Reviewed: December 23, 2003
Released: December 2, 2003
When the original Deus Ex debuted on PC it caused quite a splash in the gaming world. Combining the best elements of role-playing and first person shooter genres, the futuristic spy saga with hints of Blade Runner and Mission Impossible garnered abundant accolades and a game of the year award. Where other hybrid games had achieved only moderate success and popularity, Deus Ex, perhaps taking hint of its namesake, soared on seemingly divine wings to game critics Top Ten lists the world over, making it a household name.
Now in 2003 it’s successor Deus Ex: The Invisible War looks to continue the legacy begun by its forebear, moving hybrid RPG/Action gaming to the next level of immersion and intensity.
Invisible War takes players twenty years into the future after the events of the original game. JC Denton’s (star of the original Deus Ex) pivotal role in shaping the future has become apparent as we find a society that has risen from the ashes of the world wide governmental collapse only two decades ago to become stronger and more prosperous than ever. Such a change has not come without cost however, and the world of Invisible War is an extremely fragmented place, with several political and religious entities competing for the loyalty of earth’s population.
The two strongest are the World Trade Organization (WTO) and The Order, two competing factions gathering supporters with their own unique incentives. For the WTO, economic security is the strongest draw while The Order seeks to claim adherents by appealing to their spiritual nature. Tensions run high – order and stability are sought after, bio-technology is running rampant and an illegal black market flourishes in both weapons and bio-implantation technology.
Much of Invisible War takes place in WTO governed Seattle. As a city of the future, it exemplifies the new socio economic order based upon the WTO’s monetary ideals. Gone are the grunge bands and Starbucks (well, okay there’s still coffee). In its place is a city built upon an economic hierarchy that strictly separates the classes. There’s Upper Seattle for the rich and well-to-do, separated by a massive subway-like elevator called The Inclinator (think of it as a giant escalator) from Lower Seattle, home of the lower classes, the poor and the destitute.
Into this factious and uncertain political climate is thrust Alex D, a young orphan sent to the Tarus Academy Program in Chicago (a schooling program for gifted youngsters) by his foster parents to make a better life for himself. As Alex comes of age, the Tarsus Chicago Center is attacked by terrorists with an uncertain agenda who obliterate both the center and the entire city with a new technology that is effective and deadly.
Alex D and his classmates escape to the Tarsus Center in Seattle, only to find themselves under attack there as well. After escaping, Alex D finds himself loose in the city, beset upon by different organizations (some legal and others not so legal) to use his talents for their benefit and haunted by lingering questions about the Tarsus Academy and the true purpose of their research and his part in it.
At its heart Invisible War is an RPG, though not the kind of RPG that will enamor D&D Die-hards. Players interact with the environment though a first person view, and like its predecessor combines elements of stealth movement, first person fighting and RPG item upgrading (bio-implants: legal and illegal) and acquisition. This Swiss army knife approach lends Invisible War a unique feel, but risks not going far enough in any one direction to please fans of one genre or another. Does this Chimera of a game combine them in a way you’ll enjoy? Well, yes and no.
First the good stuff. When it comes to action and decision making, Invisible War awards you an extremely wide latitude of freedom, allowing you to take on different jobs and assignments, make friends and enemies and explore the environment at your own discretion. Unlike other games where your actions and decisions directly affect the moral course your character takes, Invisible War allows you to make decisions without worrying about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. Be forewarned however that your actions will help align you with certain factions within the game, and will affect how other characters view you. To further illustrate both the dynamic open-ended options and independent decision making the game allows, let’s take a look at a small portion of my own adventure with Alex D.
At one point in the game I found myself in a ritzy apartment complex, the Emerald Towers, faced with the task of infiltrating two apartments, one belonging to Leila Nassif (The head of the Tarsus Academy Program) and the other belonging to the WTO’s Minister of Culture.
Security was tight. In addition to the standard encryption locks on all doors there were armed guards patrolling the halls, robotic sentry units placed strategically on the roof and inside each dwelling, and to top it all off infrared trip wires backed by internal security cameras guarded the most inner private sanctums. Despite the formidable obstacles, I had a variety of infiltration methods to choose from. I could run in, guns ablaze, or I could sneak up ladders and through ventilation shafts. As it turns out, there was an easier third way (unbeknownst to me at the time) that involved a little greasing of the janitor’s palm in order to acquire the key codes to each apartment.
I choose to sneak my way through. Inside Nassif’s apartment I found information linking her to a suspicious arms corporation. Back in the vents again, I stumbled upon another apartment, literally dropping on top of a very surprised tenant. From his clothes I assumed he was a businessman, but this solid citizen pulled a gun on me and started shooting, so I promptly dispatched him. Rifling through his place I found some very handy EMP grenades which could be used to disable robot guards and electronic surveillance cameras. I also found his diary, where I discovered that this ‘businessman’ was actually a professional thief planning the heist of his career.
I then turned to the business of the Minister of Culture’s suite. I quietly made my way to the roof with transparent windows overlooking (or so I thought) the Minister of Culture’s room. Guarding the roof was a vicious looking dog-like robot with a double-barreled shotgun mounted on its back. Once again, I could have chosen the route of brute force and hacked at the viscous cyber puppy until it went to that digital doghouse in the sky, but instead I opted for finesse, so *poof* went the EMP grenade, doing its job with great aplomb.
Infrared security beams guarded the roof’s sun windows, so I used my multi-tool to disable the security system from a terminal in the wall. Doing so however alerted the occupants, three bodyguards and a man I assumed was the Minister of Culture. I switched to a non-lethal dart gun and tranquilized each person before descending into the room. I didn’t find what I was looking for, and the party I had knocked unconscious obviously wasn’t the Minister of Culture or his retinue, so I left the building and hurried across town to a nightclub known as Club Vox, hoping to find some answers or further clues.
At the Vox I met the club’s owner, who as it turns out hired me to kill the previously mentioned lawyer (easily done since his entire party was taking a long snooze courtesy my stun gun) in exchange for credits and access to the Vox’s VIP Club. I also ran into the Minister of Culture at the Vox’s bar, who gave me the entry code to his apartment after I ‘sweet-talked’ him into it (you don’t want to know).
I went back to the Emerald Suites and fulfilled the owner’s request, but turned right around and sold valuable Vox VIP Club information to a WTO informant working inside the Vox. As for the Minister of Culture, let’s just say I decided not to fulfill my sweet talk promises. Instead I used his key code to enter his apartment and – after stealthily avoiding his trip wires, security bots and cameras – uncovered the necessary info I was looking for.
As you can see, the slice of interactive freedom allocated to the player is a healthy portion indeed, and directly affects the course of the game.
Now for the bad stuff.
Let’s say you decide to skip all this stealth business and go gung ho. What can you expect? The best way to describe first person action would be to liken it to the original Red Faction, except less fun and developed. It’s very hard to dodge enemy bullets, which seem to be able to reach you the instant you poke your head out from cover. Moving around with the mouse feels slow and laggy, and contributes to a plodding feeling rather than the graceful finesse a covert operative should have. The HUD itself hampers this issue by hovering too close to the in-game action, but thankfully can be adjusted to any level of opacity (including complete invisibility) in the game menu. This option is quite welcome, but the menu itself could benefit by offering more features like EAX support or configurations for multiple surround sound speakers.
You’ll find control and item selection to be both cumbersome and unintuitive. A drag and drop item selection system would have been much easier, but instead you’re forced to deal with an odd click/double click method which leaves much to be desired. The tutorial is creative, but for such an in-depth game you’ll probably wish that the folks at Ion Storm eased you into the game much slower, perhaps via a Tarsus Academy tour or training session.
As for items, running low on ammo shouldn’t be a problem, but I was dismayed to find enemy weapons devoid of ammo after they’d dropped them, leaving me in tight spots throughout the game.
You’ll also wish for more character customization than is offered. More options regarding character appearance, attributes and combat modes are missing, so it’s probably best to dub Invisible War as an RPG-light.
Problems abound. First the good news.
Invisible War’s graphics are much improved over the original. Character models look good, sporting realistic flesh tones and anatomically realistic movements, most especially notable in the excellent “rag-doll” physics displayed in dead corpses – they’ll twist and bend and flop their limbs in just about any position, adding a nice touch to the realism.
The lighting is absolutely gorgeous. Realistic shadows fall from objects in a way that mirrors real life, such as the twirling blades of a ceiling fan mimicking their counterpart with precision or the dancing flicker of light from a barrel fire in a dark alleyway. Objects also move with an added realism, allowing you to knock over tables, chairs, shoot through glass, or pick up objects (including bodies) and throw them across the room, into a closet or on top of an enemy’s unsuspecting noggin.
Now the bad news.
Even with a beefy system, the game’s graphics seem to chug at a slower than normal rate. Conventional wisdom calls for solid performance if the recommended requirements are exceeded, but my test machine (AMD 3200 XP, 512 GB RAM, Radeon 9800) had to settle for low eye candy at 1024x768 in order to get smooth frames, and one can imagine how other PC’s hovering at or under the 2.0 GHz mark are faring. This is part of the aforementioned ‘lag’ noted in the gameplay section, but its more than that, things seem overly large and ungainly, there isn’t enough room to move around and scan the terrain; to breathe and take in the sights and sounds.
Slow loading times between levels tend to upset the idea of moving in a real city, as do the small, somewhat cramped levels – it’ll be hard to imagine yourself moving about in a future metropolis with tight, almost linear level areas that encourage minimal exploration.
Most annoying of all were random crashes to the desktop and freezing with the quick-load option, something only frequent quick-saves saved me from. The menu also refused to maintain its appearance, always reverting back to 640x480 resolution whenever the game was begun anew. Ion Storm claims that many of these issues were fixed with the 1.1 patch, but there’s no question that the game should not have shipped in such a condition. Such a decision implies a disconcertedly creeping emphasis on market deadlines rather than quality checklists.
Colors and textures are somewhat bland and uninspiring, and not the kind of uninspiring that post-collapse Seattle is supposed to invoke either. They seem to lack a certain vitality. Gamers will no doubt want to patch the game but even if the technical issues resolve themselves, the graphics on the whole will remain “Pretty Good” rather than “Wow”.
In the beginning Invisible War will wow you with a haunting chorus of female voices whose sorrowful dirge seems to encapsulate the very essence of humanity’s future crises of ethics and technology. After that, the music falls flat and what pipes up during the game is hardly impressive at all.
Sound effects are quite nice, detailing all the hums, beeps, whirrs and mechanical droning sounds that you’d expect to hear in a technologically advanced future. The voice acting was quite good, and each person Alex D meets exhibits an emotionally unique quality inherent with the crisp accents and creative tonalities consistent with quality voiceovers.
Like all single player RPG’s, what you play is what you get, and without diverting from this tried and true formula Invisible War takes you to town for an unforgettable one time experience. There’s no multiplayer here (I’d cringe in imagining what deathmatch would be like in this game) but the entire game experience is so large and engrossing that its absence is entirely forgivable. Deus Ex isn’t built for multiplayer, but the single player campaign more than justifies it. Presentation is the key here, and with a game that exhibits such strong overall production values you’ll find yourself plenty busy with the main campaign.
So you take the good, you take bad, you take them all and there you have the Facts of Invisible War Life. I choose to highlight the good and not-so-great points of Deus Ex: Invisible War in a very linear fashion because throughout the experience the game consistently exhibits behavior that is double sided. You’ve got a beautifully rich, engrossing sci-fi conspiracy story that suffers abbreviated cinematic story development. You’ve got a very cool RPG with futuristic upgrades, weapons and items that is hampered by a poorly designed interface. You’ve got a graphics engine that renders some of the most beautiful lighting and shadows this side of Doom III, but punishes even the highest end computers.
As a hybrid game, portions of the adventure suffer, and in trying to be everything to everyone this jack-of-all-games loses points in the first person action department, as well as some RPG elements. Fortunately for Invisible War, the sum of all its better parts brings forth a total game experience that is every bit as engrossing and fun to play as its predecessor. Invisible War accords you nearly unprecedented freedom while still allowing you to remain within the linear scope of the over-arching storyline. The story will intrigue you, the drama will absorb you and in the end you’re left with an adventure story that lives up to the Deus Ex name.