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Review: Deus Ex Invisible War

Despite the deluge of complaints fellow gamers are raining down upon Ion Storm and Warren Spector (of System Shock fame) for fudging up the sequel to one of the best PC games in recent memory, I bought Deus Ex: Invisible War yesterday. (Thanks to my wife for this, since she bought the this and X2: The Threat for me as Christmas gifts!) I found that while this much-maligned sequel has plenty of ‘splainin’ to do, as it were, it still manages to be an enjoyable game that’s almost worthy of being the successor to Deus Ex. On its own, it’s definitely a game that’s worth your time. And thus, the review begins.

So far, I’ve spent about six hours with the game. Translated, that means I’m just getting past the second level. (I guess you could call it that—with level transitions becoming more and more seamless these days, it’s tough to say exactly what a “level” is anymore.) I take my time with games—walking around, investigating things, doing the side-quests, whomping on some NPCs’ head with a sword, etc.—I try to act like I’m really part of the adventure, since that all contributes to immersion. And since games these days seem to be getting shorter and shorter, it helps to lessen the impact of “That’s IT?” when you finally finish.

While I really do like the game so far, I do have my fair share of gripes. In fact, most of the stuff I hear people bitching about is entirely true. Fortunately, I’ve found enough to like about the game to keep me playing it despite the problems, which is more than I can say for a lot of titles that have come out in the past couple of years. Anyway, enough jabbering—on with the review.

In Invisible War, you play the character of Alex Denton. That’s right, “Denton” as in “J.C.” and “Paul”. You get the choice of playing either as a man or a woman (in the latter case, Alex would be short for Alexandra…which reminds me, I really wish the game designers would come up with some different cuts-both-ways names). Our story begins in the future—some handful of years after the events in the original Deus Ex. References are continually made to “The Collapse”, which took place some time ago. Thus I believe the sequel builds from the “New Dark Age” ending, where J.C. triggered a collapse of the Earth’s infrastructure. The story so far hasn’t linked in with the original game at all, so details are still sketchy as this point. I’m trying not to “read ahead” in any game guides and risk spoiling the surprises and plot twists that I know are ahead.

Anyway, you begin the game as a trainee for an organization called Tarsus, some kind of UNATCO-like entity for all I can figure. You are stationed in Chicago when suddenly, a “terrorist” detonates a nanite-based deconstructor bomb downtown, vaporizing the entire city. You and your friend Billie (that’s a girl) are spirited away by helicopter, and taken to a Tarsus facility in Upper Seattle. That’s where the game finally plants you into the action.

Right away, in the room in which you begin your adventure, you’ll notice one striking, incredible thing about Invisible War. In runs like CRAP. Performance-wise, this game is a dog—the worst I’ve seen yet. It’s extremely GPU-intensive, so your video card is really all that matters—and yet, it absolutely chugs on my Radeon 9800 Pro. I had to completely turn off multisampling (anti-aliasing, in other words), anisotropic filtering, reduce dynamic shadow detail to medium or low, and not go higher than 1024×768. Ladies and gentlemen, that is CRAP.

What makes it worse is that the crappy performance level is not constant. Many sections of the game zip by at acceptable framerates, while others send the FPS through the floor. In a stroke of really bad luck (or really bad design), the very first room you see in the game—and it’s a tiny room, at that—chugs worse than any of them. Great first impression there, Ion Storm! Once I spent a few minutes tweaking all of my settings, testing, and tweaking some more, I settled in to actually play the game.

You are thrust into the action straight away. Some kind of terrorist attack is happening at the Seattle Tarsus base, and your boss isn’t telling you what’s going on. You immediately start getting the feeling that this Tarsus organization is hiding something, a BIG something, and right from the get-go it seems you are being conditioned (by the game designers) not to trust your employer. Finally, all chaos breaks loose—some fanatical religious organization called The Order is breaking in and killing the Tarsus people. The power gets cut, alarms start wailing, beacons flash. Your boss, suddenly no longer glossing things over, orders you to save yourself and evacuate immediately. The atmosphere here is fantastic. This is the closest I’ve felt to System Shock 2 in a long time. (Indeed, even the slightly-muted graphics may remind you of that unsurpassed game of yesteryear.)

Suddenly your friend Billie’s voice crackles over the InfoLink. She’s discovered something about Tarsus, it seems, and it’s a conspiracy—they’re conducting secret experiments on the trainees, monitoring them in creepy voyeuristic fashion and hiding all kinds of illegality, such as arms smuggling and other weirdness. Billie urges you to escape and meet up with her in Lower Seattle, where you will join The Order.

Throughout the game, the non-linearity of the gameplay experience will be thrust in your face. At any given time, you’ll usually have competing or mutually-exclusive objectives from as many as three or four groups, factions, or individuals, and it’s up to you as to how you want to progress. This is done very, very nicely. It’s even better than the original Deus Ex in terms of seamless gameplay choices. In the original game, if you were presented with a set of options, you pretty much had to pick one and then go for it. In the sequel, things are more or less left up to you—and they can get much more complicated and intertwined.

For example, at one point I walk into this nightclub and go talk to the owner. He asks me to go to the apartments down the street and kill a lawyer who’s getting in his way. Do so, and you get 300 credits and exclusive access to the club’s VIP area, where more secrets await. So, I go down to the apartments to cap the lawyer. Upon walking in, I’m presented with a conversation tree, and feeling adventurous, I decide to let the lawyer in on the fact that the nightclub owner has hired me to kill him. The lawyer makes me a counter-proposal: I go back to the VIP club and off the owner instead, for an even bigger bounty. And these aren’t my only two options. I could kill both guys, or neither. I could hack my way into the VIP area. I could tell the lawyer I’ll do his bidding, then blow him away for kicks. It’s up to you. And this wasn’t even the end of the goals I had written in my datavault—by talking to patrons at the nightclub, I’d picked up all kinds of sidequests. One of them I even found by busting into a neighboring apartment and finding the resident plotting to rip off some expensive toys. I knocked him out, took his plans, and pulled the job myself! This kind of freedom could be Invisible War’s strongest point.

Another strong point is the game’s atmosphere. Notice I did not say “graphics”, because the graphics in the game honestly do look dated. The level architecture smacks heavily of System Shock 2 (which was a 1999 title, 16-bit and relatively low-poly), and the character models just look like higher-poly versions of the original Deus Ex models. Texture quality is absolutely abysmal in some places, since Invisible War was developed simultaneously for PC and Xbox, and the latter doesn’t have the video memory for detailed, high-res textures. (More on the PC/console dichotomy later.) Despite the humdrum graphics, the game is bursting with atmosphere—and that’s saying something, when you can take relatively middle-of-the-road building blocks and create something that really pulls you in. The original Deus did it, and so does its sequel. Bravo.

The interface is another story. Remember the original Deus Ex, with its awesome skill point system, handy datavault that stored every single conversation you read or heard, and convenient hotkeys for augmentations (now called BioMods) and inventory item access? One of the places where Invisible War falls the hardest is its interface. The parallel Xbox development factors heavily here; the whole thing smacks of “dumbed down.” While the semi-elliptical HUD is pretty, it really gets in the way, making you feel as though you have tunnel vision—I had to turn the opacity way down until I could barely see it anymore, just to keep from getting a headache as I walked around.

The hotkeys are all but gone, and your “toolbelt” only has six slots—meaning only number keys 1-6 can be mapped to items, unlike the full 9 or 10 in the original game. Plus, item handling is wonky—and your inventory is absurdly small. And with the complete and total abandonment of the skill point system (travesty!), there’s no way to upgrade your inventory size, improve your skills in various combat forms, etc. Finally, and perhaps most strangely, all weapons and items use the same type of ammo from the common “ammo pool”. No indication is given as to how many “shots” or “units” or whatever each weapon uses. It’s all very nebulous and even a little ridiculous.

Before I stray too far from the PC/Xbox development issue, I’d like to say that Ion Storm really did screw up when it came to shipping this came. They left the PC version’s configuration file set with Xbox options, meaing the text was humongous, the interface was tighter on the screen, and there was even forced input lag on the mouse! Not only that, but all of your settings like screen resolution, detail, audio volume, etc. are stored IN YOUR SAVEGAME FILES. This means that every time you start the game, it comes up with default options (and at 640×480!) until you load a game. Fucking stupid! But it’s easy to see why—on a console, like the Xbox, a savegame is the only place to really store any kind of custom data. Fortunately, Ion Storm has released a patch to version 1.1 that corrects many of these issues (but not the savegame settings one). Definitely install the patch before you even think about playing Invisible War.

On the audio side of things, the game fares a bit better. The voice acting is good, and the sound effects are nicely done. I didn’t notice any kind of hardware sound acceleration (EAX or that ilk) though, so maybe it all just goes through DirectSound. Kind of a loss in my opinion.

The big selling point for Deus Ex was its epic story, and it’s clear that Invisible War is gunning for a triumphant follow-up in that department. It’s not clear yet, however, whether it has succeeded—but I will say that I’m less impressed with the early development of the sequel’s plot than I was with the first game’s. To be fair, though, I think this is intentional—Alex is kept in the dark about a great many things by his employer, Tarsus, and I think the designers wanted us, the players, to experience his frustration.

To sum up, I’d recommend that you give Deus Ex: Invisible War a try. But be warned: You will probably suffer from low framerates, and if you’re a big fan of the original game, you may decide that Ion Storm dumbed down the sequel so much that you simply can’t tolerate it. As for me, I enjoyed the original quite a bit—even played through it multiple times so as to see all three endings—and I think Invisible War is a good follow-up. Not a fantastic follow-up, maybe not even a great one. But a good one for sure.