Deus Ex – Hell’s Kitchen

All of these paths forward are completely optional. If I’d wanted to, I could have skipped all these other distractions and just walked through an alley to approach the warehouse head on. Tactics dictated that doing that was a bad idea for me. Since I’ve been playing with a stealthy, mostly non-lethal approach, I have no practical means of neutralizing multiple enemies at long range. Plus, I just don’t want to go in with guns blazing. It’s that Deus Ex thing again: giving players a choice about how to play the game.

This post is the second in my series which chronicles my journey through the original Deus Ex. Read part one here.

Terrorists have intercepted a shipment of Ambrosia, the anti-plague vaccine. JC, that’s me, recovered a lone barrel of it in Castle Clinton, but the majority of it remains unaccounted for. Clues point inland, towards a warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen. The NSF’s armed forces have retreated there and set up a line of defenses. Such hasty movement shouldn’t be a problem since UNATCO employs multiple cybernetically-augmented superman. But part of their defense involves a powerful generator that produces an electromagnetic field. This effectively blocks UNATCO troops from entering. Your mission: Disable the generator so your brother Paul can swoop in and recover the vaccine.Hell’s Kitchen is kind of a barren place. What first strikes me about the environment is how much it does and doesn’t feel like a big-city neighborhood. On one hand, its depiction if a city block is pretty spot-on when compared to many other games released around the turn of the millennium. On the other hand, it’s really, really barren. Cities are a hard thing to recreate in video games. In the real world, there are thousands of tiny details and variations that give buildings and neighborhoods a human touch. Even in subdivisions filled with cookie-cutter houses, the personalities of the people who dwell in them set them apart from each other. Gaming technology of the late 90s just didn’t have the power to display all of that. As a result, buildings become large shapes comprised of overly-simplified geometry. Those large shapes are then covered with a small patch of a texture, tiled and repeated to cover the surface area. Since the human brain wants to find patters, big rectangles covered with repetitive designs stand out like a giant sign saying, “this isn’t real!” This is supposed to be the heart of New York city, after all.

From a gaming perspective this usually means that if there’s a detail present in a large open area, it’s there for a reason and worth investigating. Shortly after entering the level, I find a corner of the map where there are a few crates and a dumpster. On the building exterior above them is a ledge. Thinking this must lead somewhere, I stack the crates so I can jump onto the dumpster and then traverse the ledge to an open window. It’s connected to a small one-bedroom apartment. There’s a safe in the wall, so I use one of my valuable lock picks to get it open. Inside is a bio-electric cell and another lock pick. There’s another locked door in here, but I don’t have anything to open it with. The loot I got didn’t seem worth all the trouble, but at least I didn’t lose anything valuable. Before leaving, I scan the room for anything else of interest and my cursor briefly highlights an object on the wall. Out of curiosity I crouch down for a closer look. It’s an electrical outlet. I press the right mouse button to interact with it, and wind up shocking myself. Puzzled as to why the game would allow this, I shock myself a few more times before losing interest and move on. Maybe some practical use for this will reveal itself later on?

Feeling sufficiently energized, I head off to explore another corner of Hell’s Kitchen and walk right into a firefight between UNATCO and NSF troops. The bad guys were severely outnumbered here, so I crouched behind a barricade and let the battle play out. Once the bullets stopped flying I did what any decent soldier would do and looted the corpses that piled up in the street. Since I’m still not planning to play this game with the intention of shooting everything in sight, I didn’t recover much that was of use to me. Most of the troops were carrying machine guns and big bullets; not anything I’ve used so far. Talking to the sergeant in command of UNATCO troops, I learned that the bad guys had fled through a nearby door. It’s secured with an electronic lock, but nobody knows what the pass code is.

As barren as Hell’s Kitchen is, there’s still a lot to do. In addition to the firefight, I also saved a bum from getting beaten up by NSF thugs. I met a drunk outside of a hotel who warned me about a hostage situation inside. And last but not least, I beat up a pimp who was trying to further the exploitation of one of his call girls. All of these activities are completely optional, but all of them enrich the main path of progression. The bum offered a clue that could get me to the main warehouse via an entrance hidden by shipping containers. Clearing out the hostage situation in the hotel provided me with  a clue to the location of a window I could climb through to gain access to my objective. Knocking out the pimp led to more discussions about crime in the area and ended up giving me the pass code to the door that my UNATCO ally told me about earlier.

All of these paths forward are completely optional. If I’d wanted to, I could have skipped all these other distractions and just walked through an alley to approach the warehouse head on. Tactics dictated that doing that was a bad idea for me. Since I’ve been playing with a stealthy, mostly non-lethal approach, I have no practical means of neutralizing multiple enemies at long range. Plus, I just don’t want to go in with guns blazing. It’s that Deus Ex thing again: giving players a choice about how to play the game. I decided to go the quiet route, back to that warehouse entrance protected by a keypad. After sneaking past some guards, picking a few locks, and climbing a ladder or two, I found myself on the rooftops.

In the times I’ve played this game before, the rooftops have always been a cakewalk. Enemies didn’t seem to be able to see three feet in front of themselves, allowing me to wield a baton and knock them all out stealthily. That didn’t work this time. The improved AI in GMDX surprised me. While I was standing near a ledge using my binoculars to scout he rooftops ahead of me, I started taking damage. Where did that come from? I frantically panned around and couldn’t see anything! Finally I noticed there was a sniper on a rooftop below who had just hit me for the third time. In a panic I whip out my pistol and send some bullets back in his direction. The firefight attracts the attention of two other enemies, and I wind up lining up some long-range shots with my pistol. So much for the quiet entrance.

As I get closer to the warehouse, I drop down to ground-level and find a staircase that leads to a second-floor office. There’s a lone NSF soldier sitting at a computer. I introduce my baton to the back of his head and then hack into the workstation. Before I know it, I’d turned off the generator and an alarm starts blaring! It was my intention to see what the computer controlled and then do some more snooping around, but I inadvertently shut down the generator and triggered the end of the mission. Now NSF troops are rushing past me towards the roof, where I hear a lot of gunfire. The enemy troops are exchanging fire with an unseen assailant on the roof. One by one they crumple to the ground in front of me. Gunther Hermann, an ally of mine, had been dropped on the roof via helicopter and was securing my extraction with a lot of bullets.

Warehouse infiltrated? Check! Generator shut down? Check! Lots of enemy troops, gunned down in a hailstorm of bullets? Uh, check, I guess. While it wasn’t my intention to complete Deus Ex with a nonlethal run, I didn’t really want it to turn into a bloodbath either. The fact that you can still complete your mission even after things go wrong is one of he alluring things about this game. I’m certain that if I was a lot more careful, I could have completed this mission more discreetly. It’s a relief to play a game that’s comfortable with improvisation, rather than programming the player to fail unless they do things exactly as specified.

Speaking of failure: after returning to UNATCO HQ, you find out that Paul botched the retrieval mission in the warehouse. UNATCO still doesn’t have the drugs they were after, and Paul didn’t report back to HQ. The NSF is still moving the vaccine, conceivably through abandoned subway tunnels. It’s your job to clean up your brother’s mess and go find the drugs. I poke around at headquarters for a bit, healing from the bot in the med lab and then try to hack into an email account or two. It turns out that some of the top brass isn’t happy with Paul. The “Primary Unit” isn’t behaving as expected, and they are releasing him from service. Ominous tidings for my bionic brother…

Deus Ex – Beginning Again

So what makes this game so special? The gameplay takes place from a first-person perspective and combines elements of action and shooting, stealth, role-playing games, and character-rich dialog trees. In short, it aimed to be a game where any style of play was a viable option. Enemy outpost ahead? You can mount a frontal assault with guns blazing, or you can sneak around to find the back door. Talk to a few civilians nearby, and they might even offer other alternatives. It’s possible for two people to play the same game and have wildly variable experiences.

Deus Ex is widely regarded as one of the best PC games ever made. Its critical and commercial success heralded the mainstream arrival of a genre called Immersive Simulation, or ImSim. It’s not hyperbole to say it was groundbreaking at the time of its release, and modern-day developers still draw inspiration from it. Last year, Deus Ex made it to the 23rd spot on PC Gamer’s Best PC Games of All Time feature. Though gaming journalism thrives on gaming in the current era, the merits of Deus Ex are still worth contemplating in a five-part series.

So what makes this game so special? The gameplay takes place from a first-person perspective and combines elements of action and shooting, stealth, role-playing games, and character-rich dialog trees. In short, it aimed to be a game where any style of play was a viable option. Enemy outpost ahead? You can mount a frontal assault with guns blazing, or you can sneak around to find the back door. Talk to a few civilians nearby, and they might even offer other alternatives. It’s possible for two people to play the same game and have wildly variable experiences.

The game’s story paints a bleak picture of the near future. The world population is at critical levels, and to make matters worse there’s a raging plague known as Gray Death spiraling out of control. Cure for this plague is in short supply, and most of what’s available is handed out to those with money or status. This inequality causes tension between socioeconomic classes and threatens to boil over into violent conflict. Fringe groups have started stealing shipments of medicine and redistributing it to the common people.

Cybernetic augmentation of humans is becoming more and more common, with many soldiers receiving upgrades that leave them looking like humanoid robots. Bionic implants have just taken a major leap forward, leaving its subjects more human-looking while granting greater augmented capabilities. Enter JC Denton, the second man to receive these new abilities and the character you control throughout the game. JC works for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition, UNATCO. They thrust him into the middle of this mess to find the missing medicine and bridge the gap between common man and the future of augmented humankind.

Even augmented humanoid killing machines have problems with vending machines.

In spite of an entire laundry list of enticing features, I’ve never played Deus Ex through to completion. As best as I can figure, the farthest I’ve ever made it in the game is to Hong Kong, which is about a third of the way through. I don’t know that there’s been any one thing that causes me to quit. It’s not like I encountered a difficult stretch of gameplay and gave up because it ceased to be fun. The extremely sad part is that I’ve started and quit playing the game no fewer than four separate times. There’s a lot here that I should absolutely fall in love with, but for some reason Deus Ex has remained one of the biggest titles on my shameful list of unfinished games.

Not anymore. Here and now, I pledge to start and finish Deus Ex for the first time ever. Why? Two reasons, primarily. First, I just can’t stand the idea that I’ve let this game go uncompleted for so long. I know I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played, I just wind up dropping it for some reason. This time I’ve got to see it through. Second, since Deus Ex is such an influential title in gaming history, it’d be a horrendous oversight not to be familiar with it. In order to recognize its influence, I’ve got to know what it accomplished on its own. There are quite a few games in my library that owe some part of their existence to Deus Ex; Bioshock, Stalker: Call of Pripyat, Dishonored, and Prey, to name a few.

Yeah, there’s not much you can do to hide 18-year-old video game graphics here.

Since Deus Ex is nearly eighteen years old, it has a few rough edges not even the thickest rose-colored glasses of nostalgia can smooth over. That’s why I’m going to play a modded version called Give Me Deus Ex, or GMDX for short. From all reports, it manages to leave most of the lore, layout, and level design of the original game unchanged. It adds enhanced graphics by way of high-resolution textures, as well as changes to the user interface. Enemies are more intelligent, behaving a bit more lifelike than the original design. Plus there are dozens of changes and tweaks to gameplay mechanics that I won’t list here. In short, it seems to be a mod that is faithful to the original design philosophy of the original game. As I write this I’ve had a chance to play the first two hours in the mod, and I think I can safely say that it is true to the spirit of Deus Ex. It makes a lot of cool tweaks and improvements without feeling like a rewrite of the game everyone knows and loves.

Liberty Island

The opening mission of the game is one that perfectly illustrates the vision of Deus Ex. Diverted from their escape plans after stealing a cache of anti-plague vaccine, a group of rebels has taken over Liberty Island. Yes, the same island which the Statue of Liberty calls home. They’ve taken a fellow UNATCO agent hostage and are holding him the base of the statue. The terrorist leader is hiding out in the top of the statue, waiting and hoping for a chance to escape. Your brother, a fellow augmented UNATCO agent, informs you that you’re working the mission solo. Someone “high up” wants to see how you handle the situation. It’s your job to capture or kill the rebel leader. You do have at least two choices when it comes to handling the situation: Either you can use brute force or try to sneak around undetected. The design of this level forces a certain amount of discretion, no matter what your intent is. The area around the statue is flat and open, so it’s difficult to engage with enemy soldiers without alerting their squad mates.

The South Dock, where it all begins.

Since ammo is scarce and I didn’t have any ranged weapons worth using, I decided to clear the island in a non-lethal manner. At first, I thought I’d sneak up on enemy soldiers one by one and knock them unconscious with my handy baton. That worked extremely well for the first soldier. The second one was, apparently, alerted by the sound the baton makes when it extends and turned around to face me before I could land a blow on the back of his head. He fired a shot or two as I started whacking him in the face with my baton. It took about four or five blows, but I eventually knocked him over. No time to celebrate victory though, as the gunfire wounded me and alerted more enemies to my location. Though I could outrun the pack for a few brief moments, the next time I turned around I saw six enemy soldiers firing pistols and machine guns at me. Time to reload and try something different.

The fact that I had this much trouble so early in the game speaks volumes about the improvements GMDX makes to enemy AI. While any stealth game is about exploiting the AI and game design to an extent, it’s nice to feel like there’s a real challenge to overcome here. It didn’t take me too long to adjust my tactics and make some progress in infiltrating the statue. There was a brief moment near the cargo yard on the east side of the island where I thought it was all over. I had worked my way clockwise around the island and was preparing to climb up a pile of crates. An enemy turned the corner, saw me, and started sprinting in my direction. I heard a burst of gunfire and was momentarily puzzled as to why my health stats weren’t going down. Then I noticed impact marks behind the terrorist. A lone UNATCO security bot, patrolling near the north dock, had come in range of the terrorist and opened fire; it saved my rear end. For a brief moment I considered luring the other nearby terrorists into the firing range of the security bot, but decided that would go against the pacifist position I’d adopted for this mission. After a missed jump or two, I’d safely navigated the piles of cargo containers and made it onto the second major level of the statue foundation. 

Near the end of the mission, I found myself stuck in a predicament about three-quarters of the way up the statue. On my way up I’d somehow managed to sneak past two soldiers who were hanging out near a stairwell. They should have seen me, I’m pretty sure one of them was suspicious, but neither one came after me. I climbed up a stairway past the two of them, walked down another hallway, and then climbed another set of stairs. Here’s where the problem became apparent. There were two more mercenaries at the top of these stairs, and there was no possible way to sneak past them. It was easy to take the first one of them down with a well-placed tranquilizer dart from my mini crossbow. But as soon as the first enemy dropped, the other immediately became alerted to my presence and started shooting at me. Dealing with one angry soldier isn’t a problem, but the sound of gunfire alerted the two soldiers below me. By the time I’d downed the second soldier on the upper level, the two from the lower level came to spell my doom.

Eventually I realized I had stolen a gas mine from a supply room below. I planted that in the hallway between the two groups of enemies. This time when the lower set of guards was alerted to my presence, they walked through the hallway and triggered the gas mine. The explosion and ensuing gas cloud incapacitated them allowing me to leisurely send a tranquilizer dart in their direction. Hard part done, I made it to the top of the statue where the terrorist leader had taken up refuge. He told me that I was too late to recover their shipment; that it was already on the way to the mainland. Primary mission accomplished, you have the option: let him go, or shoot him on the spot. Owing to my non-lethal commitment for the mission, I let him go to be scum for another day.

After this are another two missions I won’t go into much detail about. UNATCO HQ serves to fill in some back story and introduce you to more of the cast members of the game. You’ll certainly read more about them in future posts. Assault on Castle Clinton is the next one that, while fun, doesn’t resonate with me as much as other missions in the game. I think part of that is because after assaulting the ruined Statue of Liberty, it’s hard for me to be excited about a mission centered around a big brown circle. Worth playing and kind of fun? Yes. Fun to read about? Not so much.

Next up – Hell’s Kitchen!

World of Goo

For me, most of the game’s challenge comes from managing the monstrous goo structures I constructed. Goo itself isn’t rigid, and neither is a structure built from goo blobs. Everything built will shiver and wiggle like it can barely contain the energy contained within. Imagine a game of Jenga where the blocks of wood are actually made of Jell-O! It’s this variable turns simple puzzles into a chaotic affair.

In the course of my time playing World of Goo, quite a lot of things happened. Information about the game’s world is revealed through in-game signs and cute animations between levels. In spite of these hints, I really had no clue what was going on. At various points I thought I was fighting to reopen an industrial goo-production factory. As I made progress I came to understand that that goo was the source of beauty in the world and therefore used for cosmetic products. Shortly thereafter, I got the impression that goo was the sentient fuel source for all mankind and in the process of revolting. Then things went all The Matrix on me, and I was in a goo-version of the internet, fighting to unleash all the spam email in history in one major blow. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Just when I was most perplexed, everything exploded.

Suffice to say I have no idea what the plot is in World of Goo. All I know is that it’s about utilizing different types of goo to help them get from point A to point B. There are 48 different puzzles in the game. Each one starts with a square frame that holds blobs of goo, and it’s your job to get those blobs of goo to the level’s exit: a suction pipe that leads… somewhere. The blobs of goo swimming on the starting frame can be used to build structures off of that starting framework. Drag a blob of goo near the framework, and it it will be anchored in place by two or more gooey tendrils. Repeat this simple action to build towers, bridges, wheels, and other unconventional shapes as the level demands. Safely transport the required amount of goo around the hazards and to the exit pipe, and you win the level.

There are a number of different types of sentient goo that you’ll need to figure out how to use. Black, “unrefined” goo is the simplest. Click and drag a blob to position it near the home structure. Releasing he mouse button places the goo in that location, supported by one to three tendrils. Positioning goo allows the construction of basic structures. Place a blob of black good, and it’s stuck there. Green blobs can be placed and re-positioned. Clear goo can be linked end-to-end, making a flexible goo chain. Red goo is flammable. There are more types of goo giving the ability to fly, grab onto other surfaces, or imitate skulls. Later on, the game gives you goo blocks. While I question whether or not these actually count as a type of goo, it’s difficult to argue with a block that has an eyeball in the middle of it. Call me weird, but I think the blocks are kind of cute.

Each level in World of Goo is introduced passively, by way of a wooden sign. Any hints for completing the level are told you by the sign, present in the level’s name, or suggested to you by the position of the beginning elements. Things start out simply enough, such as building a bridge to cover a small gap, or erecting a tower to reach a pipe in the sky. Things quickly become more convoluted as different types of goo are added into the mix. One of the later levels, titled “The Worm”, tasked me with creating a tall tower which I then had to topple end over end to reach my destination. The difficulty curve is finely tuned. Scenarios gradually become more complex, forcing you to try new approaches to the solution. Generally speaking, I felt moderately intelligent for being able to solve each level on my own. There was only level I had to look online to find the solution for.

For me, most of the game’s challenge comes from managing the monstrous goo structures I constructed. Goo itself isn’t rigid, and neither is a structure built from goo blobs. Everything built will shiver and wiggle like it can barely contain the energy contained within. Imagine a game of Jenga where the blocks of wood are actually made of Jell-O! It’s this variable turns simple puzzles into a chaotic affair. Building a simple tower often ends up becoming a race to stabilize the base before it topples over into disaster. There’s a fun tension to wondering if the structure you just built will stay put or keel over in spectacular fashion. I enjoyed my time in the World of Goo. The tone, quality of puzzles, and sheer exuberance with which the game presents itself reminds me of Portal; and that’s high praise indeed. I’m not certain how frequently I’ll come back to play it again, but I’ll certainly remember it quite vividly. And that’s saying something.

Only after playing this level will you be able to understand just how ridiculous this screenshot is.