Deus Ex phile 

At first bite, Ion Storm’s Deus Ex (deusex.com) tastes like any garden-variety postapocalyptic 3-D shoot-’em-up video game. You know: Trust no one. And kill them.

But then the plot curdles. Here’s a typical in-game sequence: I’m stuck in a ventilation shaft in Hong Kong. It’s a cramped metal maze located somewhere inside the world headquarters of an evil corporation called VersaLife. I peer through a grating into the room below. There’s an armed guard leaning back in his chair, humming an inane tune. “When am I going to see some action?” he wonders aloud, perhaps by way of morbid premonition.

But maybe not. You see, I have options. I could:

  • Follow the shaft to a safer (read: empty) area
  • Open the grate, drop down quietly and sneak past the guard
  • Distract the unsuspecting grunt by creating a diversion in the next room; or, finally...
  • Pounce on top of the poor guy and slit his throat.

But even then, I’ll need to hide the body, or someone else will surely discover it and mercilessly hunt me down.

If this sounds more, well, real than most video games, it’s no accident. The entire world of Deus Ex is amazingly interactive. Cigarette machines work. Toilets flush. Street people beg for change.

Set in a murky world of government conspiracies and corporate greed, the Deus Ex world features enough modifiable mayhem and paranoia to please even the most jaded X-phile.

But most strikingly, Deus Ex introduces a concept previously unseen in the land of twitchy shooters: Choice. As computer gamers have grown more sophisticated, they’ve finally realized that most video games are just elaborate monorail rides. Enter dungeon. Kill creature. Find key and enter new dungeon. Rinse and repeat.

Savvy gamers have branded this unappealing quality “linearity.” And Deus Ex is anything but linear. Plot points branch. Optional subplots emerge. There are even multiple endings (including a rumored secret fourth ending). Plus, your in-game behavior affects the game’s outcome. Killed everyone you met in Hell’s Kitchen? You may not get such a warm reception from your pacifist allies back in Battery Park.

Deus Ex is the kind of thrill ride hard-core gamers were anticipating (on fan sites such as www.dxnation.com) for months prior to its release. I was one of them. Now, the secret’s out: “Does anyone else think this is the best PC game they have ever played?” asked one newbie recently in Ion Storm’s online forum. Yes, I certainly do.

Even the plain vanilla press is bubbling. Newsweek just christened Deus Ex “the thinking man’s video game.” And msnbc.com took time out from last week’s conventioneering to grill the game’s creator, Warren Spector.

But while the mainstream media might have finally spilled the news, Deus Ex hasn’t yet tasted true blockbuster success. Since its early summer release, it’s languished on industry sales charts behind the bland Who Wants to Be A Millionaire 2 and pointless video gambler Slots. And Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo 2, yet another hack-and-slash sequel, currently sits atop the GameWeek.com Top 20 sales list.

Still, if you’re looking for a little more meat on your game dish, the truth is finally out there. Trust no one but Deus Ex. It’s a delicious way to slay a few dozen hours.

HYPECASTING

A recent e-mail announced yet another daily Web magazine, Asymptote (www.asymptote.cjb.net). “We’re planning on offering more of the same old stuff,” grumbles editor Chris Morley. “Slate, Feed, Suck, McSweeney’s ... you’ve seen this stuff before … We’re planning on doing it very similarly, but probably with lower quality.”

Ah, the droll post-ironic approach. Such a clever way to cut through the chatter! Here at Netro World Headquarters, we get tons of tedious press releases about Web sites. (“You absolutely must write about our chemical processing plant’s new home page!”)

It’s an industry curse (see the recent essay on Salon.com entitled “Don’t call us … We’ll call you, dot-com publicists, if we ever want to use your silly story ideas.”)

So congrats, Asymptote … your ploy worked. And your site is a joy too. Last week’s features included the forgotten history of menthol cigarettes, a poetic transcript of a drunken phone message, and an essay explaining why we should just let all those wildfires out West burn.

SETTING PRESIDENTS

I recently found a dollar bill with a Web address on it. “See where I’ve been,” Mr. Washington’s portrait teased, “and track where I go next at wheresgeorge.com.” So I did.

Created to measure “the natural and geographic circulation of currency,” it’s indeed a rich idea. Users register their paper money’s serial numbers. Later, they can see who gets the cash next. I did a serial number search on the bill and found that three days earlier, it belonged to Katie Gibson of Royal Oak. So I e-mailed her.

“I love getting hits on Where’s George,” replied Gibson, “And it’s even cooler that someone from the Metro Times got it.” She learned about the site from a five-spot she got in the Cayman Islands. “The person who registered it was from Illinois.”

I wondered how this oh-so-valuable site makes money — until I spotted the banner ad: “Save George at Hartland Mortgage.”

Buy George, indeed.

Adam Druckman writes about computers for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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