Deus Ex: Invisible War Reader Review
A wonderfully successful exercise in ambition. That’s what Ion Storm’s multi award-winning Deus Ex proved to be when it was released in 2000. A first-person perspective RPG in a richly detailed, regressing sci-fi world, scattered with a diverse populace and coated with a compelling, intelligent and adaptive plot. And let’s not forget laden with conspiracy theories. With all those ingredients present and correct, the product was a delicious triple-chocolate fudge brownie of a game: the allergy sufferers aside, it was a rare treat for gamers. The sequel is that same tasty dessert, but some ingredients are missing this time and as a consequence, it has become slightly bitter.
Invisible War hands the starring role over to Alex D, a genetically-altered clone of Deus Ex’s JC Denton. Twenty years have passed since the events of Deus Ex and the world is recovering from a global depression, known as the “Great Collapse”, due through no small part to the combined actions of JC Denton at the end of the original game. The game begins with an assault on your training academy, Tarsus, the mayhem later serving as an introduction to the two main factions who will be vying for your attention throughout the game: The WTO, pursuing a return to commercialism and a wealth-tiered society and The Order, a religious group who seek salvation of society through the rejection of the WTO’s values. Other organisations you will soon come across include The Omar, eerie-voiced cyborgs who share a collective consciousness and The Knights Templar, a militant group fanatically opposed to the nanotechnological upgrading of humans, as well as JC and his key allies from Deus Ex.
Who you decide to work for is always entirely up to you, though a short-term loyalty to someone is always necessary. Where there are two ways to complete an objective, a faction must be allied to and the mission carried out how they would see fit. Luckily for this sort of game dynamic, indecisiveness is an error that both groups will gladly let pass with impunity, “forgive and forget” being very much the order of the day here, if only it means securing Alex’s help. But it also demonstrates that the “mercenary for hire” impression is rarely as freeform as it sounds. Neither is it as satisfying: the problem with working for a selection of factions and never being allied with one specifically is that the player cannot form any meaningful connections. Alex D is very much the (invisible) war pawn – handy in a fight but no-one really has any concern for what happens to him once he’s played his part and thus the player can only reciprocate this apathy towards his current employers. There's no sense of satisfaction in the choices you make, because ultimately, they count for nothing.
As Alex, you start the game with a choice of gender and 3 different skin-colours. Within half an hour, you’ll be inserting biomods into one of five slots Alex has assigned his body to for upgrades. The biomods essentially serve the same function as the original game’s augmentation canisters, with a 3-tiered upgradeability and an anatomy-specific location, so for example, two leg biomods are not viable. Choices to enhance your agent include improved speed and higher jumping, stealth, ability to self-heal and invisibility to humans or bots, amongst some new interesting “Black Market” add-ons, like health leeching or robot domination. Pleasingly, the player isn’t confined to biomod choices made on whim and is granted the opportunity to tear out a current biomod (losing any associated level upgrades) and replace it. With the elimination of the character skills system, this becomes a godsend allowance, especially when the player later realises the importance of two or three specific mods, remote computer hacking being one of them.
Weapons share a similar upgradeability feature in the form of weapon mods, limited to two per weapon, and come in such forms as increased clip capacity, increased firing rate and silencers. Also available is the glass destabiliser which allows the player to quietly ‘dissolve’ any window in the game, without tripping off any alarms and a mod which gives gunfire a nice lick of EMP, at the expense of extra ammo. Subject to much controversy, reloading is not an issue for such futuristic weapons, rather they draw their ammo from a single ammo pool, utilisable by all weapons albeit at different rates. Although the result of this decision does chip at the immersiveness of Invisible War, it becomes something of a moot point shortly after the player accepts it and arguably adds a tactical element to weapon management. Not something I’d like to see first-person shooters making a habit of then, but also not worthy of complaint. The weapons themselves include pistols, shotguns, assault and sniper rifles, a flamethrower, rocket launcher and a Mag Rail that can shoot through walls. Melee weapons like the riot prod and baton remain the choice for non-lethal takedowns and as has been much vaunted, the game can be completed without killing anyone, though in practice, the game offers no reward for such pacifism yet is so much the more difficult.
Of course, where Deus Ex always stood tall amongst its contemporaries was its story and Invisible War can be almost as proud of itself. Where many first person shooters will give you a narrative through obligation, Invisible War’s boasts an intricacy and depth befitting a game of its lineage and weaves itself into the events of the original much to the satisfaction of the experienced Deus Ex-er. As you progress the story, the real objectives of each faction will either slowly begin to slide into focus, or be out-of-the-blue told, offering the player the chance to draw upon their experience from the original game to add weight to important decisions they will be forced to make. This comes to a climax in the final scene, where the player will ultimately be forced to choose between one of four radical outcomes and direct the fate of humanity. Side-missions have also been included with great care and vary between simple assassinations, to finding missing persons or documents, to distributing a cure to another devastating plague. Your actions, or lack thereof, will have repercussions later in the game, manifesting themselves as news reports at holo-kiosks or directly from the characters that will have been affected. A particularly memorable scene occurs in a Tarsus training academy in New Cairo, where taking a specific action will cast you as a hero, while inaction will later lead to news of tragedy befalling the victims.
Although it was never a part of the beauty of Deus Ex, this review wouldn’t be complete without discussing aesthetics. Controversy rears its ugly head again in the form of the heads-up display. It is clean and simple to use, twelve slots available to hold any twelve items, weapons or otherwise, and F2-F6 assigned to biomods. There had been some loud criticism for the amount of screen real-estate the retina-derived HUD takes up but this was addressed to some degree for the European version and like the universal ammo, is not much of an issue in the larger scheme of things. It is functional and intuitive, which is ultimately the most important thing. As is becoming de rigueur among action games now, Havoc 2.0 have joined in on the party and brought the physics. While it adds spice to combat and it can be strangely compelling flinging unconscious bodies around (for example, up onto elevated balconies), its hyper-responsiveness can often seriously wound the suspension of disbelief, as enemies that have just been killed will somersault three or four times before violently slamming to the floor and their dead bodies spasm wildly when shot. The best I can therefore say about the ragdoll physics is that it is preferable to none at all and only because of the unintentional comedic value it brings to the table.
The graphics, meanwhile, can be thought of as representing a stop-gap between games like Unreal 2 and Call of Duty and current generation titles such as Half-Life 2 and Doom 3. The dynamic lighting is a lovely and the bump-mapping, when it’s used, gives the overall look an invaluable boost. On the review PC - a P4 3GHz with 512MB RAM and a 128MB Radeon 9800Pro - the resolution was set to 800x600 and graphical options needed to be turned down to an exasperatingly mid-range level in order to play at an acceptable framerate. Likewise, those without DirectX 9.x compatible graphics cards need not apply. So it must be said that, whilst the game does look good, it is my impression that the game’s performance can only be due to a lacklustre effort in the translation from XBox to PC, an impression reinforced by frustratingly tiny map segments, each one separated by ten second-plus load times. Sound-wise, Invisible War can be best described as a mixed bag. The licensed music, while not as melodious as Deus Ex’s - and consequently much more easily gone unnoticed – cannot be criticised and the intro theme, a reworking of the original game’s, is wonderful. The weapons sound rather fuzzy and unsubstantial, melee weapons especially producing nothing more than a weedy “dink” against hard surfaces but the voice-acting, with the exception of a few bad eggs like the Anglo-Australian pilot Sid Black, is a certain improvement.
Another mixed bag for sir? May I recommend the AI? Considering this was meant to be one of Ion Storm’s key goals for improvement, I was left plain disappointed here. Regardless of the enemy being fought, tactics consist chiefly of shooting on the spot, the occasional dive, then shooting on the spot some more, sometimes substituting the dive for a grenade thrown in your direction. If they’re feeling particularly suicidal of course, they’ll happily settle for just running at you headlong with a gun, Deus Ex-stylee. Team tactics are simply non-existant and enemies will frequently block each other in a frenzy of clumsiness, while trying to get close enough to take you on. Following their introduction later on though, the armoured Templar Knights become evident as a relatively capable foe, leaving you wondering why Ion Storm only blessed them so preferentially with at least some brains to accompany their brawn.
Ultimately then, Invisible War is a tainted great game, rather than a good game all over. It has enough nods to Deus Ex to make it worthy of your time, with multiple-path objectives, character customisation, branching conversations and, of course, books quoting the likes of De Toqueville, but then kicks itself in the groin by diluting the original good ideas and implementing mediocre new ones. Most disappointingly though, it has lost that sky-high ambition that fuelled every gamer’s love for Deus Ex. All of this will assuredly stop Invisible War from securing a spot in the memories of gamers another three years from now but the fact remains; a Deus Ex game is still glimmering somewhere in the background and Invisible War still has just about enough going for it to deserve being played by fans of the FPRPG genre.
7 / 10