Deus Ex: Invisible War

[Originally published in PC Gamer back in 131, it’s the one which people bring up when they want to have a gentle mock. Can’t always be in the majority. Looking back, I do regret the review, but not in the way which I suspect people think I should. I actually wish instead of being so reasonable and trying to talk people around, I should have just said fuck it and went in with both boots. Even writing about the controversy weakens the review. You live, you learn. Or not, in my case.]

Look me in the eyes and tell me what you want. No, not that. That’s the first thought off the top of your head, a cheap and easy lie to dodge the question. It’s not the real truth. Here’s a little guide-rope to your mental rambling: Why did you pick up this PC games magazine? Why are you reading this review? What do you /want/?

Now hold that. We’re going to be relatively restrained for the majority of this review, but we’ll come back to it later. It’s important to remember, as it’s all that really matters here.

For those who don’t frequent online games fora compulsively, the Invisible War demo was released in late November. Its reaction, in certain circles, has been somewhat akin to Hitler turning up to an Anti-Nazi League rally. People are angry. There has been rumours of mobs forming in middle America brandishing “WARREN SPECTOR=ANTICHRIST” signs and burning effigies of lead designer Harvey Smith. They say Invisible War is a betrayal of Deus Ex.

Strong words.

Now, to prosaically bring newcomers up to speed and help the more amnesiac members of the audience, this is the sequel to one of the most critically acclaimed games of recent times. Deus Ex reviewed spectacularly (PCG 87 95%). A near-future tale of conspiracy, it fitted the post-X-files millennial mood like a leather-studded glove. However, what it was really hailed for was its open-ended free-form approach to the first-person action-adventure game. While the general arc of the plot was predetermined, its details were defined by your own abilities and nature. You want to be the ultra-violent cybernetic monster who makes the Terminator leak oil into his bed? Load up with weapons, select the right implants and stomp off to battle. Alternatively, you want to be the pacifist ghost, dancing between the shadows? Take this cloaking device, this stun-rod and this obscure pathway between these crates. And it went on and on – distance sniping, hacking, evasion, predation, whatever. Deus Ex was all things to all men. It was Donna Summer “I’m Every Woman”, without the embarrassing submissive tendencies. Or the disco.

However, it wasn’t perfect. In fact, it was far from perfect. It was often a little bit rubbish.

This is important to remember when playing Invisible War. If you find yourself – for example – saying “the AI in Deus Ex didn’t do that!”, you’ve got rose-tinted glasses on. The AI in Deus Ex didn’t notice corpses. You could bounce stuff on its head for most of the game with nary a comment. You could often shoot their mate beside them, and they didn’t raise a low-polygon eyebrow. Invisible War’s AI is far from perfect but it’s better in every way that counts.

In terms of core values, core plot and core gameplay, Invisible War is the direct child of Deus Ex. Set twenty years from the original, after a world-wide collapse the global society is getting back on its feet. You play a nanotech modified trainee at something called “The Tarsus Academy”. Shortly after the opening of the game, you find yourself flying the nest and – like the original – trying to work out what’s actually going on in the world. Conspiracy and control are the two major plot threads and, yet again, this is one of the few games where NPCs have the audacity of actually /lying/ to you. Your missions arrive from characters in the game, varying from small RPG-style sub-quests (Go and do this for me for this minor award) to major missions. The latter are where the meat of the game lie, often involving infiltrating a base for one purpose or another, in the manner you choose. Like its illustrious forefather, either going in the front door screaming or crawling down deserted ventilation shafts are equally valid routes.

However, you must remember before playing Invisible War is that it isn’t Deus Ex. You may notice that I’m referring to the game as “Invisible War” rather than “Deus Ex 2” to try and make the psychological leap easier. Yes, it’s completely based on the same principles of but it’s /not the same game/. Things are different, and if you’re going to spend time obsessing what’s missing you won’t notice what you actually have.

To choose an example of a game mechanic that’s absent which I think is a distinct loss, leaning. The argument is that few players used it, and if you’re sticking your head around a corner, you’re just as visible to anyone coming as just quickly darting out. I disagree. Leaning allows all manner of tactics, and while there’s plentiful other options for gaining information about your area –hacking cameras, spy drones, x-ray vision, bot domination – it’s still missed. However if you obsess over /that/ you won’t notice the boon of having a decent mantling control. While in Deus Ex you were in the ludicrous position – as in most First-person games – of being incapable of jumping on top of something that was clearly half your height, holding the space bar here makes you pull yourself up onto it. It’s the most reliable iteration of this tech I’ve seen in a first-person game, and in play I trust it enough to work to make a speculative leap knowing I’ll catch hold of the distant side. In terms of player exploration of the environment, it makes a profound and powerful difference.

Here’s some more omissions: While recent messages are saved, you’re no longer capable of going through a list of everything that was said, ever. E-mails on computer systems have gone walk-abouts. While both books and datapads litter the level providing extra information, newspapers are missing. Passwords for computer systems are now stored automatically when you find them instead of requiring you to write them down. The precision of your shot is no longer related to the time you were still prior to pulling the trigger. The player’s own damage now is taken generally rather than on specific bodyparts. And.,.. Er… while you now have a choice of both sexes, you’re now incapable of selecting an albino character? Sitting down to think what elements are actually completely absent from Invisible War, you actually run into a brick wall quickly.

If there’s so little completely missing, why is everyone upset? Well, what’s there is /different/. While the demo doesn’t really provide convincing evidence how the changes operate, most of the horror is based on the simple fact of change rather than the nature of it. The gaming animal is often a conservative one.

In terms of game dynamics the biggest of these, and the one which is presented worst in the demo, is the transformation of a game which used several techniques (Skills and mechanical augmentations, mainly) to add character uniqueness to a system which is solely reliant on technology. In other words, like in Elite and System Shock 1, you are what you possess. Each of the five augmentation slots have three possibilities of system to be installed. For example, installing a canister in slot one would allow you a choice of either regeneration, enhanced vision or (if it’s a black market bio-canister) a spy drone. Once one is in place, you’re precluded from possessing the others simultaneously (Though can overwrite it with another biomod later). Equally, for each augmentation you can increase it to two further higher levels with an extra canisters, enhancing its potency. For example, the aforementioned vision mod, upgraded, allows seeing human opponents through obstacles expanding to both bots and other inanimate objects with a third.

Equally, there’s increased stress put on what weapons you choose to carry and how you alter them with weapon mods. Rather than Deus Ex’s system which was based on every weapon taking a differing amount of space in your inventory and often required you to drop huge swathes of your equipment to work out where a new object could fit, it’s based on a simpler slot concept, with every item – or number of items in the case of grenades – taking a single space. This means that what you carry is based on what manner of character you wish to play rather than economy of space. In that way, weapons actually function more like skills in the original game – equal choices of ways to spend your resources rather than something you’re pressured in. Choosing a baton to take people down peaceably is just another equal choice to taking the flamethrower. Since each part of the armoury has been created to fill a specific role, the question is what sort of game do /you/ want to play. This is especially true when you add weapon augmentations to the mix, with each firearm capable of receiving two of these additions that do everything from adding a silencer, to increasing damage, to adding EMP damage and…

A certain segment of the audience may have noted that this isn’t actually the most realistic thing in the world. Adding a doo-dah which turns any gun into an EMP weapon or an area-affect thing? You’re not convinced. Well, take a seat. They’ve gone further and changed how ammunition operates. No longer does each weapon have a separate reservoir of bullets. Instead they all feed of a “general” ammunition supply at differing rates, meaning you can fire off many more bullets with a pistol than a rocket launcher with the same supplies. This is mind-stunningly unrealistic.

Well, yes. Because Invisible War is a videogame.

The only question that really matters is whether it harms the game in terms of interactions. The answer, really, is no. In fact, it becomes another resource to allocate. You miss classical experience points? Well, here’s a constantly moving resource to manage. Do I have the ammunition available to use my powerful weapons? Can I afford to use the EMPattack which penetrates through the walls to take out that bot, or would I be better working out some other route? Equally, all “ammo” resources you find are of use to you, thus being a general reward, rather than only a specific reward. In Deus Ex, if you’ve just used a lockpick to open a chest to find only rocket ammunition inside it’s a waste. Here, using the same trick would reveal something that could be used by anyone – and, in a lovely piece of design – most chests have transparent lids to let you see what you’ll get if you use your resources in opening it, turning random guesswork (and a probable reload if it turns out to be useless) into an educated decision. Choice by itself means nothing, of course. What matters is /meaningful/ choice. One limitation is that it does mean that when you’re out of ammunition… well, you’re out of ammunition. But in Invisible War, like its predecessor, some of its greatest moments come from improvising new tactics when resources are low – or retreating and finding some way to resupply, scavenging being another of its primary pillars.

Now, we’ve two thirds through the review and it’s all been measured explanations about the game’s systems and the alterations made. It’s got 92%. Where’s the mad crazy joy? Well, this is an significant game. It’s important you understand the differences between what you may expect from a Deus Ex sequel and what’s provided. The last thing I want to do is try and you trick you into buying something you won’t like. Preceding this are the facts on the controversial issues, or at least my most measured interpretation thereof.

To start my eulogy, let’s go back to that opening question. What do you want? Why do you play games? And why are you specifically reading this review?

The answer of this: you want to be Somebody, because you are a Nobody. Don’t worry about that. /Everyone/ is a nobody. George Bush sits in the Whitehouse tapping his fingers on that red big button, wishing he was someone else. He’s a nobody. None of these people feel as if they make a difference.

So you want to make a difference. It doesn’t matter what difference, any difference would do. You want power. You want autonomy. You want to hold the world in your hand and decide whether to stroke its icy peaks or crush it between you fingers. You want the least all of us expect, and are disappointed that we don’t get: everything.

On that level, every game is going to disappoint us. But, at its best, Invisible War takes you closer to the idea of pure, unrestrained player expression than anything else has done. From the second to second interaction (Shall I shoot/Shall I kill, or anywhere along the axis between the pair) to the macroscopic grand sweep of the narrative, you’re given meaningful input to customise the story at almost every point. Most games ask “This is what you must do”. Invisible War asks “What do you want to do?”.

For example, once the game move from the opening linear passage, it blossoms to an array of options. You’re dumped in the city, free to go wherever you please. Several people contact you, either ordering or pleading for you to visit them. You can attach to their cause and follow their demands exactly, play both sides off against the middle or ignore them and wander this strange new world in which you find yourself. Eventually the over-arching narrative will push you to a destination, but the route you get there – and even what you’re to /do/ there – will be totally personalised.

It’s this aspect of free-ranging play that doesn’t come across in the demo at all. While individual sections are smaller than the open expanses of the original game, Invisible War’s “levels” are made of about a dozen of these smaller interconnected mini-levels. As a whole, they’re most akin to the Hong Kong sections of the original game in that you’re free to roam a city, but are prevented from aimlessness by having threads to investigate. But where it’s /better/ than Deus Ex is that the objectives are often antagonistically opposed, often leading to a more vibrant and dynamic play experience.

Also, in terms of narrative it manages to be both more cohesive and mature. While its predecessor often felt happy to just lead you on a guided tour of every real world conspiracy ever concocted, here the characters are driven, their motivations more understandable. While there isn’t quite the mass of written material, what there is deals with just as weighty as concepts as anything else in the gaming lexicon. Also, for those who care about such things, the endings more conclusively world-changing with grander morally implications to consider for the player.

If so great, why no 95%?

Well, it’s got as many minor foibles around the edge as the original. Physics, as is the Havok systems’ tendency, have moments of something-is-wrong-dom, especially when objects seem to have been programmed with less “weight” than they should have. You’d think that throwing a barrel into someone would hurt them instead of just annoying them… and you’ll be right, but only if you’ve added a strength implant to add enough velocity. The AI, while an improvement, still has a tendency to just concentrate on its admittedly incredibly hard job rather than “performing” to entertain us with tricks like ducking for cover or whatever. The inventory interface is troublesome, often operating in counter-intuitive fashion. You get used to it, but you really shouldn’t have to. The world-fiction has a couple of obvious holes in that you’ll have to overlook. And the fact much of what makes it great has been precedented by Deus Ex counts against it somewhat.

Most importantly, however, is that while the augmention system does allow you to personalise your character to a huge extent, someone who explores in depth and locates all the canisters available will find themselves reaching the very height of possible development with unruly haste. You’ll have maxed out your abilities by around the half-way point, leaving all future canisters to just sit around in case you fancy overwriting your abilities for something new. Extending the development tree – perhaps by having a Level 4 upgrade only possible with an extremely limited canister or similar – would have improved this considerably.

But even if your character isn’t evolving, your tactics and decisions are. Rarely has improvisational play been as powerful, and possibilities as gloriously diverse as they are here. Expect increasingly baroque playstyles to emerge as people rub pieces of the toolset together. It’s also telling that the genre box is almost impossible to fill here. Numbers – the standard way of defining an RPG, and the characteristic of the first which gained its definite inclusion – have gone entirely. So what does it leave? I don’t know. I don’t really care. Genres are for wimps.

Let’s end this in the manner Invisible War, like its predecessor, concludes. An apposite quotation: “I see now that the path I choose through that maze makes me what I am. I am not only a thing, but also a way of being – one of many ways – and knowing the paths I have followed and the ones left to take will help me understand what I am becoming”. – Daniel Keyes, Flowers For Algernon.

Invisible War: Yourself, Becoming.