At the turn of the millennium, Deus Ex was an unusual fusion of FPS and traditional RPG values. Ion Storm wasn't alone in its efforts to fuse these two genres; Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios attempted a similar feat with System Shock 2 in 1999, but despite enthusiastic reviews their collaborative effort didn't sell particularly well. Deus Ex was seen as a trailblazer, but today some of its design has understandably aged. Action-RPG hybrids like BioShock and Mass Effect 2 have long since done away with proper inventories, and as a result it seems a bit weird that hero JC Denton has a grid-shaped coat pocket.
Elsewhere we've seen a steep rise in the quality of voice acting; even the most ardent Deus Ex fan would admit that some of the in-game dialogue bears a strong whiff of fromage, if not outright racism.
Still, look past the rough presentation and the intelligence behind Deus Ex is as clear as ever. Twelve years on from its initial release, it's still got one of the smartest game scripts I've ever seen. There's something particularly gratifying about the persistent sense of progress. Over the course of the narrative Denton transforms from a humble counter-terrorist to a transhuman superweapon, an all-powerful angel of death - or of mercy, if you so desire.
But beyond this - and I risk getting super pretentious here - the really sneaky thing about Deus Ex is the way it forces the player to develop their beliefs, particularly in terms of the corrupting nature of power. At the start of the story you think you're fighting with the good guys, but by the halfway point all idealism has long been discarded. For most of the game you wrestle with the slippery question of control, of what constitutes good government, then in the final moments you're presented with an ultimate choice - a simple decision that will determine the future of the human race. None of the three options is perfect, and it's obvious there will be collateral damage regardless of the path you take. It all boils down to your final judgement, and the unstoppable consequences.
In the wake of such ambition, it was never going to be easy for 2003's Deus Ex: Invisible War to live up to expectation. Despite making a bold effort to move away from the linear structure of the first game, the sequel is widely regarded as a disappointment that falls far short of its predecessor's greatness. On its initial release, Invisible War drew criticism for its comparatively small levels, and for supposedly dumbing down to appeal to console gamers.
Now, of course, a third Deus Ex is almost upon us. Like Invisible War, Eidos Montreal's Human Revolution has been designed with a console audience in mind. When the new prequel was first announced the Deus Ex fanbase largely reacted with a mixture of scepticism and outright pessimism, and yet there's been a growing sense of hope since last year's E3, with the game finding fresh ways to impress with each new preview.
Will the new game achieve the unthinkable and live up to the legacy of Deus Ex? We'll find out soon enough, but one thing is for sure: if Human Revolution can recreate the freedom and excitement of the first game, it'll be something very special indeed.