Deus Ex: The Fall

A bit more of a conventional review today, folks…insofar as that term can be applied to several pages of discourse on a glorified expansion pack for a cult video game, prepared eleven months after anyone anywhere cared.

That said, let’s talk about that cult video game. Deus Ex, a 2000 RPG game, is the Gone With The Wind of video games. For ages it’s been frequently cited as one of the capital-letter Best Ever, and it features broad entertainment in perennial genres mixed with some seriously deep ruminations and excellent character development. For all that, though, it isn’t popular with modern audiences at all because of how mired it is in the bygone age when it was made.

Let’s say it up front: In cosmetic terms, Deus Ex has aged horribly. Made on the largely amateur-designed Unreal Engine, the game features horrible lighting conditions, laughably low-res textures and models, and a ridiculous number of bugs and glitches in the simplistic level design.

But if you’re willing to look past (ha ha) these superficial problems, the game really is that good. At its best, it slaloms flawlessly between the immersive stealth of the Thief series, the pitch-perfect gunplay and emergent narrative of Half-Life, and the massively immersive and choice-filled world of a mid-90s adventure game.

There have, naturally, been sequels. 2004’s Deus Ex: Invisible War had its heart in the right place when it came to advancing the world of the game, but in the end its ability fell short of its ambition. After a seven-year sabbatical and a relocation to Montreal, the dev team came out with the yellow-saturated prequel Human Revolution in 2011. It wasn’t perfect, but it got most of the important aspects right: An involved storyline based firmly in social sci-fi, a simplified version of the myriad RPG elements, linear gameplay broken up by minutely detailed open-world areas, and an intuitive combat system allowing for multiple paths through them.

Human Revolution’s greatest strength, though, was its metatextual aspect. It was littered with references to the original game, from the subtle to the overt, but in all those references was a clear sense of trying to go above and beyond the classic. It was a better, more subtle implementation of the “echoes” idea that Bioshock Infinite brought across so bluntly. This mix of the new age and the lineage was what really sold me on the game.

But Deus Ex: The Fall, a mobile exclusive (seen by most as a slap in the face to the longtime PC-exclusive series) has the opposite paradigm. The need to develop for slower, weaker computers means the game had to be cut down in almost every area. The maps are much smaller, the missions much more basic, the graphics quality fathoms lower, the amount of exploration and multiple paths much smaller…

…and the ultimate irony is that in doing all of this, they’ve very accurately recreated the 14-year old original game. I’m serious here – all the idiosyncratic failings and poorly stylized design elements have been carried over a decade and a half of advancement.

Even elements taken straight from Human Revolution have been, for some reason, redesigned to be brought back in line with the poor execution of the original – for example, the smooth and automatic inventory management has been devastated by the addition of microtransactions (which I honestly can’t muster up outrage over).

The story is…a bit better than I was expecting. I am an obsessive fan of this series (which you can probably guess by the fact that I paid for this game), so I had previously went out and read the book that the game’s plot is based on. And that book was just a lot of dumb schlock. Remember how I said the games mix and match all those different genres? Well, the author of the book forgot that, instead writing a bog-standard conspiracy thriller airport novel with a barely-relevant cyberpunk setting.

So my expectations were low, but that meant I was pleasantly surprised: Because the shallow action is relegated to the gameplay, the story is elevated by its absence and is actually pretty comparable to the original in its themes and concepts.

And yet, I still find myself pretty down on The Fall (bad pun intended). It feels a lot like the first game, but that’s not a good thing: Human Revolution showed that the series could come out from the huge shadow cast by the original, but this feels too much like a regression for me to support it, and certainly doesn’t feel like the classic that the original was.

About the most positive thing I can say about it is that it’s decent and inoffensive. The developers have announced work on an actual sequel is well underway, so it’s not like they were neglecting that to do this. It’s a pointless, mildly tasty little morsel with nothing else to recommend or condemn it…not even my usual orientation of thumbs.

Tune in tomorrow for Pacific Rim, a normal review, about something which inspires feelings in me.

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