Following in the mighty footsteps of FPS/RPG/adventure hybrid Deus Ex, Ion Storm’s Deus Ex: Invisible War wasn’t exactly what people were craving for.
Deus Ex: Invisible War (PC)
(USA 2003, developer: Ion Storm (defunct), publishers: Eidos Interactive (defunct)/Square Enix, platforms: PC, Xbox)
20 years after JC Denton brought society into war and economic depression, Alex D, a trainee in the Tarsus Academy, witnesses a terrorist attack on the city of Chicago and soon has to decide which leading parts of society he can trust.
Factions and fractions of society
Following the collapse of society into different factions, there’s potential for a more comprehensive world with interconnected stories, but unfortunately what remains are ideas and personalities that only scratch the surface of what could have been achieved. The World Trade Organization (WTO) functions as a police state, as it regulates where people are supposed to live and how “order is kept”. The Order is a religious group divided into various splinter cells which stands for rebuilding society to achieve spiritual growth. Finally, the Knights Templar are a secret society like the Illuminati who want purity and oppose biomodifications, something the black market traders, the Omar, strongly promote, as they’re into transhumanism, i.e. they’re already upgraded with nano technology to a degree that they’re not human anymore. Another organization, the ApostleCorp, also tries to bring humanity closer together with this technology.
In theory it sounds great to have an ambiguous character like Alex D. trying to figure out who to trust and find the reason behind the terrorist attacks. Unfortunately he remains as faceless and unlikable as most of the groups he has to do jobs for. During the game one also meets old friends from the Tarsus Academy who decide for themselves which groups to join. This is quite an interesting way to present all the different ideologies, but connecting with these people is almost impossible, as they remain flat and uninteresting.
Divided by opinions, characters, and places
Even if there are always some leads to follow and new people to meet, the dull dialogue is only saved when serious topics like social unrest, AI philosophy or transhumanism and racism are discussed. The same holds true for various news bulletins and database entries one can listen to or read. Radio shows and adverts are fun and surprisingly witty in how they criticize social and political events (similar to GTA), but the incredible sense of place one felt when playing through the original Deus Ex is somewhat lost among all the babbling. Despite being able to listen to people’s conversations, immersion and suspense aren’t at a very high level, which is a shame, as each individual location has a lot going for it, e.g. Cairo where the poor and wealthy are divided into those who can afford to live underground in apartments and those who have to suffer pollution above ground. There are even almost sci-fi horror-like scenarios in abandoned research stations, which again proves that the world building has much potential if only the overall script was better.
The confined locations additionally break immersion. Even if they consist of various levels or districts, frequent and long loading times when traveling from one to the next and the absence of open, wide spaces makes the world seem less encompassing than what storytelling wants the player to believe. Having the console version in mind, this setback is felt throughout the adventure. The levels in the original game were too big at times, but here one feels claustrophobia in the small spaces, which again is a shame, because there are enough distinct places to go to with their own individual NPCs and quests.
Questing in the future
Quests are varied and adhere to the same decision-making process the game’s predecessor offered. The system serves to immerse the player, something that the overall story and shallow characters often fail to do. Being asked by various factions to do tasks that are detrimental to the other is an interesting idea and keeps the gameplay at a steady pace, especially since one can see different story paths and alternative dialogues. However, it takes too long for the involvement of Alex to actually matter. In the final section of the game, he might become an important part of each action the groups take in order to achieve their goals, but the player is usually more motivated to help outsiders, e.g. two rivaling coffee shops or a pop star A.I. that seems to perform governmental surveillance. It’s here where the writing almost reaches a quality worthy of an RPG, even if completing the quests doesn’t require a lot of imagination and strategy.
Augmented reality distortions
The augmentation system that was an integral part of changing the gameplay styles in Deus Ex is disappointingly dumbed down to a degree that one doesn’t receive any experience points to invest in skills. Only the use of augmentation canisters can make things easier for the player, although they’re not as important to progress as before. While it’s possible to choose between normal and black market upgrades, both can’t be used at the same time, making it even less customisable. At least there are so many littered around the levels that overwriting them and starting anew isn’t a big problem. Being able to run silently or even invisible to the eyes of machines and humans alike might have been very useful before, but sneaking or using multitools to open doors and avoid enemies works most of the time, anyway.
Shooting one’s way through enemies is also possible, but with limited universal ammo, gunplay doesn’t require much strategy (although running out of ammo is rather annoying with this new system), especially with the AI being so bad and upgrades for different weapons are limited to two, making them even less of a viable option. One can of course hack computers and control turrets or drones to get rid of enemies, but it’s much better to simply turn off security cameras and go through levels without much enemy presence. Unfortunately, it’s rather fiddly to hack computers, because one has to keep the mouse aim locked on them, something the original game didn’t bother with, and with good reason, because it happens all too often that mouse sensitivity makes losing focus a major problem so that the player has to go through the whole process again.
A new breed of graphics and sounds
Graphically, the game looks much prettier than its predecessor with some nice lighting effects, e.g. a swinging lamp throwing flickering shadows against walls. Even if the character animations, facial expressions and lip sync aren’t great, the higher resolution of the models and the surroundings make it easier to distinguish the environments, something that the first game had trouble with. The music is good and varied despite lacking a certain identity, while the voice acting is quite good, although the voice actor of the main character sounds bored most of the time with lines delivered in the same intonation, no matter in what situation words are uttered.
It’s difficult to be a sequel sometimes
Calling Deus Ex: Invisible War a bad game would do it a disservice, and even if it doesn’t have the ambition or scope of the original, it’s a little bit unfair to see it as a bad sequel, because the story itself and the topics that are discussed are interesting. It simply lacks better writing and character development. Even the world is more varied than in the original. However, everything is put together in such a convoluted way without the necessary exposition, that the plot ultimately fails to convince, which is also true for the characters one simply can’t relate to very well.
Gameplay-wise, there aren’t many RPG elements left, and even the sneaking and gunfights aren’t that intense anymore, which is a shame, because there are some memorable quests. They might not be very demanding, and some of the decision-making is questionable, but the legacy of the original Deus Ex is still recognizable. As it is, the playtime is reduced to 15-20 hours, which doesn’t seem like much, but most of these are quite enjoyable and even thought-provoking in certain parts.
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