Deus Ex: Invisible War (PC) review
"I've waited years for a videogame to truly treat me as an adult, and finally one has arrived. Ignore the silver science-fiction: beneath that is a truly poignant look at society, terror and corruption. The non-linearity is so all encompassing that you can choose your side right from the beginning. Much of the game will play out very similarly either way, but your approach to it, and the tale you uncover, will be very much different."
Look up. No, not up there. Look at the name of the game above this review. Notice the lack of a number two? Good - now keep that in mind. It's vitally important not to think of this as a straightforward sequel to 2000 epic Deus Ex, and rather to consider it an entirely new game set within the core ideology of its predecessor. Without this approach, you're likely to spend your time making direct comparisons between the two, and to come out of this experience feeling cheated. Invisible War lacks a lot of what made Deus Ex so wonderful, but that's not the point. No two games are, or should be, the same.
This is far from perfection, and it isn't without its faults. But the following aren't them: The lack of a traditional RPG levelling system. The closest Invisible War strays towards this is in its biomod installations: the nanotechnological body-modification of the future, capable of boosting or altering certain human properties at three different levels. This might sound standard enough for the role-playing genre, but the delivery and focus are different. There's no stream of statistics and numbers. Instead, the player is given a small collection of inventory slots where such biomods can be placed. Instead of being strictly an RPG affair, it becomes equally a matter of resource management.
Also not a problem, the size-based inventory has gone as well. It's slot-based now, but as a result you often find yourself with less space to carry things. It also means choosing between the rocket launcher and the riot prod is now not a decision concerned with practicality but with personal expression and freedom of choice. Are you a cunning, silent sneaker; or are you a murderous fire machine? Either is fine, and this time you get to entirely govern your own playing style, instead of having, on occasion, the game elect it for you. Keep this bit in mind too. It all fits into place.
Finally - and this may be the biggest hurdle for some - the ammunition system. This has, well, sort of gone too. Weapons still require ammo to be fired, but that's precisely where the complexity ends. Only one pool of ammunition exists, which can be topped up by locating clips scattered around the levels, in cupboards and in chests, beside fallen enemies and comrades. I admit, upon first hearing of the system, I was sceptical. But remember the freedom of choice thing. This is Invisible War's big move to provide it. The frustration of having your chosen playing style ruined by running out of ammunition for an important firearm simply doesn't exist any more. You can essentially play how you want, when you want.
Invisible War's faults are things like the shaky dialogue. While the overall narrative is a lovely piece of mid-future science fiction, the script feels a little... well, videogamey at times. It is only at times - there are some brilliantly written segments, particularly later on in the game - but some of it feels like a writer's checklist of things to include. Unnervingly, near the beginning of the game, Invisible War's characters have the tendency to actually - gasp! - infodump, something its predecessor showed such pride in avoiding. Acting is a mixed bag: protagonist Alex D can be played in either male or female form, but the male voice artist is cringingly wooden. The sinister Omar people in particular sound wonderful, but I'm unsure whether this is due to the actors' delivery or the commendable sound team applying the effects from behind the curtain.
They are things like some of the characters themselves. While its groups and factions are all gorgeously defined, with lovely histories to explore, the individuals are at times a little bland. Perhaps Invisible War makes the mistake of writing a story and fitting the people into it, rather than writing the people and letting the story tell itself from that point. There's very little depth to a lot of them, and although the original game's character complexity wasn't enormous, it would have been nice to see things move on a little in the meantime. They also reside in worryingly small city-hubs, which are often sadly lacking in life and ambience. The areas aren't as expansive as they should be, and while there's plenty of stuff to do in each of the locales, they do feel a little restrictive and closed. Cairo is a good early example of how the rest could have been - this is one of the places that does exude all the ambience we expected - but it is, unfortunately, in the minority.
Finally, they are, as much as I'm disappointed to see myself write this, things like the technology. The environments are crisp and detailed, but character models are polygonal, faces flat and expressionless. The physics engine is atrocious, and seemingly without any rational damage modelling. Throw a hulk of metal at someone's head with a strength biomod installed and it'll inflict a bit of pain, but at base level it does nothing. More infuriatingly is the erratic nature of the objects. Throw a heavy crate against a wall and it might bounce back like a rubber ball; throw a basketball and see it slump off a surface as if totally and hopelessly flat.
Faults, faults, faults. It's a good job you're still reading.
Deus Ex: Invisible War is brilliant. It's an absolute dream to play, getting so much of the gameplay mechanism spot-on that it's bewildering to consider controlling anything else for a good while. Alex D feels, physically, like a real human being. The whole thing is just weighted perfectly. Climbing a set of stairs slows you down to a walk; running unsteadies your viewpoint instead of letting it glide disconcertingly over the land; climbing up and down ladders never makes you think you're going to plunge to your death. It's exquisite. You can even climb onto things more than a metre high, a feature so absurdly lacking from first-person games. System Shock 2 did all these things years ago. For no apparent reason, nothing between then and now has even tried.
Level design is thoughtful and well balanced. Practically every area has a whole host of different ways to progress: every locked door can be picked, every vent climbed into. In a brilliant piece of design, the entire range of options is almost always made apparent from the very start, and each has its own very specific set of challenges. It's about freedom of choice again: this isn't a matter of making one route easier but more difficult to find; this is about a collection of different passages, each tailored perfectly to a different playing style. Got loads of EMP grenades? Fine, power through the security entrance, disrupting the circuitry of the army of robots, turrets and cameras. Plenty of multitools? Sneak in through the office vents, unlock all the side doors, and silently make your way to the objective point. Full on firepower? Then to hell with it: main entrance it is, blowing a hundred holes in anyone who dares to stand in your way.
And, though some of the script is a little obvious and some of the acting a little bland, the story on offer here really is a rare treat. I've waited years for a videogame to truly treat me as an adult, and finally one has arrived. Ignore the silver science-fiction: beneath that is a truly poignant look at society, terror and corruption. The non-linearity is so all encompassing that you can choose your side right from the beginning. Much of the game will play out very similarly either way, but your approach to it, and the tale you uncover, will be very much different. Invisible War is so breathtakingly honest that I almost feel obliged to award it a stratospheric score for ambition alone.
But remember: freedom of choice. I choose 8 - but it's a good 8.
If on no other basis, Invisible War deserves the benefit of the doubt because it provides, for whatever inexplicable reason, the type of experience that is still so disappointingly lacking in the medium; the sort of thing games should excel so completely at: allowing the player to write his or her own story, instead of being a mere actor in a pre-written narrative. That it's so expertly crafted is the icing on the cake. Conflicting factions may attempt to pull you in their own direction, but there's always such an overwhelming sense of freedom that it's mightily difficult not to be impressed.
Alex D, make your own choice. But it really would be in everyone's best interests to choose Invisible War.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (July 24, 2008)
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