Since the original Deus Ex made its auspicious debut in 2001 to a resounding ovation from gamers and industry insiders alike, Warren Spector has had a great deal of expectations to meet in crafting a sequel as ambitious as the first. And Deus Ex: Invisible War is certainly no half-baked sequel. The game has gone under the knife for a major facelift, and whether one finds Invisible War to be a worthy successor of its predecessor depends largely on what aspects of the original they most value. But regardless of the ire that will inevitably be felt by some, Invisible War improves on the elements Spector himself felt most integral to the game and does away with much of the extraneous elements he felt detracted from the experience he was trying to create. The result is a game that is more focused than the original, and although it often overlooks fundamentals it is one of the most brilliantly crafted games of the year.
The first and most controversial change is that the Nanotech and Skills systems from the first have been condensed into a much simpler "Biomod" system. There are five skeletal sections, each with three biomod skill slots such as cloak, hacking, stealth, bot domination, regeneration, strength, and the like. Some of them are passive, meaning they are always enabled, while the rest are active and drain an energy meter similar to nanotechnology in the first game. Biomod canisters are found throughout the game and the player simply chooses the skills to which to apply them. Only one of the skills in each skeletal section can be used, so players must not only decide their course through the game by choosing the appropriate biomods, but have limited freedom to replace their biomods later in the game if they so desire.
While such a drastic change is bound to disappoint those who relished in the micromanagement of the first game, I have never been a fan of such stat-crunching. I would rather spend my time playing the game than worrying about increasing a skill by a minute percentage. The new system simply streamlines the game by taking attention away from submenus and stats and emphasizing the core idea central to the gameplay: choice. Nothing but tedium was lost, and focus was gained.
The next major change was to use unified ammo. There's clearly a lack of realism when a non-lethal boltcaster uses the same ammo as a flamethrower. However, it's no more a stretch than believing that a character can carry an arsenal fit for an army, which of course is conveniently concealed and doesn't seem to slow him down at all. The changes keep the game moving more briskly by eliminating the need to micromanage multiple ammo types. Instead, players can simply use their desired weapon for any situation as long as ammo is available. It was a decision done to emphasize in-game choice, and again, only tedium was lost.
The last major change is that of an unusual user interface that is circular in shape rather than tucked away at the bottom corners of the screen. Some have found it to be obtrusive; I feel it's aesthetically appealing, well organized and far easier to use (navigating it with the Xbox controller is a snap) than the grid-like interface of the original. The opacity can be turned to zero, so those who loathe the change can simply get rid of it, and the PC version of the game now a has a patch that moves it toward the edge of the screen.
The genius of Invisible War lies in the same elements that made the original a success. The entire game is enveloped in a rich, often complicated narrative palette that drives the player's every action. The game takes place 20 years after the first, and the world is recovering from an economic collapse that was instigated by JC Denton's actions in the first game. Players control Alex D., a biomodified soldier who is caught in a web of ambiguous allies and conniving foes. Warring factions are clashing over the use of biomod technology, and players are thrust into a complex web of conspiracy in which they are fed all manner of conflicting propaganda by opposing factions trying to persuade Alex to help them. As in the first game, it is of course the player's choice whom to help and whom to betray.
The gameplay is also filled with choices, though fundamentally little has changed from the first game. Players may choose numerous ways of confronting any situation, and although choice is limited by what biomods the player has used (in itself another choice), there is still a pleasing degree of improvisation involved. For example, if confronted with the task of infiltrating a guarded area, players may sneak past guards, knock them unconscious, kill them from afar, or bring down the house Rambo-style. Electronic security like turrets, cameras, bots and beams may be evaded, disabled with EMP grenades, hacked, or rendered ineffective with the use of certain biomods. Doors may be opened with a key code, hacked, or blown open with explosives.
Stealth is very well done. The enemies are quite alert, and although they're a little too dense to consider the artificial intelligence (AI) realistic, it's functional and fun. It is possible for Alex D. to reduce his chances of being detected by moving slowly, crouching, and hiding behind objects or in the shadows. Enemies notice movement and sound, and will investigate anything out of the ordinary. Unfortunately though, combat is a bit more of a letdown. The damage model is lacking in animations, so enemies simply stand there taking bullets until they're dead. Unless the game is played on the "realistic" difficulty, enemies take a rather ridiculous number of shots and even then a single headshot won't always do the trick. The combat AI is not particularly impressive either, despite the frequent chatter by the enemies that makes them appear otherwise. Only on rare occasion do enemies bother to use the environment for cover, and they never display more complex behaviors like retreating, using explosives to fish out hiding players, or providing cover fire for teammates. A new physics system is also in place that allows for impressive manipulation of the environment. Oddly, dead bodies can be tossed like rubber dummies (which I suppose is just for comedic effect), but the physics are by and large very well done and fun to use.
But despite some fundamental weaknesses, I found myself enjoying the mechanics if only because Alex D.'s actions are always enveloped in a rich narrative context—I felt that everything I did had a purpose. The game always moves at brisk pace, always keeping its focus and never leaving the player wandering or wondering.
But like its predecessor, Invisible War is progressive not only in its gameplay, but in its subject matter. Throughout the game, a fascinating and wonderfully told story unfolds as players are asked to choose alliances based not on trivial gameplay decisions, but on moral convictions that are intertwined with ideas of free will, freedom, human nature, equality, and individuality. As the conspiracies unravel and alliances and motives become more clear (although there always seems to be an air of ambiguity to the factions competing for your allegiance), the choices become heavier and will ultimately ask the player to trust one faction to direct the fate of the entire world.
While shifting alliances will change who is trying to kill Alex D., it is always possible to change one's mind right up until the end. In fact it is entirely possible to do the bidding of any given faction and betray them at the last moment. While some may feel this detracts from the weight of the choices involved, I feel it strengthens the game by allowing the player to make choices that are deceptive or misleading. Why not try to lead two factions into war with each other, or ally oneself with a group only to learn their weakness? It can all be done in Invisible War. The endings are unfortunately a bit anticlimactic, but as a whole the game is extremely satisfying simply because of sheer magnitude of choice involved. Completing the game only left me wanting to replay it with different biomods, different tactics, and different allegiances. On repeated play, I found opposing alliances to all offer equally satisfying gameplay experiences.
Graphically, Invisible War is a mixed blessing. It is inarguably leagues better than the first game, which was not exactly at the forefront of graphical technology. The game uses the next generation Unreal engine for very impressive real-time multi-sourced lighting, sharp textures and detailed environments. The character animations are not dramatically improved, however, and are a bit clunky. Additionally, the game could have used another month or so for optimization, as the Xbox version takes regular hits to the frame rate and even with a high-end PC the game may not always run smoothly. Load times are also a bit long, which is a bit annoying since unlike the first game which was designed with large, open levels, Invisible War uses smaller areas with more frequent load times (a limit imposed by the simultaneous development of the game on the Xbox and PC due to the limited RAM of the Xbox). Playing the Xbox version, I also had a few incidences of the game crashing. Fortunately the game saves in every new area and I'm pretty good about saving frequently anyway, but a console game crashing is inexcusable.
The first Deus Ex was such an unheralded surprise that expecting the sequel to reach the same levels of ambition is misguided. Invisible War refines, streamlines and improves on the first with better presentation, more focused gameplay and a rich narrative that touches on meaningful moral challenges that face us. Contrary to the cries of some fans of the original, the sequel has not been dumbed down for the sake of a broader audience. Warren Spector rightly knew that it was choice, not stats and micromanagement, that drove the first game and he has successfully reshaped the game to emphasize that quality. Only by overlooking some fundamental aspects of design such as hit detection, animation, frame rate and artificial intelligence has Spector fallen short of creating a complete masterpiece. Invisible War succeeds because it never trivializes the player's choices. Few games are willing to raise the kind complex and relevant themes found in Invisible War at all, much less treat them with the same passion that Spector has. This is a truly sophisticated game in nearly every respect, and I can only hope that as the series becomes more refined and reaches a broader audience, it will shape the design of all games to follow in its wake.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.