Deus Ex: Invisible War – Staff Review

Nobody could envy the task set before Harvey Smith and Ion Storm: following up on the surprise success of Deus Ex. If they changed too much, they would risk losing what made the game special, but if they changed too little the series could stagnate. Unfortunately, the changes Invisible War brings to the table are too often damaging in comparison to its predecessor, and some of the changes make little sense on their own. Invisible War does deliver a compelling adventure, to a point, and brings a few neat ideas to the table, but it fails to meaningfully follow in Deus Ex‘s footsteps and makes too many of its own stumbles along the way.

Deus Ex had three seemingly exclusive endings depending on who you ultimately allied with. Invisible War opts to combine them somewhat, and the details of what actualy happened back then are filled in along the way. Know that JC Denton, the first game’s protagonist, is blamed for the systemic collapse of all global communications, which plunged the world into a new Dark Age of sorts. In the twenty years that pass between the games, national goverments dissolve and reform into cloistered city-states and localities, with only a few nonstate entities possessing the capacity to operate globally: namely, the World Trade Organization, and a spiritual movement known as the Order, which seem to be at odds with each other.

Into this mess is thrown one Alex D, a member of a special forces training program with Tarsus Academy. Tarsus specializes in enhancing humans by way of biomod technology, which infuses a person with nanite colonies and gives them access to a wide variety of Bionic Man-style superpowers. A terrorist attack devastates his or her (your choice) home city of Chicago, forcing the Tarsus students to relocate to the facility in Seattle. Before the player can get their feet wet, explosions ring out through the building and mysterious, robed intruders start shooting everything in sight. Someone, apparently, doesn’t like what Tarsus is doing, or wants it for themselves.

Apparently writing 'PURITY' in big I-hope-that's-paint letters is fine as long as you don't tresspass on the helipad while you do it.
Apparently writing ‘PURITY’ in big I-hope-that’s-paint letters is fine as long as you don’t tresspass on the helipad while you do it.

Nuts and bolts first. Invisible War controls with a standard FPS setup and only a few minor tweaks. WASD and mouselook handle movement and aiming, number keys handle your active inventory slots, function keys activate your augmentations for each slot, and letter hotkeys bring up your journal, inventory, and upgrade screens. Interaction is fairly straightforward, and pop-up text will prompt you what to push, for instance, to use a weapon’s alternate ability or talk to somebody. The game’s intro at the Seattle Tarsus facility functions as a tutorial, and it covers the basics along with some of the finer points: bypassing locked doors and containers, evading security, mantling onto and climbing objects, and so on. Anyone even remotely familiar with shooter controls won’t have too much trouble just getting around, although the wealth of options for dealing with obstacles can overwhelm those who haven’t played Deus Ex.

To be sure, Invisible War does have more going on than your average shooter. Puzzles often present multiple choices for the player, depending on what biomods and equipment they’ve picked up along the way. Locked doors can typically be picked, destroyed, or opened from a security console, or you can just find the key. Security can be evaded, disabled, bribed in some circumstances, or simply outright killed. Air vents provide a cheap way to get around hard security, though they’re sometimes patrolled by robots. A player with a speed boost mod might want to just run by the enemy and take their chances, whereas a player with cloaking can take their time and look around more. A hacking mod gives access to computers and the cameras and gun turrets they often control, while an infravision upgrade gives you the ability to track targets through walls. In short, you’re basically given a toolbox which you can fill as you please, and it’s up to you how to use said tools.

Combat, however, tends to be less interesting. Your human enemies display some intelligence in investigating suspicious sounds or sights, but in a firefight they tend to stand in one place and shoot, only rarely seeking cover or retreating when injured. Robots and non-human critters are often only as dangerous as the damage they do per hit, with their simplistic behavior very easy to exploit. Given that you have pinpoint accuracy from the get-go and enemies tend to hold still, this is not that hard to do. Later enemies, such as modified commandos and soldiers in power armor, do present more serious threats by virtue of being harder to kill and carrying better weapons, but do nothing particularly clever themselves. Compounding the problem is that ammo is universal, meaning you fill your dart gun, sniper rifle, and flamethrower from the same ammo pool. Apart from being silly, it limits the usefulness of several weapons and prevents you from simply using another gun if one runs out of ammo.

Visually, the game is a mixed bag. The locations you visit are interesting enough, including a hip Seattle nightclub, a Cairo mosque converted to a clinic, and a deserted church in a run-down part of Trier, Germany. There is genuine contrast between upper class areas – sealed arcologies, WTO offices, and so on – and the slums that surround them. Object physics have a floaty feel to them, but otherwise give a feeling of weight to the environment as boxes tumble, grenades bounce, and bodies collapse with a semblance of realism. Character models and animation tend to be less than convincing; faces convey no emotion, while conversation gestures and body language tend to be exaggerated. Areas are also far, far too cramped. A block of Upper Seattle takes seconds to cross, and the entrance to a massive inclinator connecting Upper and Lower Seattle is a small door hidden off in a tiny alleyway. A German coffee shop owner says a bar is “on the other side of town,” which is one street over in an area that runs in a small circle, and so on.

The irony of using a Mako Ballistics gun to break into one of their own labs is not lost on me.
The irony of using a Mako Ballistics gun to break into one of their own labs is not lost on me.

The audio is a bit stronger, with a few competent actors here and there. Alex him-or-herself is less than expressive, albeit moreso than JC Denton was, and the other Tarsus students range from uninteresting to annoying. However, a good deal of the secondary cast is decently acted, such as Luminon Saman, the head of a splinter group within the Order, apparently at odds with the Order at large and playing his own cards close to the vest. NG Resonance, an AI copy of a real (in-game) popstar, is also an intriguing recurring figure, as she has an open interest in Alex’s activities and seems a separate entity from the performer on which she’s based. Music usually just gets in the background and stays there, with occasional standouts in Seattle and Cairo, though the club and bar music (complete with a mini-jukebox) fits the setting well. Weapons fire and explosions are nice and meaty, and even the crack of a simple baton is viscerally satisfying.

The story and faction choices, however, are where the game tends to fall apart on its own, and everything gets worse when compared to the original Deus Ex. As far as story goes, it develops in an interesting fashion as Alex is initially asked to side with either the WTO or the Order, who appear to be after the same people for vastly different reasons. It develops into a hunt for the minds behind the Tarsus program, and the realization that the school may have simply been a front for something more sinister. Apart from the WTO and Order, other factions pop up here and there with a vested interest in what’s going on, not the least of which being a group of hivemind cyborgs called the Omar who effectively run a global black market. There is genuine intrigue over what Tarsus was doing, and what each group’s angle is in dealing with them. Given that Deus Ex took a kitchen sink approach to global conspiracies, it should come as little surprise that multiple plot twists will change the nature of Invisible War‘s story along the way.

Unfortunately, these twists tend to misfire and create plot holes in their wake. Saying more would be spoiling, but suffice it to say one shadow group will appear to want you to do two completely different things, and the disconnect just gets swept under the rug. A bigger problem is that while you can switch sides throughout the game depending on who you believe or trust, there are no real consequences for doing so. The WTO doesn’t stay mad if you break into their hangar and free a chopper pilot whom they’ve grounded for questioning. The Order sends two people to kill you if you disobey them, but is happy to keep asking you for favors should you survive. The choice of pilot starts off meaningful, with one charging more but dropping you at a more convenient entry/exit point, but it loses steam over time and both pilots act like you’ve been riding with them all along. This continues right up to the game’s closing minutes, where the various factions are all openly shooting at each other, and it’s still possible to make up and do things their way.

As for comparisons, they all boil down to this: Invisible War is just not as well balanced or as deep as Deus Ex. The original’s skill system was a major component in creating versatile gameplay, whereas here it’s stripped out completely and mashed together with an also-oversimplified biomod setup. You never get better at handling weapons, using medkits, picking locks, or anything at all. Some mods are flat-out better than others, to the point of being almost impossible to pass up. For instance, hacking is extremely useful in comparison to other mods for that slot, as is the mod that boosts melee strength and carry weight. While it’s asinine to argue which inventory system is more “realistic” – given you can lug around a sniper rifle, a flame thrower, and a plasma rifle without breaking a sweat – the fact is that Invisible War’s inventory system accounts for no difference in size between a candy bar and a rocket launcher. Each occupies one inventory slot, period, and that just wasn’t the case in Deus Ex.

In this mosque, nanites have locked out the use of weapons - even a baton, somehow - but have left lock-picking multitools active.  SCIENCE!
In this mosque, nanites have locked out the use of weapons – even a baton, somehow – but have left lock-picking multitools active. SCIENCE!

The story suffers as well, as many returning characters suffer complete and inexplicable reversals in their core philosophy. Loading screen text spoils one right off the bat, with a former terrorist leader from Deus Ex now a key figure in the WTO, and this is sadly the least egregious 180 a character pulls. There’s little depth to any of the characters that you won’t find from simple story progression; compare with certain characters from the previous game, who sometimes had (at times literal) skeletons buried in their closet. While Deus Ex also let you pick an ending right up to the very end of the game, it handled the problem a lot more tactfully and its endings left more to the imagination.

There are other comparison-based problems – Deus Ex also had gargantuan levels, better character interaction, readable newspapers and flavor text, and complex objectives that accomodated for creative solutions – but Invisible War does have a few saving graces. Alternate-fire modes for weapons are often useful, such as mines with a timer function, SMGs that fire flashbangs, or even guided missiles on the rocket launcher. Guns can be kitted out with silencers, frag or EMP rounds, or even glass destabilizers to quietly shoot out windows, while unique weapons are hidden away in the world with their own special abilities. Biomods can be overwritten, allowing you to change your customization as you go, and some of the mods do present neat new options: bot domination, for instance, lets you hijack a robot, camera, or gun turret and directly control it for a short period of time.

In the end, Invisible War stands better on its own than as a part of the Deus Ex world, though not much better. There is merit here, and it does a good job of exploring the aftermath of the previous game. It’s still fun to find new ways around seemingly complicated problems, and the story has a fairly strong first half. However, the further along it gets, the more it calls back to Deus Ex for its plot, and not to either game’s benefit. Make no mistake, Invisible War is not a truly bad game, but fans will amost certainly be let down, and newcomers might be left wondering if the bitter aftertaste is normal.

One Comment

  1. ghettomedic:

    I have to disagree with you onalot of your review

    Deus ex incvisible war was exceptional thought the ammo problem was actually better than in the original in D2 ammo was more readily available

    while their were issue with certain aspect of the game ifound that it picked up where d1 left off

    For me I give invisible war an 8 perhaps ima die hard fan cant wait for three to come out and the movie DEUS EX

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