Deus Ex: Icarus Effect ReviewFormat:
Publisher: Titan Books
UK Price (as reviewed): £4.99 (inc VAT)
US Price (as reviewed): $10.20 (ex tax)
The immediate, knee-jerk fan-boy reaction is to hate Icarus Effect right off the bat. We might cry that it's a cynical cash-in or that, in messing with characters like a young Gunther Hermann, Icarus Effect dangerously undermines a game that's close to our hearts.
We might argue all those things if it wasn't for the fact that Icarus Effect is actually a remarkably faithful and solid interpretation of the Deus Ex universe.
Written by Deus Ex: Human Revolution's writer James Swallow, Icarus Effect is essentially a prequel to the prequel of the original game, and it forms a direct and robust introduction to the various factions that define the fiction. It therefore makes an excellent starting point for those too intimidated by gaming myth to tackle the first Deus Ex, especially since it explores the story through two sets of eyes.
Disgraced Secret Service agent Anna Kelso and Brit mercenary Ben Saxon are the two protagonists in question, and they spend most of the book orbiting each other and entering into the conspiracy from different routes. The pair are on a collision course, however - Kelso is searching for the mysterious hitmen who attacked her unit; Saxon is recruited by the very same team.
Soon enough, in true Deus Ex fashion, the heroes find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy that's larger than either imagined; terrorists and freedom fighters becoming indistinguishable from each other, even to themselves.
While a lot of work has obviously gone into building the characters into believable and consistent personalities though, it's the world at large that looms over both as the real star of the show. Swallow's vision of the future is one that alternates brilliantly between being alarmingly realistic in its depiction of social stratification, and subtle in how cleverly it builds technology into the backdrop. Icarus Effect may be a science fiction tale, but it's not a world of laser-death rays; most of the gizmos are instead believably restrained. Often, it's interestingly contrasted against low-tech situations too, as is the case with a gutted shipwreck that Kelso visits early in the novel, finding a coven of hackers hidden within.
There are times when that restraint slackens, however - notably when dealing with weapons or augmentations that appear in Deus Ex: Human Revolution itself. These are usually discussed in such detail that it jars when placed against a normally slick, action-orientated plot.
This overt-action focus will be a potential sticking point for those hoping to explore Deus Ex's transhumanist themes in more details too as, despite a few glimmers of philosophy, the novel remains more focused on the motives of the principal characters themselves. It's hard to feel embittered at this fact when the tale is so fantastically paced - the alternating between Kelso and Saxon kept us always wanting to read 'just one more page' - but we can't help but feel it's a missed opportunity. Icarus Effect has plenty of baddies among its cast, but most are of the muscle-man or calculating-bastard variety; there's no room given over to the type of pro-human zealots that you would expect to fill the pages.
However, while Icarus Effect fails to become the contemplative tome that optimists might have hoped for, it's still a hugely enjoyable and fast-paced action thriller. The characters are believable and sympathetic, while the story is studded with memorable set-pieces and brutal fistfights. Like the game it prefaces, Icarus Effect comes as close to fulfilling our unrealistic expectations as possible.