The sequel to Deus Ex has always had an important use. Find any community of PC gamers and suggest to them that Invisible War was actually pretty good and you are guaranteed a few hours of cheap entertainment. The game is hated by Deus Ex fans, to the point that many will repeatedly announce that no, it definitely doesn’t exist. Unfortunately having finally played through it this month as part of my “ohmygodDeusEx3!” preparation, I find myself in an unfortunate position. You see it turns out that Invisible War is actually pretty good.
Only “pretty good,” which isn’t exactly universal praise. It has a whole list of very obvious problems. For starters it’s incredibly easy. While you still get to choose your approach – aggression, stealth, subverting electronic defences or usually a mixture of all of the above – it’s so much easier to execute your plan without a hitch. That means you miss out on improvising your way out of a situation gone wrong, something that led to my favourite moments of Deus Ex. The one exception to this is attempting to be non-lethal. The electric prod no longer offers the chance of an instant takedown – a casualty of the lack of situational damage – and while a tranquilizer dart gets the job done (eventually) it feels messy, unskilled and ultimately unrewarding.
Environments are also disappointing. Invisible War suffers from that peculiar mid-2000s console-port issue of narrow, smaller areas filled with chunky objects. While Deus Ex was never a contender in the beauty stakes, it did at least have a well realised sense of place. The difference is subtle but can be seen in every corridor, street and room. In Invisible War the world is there for the player to inhabit; in Deus Ex the player inhabited a world that was there. This only becomes more pronounced in the last level, when protagonist Alex ‘D’ (can you guess that plot twist) visits one of the first game’s most iconic areas. It’s dull and lifeless, full of moments where you recognise the specific area they’re referencing but realise your imagination is doing most of the work. This game was an early victim of the trend for achieving parity between console and PC versions by not fully utilising the capabilities of PCs of the time.
Such simplification isn’t limited to the technical specifications. Most of the game’s systems are reduced in complexity. While some changes are hard to get upset about – removing lockpicks in favour of multitools with universal application – others significantly reduce meaningful choice. Skills, previously the most striking means of character customisation, are completely gone. Some, such as hacking, move over to the Augmentation system while others – most noticeably weapon proficiency – are removed entirely. As such you’re free to completely switch up your arsenal with no penalty to the effectiveness of certain weapon classes. The only thing tying you to your existing weapons are the modifications you’ve enabled in them but before long you’ll have so many spare upgrades that it’s never a problem to load them into something new.
The same is true of Augmentations. While each enhancement is still tied to a body part, now with a third illegal black-market Augmentation available per group, the canisters are universal and, like the weapon mods, so prolific that it’s possible to entirely respec your character. Of course it’s debatable whether this is a bad thing. After all Deus Ex is a series about choice, so why not let you choose to change your play style on the fly? Well I’d argue Deus Ex was about the consequences of the choice you make. While those still exist on the story level, they’re almost entirely absent on the player level.
The most disappointing removal is the level of incidental detail available to discover throughout the world. There are no more emails to hack into and while there are books and datapads around the levels, none go into as much depth about state of the world and characters outside of what the player sees. Also each character you meet has less depth to their personality. In Deus Ex I knew who loved orange soda. (Gunther loved orange soda!) I couldn’t tell you a single quirky personality trait of any of the new characters in Invisible War.
Also, they removed leaning. I’m nitpicking now, but playing a stealth character and sidestepping your entire body around a corner to see any guards just feels ridiculous.
Wait… I’m meant to arguing the game is actually pretty good. Okay, so you’ll have noticed that all the above criticisms can be summed up as “when compared to Deus Ex…” That’s fair enough, it is the sequel, it’s inviting the comparison. And when compared to Deus Ex it does all those things wrong. The same comparison also shows it doing some things right though. For instance, DX was actually pretty rigid in the execution of the main story. The defection from UNATCO to the NSF was a fixed event that just happened without ever really justifying itself. While it was increasingly apparent that UNATCO were Up To Something, there was never anything to suggest the NSF weren’t simply a terrorist organisation until some time after you’d joined them.
Invisible War presents a similar opening of opposing factions, but never forces the player’s hand. Throughout you’re free to join whichever side you please or, if you’re anything like me, decide they’re all as bad as each other and follow your own admittedly broken moral compass. Even once a third obviously antagonistic faction emerges you’re still given the option of ultimately siding with them. They openly despise everything you represent and clearly following their plans is a terrible idea, but you can do it. The game is still blunt in its political agenda, but it achieves its message by showing you the consequences of your story choices rather than not letting you make them.
Then there are the wonderful side missions. They’re entirely based around two warring chains of coffee shops and are completely and utterly stupid. Two warring corporate entities? Who gives a shit? Actually, I gave a shit because it was a great opportunity to play both sides against each other. In the opening hub of the game I betrayed and robbed as many people as I could, accepting a mission from one coffee shop owner after I’d already trashed his stock then going back to accept payment from his rival while simultaneously screwing him over. What’s so refreshing about this is that no side is inherently good or evil so there’s no moral handwringing involved in such blatant self-interest. When I left the area I was happy in the knowledge that everyone’s day had got that much worse. And as inconsequential as the side missions are, they stop just as the main story reaches pace, never expecting you to give a crap about the plight of local businesses when the world actually looks to be in peril.
That main story is essentially an epilogue of the three resolutions of Deus Ex. While it makes the completely bizarre decision to assume that all three of the original’s endings happened – something that could only make sense if you picked a specific (read: the correct) one, and even then not really – it explores each in a much fuller depth. Sure, it’s disappointing to realise that you’re essentially making the same three choices again, but here the entire crux of the narrative gives you the understanding of how those choices will ultimately effect humanity. Consequently the second time around it’s a much harder choice to make.
For all its faults – and for all its successes – Invisible War is still a game about choice. Choice about the fate of humanity, choice about your relationships with characters and the factions they represent and that moment-to-moment choice of how you want to play the game. All those choices are still present and that’s important to keep in mind. A question: how did the design lessons of Deus Ex filter into the wider world of first-person shooter design? The answer is they didn’t. Shooters became even narrower in focus; they became more scripted, more linear and more gated. The most meaningful decision players faced in another shooter celebrated for intelligent story and player freedom was whether or not to murder little girls for slightly more gene-enhancing goo than if they didn’t. As vilified as it is, Invisible War still offers more player agency and subtle decision making than any FPS not called Deus Ex.
If you’re still not convinced then at least do the honourable thing and give Invisible War the metaphorical tip of the hat when you load up Human Revolution. Because Ion Storm made a sequel that was actually pretty good and yet it was hated by fans. It made it clear to whoever took up the series next that they would have to aim even higher. Luckily, if the reviews are to be believed, Eidos Montreal did exactly that.