Posted: December 28, 2013
Deus Ex: Invisible War is the sequel to Deus Ex, an RPG/shooter hybrid which garnered so much universal praise that you might say its sequel was always destined to be a disappointment. Its followup, released in 2003, received generally positive reviews from publications, although the general consensus was "It falls short of the original." However, the fans overwhelmingly hated it, even refusing to think of it as a true Deus Ex game. Was it a case of inflated expectations or overzealous fanboys?
In my opinion, Invisible War is not as bad as its reputation, but the fans still have a point.
The first problem is it was designed from day one as a console title with mass appeal and simplification in mind. The skills system is gone, every item occupies one space in the inventory and all weapons accept a universal ammo type. That's a big problem because in the final levels, most enemies can be defeated only with heavy weapons, which drain ammo fast, and when you're out, you can't even switch to a standby. Oh, and did I mention there's no way to non-lethally pacify one particular enemy? The weapon mods are no longer a modular increase of stats, but singular installations that have a strategic use like breaking glass silently or dealing EMP damage. The boltcaster replaces the old crossbow, the stun prod makes a return and the baton is also non-lethal and several grenade types are also added to aid the player. The fairly rare noisemaker draws enemies wherever it lands and the flashbomb (you guessed it) blinds enemies for a few seconds. In addition, the gas grenade returns and the LAM (in the form of concussion grenades), the scrambler and the spiderbomb grenade, which spawns an allied spiderbot.
The levels are much smaller compared to the first game, almost claustrophobic and unsettlingly empty, yet they're even more confusing to navigate. Different areas are broken up by frequent, lengthy loading screens that not-so-subtly re-launch the application, which of course breaks the immersion like Hell. Just getting around can also be a pain because of the physics. For example, jumping on a create is a feat in patience and luck because although the physics are mostly sound, the weight of objects is severely flawed; The slightest bump sends even the massive, unliftable crates flying across the room like they were made of styrofoam.
The graphics still... technically hold up today. Being designed for the XBox, the engine utilizes dynamic light and shadow, bloom, ambient occlusion, facial animation and more, but aesthetically it's a different story. The world feels very "Jetsons-ish" for lack of a better word, everything covered in neon blue lights. The NPCs have been upgraded from a graphical standpoint, but still stand and animate like the first game, and some of the facial animation is just... Well, some NPCs look like they're perpetually surprised. Installing the unified texture pack massively improves the visual appeal, adding HD textures to almost everything and even toning down the cosmic horror of the facial animations.
The AI is still dim and will ignore you even in plain sight if you're about 20 feet away. You can pick away at them from behind cover and they may never confront you, watch their friends get blown up in their face and still wander aimlessly and when you're cloaked, they continue walking right into you without attacking. But they can still provide a challenge in numbers, especially the biohazard-spewing greasels and big, dumb, lumbering karkians. On several occasions, my maxed-out see-through-walls aug didn't detect them (yet another flaw) and I waltzed right up to one, getting the **** scared out of me.
The voice acting is, well... The major characters sound alright, but some of the NPCs just sound awful. Some of the sounds (especially the weapons) can be grating, but others are... kind of nice? The music is appropriately futuristic and retains the aesthetic from the first game, but is much less noticable and eargasmic, less memorable themes than ambient background music to put on before bed. That seems to be the way of this game: a mixed bag; some of it a ham sandwich, some of it stale vomit.
The story is the best thing about this game. Despite all its flaws, that's what kept me interested enough to keep pressing on. Without spoiling anything, you'll get wrapped up in many conspiracies (Even the coffee shops are part of one!) and be forced to take sides, which you can still switch even at the final moment of the game. That sounds like freedom, but then you realize that none of the choices you make effect the outcome of the game, beyond the last level or two and a pre-rendered end cutscene. But still, sociopolitics, government, privacy, ethics, enterprise, technology, religion, god itself ...politics, bureaucracy, mismanagement... are all discussed at some point. Two factions have a clear motivation, although others (which aren't revealed until late in the game) really don't give you a reason to carry out their bidding. Invisible War also connects with the original game through returning characters, and is set in a world still reeling from the effects of "The Collapse", a combination of two endgame choices the player could have made. Your role takes you through Seattle, Cairo, Trier, Antarctica, good old Liberty Island and of course, several secret bases in between, unraveling a web of deceit over which the player has the final choice. Invisible War expects the player to have finished the first game, but if you read books, listen to newscasts and talk with NPCs, it's enough to fill you in.
But Deus Ex was all about freedom-of-choice for the player, so does that still hold true? For the most part. You can play through most of the game without killing anyone (unless you side with the wrong faction) and incapacitate enemies from the shadows, or gun down everything in sight, multitool a locked door or coax a code out of NPCs. There are plenty of hacking opportunities and alternate entrances as well. The only thing I hate is being forced to do side missions for extra credits before I can travel to the next level, so take my advice: rescue Ava Johnson in Seattle; she flies you around for free! There are enough side missions to extend the game by a few hours and plenty of rewards for the explorer, such as supplies, weapon mods and rare secret weapons. You can also read plenty of datacubes and books, listen to the news terminals and talk to countless NPCs to learn more about the world you're in. But even if you complete every side mission, explore every area and talk to everyone, it's a pretty short game.
As for the technical flaws I played through the game until one of the final levels, saved and quit and when I returned, my saves were corrupted. But even though I rushed through the second time, I still felt intrigued to learn more about the story. The game crashed regularly and unpredictably as well, every 30 minutes the first playthrough and only twice the second time. And the second time was with mods!
So, is this the worst game ever? Far from it; but it is held back by design flaws and cursed by a poor PC port. Deus Ex had flaws too, but they were easily overlooked. With Invisible War, it's much harder. But does it deserve the "Deus Ex" name? In my opinion, yes. The story follows that familiar thread, full of conspiracies and philosophy and despite a shift toward FPS gameplay, it still manages to create that feeling of being an augmented agent, sneaking, hacking, fighting and completing the game in your own style.