I first saw Ion Storm's Deus Ex at ECTS '98, almost 18 months ago now. The game was still in its early stages, but already it was looking as if it had a lot of potential.
Flash forward to February 2000, and London's top computer games bar The Playing Fields. The game is now almost complete, and the designers' vision is even clearer to see.
Am I still as hyped about it? You bet!
Deus Ex is basically a role-playing game, something which lead designer Warren Spector (the man behind classic games like Ultima Underworld and the original System Shock) was keen to get through to me the first time I saw it.
But it isn't a pure RPG in the way that, say, Ultima IX or Baldur's Gate is. "I'm trying to do a little more this time", Warren told us. Deus Ex adds action, shooter and adventure game elements to the standard RPG formula.
The game itself is structurally similar to Rainbow Six, with you taking the role of a member of an elite anti-terrorist force known as UNATCO in a near-future world of chaos, conspiracies and cybernetics. You play through a linear series of missions which progress the storyline and provide you with more goodies.
What makes the game unique though is that within a given mission you have a wide range of ways of completing your task. For example, you find a locked door guarded by a turret activated by a camera. You can blow up the turret and blast your way in through the door with explosive charges. You can hack into the security terminal round the corner, deactivate the camera and open the door. You can sneak up to the camera and bypass it, then pick the door's lock. You can find an NPC who can give you a key to open the door...
And this is just for one door in the very first level of the game!
"We're putting the power back into the players' hands", Warren explained. The idea is to give the player as much freedom as possible, allowing them to complete tasks in any number of ways, instead of forcing them to try and work out what solution the designer had in mind.
Free Your Mind
This philosophy extends to the character creation and experience system as well. There are a total of eleven skills to choose from, ranging from heavy weapons and demolitions proficiencies to lock picking and computer hacking.
At the start of the game you are "untrained" in any of the skills, but have a limited number of "skill points" to spend on improving your character. In practice you can train yourself in one to three of these skills before starting the game - the exact number varies depending on which you choose, as each skill comes with a different cost.
Throughout the game you are rewarded with more skill points for completing your goals, and you can then spend these to specialise in a particular skill (going from "trained" to "skilled" to "master"), or to give your character a basic understanding of a whole range of skills.
You will also find "augmentations", cybernetic implants which will enhance your abilities. Again, there are choices and trade offs here which allow you to further determine your character.
For example, an eye implant allows you to either gain improved eye-sight or an enhanced targeting system. Once you have chosen one you can't go back, but you can continue to develop that augmentation throughout the game. A level one vision enhancement gives you a light amplifier, level two gives you infra-red to pick out heat sources, and levels three and four give you a scanning system which allows you to see targets through thin walls!
And if you're thinking this sounds like wild science fiction, you're wrong. Warren insists that the technology in Deus Ex is based on existing and experimental equipment already in use. What you use in Deus Ex might be far more sophisticated, but it's all within the realms of possibility.
The game's settings are all realistic as well. You won't be seeing any surreal secret laboratories filled with radioactive slime and bizarrely configured teleporters or strange alien worlds (hello Valve). In fact, you won't be seeing any aliens at all.
Instead you will visit real world cities like Paris, New York, and Hong Kong. The first level starts you off on Liberty Island, trying to find a way into the Statue of Liberty where terrorists are holding one of your colleagues hostage. The entire island is modelled in impressive detail, and the New York skyline is visible beyond.
Go to Paris and you will find a Metro station, though sadly the game falls down here as current technology isn't able to convincingly model the stench of stale urine and the piles of ankle-deep rubbish that you find in the real Paris Metro... But otherwise the game is beautifully detailed and highly realistic.
And as you can see from the screenshots, it also looks beautiful. As you would expect, because Deus Ex is based on the Unreal Tournament engine, which powered the best first person shooter of 1999.
One of the main additions to the engine for Deus Ex (as well as the nifty inventory system and various interface changes) is lip-synching. This allows the characters' mouths to move as they speak, and is all done in real time. Warren told us that even if they dropped a line of dialogue spoken in Swahili into the game, the characters should still be able to lip-synch to it without any extra coding or animation being required.
Sadly the game's speech is one of the few things that hasn't been finished yet, so we were unable to see this in action for ourselves.
The game's script has around 150,000 lines of dialogue, all of which has to be translated into at least four or five languages for the European release of the game... Warren is optimistic that this will be done fairly quickly though, and if so we should see the game being released simultaneously in Europe and America.
According to Warren the game is now 80 to 90% complete, with about two months of work still to do. If everything goes to plan then, it could be out by my birthday in mid-April.
To achieve this the original plans for some sort of multiplayer support have had to be ditched, but as the game is based on the Unreal Tournament engine, Warren said it was possible that multiplayer would be added in a patch or mission pack later on.
Apparently Ion Storm already have basic deathmatch functioning, but they have decided to concentrate on balancing and testing the single player, instead of spending time on creating special multiplayer maps and game modes. After all, the game is a single player RPG at its heart, and hopefully this approach will pay off. And with luck we may see some cool Team Fortess and Counter Strike style multiplayer modes for the game later in the year.
Ironically, Deus Ex was the last of the three games currently in development at Ion Storm to be started, and yet it looks like it could be the first to be released.
At least if that does happen they should be getting started on the right footing at last - Deus Ex looks like being a System Shock 2 for the year 2000, with a more realistic setting, better graphics, stronger RPG elements, more freedom of action, and a more involving storyline.
And you can't give a game much more praise than that...