Deus Ex (Alexander Brandon, Michiel van den Bos, and Dan Gardopée)

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While its main branch became embroiled in controversy surrounding the bloated Daikatana, the Austin branch of defunct developer Ion Storm turned out the company’s only profitable and genuinely lauded title, Deus Ex. A potent combination of first-person shooter and RPG elements with a strong setting and plot, the game won multiple “Game of the Year” awards and became something of a modern classic, even spawning an inferior mid-2000s sequel and a 2012 prequel.

Since the game used the venerable Unreal engine for its graphics, composer Alexander Brandon was brought along for the ride. A veteran of the tracker and demo scenes, Brandon had worked on the original Unreal and its multiplayer-oriented Unreal Tournament spinoff, infusing both with a potent blend of techno and tracker music. For Deus Ex, the composer would expand on that sound, creating one of his most compelling and best-known works.

Beginning with the propulsive, marchlike “Main Title,” Brandon infuses the game with a techno atmosphere reminiscent of his earlier works, but also weds it to a series of strong and structured melodies. For example, “The Synapse” melds an Asian tune with a series of beats and electronic accompaniments, while the “Return to NYC” track makes use of a more Western series of plucked digital strings and drum machine loops. Each of the game’s three endings is similarly scored with an original melody and heavy supporting electronics. Each of these techniques fit the atmosphere of the game world perfectly.

There are several ambient tracks, which vary from the terrific, slightly quirky “Majestic 12 Labs” to very dull soundscapes like “Naval Base.” Brandon’s frequent collaborators Michiel Van Den Bos and Dan Gardopée also contributed six tracks of additional music. Van Den Bos’s ambient “UNATCO” and melodic “DuClare Chateau” in particular stand alongside the best of Brandon’s tracks, though some of the remainder of their contributions are among the least compelling parts of the score.

Unfortunately, the album situation for Deus Ex is problematic. An official CD was released with the “Game of the Year” edition of the software with about an hour of music. However, it wasn’t available as a separate product, and included less than half of the game’s tracks. Worse, the music is pried apart, reducing the suites found in the game directory to single tracks. Most of the battle music — arguably the highlight of the score — and nearly all the death music are therefore not present. The music is remixed as well, altering the balance of the music with extraneous elements in many cases. A digital soundtrack, restoring the suites as they exist in the game’s file structure, was included along with Deus Ex’s 2012 re-release to promote its prequel; this is by far a superior arrangement, though full fan-made game rips do exist which present even fuller selections.

Despite its complex album situation, Deus Ex features a phenomenally original and effective soundtrack. Quite unlike its sequel’s score, it is highly recommended to all fans of the game and electronic music.

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Deus Ex: Invisible War (Alexander Brandon and Todd Simmons)

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A hybrid role-playing game and first-person shooter, Deus Ex was the only hit game that ill-starred developer Ion Storm managed to produce throughout its turbulent existence. As such, it was the only one to spawn a sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War. Despite having largely the same development team, the new game suffered from mixed reviews — often criticized for dumbing-down compelling gameplay elements from the first.

The original Deus Ex had a very strong score, produced by a composing team led by Alexander Brandon of demoscene fame. Despite the frustrating lack of a complete album release, the music was futuristic, compelling, and genre-bending — everything that the setting called for. Brandon returned for Invisible War, though the other team members were replaced by a newcomer, Todd Simmons.

The Deus Ex theme makes a muted appearance at the outset in “Invisible War Title Theme”, both in an electronic form and, intriguingly, as a vocal duet. It’s a promising start, given the title march was one of the strongest elements of the original game. It’s a tease, though; the opening is far and away the best track of the album. That, and the mournful strings in “Return to Cairo” are the only noteworthy innovations in the music, and the lack of any development with those building blocks, is extremely frustrating given how intriguing their integration with the futuristic tracker sounds of the original could have been.

Of the in-game tracks, only “Streets & Black Gate” has even the barest hint of the futuristic tracker sound that Brandon and his team brought to the first game, and even then it’s on par only with the very weakest Deus Ex tracks. “Credits” brings a welcome bit of relief with some heady beats, but the melody that accompanies them is faint — certainly nowhere near the comparable track from the prequel.

The remainder is aimless ambiance, almost totally devoid of melody, rhythm, and anything that might stand out from a monotonous drone. The original game certainly had its share of dull tracks, but there was enough outstanding music to compensate. It’s as if the sequel’s score was explicitly created by expanding upon the worst that the original had to offer, dumbing down the smart tracker sound Brandon and his team established mush like the game itself neutered the original’s complexities. Even viewed on its own merits, apart from its prequel, the music is simply wallpaper aside from the few highlights above.

35 minutes of Invisible War’s music was made available for free around the time of the game’s release, and were also attached to the game’s digital re-release as a bonus. It’s possible that more compelling music exists in-game — perhaps in the form of battle tracks, which were largely absent from the original official soundtrack to Deus Ex. But the stripped-down nature of the sequel and its score may just be too disheartening for further investigation. A dreadful disappointment on nearly every level.

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