Stepping Off The Roller Coaster

A rock hangs in mid-air over a side street in Prague. On my first few strolls around the city I didn’t even notice its Damoclean mass, as it has been raised a good 15 feet or so above the pavement, fixed in place with a roughshod network of guy wires and pitons. Now that I am aware of it’s looming presence, it feels odd to walk through its shadow, knowing that the wear and tear of time that has eroded the city around me must also be acting upon its moorings. I look to see if anyone alters their path to avoid its footprint, but everyone else is either far more trusting, or fatalistic, than I. This perched boulder is just another part of city for them, and faded into the background of their daily lives.

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Deus Ex’s Prague is Half Life’s City 17, if the roller-coaster plot that scooped you up in its opening scenes was taken offline for repairs. It lets you wander around a bit, take a breather and appreciate its offerings, while repairmen are summoned to tinker with its engine. Neauveau-Euro-Futurist architecture and advertisements have been slowly inserted into the existing old-world neighbourhoods, grown accustomed to each other, and weathered very recent civil war. Dust and grime have seeped into its crevices, a patina it wears on its sleeves.

It’s autumn in Europe, and passersby have their collars turned up against a chill wind that blows dead leaves from the occasional tended tree into the gutters. High-end electric cars share the roads with more economical bicycles, homeless people sleep on park benches beside business men out for a afternoon cigarette. I take corners at random, follow sidewalks and alleyways, and poke my nose into any boutique shops that take my fancy. Because this is Deus Ex, my sightseeing inevitably involves some light burglary, but only briefly. I stack garbage bins in back alleys, crawl through vents, and help myself to remnant ammunition and software packages from a below-ground drug den. I leave the bricks of cocaine untouched, as I’m not interested in sparking any unnecessary conflict at the moment.

Far from the sprawling but sparsely-populated hundred-mile landscapes of Just Cause, Far Cry, Skyrim, and countless others, Deus Ex’s open world is a much more constrained, but densely packed packed experience. Warren Spector, director of the first Deus Ex, has long dreamed of a ‘One City Block’ rpg, a game so densely and convincingly packed with AI, detail, systems and physics that a gripping adventure could take place within its confines, and be richer for that limitation. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a compelling step in that direction, and a promising shift in focus from the current trend in games towards cavernous-but-barren worlds.

Eidos: Montreal have created a rich slice of an alternate world, and built a game and story to fill its streets. In time I’m sure the seams will start to show, as painted-on doors repeatedly deny me entrance, and side missions find me careening back and forth across the cobblestones with such frequency that the charming small details fade from my attention. I know that conspiracy and adventure lie behind every closed door and grating, that soon I will be exchanging gun fire with militant gangs and saving the world in the name of truth and justice, but for the time being I’m content to enjoy Prague as a trench-coat clad cyber-augmented tourist, a mirror-shaded out-of-towner enjoying the local colour.