Archive for August, 2010

Deus Ex: Escape from New York

I just spent pretty much an entire day playing Deus Ex (or, more accurately, an entire night, because it’s a very dimly-lit game, full of shadows suitable for skulking, and thus best played without ambient sunlight). It seems to me that this is a game best played in long sessions like this. It’s easy to get bogged down in tactics otherwise. If you play for only a half an hour, the focus of your session can wind up being something as trivial as making your way to the end of a tunnel, rather than the plot-level activities that such micro-goals make up. This, I think, is why I’ve only made significant progress on the weekends.

And significant progress it is, this time: I’ve finally reached the point in the story where I leave both New York and UNATCO behind, which seems like a good place to stop for the moment. I have a few comments on the way the shift in plot was handled. There will be spoilers, but in a way, it’s hard to spoil the story here, because everything of importance is so heavily foreshadowed.

First of all, turning against UNATCO is not only inevitable, but happens at a very specific point. I was not only surprised at this, I was surprised that I was surprised: I’ve been given plenty of warning, in game and out, about what was going to happen. But when the moment comes, it comes quite suddenly. Before the decisive mission, there’s a sense that you’re juggling loyalties. The player character’s boss, one Joseph Manderley, as much as told me that I’d have to start putting more effort into getting the real powers behind UNATCO to trust me, just before it all became moot.

Understand that this is only notable because the game continues to give the player more influence over the course of events than most games provide. Secondary characters live or die as a result of your actions. The entire New York segment of the game leads up to a confrontation at a hotel in which UNATCO troops, your former colleagues, come for you and your brother Paul, another rogue agent. You can take a stand alongside him, saving his life in the process, or slip out the back while he sacrifices himself to buy you time. Quite a few later conversations have to have versions for both branches, and there’s an entire sub-quest about finding his cadaver in MJ12’s secret medical research laboratories. If you escape, and evade capture, you get an optional boss fight with Anna Navarre, your cyborg mentor who earlier complained about your being too soft if you used nonlethal force against the NSF. It’s possible to ditch this fight even after it starts; again, later scenes accommodate her being alive or dead.

Defeat or escape from Navarre and you wind up in the one encounter that I believe to be completely unwinnable. You can make a pretty good go of it, though. It’s like the last few seconds of the first episode of Doom, where you suddenly find yourself surrounded by baddies and have no way to shoot them all: the episode simply ends when you die. According to legend, some exceptional Doom player actually did manage to win that fight, only to find himself stuck in a small room with no doors and no way to trigger the end. Similarly, on emerging from the subway tunnels in Deus Ex, even if I power up my defensive augmentations and don thermoptic camouflage and try to make a break for freedom, it seems like I’m stuck in a smallish area surrounded by invisible walls. At any rate, the next scripted plot event involves the player character escaping from a holding cell, so you have to get captured somehow. The interesting thing is how much choice you get about when and where. From the moment the troops come for you and Paul at the hotel, being defeated in combat results in capture instead of death. One way to skip the fight with Navarre is to simply get captured before you reach it. Lasting farther into the sequence gives you more experience points, and to a certain extent more story, but this is one case where player actions have consequences that aren’t terribly lasting. You’re going to wake up in that cell no matter what.

I assumed at first that the cell was simply one of the cells I had seen earlier in UNATCO HQ, where certain NFS officers wound up. It seemed a reasonable assumption, given that I had been captured by UNATCO troops and that Navarre, a UNATCO agent, stops by to taunt you if she’s still alive at that point. But no, it’s actually deep in a secret MJ12 compound, complete with more guards in MJ12 uniforms and scientists working on weird biological experiments. (Some cages contain strange bird-like creatures that bear an uncanny resemblance to current concepts of the velociraptor. I just can’t escape the dinosaurs these days, can I?) And there’s a glorious moment, after painstakingly wending your way through the ducts and hallways, when you finally reach the facility’s sole exit, and discover that the entire thing is the previously-inaccessible “Restricted” area in the lower reaches of UNATCO HQ. A connection between MJ12 and UNATCO is pretty much a given by that point, but providing a literal “connection” in the sense of hallway makes it all that much more satisfying somehow. It turns the whole conspiracy from allegations about individuals to something so fundamental it’s built into the very architecture, a fact on the ground (or under the ground, as the case may be). Perhaps this is why the Masons are such a popular subject for conspiracy theories.

The game has been pretty good about reusing environments in different ways, but I think UNATCO HQ is the first area that you initially become familiar with while it’s safe, and only later becomes full of enemies. The enemies are, of course, the people who you earlier befriended — all the more reason to stick to nonlethal force, says I. Except not all of them are enemies: most of the NPCs with names, found in their usual offices, are on your side, at least if you play it like I did. One guy helps you escape but is otherwise loyal to UNATCO (expressing dismay that it’s been corrupted but hope that it can be redeemed), another expresses an intention of joining you in Hong Kong as soon as he gets the chance. Another gives you a choice, asking whether he should come with you or stay behind as your agent, feeding you information about UNATCO’s doings. In other words, conspiring with you. Creating a new conspiracy.

Let’s hope it turns out better than the last one. Presumably this is an ad-hoc conspiracy, to be dropped once its aims are met, much as Cincinnatus voluntarily relinquished the dictatorship of Rome. There’s a brief mention of Cincinnatus in the game, a passage in a book on the Society of Cincinnati, an order founded shortly after the American Revolution. It makes the dubious claim that the Society exists primarily to seize dictatorial control over the United States in the event that it becomes necessary. I can’t vouch for the book’s reliability even within the context of the game — it could well be just another conspiracy theory thrown out in the name of inclusiveness. But if the authors want us to read that passage, it’s probably because they want us to think about its implications for the player’s actions. But we’ll see.

Deus Ex: MJ-12

Deus Ex is impressively thorough about name-checking popular conspiracy theories and secret societies. Area 51, Majestic 12, the Knights Templar, the previously noted Trilateral Commission, and so forth. One bit-part NPC even asked me if I knew the widow’s son. (Do the freemasons even count as a secret society any more? I’ve seen them advertise on television, for crying out loud.) There haven’t been any references to the Kennedy assassination yet, but I’ll be surprised if the game ends without mentioning it at least once.

I assume that not all of these references will be concretized in the actual story. Many NPCs just have their own little paranoid suppositions, usually based on mistrust of privilege. Which is to say, they’re broadly correct, but they have no real basis for the details. Theories of this sort can contradict each other wildly. Nonetheless, some of them are already coming true. deusex-mj12MJ-12 is definitely operating secret laboratories in the sewers, studying the plague. They even have guards with a little “XII” logo on their helmets.

The MJ12 guards are the first enemies I’ve encountered other than the NSF. I suppose I could have used this as an excuse to become more violent: just because I have a rule against murdering the NSF doesn’t mean the same applies to these guys and their clandestine medical experiments on unwilling subjects. But then, the people performing those experiments aren’t the ones shooting at me. The guards are just freelance security personnel who don’t know a thing about what they’re defending; the only scientist present at the site is in fact the guy I went in there to rescue, and as much a prisoner as the experimental subjects.

This is something the game keeps doing: pulling the good-guys-vs-bad-guys rug out from under the player. For example, at another point, a friendly NPC tells me that I’ll need a key currently in the possession of an NSF officer encamped nearby, and that the only way I’ll get it is if I kill said officer. But when I confront him, he immediately surrenders. He’s not even a soldier, it turns out. He’s the company’s accountant.

At any rate, MJ-12 is associated with UFOs, so their interest in the “grey plague”, and in particular their interest in seeing it “fully bond with a human host”, has obvious implications about the plague’s origins. I suppose this is why, immediately after granting me this much understanding of what was going on, the game started throwing Templar references at me. Just to make sure I knew that I didn’t really understand anything yet.

Deus Ex: Still Going

I seem to have gotten stuck in that vicious cycle of slow progress, where low frequency of accomplishment reduces my motivation to play, which makes me play less, which reduces the frequency of accomplishment. I’ve tried to break out of this somewhat this weekend, but it’s clear that I’m only a fraction of the way through the story. I’m still in war-torn New York City when it’s clear that there are chapters to come set in Paris and Hong Kong.

It’s my own fault, of course. I keep going back to old saves to do things differently, to maximize my gain and minimize my loss. I could probably breeze through these chapters more quickly if I simply stopped caring about the cost. But if I did, I’d still miss half the story. When I go back, a large part of what I do is find special encounters that I missed. There are whole areas full of talkative NPCs that you can just pass by if you’re not diligent. Sometimes you’re told about them in advance, but even then, it’s a coin-toss whether you find them before or after your primary mission objective. (If there’s one complaint I can level at this game, it’s that supposedly-hidden secret entrances are usually not significantly harder to find than the main entrances to the public places where you get hints about them.)

When the NPCs are functioning as plot-dispensers instead of hint-dispensers, they give a certain amount of additional context to the situation. I compared the beginning of the game to Final Fantasy IV before, in that it made it clear that the player character is working on the side of evil, but frankly, the enemies aren’t winning any popularity contests on the streets. Some people agree with the NSF’s 1National Secessionist Forces, formerly the Northwest Secessionist Forces. Despite knowing this, I briefly wonder every time they’re mentioned why the National Science Foundation is so angry with us. Did UNATCO not properly cite the relevant papers on nanomachine enhancement technology or something? goals but hate the NSF anyway: apparently when an organization declares war on the United States government, it attracts the sort of recruit who just wants an excuse to shoot at people. The story seems to want you to lose your sympathy with them as you go along, perhaps to give the player better and better outs for using violence as the difficulty increases. Me, I’m still sticking to nonlethal force, if only because it seems like a shame to stop now. I keep finding ammo caches and being disappointed that they’re not lockpicks.

1 National Secessionist Forces, formerly the Northwest Secessionist Forces. Despite knowing this, I briefly wonder every time they’re mentioned why the National Science Foundation is so angry with us. Did UNATCO not properly cite the relevant papers on nanomachine enhancement technology or something?

Deus Ex: Locked Doors

I’ve said before that the thing a game is really about is the thing you spend your time doing. Doom is a game about shooting at monsters, The Ancient Art of War is a game about maintaining supply lines, and Riven, despite its best intentions, is largely a game about looking for animal shapes. Deus Ex — the way I’m playing it, at least — is a game about gaining access to things.

You can go about this in various ways. Often there’s more than one route to your immediate destination, with different obstacles, which use different character skills. For example, one route might have guards patrolling it, a test of your various weapon use skills, and, indirectly, your medicine skill, which affects how many hit points you can squeeze out of a health pack. Another route might have a locked door.

Sometimes you can find a key for a locked door. Sometimes there’s a keypad you can enter a combination into. Sometimes there isn’t. Mechanical locks can be picked, provided you have a lockpick, but these are single-use videogame lockpicks. I suppose this makes more sense in a dystopian cyberpunk environment than in most other milieus — after all, if the presumably-corrupt corporation that manufactures those lockpicks can make them self-destruct on use, they certainly have the financial motivation to make them that way. Similarly, electronic locks can be overcome with a disposable “multitool”, which, however, also has other uses (such as disabling security cameras). Doors and keypads all report strength ratings when selected. Supposedly the strength affects how many picks or tools you need to defeat them, but I haven’t yet seen a door that needs more than one, presumably because I’ve been sinking most of my skill points into Lockpicking and Electronics, which make the use of these tools more efficient. I do this because the supply of lockpicks and multitools is limited, and I’m afraid of running out when I really need one. I have yet to find a reliable source of either item; mostly I find them at random places throughout the levels, raising the question of who left them there and why they didn’t jealously hoard them like I do. Any mission that I finish with more lockpicks than I started is a good mission. When I chance upon a combination to a door that I already spent a multitool on, it’s time to reload an old save.

There’s one other way to open doors: explosives. This is also an effective way to deal with certain other obstacles, such as the aforementioned armed guards, but I haven’t been indulging much in explosions of any sort, because they tend to attract attention. Not all doors are vulnerable to explosives, just as not all doors can be picked or hacked: there’s a strength rating for how much physical damage they can withstand just like the one for resistance to being picked, and either rating can be “infinite”. I’m guessing that I’ll eventually start encountering doors that are infinitely strong in all respects, and can only be got past legitimately (with a key) or indirectly (through an air duct). There were doors like that in the tutorial, which was themed as a UNATCO training mission, and if UNATCO has access to infinite door technology, you can bet they’ll use it to guard their innermost secrets.

Deus Ex: Politics and Morality

I have to correct myself now. The ending of the first mission isn’t quite as I remembered. It’s subtler. You’re never told not to talk to the alleged terrorist militia guy — in fact, you’re reminded to do it just before reaching him, and then, when you do reach him, it happens automatically. It isn’t even as coercive as the term “interrogation” suggests: he immediately surrenders and gladly talks, seemingly relieved that you’re willing to listen. When you have the information you came for, some grunts show up and say “We’ll take it from here”. It’s at this point, when it’s implied that you’re finished, that you have the opportunity to keep on talking instead.

And it’s a little odd how that goes. First he talks about how UNATCO (the global anti-terrorist organization you work for) is a tool of oppression, a catspaw of the wealthy and powerful. And it’s easy to agree. But then he starts talking about the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds and the Trilateral Commission. Now, conspiracy theories are far from implausible in the universe of this game, given what we saw in the opening cutscene, but these really seem like the wrong ones. They’re yesteryear’s conspiracies, and this is a sci-fi world, with cyborgs and nanomachines all over the place. To still be worried about the machinations of international Jewish bankers seems almost pitiable.

I didn’t mention the cyborgs and nanomachines before, did I? It’s all part of the premise. The player character, codenamed J. C. Denton, is a nanomachine-enhanced cyborg himself. And yes, that means he and the entire organization he represents is a symbol of technology supplanting humanity. Your fellow cyborgs in the organization are blatantly brutal and unsympathetic, as well as pale and dressed in gothy black outfits and speaking in foreign accents. Books scattered around HQ explain UNATCO’s high-minded principles and precepts just to underscore how far the organization is from them in practice. Me, I’ve tried to live up to those ideals, despite the other cyborgs making fun of me for it — and the game indulges me in this iconoclasm, giving me non-lethal weapons like tranquilizer darts and knock-out gas grenades to deal with the few guards I can’t sneak past. All of which is rendered somewhat pointless at the end of the first mission, when your colleagues sweep in and slaughter anyone still standing while you’re chatting with Mr. Militia. Not to mention that the second major goal is to recover a barrel of plague vaccine that the so-called terrorists stole to give to the poor. No matter how non-violently you complete that mission, there’s blood on your hands because of it.

It all reminds me a bit of the beginning of Final Fantasy IV, where the first player character is Cecil, a Dark Knight in the service of a tyrannical overlord. Cecil overcomes his beginnings, and doubtless the player character here can do so as well. Mind you, it eventually turns out that Cecil’s employer was as ruthless as he was because he was desperately trying to contain an even greater evil. Will something like that happen here? Quite likely, if you ask me. It’s all too black-and-white at the moment for a game about secrecy and deception.

Deus Ex

The year 2000 is where my Stack peaks, with fully 40 titles, every single one of which is having its 10th anniversary. It’s the year of The Sims, Sacrifice, Hitman, and the remaining episodes of Heroes Chronicles, to name just a few that I really want to get to at some point. It’s also the year that Ion Storm rather amazingly released both Daikatana, the Edsel of videogames and a butt of jokes to this day, and Deus Ex, a critic’s darling and still lauded as influential in broadening the scope of what really couldn’t just be called the “first-person shooter” any more.

We’re well into the age of 3D now: this is a game that really needed a beefier graphics card than I had at the time of its initial release. When I finally upgraded, I recall playing the first couple of levels, then deciding I was going about it all wrong and should start over, possibly after reading the feelies (which I didn’t actually get around to until now). Partly I felt I was letting inappropriate FPS habits dictate my actions. I wanted to explore everything, and if you do that back at your own HQ, you wind up earning multiple reprimands for violating security protocols, as well as for peeping into the ladies’ restroom. As in Strife, the RPG aspect is strong enough that pursuing every single option isn’t a realistic strategy, and is in fact somewhat detrimental. But also, this is a game set up to let you choose how you want to play it. That’s its thing. I think I mainly want to play it like it’s Thief 2.5, and that’s a viable option, but one that’s trickier than playing it like a shooter.

The other main thing I remember about previous sessions is that, at the end of the first mission, apprehending the head of a militia group that’s occupying the Statue of Liberty, you’re told by your fellow peacekeepers that you shouldn’t talk to him — and then are given an opportunity to talk to him. Well, remember that I was still in do-everything mode at that point. Naturally I wanted to talk to him if I could, and I was aware that I was rebelling against orders a little by doing so, which I wanted to do anyway: the opening cutscene was not at all subtle in establishing the player character’s ultimate superiors as bad guys with some sort of world-domination plot involving a deliberately engineered plague. (I suppose it’s common for games to use this kind of dramatic irony, where the player knows what’s coming long before the player character does — to pick an example from recent posts to this blog, the heroine of Dino Crisis doesn’t know at first there are dinosaurs on the island, while the player knows it from the very title — but it seems unusually explicit here.) What I didn’t remember is that your initial orders are not just to apprehend, but to interrogate the prisoner. So the organization you work for isn’t completely consistent in what it wants of you, which is unusual in games. The only other games I can think of where the people who send you on missions are at cross-purposes are those in the GTA series, which, like Deus Ex, places an emphasis on player freedom.

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