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Deus Ex: Invisible War (PC) artwork

Deus Ex: Invisible War (PC) review

"I suppose it’s unfair to expect anything to be as deep, involving, and utterly groundbreaking as Deus Ex, a game that is frequently imitated but seldom equaled. What’s interesting is that its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, was also developed by Ion Storm, and headed by many of the same individuals (I checked), yet it still feels like the kind of pale mimicry that would come from a team alien to this sort of thing, who understand where they’re going but have no idea how to get ther..."

I suppose it’s unfair to expect anything to be as deep, involving, and utterly groundbreaking as Deus Ex, a game that is frequently imitated but seldom equaled. What’s interesting is that its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, was also developed by Ion Storm, and headed by many of the same individuals (I checked), yet it still feels like the kind of pale mimicry that would come from a team alien to this sort of thing, who understand where they’re going but have no idea how to get there. But these are the people responsible for Deus Ex. They know what made that game tick. And yet its sequel is hopelessly simplified, a patented FPS-RPG with all of the latter elements toned down several notches, and the former left untouched. What was going through Ion Storm’s head?

I choose to believe the changes made in Invisible War, however unwanted, are there for a reason. I mean, if you take the skill system out of Deus Ex (and they did), you’d better have a damn good reason for it. I doubt streamlining is the answer, since the casual gaming set would probably settle for something more straightforward and familiar, given the series’ slow, methodical thinking man’s approach to its level design. Ion Storm – who are smart when they’re not making games like Daikatana – probably knew exactly what kind of audience they were catering to here, which makes the decision to simplify Deus Ex’s mechanics all the more puzzling.

Ultimately, the glass-is-half-full approach you’ll need to take to get any enjoyment out of Invisible War is that the major overhaul in basic mechanics was done to open up the anything goes, choose-your-own-adventure philosophy that the series is so proudly known for. The removal of the skill system, coupled with the absence of experience points, means that character building is all but nonexistent. On one hand, this means the protagonist can’t be shaped to fit your preferred gameplay style like JC Denton could, but then it also means that you’ll never be pressured to play the game a certain way based on the decisions you’ve made thus far. Multitools (used to hack electronic devices and bypass security systems) and lock picks have been combined into one all-purpose gadget, and since there are no longer any corresponding skills, their depletion rate is equal for everyone. Inventory space is no longer based on physical size, and is divided into generic item slots, meaning that the requirements for holding, say, a pistol and a rocket launcher are the same – and all weapons now draw from the same ammo pool, too. And so on and so forth.

This direction is one that I can get behind, even if I do prefer the more in-depth gameplay of the original Deus Ex. The idea of constant choice, knowing that any approach you wish to take is available at any time regardless of the decisions you’ve made up until this point, is an intriguing one. But whereas the first game could always cater to your playing style (even throwing in canals and sewers in the most awkward places, just to offer some form of payoff to those few players who spent all of their points on the swimming skill), Invisible War feels unbalanced. For one thing, you’ll figure out pretty quickly that the sniper rifle is the only weapon you’ll ever need, and from there, straightforward combat ceases to become a logical option. The level design, rather than offering different paths depending on which skills you specialize in, is simply uncomplicated so as to never alienate players – and even then, when all else fails, there’s almost always a ventilation shaft that leads you to where you want to go.

But on the subject of Invisible War failing to live up to its namesake, one of the more interesting observations I could make about the game is that in some cases, the game actually fails to fail. This is taking into consideration the fact that Deus Ex was – let’s be honest here – a huge mess. I acknowledge the game’s brilliance, and at this point it’s unquestionably one of my top ten all-time favorite games, but the graphics were ass, the physics system gave a pillow and a metal crate the same density, and the AI was comically inept: An act of violence in a public area sent any NPCs in the vicinity into a panic that inspired a hilarious running animation, as they nervously bumped into each other and slammed into walls as if having just sprung from a mental institution and looking for directions. Invisible War doesn’t fix the puzzling physics system or cruddy AI, but these aspects are no longer bad in funny, endearing ways. They’re just bad. Perhaps campiness is what the game is lacking.

(Though I will say that one of my favorite flaws from Deus Ex, the absolutely awful foreign accents, remains intact and in full force. Some guy you talk to in Cairo seems to think we’re in Germany already, and the Germans themselves think the only prerequisite for their nationalities is to replace their Ws with Vs. I recall with fondness an instance in which a German thug tried to shoo me away by saying, “Keep valking!” I look forward to my first chance to employ this phrase in the real world.)

Invisible War takes place twenty years after the events of the first game, and is understandably a little shaky on the details initially, since the original had three possible endings. You play as Alex D, and the game always refers to him that way because GUESS WHAT THE “D” STANDS FOR?! And that isn’t the only thing Alex has in common with JC, either. They’re apparently both products of the same organization, utilizing a science I don’t understand, in which its students aren’t quite humans, but aren’t really mechs, either. Alex gets pulled into a plot that is very political, though I’m happy to report that Ion Storm nonchalantly ignored the success of KOTOR and kept the dialog trees to a bare minimum. In true form, the strength of Invisible War’s moral dilemma lies in your actions rather than your words.

In the face of an international threat, the adventure is as relentlessly globetrotty as you’d expect, starting and ending in the United States and shipping you off to at least three other continents in between. The issue is that the game feels incredibly small in terms of physical size. Seattle as portrayed by Invisible War could practically fit in my elementary school. The majority of your trip to Trier, Germany is limited to one measly block, and even Cairo (the game’s biggest environment by my estimation) feels walled in and restricted, its residential area marked by a set of mostly non-interactive door textures.

Ion Storm did at least manage to make the most of its microscopic set pieces, as the one area where Invisible War truly topples the original is in side quests. And I love side quests. I’m not the kind of person who simply rushes through a game just for the sake of beating it; I like to take my time, explore, and really get my money’s worth out of a title. Invisible War offers plenty of opportunities to do so, and while the limited scope of the environments means you’ll usually be running through the same three or four rooms over and over again (enduring the lengthy load screens in the meantime), the adventure is extremely short by default and I’m glad Ion Storm gave committed players the ability to stretch out their play time a bit.

Invisible War does offer the merest hint of character building with the familiar augmentations, now called biomods, which really open up the possibilities presented to you. Most of them offer pretty generic status upgrades and such, but the black market canisters (usually rewarded to players who engage in a few quests for the enigmatic Omar traders) offer some pretty damn exciting opportunities that are actually enjoyable to exercise. Anyone who’s played the first Deus Ex knows that the ability to hack public computer terminals is a must, and one of my favorite biomods actually gave me control of security cameras and drones. Those monstrous military robots no longer seem very intimidating when you’re looking through their eyes and turning their firepower against the soldiers who no longer consider Alex D much of an immediate threat.

Where Invisible War’s freedom of choice ultimately struggles is in the actual storytelling department, because until the finale (which once again has you making allegiances and choosing between one of several outcomes), I was never really given the feeling that my decisions had any long-term impact on the happenings of the plot. The game at first seems to offer two different moral paths, with two separate organizations hovering over Alex’s shoulders and whispering into his ear. But without giving anything away, Invisible War has the balls to tell me halfway through that the choices I’ve made up until that point are irrelevant. It’s around this time that the campaign kicks into high gear, rushing through its last three locales (including one repeat) with little time for character interaction, as if Ion Storm got to this point and grew painfully eager to just get the adventure over with already. The surprises that come in Invisible War’s latter half aren’t all that surprising anyway, and it’s a shame that the design had to be compromised as a result.

I suppose that after all this, the only consolation I can offer you is that Invisible War is never explicitly bad, broken or even boring, though I suppose one could make the argument that it ends before it has the chance to become dull. (I managed to beat it over a Thanksgiving break, and that was having nearly every side quest exhausted in the process.) Where the game goes wrong is in its blatant disregard for what made the original so good in the first place. In the face of Deus Ex (and it’s impossible not to compare the two), the sequel is just too insubstantial and bland to strongly recommend. Maybe the forthcoming Deus Ex 3 will put the series back on track. Until then, keep valking.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (February 20, 2009)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Lewis posted February 21, 2009:

I still remember Invisible War fondly, but returning to it for my retrospective review last year did leave me slightly disappointed.

Your point about the "quirks" of Deus Ex feeling like "flaws" in IW is interesting, and I'd be inclined to agree. I think it's because the original never took itself that seriously. There's a heavy dose of humour, a knowingly cliché-ridden story, and absolutely mad characters. Invisible War is far more sober, telling a much more grown-up tale. And I love that about it, I really do, but I think the stupid, stupid voices really suffer as a result. It was one of my major turn-offs when I came back to review this. The voice acting isn't silly any more. It's just forced and terrible.

I still think Invisible War is an extremely good game that does things few other titles have even considered doing. How many games are there like this, really? Only three spring to mind, off the top of my head, and while Invisible War is probably the weakest of them, it's a sadly dying genre that I'll always get behind. By being an 'immersive sim', it's almost good by default in my head. I genuinely believe that it suffers primarily because of its heritage. Deus Ex was in a league of its own, and I'd go as far as saying it's still my favourite PC game of all time. Invisible War is 'merely' excellent, but if it were a completely external game, by a different developer, I'm positive this would have been better received.

Either way, this was a fine review, one of my favourite of yours, I think. Well considered, well argued.
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Suskie posted February 21, 2009:

Thanks a lot. I've owned Deus Ex for quite some time but for some reason never actually finished it, so last fall I played it from beginning to end, then over Thanksgiving break, brought IW and finished that, too. So this review has been bouncing around in my head for a little while now. I'm glad I was finally able to type it up, and that it turned out well.

A friend of mine was playing Deus Ex the same time I was, and we both had the same reaction: It's hilariously awful, yet at the same time it's pretty much the greatest thing ever. You put it perfectly: The game never took itself too seriously, and in retrospect seems brilliantly campy in a way. I might review it if I'm ever bored, though I definitely had more to say about IW.

Edit: By the way, is it just me, or does the Heron's Loft sign in those screenshots really look like something out of BioShock?
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Lewis posted February 21, 2009:

Heron's Loft is a 1920s-style building, lots of art-deco stuff inside. Same era Andrew Ryan started designing Rapture.

You see the same lettering around many of the existing early cinemas in the UK.

EDIT: I always surprise myself with how, absent-mindedly, I tend to describe Rapture as if it were a real place.
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bluberry posted July 30, 2009:

"Ion Storm – who are smart when they’re not making games like Daikatana – probably knew exactly what kind of audience they were catering to here, which makes the decision to simplify Deus Ex’s mechanics all the more puzzling."

Ion Storm was actually two different dev teams, the smart one and the Daikatana one. I know way too much about this sort of shit...

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