January 18, 2008

Commentary: Deus Ex: Invisible War

I've made it clear in the past that Deus Ex is one of my favorite games of all time and conforms most to my own vision for games-as-art. Since the teaser trailer for Deus Ex 3 just came out, I figured that it was high time that I spent some time with the middle child. Besides, it's on GameTap.

I'd heard a lot of bad things about Invisible War, but I knew that these was partially due to everybody's high expectations when it came out. That said, once the game started up and my (male) character started to talk, the voice acting made me cringe. You can't deliver lines like "I just saw a man die" in a deadpan. I restarted with the female main character, who was good enough for me to continue playing.

I soon became upset that there were so few "normal" people in the game. I preferred the early levels of Deus Ex because they were filled with normal people just living their lives. There are only a few in Invisible War, and the majority of the NPCs in some areas are just "Thug".

That's not to say that everything Invisible War did was wrong on the story/environment front. There are a lot of nice additions. The two competing coffee chains, for instance (though they probably shouldn't have acted as reliable sources of optional quests). Or the international pop star, NG Resonance, who shows up primarily as an AI bot with whom you can chat in public places. Plus, as in Deus Ex, there are several early-introduced main characters who each have their own satisfying story arc.

But in comparison to the original, this iteration just doesn't hold its weight in creating a believable world. Maybe it's just that everything's too futuristic to relate to, but I just couldn't get sucked in. In Deus Ex you were surrounded by people who were just getting by, trying to survive in the wake of a devastating plague, while the rich got shipped a secret vaccine. That a terrorist/secessionist group rose up to fight for the people seems almost inevitable in that context. The different factions and their motives feel reasonable.

In Invisible War, the two biggest factions are the WTO, whose big selling point is enforced economic stratification and trade controls, and the Order, which is defined primarily by a bunch of talk about internal balance and such. They make some sense... but it's hard to imagine that the whole world is dividing along these lines.

Luckily, the game's plot proceeds rapidly after a somewhat slow start, so you don't spend much time with the less-than-intriguing initial dynamics. The choices that it presents really are interesting. Personally, I felt beholden to consistently carry out JC Denton's original intentions, but most of the choices are well-balanced.

But where I really appreciated this game was on the gameplay front. The new developers radically simplified the character customization by removing Skills, which previously governed things like weapon accuracy and lockpicking, and scaling down the biomod system, which governs special abilities like cloaking or hacking. The result is that each biomod becomes more potent and creates a new set of strategies.

For example, at one point I had to take down a gigantic military robot reminiscent of an AT-AT from Star Wars. I turned on my speed enhancement biomod and charged it. Because of my increased speed, I could avoid the rockets it sent at me. I got close and used my Bot Domination biomod (which was illegal in the game world and therefore harder to find) and ran away again. After 10 seconds, I gained first-person control of the bot for a minute and used it to wreak havoc on the enemy.

These sorts of interesting strategies weren't limited to creative biomod use. In one mission, I had to assassinate someone, but she was in a secure room with a guard and a security camera. I used a sniper rifle to take out the guard in the hall and an EMP weapon to disable the hallway security camera. I then used a "noisemaker grenade" outside of the door. My target and the guard left the monitored room to investigate and I took them both out with two quick sniper shots from the other side of the hall.

Liberal use of biomods and the sniper rifle made this game pretty easy in most sections, but they also made me feel like a badass covert-ops agent. Which, I should note, I was.

Ultimately, I confess that I had more fun with Invisible War than with Deus Ex, which I was not expecting. That said, Invisible War didn't inspire me like its predecessor did. Deus Ex was a landmark for including subtle interactive exposition and choices that felt important and flowed naturally. Invisible War doesn't deliver as much in that department, but it's still a great game.

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