Friday, August 03, 2007

PlayStation 2 (PS2) - Deus Ex: The Conspiracy - Two Hours In

Review: I picked up Deus Ex: The Conspiracy even though I already had the PC version. There are three reasons. First, I have become accustomed to playing shooters with the analog thumbsticks, and no longer consider it a major factor in deciding between console and PC versions. Second, this game can be played with a USB mouse and keyboard, so I can play the game the PC way. Third, I've started to prefer console versions of games in general, simply because of the convenience factor. It's just easier on a console.

At first glance, Deus Ex looks and plays like a first-person shooter. But peel away the FPS exterior and you'll find that within beats an RPG heart. There are character stats, skill stats, augmentation slots corresponding roughly to armor and weapon slots in fantasy RPGs, and other RPG-ish features. A better classification for Deus Ex might be First-Person RPG, like Morrowind or Oblivion.

As in Oblivion, characters in the game world are aware of your previous actions and your alignment and will treat you accordingly. If, for instance, you shoot dead every rebel, bloodthirsty characters will be more likely to give you weapons and ammunition, while more professional soldiers will be reluctant to assist you. On the other hand, if you incapacitate them all, the reverse will hold. These features and others such as characters commenting on your previous actions, contribute greatly to the illusion that this is a living, breathing universe populated by real people.

Unlike many other RPGs that claim to be science fictional in nature (e.g. Anarchy Online and Xenosaga), this one really is; it has no fantasy elements in it at all. That, for me, is a definite plus.

The story is a near-future tale of power and privilege oppressing the downtrodden... or of law, order and justice defeating terrorists, depending on which in-game propaganda you read. This game is more full of conspiracies, cabals, and hidden agendas than an Oliver Stone film. The labyrinthine plot is certainly one of its stronger points.

The graphical presentation is about what you'd expect from a 2002 PS2 port of a 2000 PC game; there's only so much that can be crammed into the PS2's memory, and tradeoffs must be made. The designers decided to enhance the main characters with higher detail, and they look very good. But as a result, non-main characters and the environments are a bit on the blurry side. It's okay though; I didn't find that the limited visuals hurt the game experience. What they do very well, though, is remind one of Blade Runner, as the PC game did.

Another compromise comes in the area of level design. In order to make everything fit, there are far more frequent loading screens than in the PC game, and they last just a little longer than is comfortable.

Sound design is outstanding. Background noises lend exactly the right ambience to the scenes, and the situation-appropriate music adds atmosphere. Voice work is excellent throughout, with the least emotive performance coming from the player's character J.C. Denton. This was probably intentional, as the designers wanted the character to be a blank mask for the player to don. Mostly, anyway. I think they were looking for a bit of the hard-boiled detective persona as well, a tough guy who doesn't emote much.

Gameplay is good, though not without its flaws. On the plus side, Ion Storm did a really good job of incorporating RPG stats into an action context. Improved gun skills will increase weapon range and accuracy, while decreasing aim wander when using a scope. Improved athletic skills results in greater running speed, higher jumps, heavier objects that can be moved, and so on.

Also a plus is that all cuscenes can be skipped, and game progress can be saved at any time, just like the PC version. Neither of these should be underestimated, as they remove two significant frustrations with other games (Final Fantasy X, I'm looking at you).

On the minus side, there's no stealth meter or the like to tell you when you're exposed. This may be more realistic, but in game terms it makes stealth a far less attractive option; they're going to see you anyway, so why waste time sneaking when you can just shoot them all?

In that same vein there's the supposed game feature that one can play either as a cold-blooded assassin or a law-enforcement professional; it's purported to be possible to take down all enemies with nonlethal means. In practice, unless the player has mad skilz (and I don't), it doesn't work. There's only one nonlethal distance weapon and ammo for it is rare. The rest are melee weapons, and their ammo is rare too. Those that don't require ammo (the baton) need several hits for a takedown.

On the other hand, there's no shortage of gun ammo, so it's far easier to just shoot all the enemies. I could get through the first mission with stealth and knockouts, but in the second there just wasn't enough nonlethal ammo, leaving me with just the baton, which is of limited use without reliable stealth. And of course I had plenty of guns.

Another game feature I expect to like not so much is permanent nanotech mods. Such mods lock out the ability to install a different mod in that slot. Unless they're handled exceptionally well, they run the risk of making gameplay less enjoyable by forcing the player to make a choice early in the game that makes the game less enjoyable later. One might find and install a good permanent mod only to find out later there's a better one, and be unable to install it. Or one might pass up a mod fearing lock-in, and later find it's exactly the one needed but is no longer available.

I recommend it, especially for fans of cyberpunk fiction, Blade Runner, and the like. It has quite good gameplay with minor issues (stealth, permamods), good visual presentation, outstanding sound and voice work, a fascinating plot and interesting characters.

Grade: A-

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