I’m back with Volume 2 of my “Mindless Iconoclasm” series, where I attempt to defend one of my unpopular pop-cultural opinions. This time, we’re going to take a look at an eight-year-old computer game, Deus Ex: Invisible War.
Over the past few months, since the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I’ve seen a lot of online chatter about how the previous game in the series, Invisible War, was a bad game by Deus Ex standards. I’d have to agree. After all, the original Deus Ex is widely considered to be one of the best games of all time, marrying a complex narrative to a cross between an RPG and a shooter. Many games have tried to emulate that model since then, and only the Mass Effect series has come close to matching Deus Ex’s detail and richness.1
Because of the limitations of the XBox’s hardware, simultaneous console/PC development for Invisible War necessitated that the game be dumbed down a bit from its predecessor. The XBox simply wouldn’t have been able to support the vast environments and lengthy play time of the original Deus Ex, a concession that was certainly was a disappointment. Other simplifications were introduced as well, including the removal of the skill system, a single health bar, universal ammo, and a simplified inventory that obviated the need to play “Inventory Tetris.” Many players bemoaned these simplifications, but aside from the removal of the skill system, I actually liked those changes.
In fact, while many (if not most) gamers consider Invisible War to be a decent (if not good) game in spite of those changes, I see those changes as positive and think that Invisible War failed in spite of them. I don’t just think that Invisible War is a bad Deus Ex game; it’s a bad game, plain and simple. It’s plagued with a litany of bad design decisions and poorly-executed elements that have nothing to do with its console roots.
First off, the story is convoluted to the point of making no sense. There are rival factions that are all fighting over…something. And two of the rival factions are actually the same faction. (Really, the fact that the WTO and the Order were two sides of the same coin could not have been more telegraphed.) Each one of the factions asks you to complete missions that only seem tangentially related to the main plot of the game, yet their interests always seem to converge in the same geographical location.
Here’s the main problem, though: you can switch allegiances whenever you want, with no consequence. You can start off working with the WTO, but switch to working with the Dentons, before finally siding with the Templars, no questions asked. In fact, even if you ally yourself with one single faction for the entire game, everyone will speak to you as if you’re a double or triple agent. Loyalty isn’t rewarded, so you may as well just fuck around and do whatever you want, consequences be damned. (Oh wait, there are no consequences!) By the time you reach the final level at Liberty Island, nothing that happened in the ten hours prior2 matters. You can finish the game by helping whatever faction you wish, no matter how many of their people you’ve killed up until then. Of course, you can also be like me, say “Fuck this shit,” and kill everybody, in which case the Omar take over the world. (More on the Omar in a bit.)
This lack of consequence extends to other aspects of the gameplay. Biomod functionality in the original Deus Ex required you to make binary choices: do I want superior melee weapon capabilities or superhuman strength? for example, and those choices stuck for the rest of the game. In Invisible War, however, biomod choices are reversible, provided you have enough biomod canisters. But there are enough of them located throughout the game that you can effectively stockpile them, meaning that you can completely change your character’s abilities whenever you want. In essence, this discourages you from finding ingenious solutions to problems and instead encourages you to “game the system.”
Elsewhere, the game doesn’t just discourage you from pursuing certain avenues; it robs you of the choice outright. For most of the game, stealth and non-lethality work effectively. But then, the Templar paladins enter the scene, and you’re pretty much forced to engage them in combat. You can’t sneak around them because of their superhuman sensory capability. You can’t dispose of them non-lethally because they’re too strong. You can’t even kill them with melee weapons because they explode upon death, killing you in the process. You’re forced to empty entire clips of ammo just to dispatch one of them, and even then, you pretty much have to do with it a rocket launcher or a rail gun, because nothing else is lethal enough. Basically, unless you’ve stockpiled an assload of ammo to face these guys, you’re fucked. In order to do so, you need to have conserved ammo by focusing on single-shot kills and non-lethal takedowns up until then. In essence, Invisible War punishes you for not picking a specific play style right off the bat and not wanting to switch to a different one halfway through.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t guide you to pick a specific play style. At the outset, it unceremoniously drops you in the middle of Seattle, screams “EVERYTHING IS MORALLY AMBIGUOUS,” and sends you on your merry way. The game doesn’t nudge you to experiment with different play styles or give you an idea of what you should explore. So, you’re left to discover the world on your own, with zero guidance or idea of what you’re supposed to be doing and no sensible goals in mind. There’s no desire to want to discover this world, though, because there’s barely any context for it; none of the characters take the time to talk to you about the state of the world or paint a portrait of current society.
The characters themselves aren’t all that interesting. Most of them, despite their ostensible moral ambiguity, are huge assholes with extreme ideas about how the world should be run. None of them succeed in presenting a compelling case for their vision of the world, so in the end, you’ll just want to kill all of them. Moreover, their voice acting is atrocious. The accents might be 30% less racist than in the original Deus Ex, but they still suck. Klara Sparks sounds like a low-rent dumb blonde. The main character, Alex, delivers all of his lines like a wide-eyed innocent, even when he’s saying things like, “I’m going to kill all of you!” And then there are the Omar, who are supposed to sound like futuristic cyborgs, but instead sound like septuagenarian grandmothers with emphysema. Seriously, they might have the most annoying voice ever featured in a video game.
If that weren’t enough, Invisible War is plagued by a host of technical issues. Character animations are atrocious. The models are borderline robotic, as if their necks have no rotational capability, and their arms are practically glued in place. Loading times are upwards of thirty seconds, even on modern computers, which is unforgivable considering how small the maps are and how often one needs to load. The game is also unstable, crashing to desktop at random. It doesn’t even work properly with Steam, registering only an eight minute play time when I’ve spent over eight hours on it.3
So, Invisible War isn’t just a bad Deus Ex game; it’s a fiasco, plain and simple. People may blame some of its issues on the XBox’s limitations, and they’re right, when it comes to the game’s small maps and short play time. But Invisible War’s failings go beyond the concessions needed to make it playable on a console. There’s simply no excuse for its terrible storytelling and unbalanced gameplay, and there’s simply no excuse for a game this atrocious to exist, even back in 2003.
From what I’ve heard though, Human Revolution is a vast improvement over its predecessor and more in the spirit of the original Deus Ex. If that’s true, then I’m thrilled, because when I finally get around to playing Human Revolution in a few months, I’ll be able to wash the bad taste of Invisible War out of my mouth for good.
1 Fans of the Fallout series will likely disagree with that assessment. They might be right, considering my experience with the series is limited to a couple of hours each of Fallout Tactics and Fallout 3. But in those hours, I didn’t feel as if the world created by the games sucked me in as much as Mass Effect or Deus Ex did. (And Fallout Tactics is played from a bird’s eye perspective anyway.) ^