichever view you prefer, but clearly hasn’t bothered to put much effort into making the 3rd person mode actually work. Then there’s Thief 3, which is an awesome game, but which kinda bungs in a 3rd person mode in order to make it easier to tell if you’re hidden or not, although you don’t really need it. In both cases I feel it dilutes the core gaming experience, because the designers don’t seem to have quite decided what that core gaming experience should be.

I’m not entirely against it, I’m just against it being used without proper thought. Based on the (slim) evidence I have of Deus Ex 3 so far, it suggests that the designers are casually thinking “ooh, shooty bits first person and COOL stealth bits third person!” without really thinking about why or whether there’s a less obtrustive solution. Or whether it’s even needed at all.

If they can pull it off with the style that Starbreeze did Riddick, though, I’ll quite happily eat my words.

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