Reviewed: January 30, 2004
Released: December 2, 2003
Deus Ex: Invisible War is the long-awaited and much-anticipated sequel to Ion Storm’s 2000 blockbuster hit, Deus Ex. Back at the turn of the century Deus Ex gave birth to a new sub-genre of FPS gaming by implementing an enormously complex story, multiple objectives and plot branching, and a unique RPG skill system that all came together in what both critics and gamers heralded as “Game of the Year”.
Warren Spector and his crew are back to deliver the next installment in this groundbreaking franchise to an established audience that has been driven to a fever pitch by ongoing hype and speculation. And while there is a lot to like about Invisible War, as the closing credits started their crawl I couldn’t help but feel just a bit let down.
The first thing you need to know about Invisible War is that this game was designed for the Xbox then ported to the PC. Normally when this happens the PC version suffers from concessions made to make the game more “console friendly”. Surprisingly, the PC version suffered neither in gameplay or controls, but for those who have already attempted to play the PC version or those “thinking” about getting it, be warned; the PC to play this game hasn’t been invented yet. Even if you build the ultimate dual-processor rig with gigs of RAM and a $500 video card you aren’t going to be happy with the results. Basically what I’m saying is that if you want to play this game then the Xbox is the system to play it on.
Invisible War takes place about 20 years after the events of the first game. You play as Alex D (a gender neutral name that allows you to pick your sex), enrolled at the Tarsus Academy in Chicago. A terrorist attack leaves the entire city in ruin, but you are safely evacuated to Seattle and arrive just as that city comes under attack. All of this is just the exciting opening movie.
Invisible War isn’t your typical FPS game and those looking for such an experience will likely be disappointed. Deus Ex is known for thinking and sneaking and doing just about anything but shooting. One of Ion Storm’s core philosophies is that this game (like the original) can be finished without ever drawing a weapon; a rare philosophy indeed, but probably not as rare as the gamer who can adhere to it.
The choice to kill or not to kill is only one of the many facets that give this game a very open and non-linear feel to it. Many puzzles and objectives will have several paths leading to various means of completion. Your choice of tactics may be determined by your current skills, inventory, or perhaps an itchy trigger finger, but violence is usually the less rewarding of solutions.
Another element that makes Invisible War a unique gameplay experience is that all of your actions have consequences; not necessarily immediate ones, but your choices will inevitably come back to reward or haunt you later in the game. Some of this is alignment oriented, even though there is no clear definition of good or evil and no meter to keep your morality in check. You’ll make friends with several organizations but sooner or later the enemy of your friend becomes your enemy by association. Every choice you make needs to be thoughtfully considered, not just in the moment but also the future ramifications.
Invisible War has taken the physics system of the original to all new heights. Almost every item in the game can be moved or knocked over to some degree. It’s actually several notches above what was recently done in Max Payne 2, only because the physics of real world objects now become part of the gameplay. You’ll actually interact with these dynamic environments as they change around you in real-time.
One thing that has been greatly simplified is the skill system. In the first game you had a rather complex character sheet much like you might have in D&D with a long list of skills that you were constantly upgrading throughout the game. Now your character is developed through an intuitive blend of BioMods and weapon upgrades. You still have the same freedom to develop your character, but through a totally unique approach that actually works quite well on the Xbox.
What also works well on the Xbox are the controls. You can really tell this was the target system during primary design. The sticks handle character movement and camera-look while the D-pad uses items in your inventory or biomods displayed in the circular HUD. The A button is your context-sensitive “do everything” button. The game is also smart enough to equip the proper gadget when you attempt an action on something like a computer or locked door.
For a game that rewards non-violence I was surprised as the selection of more than 20 weapons that fall into the projectile and EMP categories. Weapons now have a shared ammo system so “one bullet fits all” but depending on the weapons you can spend that ammo at various rates. There are also numerous weapon upgrades to increase your weapon’s performance and effectiveness.
Deus Ex has great characters and excellent interaction with multiple branching conversations that both drives and is driven by your actions. Invisible War assembles a massive cast of characters to enrich the story and motivate the gameplay. The game deals with some heavy subject matter that gets a bit “mature” at times, thus the “M” rating, and the strong cast of sexy and intelligent female characters makes for some refreshingly original gameplay.
Deus Ex: Invisible War looks fantastic on the Xbox. Considering the game ran like ass on my $3,000 super-pc it could only get better. Basically, to get the game to even run a semi-fluid rates on my PC I had to drop the resolution down to 800x600 which is only marginally better than the native 640x480 mode of the Xbox. When you add in the gorgeous lighting the Xbox adds over the PC you ultimately have a much better presentation on the console. There are admittedly some hiccups in the framerate, but I am more willing to forgive them on a system that costs a third of what my PC video card costs.
Invisible War is a dark game set in dark locales. This definitely sets a sinister if not somewhat oppressive mood, but it also works perfectly to show off the rich and real-time lighting system with soft shadows and a host of special effects that look better in contrasting environments. Level design is creative and suitably futuristic with plenty of real-world details. The fact that everything in the world can be moved, knocked over, or interacted with in someway really sells the immersion factor.
The more discriminating gamer will likely notice the lack of original character models. You’ll see the same redressed characters over and over throughout the game. A small complaint at best, as is the disappointing lip-synch. The conversations and cutscenes use the game engine so they blend together nicely but suffer from the same framerate issues as the gameplay.
The interface and HUD work surprisingly well for a console game. I suppose some will find fault with the circular design and I suppose it would have been nice to at least have the option to move the icons to the borders of the screen. Personally, I just learn to look through the interface just like any other game with a HUD.
Invisible War has a film-worthy score that mixes a bit of sci-fi flavor with some techno and new age tunes to create a suitably oppressive atmosphere to complement the graphics. The music blends into the background like an invisible supporting cast member that maintains and fuels your emotional involvement with the story and the gameplay.
Sound effects get the job done. It’s hard to compliment the same sounds that I’ve heard in just about every game for the past three or four years. There is nothing really new here, but all of the weapons and environmental sound effects fit the visuals and sound great in the Dolby Digital surround mix.
Voice acting was all over the place. Some of the characters had some strong readings while others seem to be voiced by the janitor or whoever was lingering around the studio that day. The script is really well written with intelligent dialogue that demands a professional cast and perhaps even one or two Hollywood cameos. At least the primary characters aren’t painful to listen to, and there are some cool synthesized effects used to enhance some vocals.
Invisible War is a substantial adventure that will take you upwards of 30 hours to finish. There are some plot branches and plenty of opportunities to solve dozens of objectives differently, so you will certainly have enough reason to go back and replay the game one or two times more.
As with the first Deus Ex, there is no multiplayer and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite its roots in the Unreal engine, Invisible War is a game designed from the ground up as a single-player experience and any attempt to tack on some multiplayer mode would seem contrived.
Deus Ex: Invisible War is probably going to disappoint a lot of PC gamers. The series was founded on the PC and with its new console-influence (simplified) gameplay and poor PC performance the sequel is going to be an Xbox-preferred title. I have no problem with that. I played both formats and actually liked it better on the Xbox, both the gameplay and the graphics and sound.
Invisible War is a streamlined version of its predecessor, relieving you of the tedious tasks of micromanaging skills and clunky inventory boxes, thus freeing you to play the game and experience the rich story and immersive world that Ion Storm has prepared for you. I can highly recommend this game to anyone looking for a great console RPG, or anyone who doesn’t have $3,000 to drop on the computer required to play the PC version.