Selling videogames in this industry today is just as much about creating intense hype as it is about spending millions of dollars on a flashy marketing campaign. Even industry insiders get bitten with the hype bug every now and then. And when Deus Ex: Invisible War was announced early last year alongside a few incredibly impressive screenshots, very little could be done to suppress the excitement. Being a huge fan of Deus Ex, I couldn’t wait to get my grubby mitts on the sequel. Now that I have delved into the world of Invisible War and bore witness to all it has to offer, I can’t help but think that some of my excitement leading up to its release was a tad unwarranted. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of RPG/FPS goodness to be had here, what with multiple paths for nearly every obstacle, amazing lighting effects, and a pretty cool physics system to boot. But for every aspect of the game that manages to impress there is an equal amount of disappointing fallacies that you have to wade through to get to them.
The story in Invisible War is set on something of a shaky foundation. Not to say that the intricate plot lines and developments in the game are anything less than stellar, but the world of Invisible War has some, let’s say, ambiguous origins. This is because in the first game there were multiple possible endings. So you’re never really given a satisfying explanation of what happened 20 years prior to the proceedings of the game, or which ending Invisible War is based on. You play as Alex D., a fresh recruit at the Tarsus Academy, a sort of X-men style school for gifted youngsters, except instead of innate mutant powers, the operatives at this school are genetically enhanced with biomod technology. Right from at the outset of the game a suicide terrorist manages to wipe out the city of Chicago, but you and some other trainees manage to escape to another Tarsus campus in Seattle. This is pretty much all the info you are given before the game begins with you waking up in your apartment.
Suffice to say that the storyline in Invisible War is rife with twists, turns, shimmies, and covert op shenanigans. Multiple factions are at each other’s throats and conspiracies await you at every turn. Where your allegiances lie and where your destiny will find you are just as much about the decisions you make as the circumstances that surround them. Like the first game, the open-ended structure of progression is ultimately what makes Invisible War such a rare and surprising treat.
Once you are set loose in Seattle, the non-linear nature of the game begins to surface. As you wander around you’ll run into lots of different people with just as many agendas, each with their own idea of how you can help them out to further their own cause. A lot of times the people you meet will be the enemies of other people you meet, so choosing to do favors for one side may not be a good idea if you’re trying to stay in good standings with the opposing faction. But this also opens up the possibilities for what can be done in the game. For example, you may be asked to assassinate the owner of a dance club, but upon arrival the dance club owner may offer to double the bounty if you don’t kill him. What you do is ultimately your choice, and there is plenty of opportunity to play both sides a lot of the time.
Unfortunately, most players will simply take the path of least resistance, and choose to do whatever is easier. While there is no wrong way to play Invisible War, that is certainly not the best way to get the most out of the experience. For instance, you may encounter a grid of trip wires in a room that you need to cross. You can either take out the nearby turret to avoid being shot at once you’ve activated the lasers, hack into a nearby console and disable the security system, manually navigate your way around the trip lasers, use a universal multitool to deactivate the grid, or you can simply shimmy your character through a series of air ducts. The obvious route for most will be the air ducts. Why a top-secret facility with laser trip wires and automatic gun turret defense systems would have air ducts conveniently placed before each obstacle is bewildering. Nonetheless, the potential is there to tackle objectives creatively.
Some will look at Deus Ex: Invisible War and call it a FPS, others would be more inclined to categorize it as an action RPG along the same lines as Morrowind. But both opinions are right. Invisible War can easily be played as a FPS; simply shooting your way through every obstacle is just as valid an approach as sneaking. But the game offers so many upgradeable biomod powers that enhance your ability to navigate dangerous areas and streamline stealth maneuvers that you’ll rarely have to confront a situation with guns blazing. The biomod system allows you to choose from one of three different enhancements for each of your five biomod slots. These enhancements can be anything from increased strength, temporary invisibility, and health regeneration, among many others. Invisible War does away with the previous game’s experience system, but its newfound focus on more intricate and dynamic biomod upgrades more than makes up for it.
Some other changes make their way to Invisible War. For example, each weapon in the game does not use its own style of ammo. Instead, you’ll use universal ammo for each gun. This is fine in theory since it means you won’t have to waste time wondering how much ammo each weapon has, but when you consider that a dart gun uses the same ammo as a flame thrower, well, things just don’t add up. I suppose it is technically possible since you can only assume that the ammo uses some sort of fancy pants nano-technology, but it still seems a little far fetched. Basically, the bigger the weapon, the more ammo it uses. Weapons can also be upgraded this time around, which is actually pretty cool. Using a similar system as the biomod concept, you can upgrade your weapons with an assortment of enhancements such as the ability to hold more ammo, utilize silencers, and more accurate firing.
A few things from the original game make a disappointing return here. Such as the frustratingly long load times between different sections of an environment. You’ll be doing a lot of backtracking in the games various locales, and when you’re simply stumbling about looking for the area you need to get to, the load times tend to be very annoying. The horrible AI from Invisible War’s predecessor also makes a return. While the enemies aren’t so stupid as to just stand around while their buddies get plugged in the head, some other characters in the game tend to be pretty brain-dead. For example, you can casually enter public places while brandishing any weapon in the game, be it an energy sword or machine gun, and no one will even give you a second look. Or, you can enter someone’s office, while they’re present, and start pillaging through their desk, stealing their stuff, and throwing stuff around – meanwhile that person will do nothing but nonchalantly stare at you.
But the enhancements in Invisible War far outweigh the occasional trifles. From a technical perspective, the game is quite impressive. The physics system has been completely overhauled. Bumping into objects or throwing them into other objects results in a very realistic depiction of those objects colliding, falling to the floor, rolling around, and crap like that. Everything seems a little stiff and heavy, but compared to the first game it is a substantial improvement. Also, the lighting techniques used throughout are very well done. Dynamic shadows are cast around every light source, lights can be interacted with or jostled, and multiple light sources seamlessly bleed into one another. Unfortunately, the horsepower it takes to pull off these technical feats means that the game will occasionally stutter or frame up.
It might just be me but Invisible War looked far better in screenshots than it does in action. Not to say that it is a bad looking game by any means, it’s not, but the clip at which you move around, the lack of sway, and robotic way that the camera tilts around gives the game something of a stilted presentation. The first game was this way too, but three years later it may not be as tolerated. The character models all look good and animate appropriately with precise facial detail and nice use of texturing, but all too often you’ll spot the same character model over and over again, which is disappointing but to be expected, I guess.
Invisible War looks good, but it sounds great. The soundtrack is rich with all sorts of perfectly executed orchestrations that never let you forget the cyberpunk theme of the game. Occasionally, you’ll run into some completely original, vocally backed tracks that I, for one, wouldn’t mind having in CD or MP3 form. The aural ambiance of Invisible War compliments the onscreen proceedings to a tee. Sound effects are good, but not to the point where I’d actually remember any of them after playing the game. Voice acting is excellent across the board, with believable performances by both the male and female versions of the protagonist.
Overall, Deus Ex: Invisible War is a great game in its own right, though compared to the original it doesn’t seem as interesting or innovative. The subtle to apparent refinements the game has undergone in the last three years pretty much ensures that fans of the first game will find a lot to like here. But newcomers and those with unrealistic expectations will inevitably discover either that the multitude of references to the previous game will cause confusion, or that the few technical improvements do little to offset the fact that this is merely a logical upgrade. Nevertheless, if you enjoy non-linear, intelligent, and intricate RPG style goodness in your FPS then you can’t go wrong with Deus Ex: Invisible War.