The otherwise clear line between fanmade product and professional creation tends to get fuzzier as people take the project more seriously. Take The Nameless Mod, a massive and ambitious mod for Deus Ex built by fans, for fans, and about fans. The fandom itself is the world of TNM, and as silly as it sounds the concept is played amazingly straight, yet done surprisingly well. Even if you peel back the internet setting and nested conspiracies, you’ll still find a well-built campaign at the core, as deep and replayable as Deus Ex at its best.
This will be a touch less formal than the usual review, given the unique status of the game and my difficulty in staying objective about Jesus 2 Deus Ex. We’re going to buck the normal scoring thing just this once and I may sound a bit more biased than usual. Can you go with that? Cool.
Anyway, fandom-as-concept isn’t an exaggeration. With the website PlanetDeusEx as its setting, TNM drops you in a virtual city representing the forum and its denizens. Governed by a trio of invincible moderators, Forum City is thrown into chaos with the abduction of one of them – Deus Diablo, a Walton Simons look-a-like with a flaming sword – by forces and means unknown. With one short, the other two lack the authority to ban anyone, and are too busy keeping the peace directly to investigate. A retired PDX agent (Trestkon, the player) is called back into action as an independent contractor, and it’s on him to track down Diablo, find the culprit, and uncover the conspiracy that undoubtedly awaits at the center of it all. Meanwhile, the overtly corrupt Scara B. King, CEO of the mega-conglomerate WorldCorp, has his own plans for the returning agent and Forum City at large.
|Guns. Lots of gu… wait, what do you mean I gotta pay for them?!|
Gameplay wise, it’s Deus Ex. If you don’t know what that means by now, you’re probably not the target audience here, but basically it’s a first-person shooter with character building and Six Million Dollar Man-style customization. The tutorial has been revamped to explain TNM‘s new features and gadgets, not the least of which is a trainable skill for fighting bare-handed. Common chemicals can be mixed into molotov cocktails, which relies on demolitions training. Books and newspapers now have multiple pages of text, and augmentation canisters can now upgrade identical augs. One of the neatest new tricks is a security camera type controlled by an accessible security room, and you can disable the camera just by taking out the guards operating it. The additions don’t radically alter the gameplay, but they fit in smoothly and make one wonder why they weren’t included in Deus Ex in the first place.
What has drastically changed is the mission structure, which generally lets you move freely between the three districts of Forum City. Of course you still tackle mission areas in a linear fashion, as in Deus Ex, but between such zones you’ll have plenty of leeway to explore on your own. You’re helpfully warned whenever you’re about to leave the city for a while, and an early plot branch provides two very different playthroughs: one for the PDX administration, and one for the ruthless WorldCorp. TNM drips with sidequests, and while some are just quirky takes on typical FedEx/takedown runs, others are considerably more complex and mix things up in crafty ways. For example, a theft attempt in an editing company requires you to plant false evidence of the theft on computers, all while not killing anybody. As you do this, Trestkon makes note of a similarity to a Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory level.
While the scope is more focused than Deus Ex‘s globe-hopping, TNM is not lacking for large levels. City hubs are huge, but have logical layouts with fairly obvious points of interest. For some areas this isn’t the case, such as a hazardous, cramped sewer section that’s easy to get lost in, but for the most part the extra ground to cover is worth exploring. New assets and larger NPC counts push the aging Unreal engine to new limits, and despite the age it still does a fine job creating urban playgrounds for you and your nanotech bag of tricks. Mission locales have good variety, with a snowy mountain base standing out as a daytime assault; recall that Deus Ex took place entirely at night. Characters are reasonably detailed given the engine’s age, and Trestkon’s wardrobe options are a small but nice touch. Upon putting on a signature trenchcoat, Trestkon gets praise from moderator Phasmatis for “rocking the JC Denton style.”
The audio front is a mix of the competent, the lackluster, and the fantastic. Every character is fully voiced, and most of the main cast do a respectable job. Trestkon himself has a lot of personality, as does nemesis-slash-potential employer Scara, and you wouldn’t know they’re acted by the same person. Mission control buddies are solidly voiced on both sides, and the actors clearly have a lot of fun with their roles. Most others vary in recording quality, and a few voices are either flatly delivered or quickly grate the nerves. Still, the effort is impressive considering TNM‘s humble origins, and the acting hits more often than it misses. Bonus content includes amusing outtakes, most commonly people stumbling over the pronunciation of Trestkon. “Your name sucks, sir!” shouts one actor. “Your parents hated you when they called you this name!”
|…I should go.|
By contrast, the soundtrack is a top-notch production across the board. Deus Ex wasn’t a game of full orchestras and high-fantasy epic scores, but it boasted some outstanding electronic tracks that fit the mood to a tee. TNM handily matches its predecessor in that aspect, featuring excellent compositions that bolster the action and often stand well on their own. A notable example is the tune accompanying a hidden enclave of goat cultists, a leisurely and upbeat piece that takes on a tense, menacing edge if you’ve angered the cult. The combat music for the final stage is also a standout, a fast-paced synthesizer backed by a mariachi-style guitar solo that practically begs you to start fights. As a collaborative effort between professional musicians and mod scene veterans, TNM‘s soundtrack is a runaway success and a subtle, but important reason the game comes together so well.
It would be a touch misleading to credit TNM for Deus Ex‘s gameplay, but the engine’s core strengths are well complemented by the levels and gameplay additions. Some augs and skills remain more useful than others, but Trestkon can mix and match them to develop in a variety of ways. Characters will notice differences in your approach, and some reward you based on how aggressive or passive you are. Scripting in general is quite deep, and one way or another you’ll see the world react to your behavior. Sometimes it’s just someone saying you need a shower after mucking around in the sewer, or a bulletin about robberies if you’ve been breaking into local shops. Others instances show more sophistication, and recurring characters will remember you and what you’ve done. Expect a nasty surprise later on if you shut down the gun store’s security grid, to name one.
The plot holds together remarkably well, consisting as it does of Deus Ex fandom incarnate. As you might expect, the missing moderator is only part of the story. Whoever you side with, you’ll wind up working through Forum City’s key figures and factions, gradually unearthing the sinister truth behind the city’s origins. Much thought was put into the city’s power structure and economy, and you have elements of fandom – NPC skinners, level builders, fanfic writers – represented as in-game businesses. One skinner outfit in particular plays a significant role later on, especially since WorldCorp has been buying out such businesses left and right. Meanwhile, PDX has its hands full just maintaining basic order, and is further plagued by terrorist attacks from the rogue DeusEx.Org group. People familiar with Deus Ex fansites might get an extra kick out of the plot twist late in the game, but such knowledge is hardly necessary given the game’s well developed setting and structure.
Most of TNM‘s problems are a result of the engine it shares: simple enemy AI, skill imbalances, etc. There are issues unique to TNM, however. The universal ATM system doesn’t always work right, with some accounts resetting their cash reserves periodically. Certain complex scripts can misfire easily, such as one segment which tasks you with luring a key person into a sniper. Despite setting off the alarm properly and repeated attempts, I was unable to get it to work. Some segments overstay their welcome, such as an interesting-at-first clash with an insane AI that runs long and ends with annoying visual distortion. Another hangup occurred near the end of the game, with explosions rocking a low-gravity environment and making it difficult to pass through a door — to be fair, this only applied to that particular ending. With that in mind, TNM is still much greater than the sum of its parts, and remains a more professional product than most retail games today.
|I wear my sunglasses at… daytime? Yeah, okay, I’ll go with that.|
Perhaps eclipsed by Deus Ex in raw playtime, TNM nonetheless offers plenty to do for the asking price of zero. Being thorough can run the game up to a healthy fifteen to twenty hours, while variable Fallout-style endings and substantially different plotlines give extra meat to repeat playthroughs. Well-hidden fourth wall breaches are also worked into the plot, some of which – like using passwords from one side while working for the other – speak directly to you, the player. Additional secrets await you on your second try, such as a bonus in-engine platformer and an easter egg hunt that carries over between games. Computers often come equipped with Tetris, Breakout, and the like. One can even fire up an IRC client to Off Topic’s channel, if you’re in the mood to poke the internet from within the game. Difficulty levels work as expected, but a custom setting lets you adjust item scarcity, NPC numbers, enemy health, and so on.
You’ll notice I’ve been referring to TNM as a game rather than a mod. True, it does require that Deus Ex be installed, and you’re reminded of the base game at pretty much every turn. Trained assassins running up to introduce themselves before a fight, homeless people sharing complex political opinions, technical documents discussing conveniently man-sized vents, every company with a budget having a secret underground research complex; it’s all just Deus Ex fans being Deus Ex fans and celebrating the game in their own ways. And yet TNM confidently builds its own adventure, calling up an experience that stands apart from the original game. The branching plot is new. The modular endings are new. The consistent, recurring city is new. Even old ideas somehow feel new again, from stealth checks and alternate routes to killing key people as early as you can just to see what happens.
Here’s the bottom line. The Nameless Mod is more Deus Ex in the best way, blending the familiar with the improved. It’s clearly a labor of love, both as a tribute to a classic game and as its own unique experience. TNM is one of those rare titles that, like its predecessor, can still surprise you on subsequent trips, always with one more secret to share and one more new thing to try. It’s fresh nostalgia, which sounds oxymoronic and yet here it is: big, flexible, fun, and free. If you liked Deus Ex, the only real question is why aren’t you playing this right now?
Seriously, stop reading and go get it now. Do it for the Melk(tm). Do it for the Spontaneous Combustion Game. Do it to throw a copy of Johnny Mnemonic at your boss. You’ll be a better person for it.