GDC 2003: Deus Ex: Invisible War update

We check out an updated version of Ion Storm's futuristic first-person role-playing game and talk to Warren Spector about the game's rapid progress.

When we met with Ion Storm at the Game Developers Conference today, we were surprised to hear that there was an updated demo of the game, since it's been just a few weeks since 2910952our trip out to the studio's office in Austin, Texas. As it turns out, the technical progress on the game was quite noticeable. The frame rate was much smoother, and we got a demonstration of a new audio feature: physics sound.

Ion Storm's studio director, Warren Spector, had previously hinted at some cool plans for the game's audio, and it's totally in keeping with Deus Ex's interactive design for Ion Storm to try to do something like physics sound, which ties the game's physics into the audio system to create dynamic sound effects. If you throw an object--or if it's accidentally bumped to the floor--there are a number of factors that go into creating the sound of one object impacting on another, including the object's mass, material, velocity, and angle of impact. A simple example is that a cardboard box sounds different when it hits a wall than a rubber bucket does, and pushing a heavy chair across a wood floor sounds different than if the floor were metal. Spector said that this is quite likely the first game to have such dynamic audio.

There was plenty of opportunity to try out the physics sound effects in a level we hadn't previously seen before, the Seattle inclinator, which is an angled elevator that moves goods and passengers between Seattle's working-class old town at ground level and the rich upper level. And while it's nice that the sounds are different for simple interactions, the dynamic sound is most immersive when it makes the unexpected possible. What sold us on the concept was when a metal canister was thrown across a cargo area, and it not only made a hollow rolling sound when it was on its side and a crash when it impacted on the lip of a service tube, but it also scraped and banged the sides of the tube as the canister fell down it. Basic acoustics are modeled, and the noises smoothly attenuated into the distance. Imagine such audio in full 5.1 glory.

Ion Storm often says that its technology efforts have to have a direct effect on gameplay, and physics sound does add the sort of detail that should help the player suspend disbelief and stay immersed in the gameworld. Plus, the AI will react to odd sounds, so bumping into a table and knocking off a coffee cup could put an idle guard on alert and prompt it to investigate. The game's producer, Harvey Smith, noted that this could be used by a clever player to attract guards toward one direction, as the player takes advantage of the distraction to pass unnoticed. The game does invite the player to experiment with the gameworld such that it's practically a "sandbox shooter," to use Harvey Smith's casual phrase.

As mentioned previously, Deus Ex: Invisible War features quite technically advanced graphics, with bells and whistles like dynamic shadows and normal mapping. But when we saw the game just after it reached alpha, it was impossible not to notice that there was plenty of engine optimization to do. It's a pleasant surprise to know that the frame rate and load times have already improved substantially, and Spector says that the team is making "insanely fast progress" on the technical side of things. We only saw the PC version today, but the simultaneously developed Xbox version has an acknowledged performance advantage because it runs at a lower resolution. Because it was running on a high-quality display rather than on a large digital projection screen, today's demo also did a better job of conveying the actual color palette in the game, which has many strong, saturated colors. Despite the conspiratorial story and gritty locations like the Seattle mercenary bar and the dusty shantytown in Cairo, you can't say that Invisible War portrays a bleak, steel-gray vision of the future.

At this point in the project, the designers are adding a lot of detail to levels and characters, and main characters like J.C. Denton aren't being shown because their look is still being finalized. The interface is one part of the game that's still far from final. We've seen screenshots and animated movies of the circular ocular-implant look that the team is going for, but Spector confessed that, as cool as the nanotech-inspired interface would be, the current mock-ups take up too much space on the screen.

In addition to Deus Ex, Spector has been the creative force behind a string of ambitious first-person role-playing games, and history tells him that play testing and balancing games that emphasize dynamic, emergent elements is an unpredictable process. He noted that Ion Storm and Eidos are working toward establishing methods for testing such games that would make it possible to more fully test the gameplay possibilities as well as predict how long a game project will linger in a playable but not entirely fun state. There's obviously quite a bit at stake, not only for the new Deus Ex game, but also for Thief III, which another team at Ion Storm has been developing simultaneously. Thief III uses the same advanced technology base, but there are a couple of additional features that are being saved for the stealth-focused game.

Spector couldn't specify when exactly Deus Ex: Invisible War will be released, but he again confirmed that the Xbox and PC versions are due out in 2003. We'll have more on Invisible War in the coming months.

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