C’mon Now, Deus Ex: Invisible War Wasn’t That Bad. …Was It?

Posted by on August 11, 2011 at 10:41 pm

With the impending release of Square-Enix’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution – an RPG/FPS hybrid prequel to my favorite shooter of all time – comes a lot of renewed interest in the series. Well, strike that, interest in the original Deus Ex and a lot of brow-beating for its 2003 follow-up, Invisible War. I enjoyed the sequel for what it was worth, but does it deserve all the disrespect it’s received over the years?

How To Start A Problem

Released in 2000, Deus Ex was a surprise hit for publisher Eidos, known primarily for their Tomb Raider series (and now owned by Square Enix). Developed by Ion Storm’s Austin branch, headed by Warren Spector, it had to compete for the publisher’s attention against John Romero’s Dallas branch, which was producing absolute awful tripe like Daikatana and blowing through tens of millions of dollars. I don’t need to talk about how awesome it is, because I already have, but it was an insanely clever cyberpunk shooter that allowed you to complete massive missions through a wide variety of means. It’s a complicated approach that’s a marked departure from the modern zeitgeist in which ultra-linear shooters like Call of Duty funnel you down a tight, scenic corridor that enemies pop up from. Deus Ex forced you to stretch your brain to come up with useful tactics and player builds to best accomplish goals, many gamers turned away by the game’s first level: the open-ended Liberty Island mission in which you were given dozens of options from the get go to carve your own path through the game.

So anyway, Ion Storm Dallas collapses because Daikatana sucks and the Austin branch expands because Deus Ex does well, allowing Spector to bring development of Thief 3 in-house, a game nearly lost with the failure of Looking Glass Studios. The first red flags fly as publisher Eidos decides that it knows what’s best for the games and becomes an unhealthy interloper in their development. Deus Ex and the previous Thief games had been developed primarily on the PC, (the former getting a downgraded port for the PlayStation 2 subtitled ‘The Conspiracy’), but Eidos didn’t see vast returns on investment there and required the studio to do a number of changes to the sequel:

– The games needed a graphical update. Neither series had ever looked great, but that was beside the point. In the case of Deus Ex, the rough Unreal 1.0 presentation lent the game a sort of grit that really fit the universe. These new titles used the best and coolest new shader techniques, turning most everything in the game into plasticine. Admittedly, the lighting effects were pretty cool. For, y’know, 2003.

– The games were to also be developed for the Xbox console. As a Microsoft fanboy, it made absolute sense to me that these games would appear on both since my PC at the time could hardly push the aforementioned graphics. This lead to a few issues on its own. In the case of Thief 3, Eidos pushed them to include a third-person view, a la the super successful Splinter Cell, which caused an uproar amongst the Thief elites because the series had been from the first-person perspective exclusively.

To put it lightly, Eidos had a healthy hand in making Invisible War “successful”.

So, The Game Part

The sequel takes place roughly twenty years after the original, which culminated in Bad Things That Happened, an amalgamation of the various possible endings possible in that game. You’re Alex D, a trainee at Tarsus Academy who’s growing up to be Someone Special. You wake up in your apartment after an explosion rattles the complex. Your previous digs in Chicago got blown to bits by a terrorist’s nanobomb in the game’s introductory cinematic and despite being with the Academy since childhood, you begin to have doubts about your alma mater. Eidos wasn’t very subtle about how much they wanted people to play the game either, featuring protagonist Alex D with his pistol twisted toward the viewer like he was posing for a 50 Cent disc, or the tagline “The Future War on Terror” (the US had invaded Iraq six months before the game released). As you play through the game, you side with the game’s developing factions (who are never what they appear) in various hotspots around the world (including a segue in Antarctica) and becoming friends or enemies with the variety of NPCs in the game.

For those who lived on the original, the game’s removal of the skill system seems like one of many marks that Eidos was “dumbing down” the game to appeal to a wider audience. But, its misplacement didn’t seem like a big deal to me because: A) many of those abilities were recycled as augmentations, B) most of the skills were useless. For example, you could max out your Swimming skill, but the game rarely featured swimming sections. You could effectively min-max your character by mastering a quarter of the game’s skills. It also meant stuff like hacking, something my character favored, was inaccessible early on until you did some quests to acquire a black market augmentation. Augmentations, like spells in some other games, are specific, socketed powers. But they’re tech-y!

The Bad. The So, So Bad

Because of Eidos’ requirement to get the game working on an Xbox while spending as little money as possible, several issues racked up:

– The Xbox version turned out pretty decent, the PC version did not. I didn’t even personally realize this until I picked up the latter for <$5 on Steam as I’d only had time with the console version. The PC version got some pretty immediate patches that fixed graphical issues, but some persisted, including Xbox button prompts. The game feels loose and wonky on the PC and I feel bad for anyone who paid full price for it when it released.

– The limitations of the Xbox’s hardware lead to level designs that were supposed to fit in the Xbox’s 64MB of system RAM. This meant that the sprawling levels from the previous game were gone, many cut down to what felt like walk-in closets. The Liberty Island reprise in Invisible War, while much more detailed than in the original game, had to be split into portions.

– The flashy “menus” that swiveled in and out of view were cool the first couple times, then annoying all the rest.

– Everything looked like plasticine, producing a world that was very alien compared to the gritty underbelly you hacked, shot, and dashed your way through in Deus Ex. If you had a decent video card, it was worth the trip to mess with the physics and the real-time light sources (a year before Doom 3 did it), but for the most part, it couldn’t look more strange.

– A story that wasn’t nearly as exciting. While the original game was based on every single conspiracy theory ever, Invisible War focused on a more self-referential plot that came off as Syfy Channel vanilla. There were no Men In Black here, this was all high-class weird science fiction in a universe that had fewer hooks.

– Universal Ammo. So this is an aspect that pissed off just about anyone who enjoyed the original game. Rather than forcing you to manage your various weaponry because of the respective ammo spread throughout the levels, you acquired ammunition as a standard commodity, meaning you could use the same stuff in your pea shooter as your rocket launcher. This was the most obvious examples of dumbing the game down and for all the wrong reasons.

– The new ‘iris’ menu for Invisible War was meant to compensate for the lack of a mouse in the Xbox version. This meant that, again, the Xbox version won out control-wise and the PC version continued to feel completely awkward.

The Good?

Well, let’s be fair, no one’s ever going to say Invisible War was better than its predecessor, but the game was hardly terrible. That it followed the best shooter ever made is a blessing and a curse. And while it fails to live up to the Deus Ex name, it still works incredibly well as an FPS/RPG hybrid. It’s stupid cheap on Steam, any modern machine will run it, but the better playing experience is still the original Xbox version. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a title that received a backwards compatibility blessing for the Xbox 360, so you’ll need a bonafide original Xbox console to play it.

Walk in with lower expectations (or completely green to the series) and you’ll be just fine. Hardly a blessing, but hey, it works.

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  • Hahaha! Yeah, all those poor losers who decided to buy pre-launch. Don’t you just feel sorry for them… Heheh.. ehh.. hehhhhh… Hmmmmmmm -stares at the t-shirt they gave away in the pre-sale box-

    No, I’m not mad. And in fact, I do sort of enjoy the differentiation in gameplay, if only to bide my time to Human Revolution. But really, the anger has settled, and it’s more a mild annoyance and disappointment for me these days. For the most part, it’s fun to see how much more terribly BUGGY Invisible War was against UE99 and Deus Ex prime. 

  • Also: Why introduce a heavy element like the ‘nanobomb’ and then only make vague references to it in the rest of the game. I know it seems like a small bite in the larger sandwich of a story, and forgettable as it was essentially only really a trailer for the game; but you don’t make a scene like that and not at least consider pushing a much deeper story behind it.

  • HK

    Good article, I agree.  Never really thought IW was that terrible.  Sort of like the star wars prequels- yeah they could have been a lot better, but its still star wars.

    • Anonymous

      That’s a good analogy, I like that…