Just a few months ago, 2003 seemed like it was poised to become the year of the first-person shooter. Then the biggest names in the genre started to slip. First, Doom 3 was confirmed to be a 2004 game, and, more recently, Half-Life 2's September 30 release date was called into question. One promising first-person game that will definitely be out this year is Ion Storm's Deus Ex: Invisible War, the sequel to the ambition hybrid game from 2000, Deus Ex. During a recent visit to Ion Storm's Austin, Texas, development office, studio director Warren Spector and Invisible War director Harvey Smith confirmed that the game will, in fact, be available before Christmas. We learned a good deal of new information about Invisible War from both developers, and, after a couple of hours with the Xbox version, we came away solidly impressed and excited about the game's impending release.
Ion Storm is nearing the end of Deus Ex: Invisible War's development cycle--as the game is now fully playable from beginning to end--so the team is busy tweaking and polishing just about every aspect of the presentation and mechanics during these last few months of production. Since Invisible War will be available soon, Spector and Smith decided it's time to elaborate a little more on the game's storyline. The original Deus Ex was very much a story-driven game, and the sequel follows suit. Thus, Invisible War's plot is integral to the overall success of the game. The first game gave players a choice of three radically different endings, so one of the biggest questions on fans' minds, during the development of Invisible War, has been, "Which Deus Ex ending will Ion Storm consider to be the 'true' one that will be picked up for the second game?" That question has finally been answered: All three of them. Invisible War assumes that all three possible scenarios played out, and their combined effects have resulted in a minor Dark Age that has plunged the world into depression and chaos. You will assume the role of Alex D, an operative and clone of the first game's protagonist, JC Denton. (Alex D's gender is chosen by the player). JC, his brother, Paul, and Tracer Tong all return from the first game and prominently figure in the story of political, religious, and technological intrigue.
Invisible War will give you more freedom of choice than the original Deus Ex. There are a variety of factions in the game, such as the corporation-like WTO and a radical religious group called the Order. All of them attempt to play you against the others by using your skills. You'll have to decide, at key points during the storyline, which side you should take, and your choices will later influence who trusts you and who's out to get you. Furthermore, the designers want to encourage players to find creative ways to play through the game. In that vein, they've avoided adding prescripted sequences to the game in favor of creating a dynamic gameworld that allows for what is being referred to as "emergent gameplay."
We first saw a presentation that demonstrated multiple ways to complete the same objective (in this case, the player had to liberate a pilot's captured Harrier from a small-time smuggler). In one instance, Alex D peacefully negotiated with the smuggler, paid her off, and obtained access to the ship. This seemed a sensible course of action, since the area was teeming with guards. In the other example, Alex mowed through the guards, using a variety of weapons, and then took out the smuggler rather violently. This latter course of action greatly pleased the Order, who considered the smuggler a threat to their operations in the area. It seems that most of the game will give you this kind of freedom so that you can do things your own way.
Brains and Brawn
Finally, we got to sit down for some hands-on time with the game. Unfortunately, though we didn't get to see the latest version of the PC game, the Xbox version is effectively identical, and both are being developed concurrently. Invisible War plays very much like the original game, as you can interact with almost every object in the environment, whether it's by adding a tool to your inventory or picking up and bouncing a basketball off the wall. The game's implementation of the Havok physics engine allows most objects to be moved and thrown around realistically, which often helps you find creative ways to make it through certain situations. As you might expect, the game will have a sizeable assortment of weapons available, such as a shotgun, a submachine gun, a rocket launcher, a nonlethal boltcaster, and a nanotech sword. However, stealth is also always an option if you prefer to sneak past enemies rather than slaughter them. One of the original goals was to design the game in such a way that it could be completed without requiring the player to ever touch a weapon, and Spector believes this goal to be achievable--given that one tester has made it about two-thirds of the way through the game without having acquired so much as a pistol.
Fans of the first Deus Ex will remember that the nanotech-based character upgrades played a large part in the gameplay, and this time around the designers have made the "biomod" system even more flexible. Previously, once you'd selected a biomod, you were stuck with it throughout the game. In Invisible War you can "overwrite" old skills in favor of new ones. The downside of this system is that each biomod has three levels. This means you'll lose any upgrades for a given skill once you overwrite it with a new skill. The interface for managing your biomods, weapons, and inventory is interesting--it appears in a circular shape to imply that it's actually imprinted inside Alex D's eye. Those who were skeptical of this new interface, and thought it looked too obtrusive when it was unveiled a few months ago, can rest easy; it blends easily with the action and is quite easy to navigate in a hurry. Thankfully, the color and opacity can also be adjusted, so you can adjust it as necessary.
Finally, the graphics in Invisible War have been a topic of great interest, and for good reason: The game looks superb. It uses some of the same advanced graphics techniques, such as real-time lighting and shadowing and character normal-mapping, that make the forthcoming graphical juggernaut Doom 3 look so impressive. Surprisingly, the game ran quite well on the Xbox; serious slowdown only really occurred in large areas. The Xbox version is going to be further optimized as development is finished, so the final product ought to end up being one of the best-looking Xbox games to date. Everything about the game's visuals is quite impressive, from the technical polish evident in the lighting to the cohesive artistic style of the environments.
The version of Invisible War that we saw was only about a week old, and, aside from a few minor bugs, it gave us the impression that the game is, in fact, just about done. Smith and Spector both commented that the Ion Storm team has learned which aspects of Deus Ex were strongest and reprised them. Likewise, the team has taken lessons from the weaker elements of the original and strengthened them. Indeed, after just a couple of hours, it seems like all the elements are being tightly integrated into a game that will provide a compelling and memorable experience. We're duly impressed with the near-final state of Deus Ex: Invisible War, and we'll bring you more on the game as soon as we can get our eager hands on it.