Invisible War's problems prevent it from surpassing the original Deus Ex, but the good still far outweighs the bad
Set twenty years after all three of Deus Ex's endings occurred simultaneously (an interesting way of getting around the original's multiple conclusions), Invisible War opens with a massive nanotech terrorist attack obliterating most of Chicago. The students of Tarsus Academy, an elite school for nanotech-enhanced individuals, are among the few who escape the city's destruction. One of those students in Alex D. (his or her gender-neural name allows the player to designate their sex before the game begins), a promising young adult with a mysterious past. When a Tarsus base in Seattle is also attacked, Alex finds himself (or herself) caught between two rival factions (one representing religious fanatics, the other standing for uncontrolled capitalism) that both want to force the population to see things their way. And as Alex soon discovers, even these organizations' ambitions are mild compared to what some less visible (but no less powerful) groups desire. Finding out just who heads these other groups might surprise you...
The way Invisible War treats some of the first game's characters may be off-putting to fans. Much like the 1996 Mission Impossible adaptation, it doesn't just kill old heroes off – it twists their personalities, transforming several of them into megalomaniacs bent on world domination. Though some of the major characters' motivations are more noble and reasoned than others, none of them are easy to root for outside Alex and a few of his or her school friends. Compared to the original game (which could hardly be called upbeat to begin with), Invisible War's take on human nature is downright bleak, which may demotivate players who prefer something like the blue and orange/red morality systems that BioWare uses. Still, I found Invisible War's story to be engaging from start to finish, and (like with its predecessor) it's worth playing through all four possible endings to get the full experience.
Unlike its predecessor, Invisible War was available on both the Xbox and PC at launch. The first game had gotten a belated (and significantly watered-down) port on the PS2, but this represented the first game in the series to be designed with the consoles' limitations in mind from the very beginning. And it definitely shows. Passwords and codes are now handled automatically, weapons mods have been simplified and skills and augmentations have been streamlined into an easy "biomod" system. The grid-based inventory is also gone, replaced by more conventional item slots (so a rocket launcher now takes up the same amount of space as a candy bar). All this serves to deemphasize the stat-based role-playing elements, with the game's focus shifting more explicitly to the shooting a dialogue sequences. If the shooting mechanics had been as mushy as the first game's, this would have been a big problem. Luckily, the gunplay feels significantly more satisfying, with more powerful weapons and less standing in one place while a crosshair closes up. In many ways, these changes are reminiscent of how BioWare shook things up with Mass Effect 2, except that game became a critical and commercial smash hit (bothering only a small number of RPG fans, myself not included) while Invisible War was crucified by most fans of the original. Not all the alterations were for the best, however. The universal ammo system the game uses (by which pistols, shotguns and flamethrowers all draw from the same ammo pool) can be very annoying, as when you deplete the ammo on one weapon, you've depleted the ammo on ALL of your other weapons as well. Consequently, ammo management becomes extremely important – I went back to a previous save after multiple fights just because I'd used too much, and you can bet I looked at every corpse for spare clips (bodies often fall right on top of what they drop, forcing you to drag them away before you can recover their possessions). Though the ammo situation is largely compensated for by the superior shooting mechanics, there's a reason very few games have used this feature since.
The most bothersome change for many people, however, will likely be the level design. The original Deus Ex so massive that it was easy to get lost in the game's sprawling environments. The large maps gave the player a lot of choice about how to get from point A to point B and (more importantly, in my opinion) gave the impression that JC Denton was occupying a living, breathing world that extended beyond what was directly relevant to his mission. Largely due to the technical limitations of the original Xbox, the places that Alex D visits are much claustrophobic, largely consisting of narrow streets, cramped squares and indoor settings. Ion Storm still did a good job making the environments feel halfway plausible (I liked the way they separated the upper-class and lower-class sections in Seattle and Cairo), but the world doesn't seem to have a life of its own. Everything here exists for you to manipulate it, giving the levels a manufactured feel that, while in line with the vast majority of shooters on the market, feels disappointing for a Deus Ex sequel. This becomes especially apparent when one of the later levels revisits a very memorable setting from the first game, and Invisible War has to create a new plot point to explain why it has been broken up into many smaller pieces. The long and frequent load times are also problematic, leading to some tedium when a sub-mission requires you to travel from one end of a major area to another.
Though the world doesn't seem to exist beyond your objectives, those objectives can still be quite fun. Betting on greasel fights in a dingy Seattle bar and exploring a high-tech base that resembles something out of the TRON films were great fun (for completely different reasons), as was infiltrating a religious zealot's home base in Germany. The game does a fine job balancing its shooting, dialogue and stealth segments, rarely forcing players into gunfights they may not want. I also enjoyed the side missions, many of which focused on an economic war between two competing coffee chains. This subplot was quite funny and had a great payoff, serving as an allegory for some of the game's political situations. And though Invisible War isn't as long as the first game, I still got plenty of playtime out of it by completing all the side-quests, with the game taking me some twenty hours to finish (counting all four endings).
The visuals of Invisible War are a significant step up from the first game's, with much more detailed character models and environments. The lighting makes everything look a bit plasticized, but it's still quite impressive for a pre-Doom 3 title. Of course, much of this graphical improvement was made possible by the much smaller environments, so while the details are certainly improved, the scope of the game isn't nearly as great. The game's frequent and lengthy loading times are also an annoyance, occurring even after deaths and when you're using the quicksave function within a level. At least the save files themselves are reasonably sized (instead of taking up to thirty megabytes each like the first game's did). The sound is slickly produced, with some effective music themes and considerably fewer stereotypical accents than before.
Is Invisible War as great as Deus Ex? I wouldn't say so, but that doesn't make it a bad game by any means. Though the cramped environments, universal ammo and lengthy loading times are unfortunate, the improved weapons, fun missions and interesting (if divisive) story largely compensate for those problems. Games that blend FPS and RPG mechanics so adeptly into lengthy single player campaigns are far too rare as it is (especially in this era of multiplayer-focused shooters), and I think it's a shame that a solid game like this has been passed over by so many. Deus Ex: Invisible War is certainly flawed, but it's still a title that any sci-fi gamer should try (after they've finished the original, at least).
+ Shooting feels much slicker than in the original Deus Ex
+ Engaging missions and some clever side-quests
+ Interesting story
+ Good music, voice acting and sound effects
+ Looks pretty good for a game released in 2003
- Cramped environments and lengthy loading times
- Universal ammo is poorly implemented
- Some may not like the twists relating to returning characters
Reviewed on 2/6/2012