Deus Ex: Invisible War

Developer:  Ion Storm
Publisher:  EIDOS Interactive
Year Released:  2003

Review by Barak Engel (June, 2004)
When I received this game for review, my first thought was... well, I'd better skip that or else I will likely stop getting games to review. See, I'm an adventure fan. Action games are not really my style. Admittedly, I have an XBOX - that's the version I was playing for this review - but I generally use it to play NBA Inside Drive with a couple of friends, and anyway, I got it for my birthday from a well-meaning but somewhat, err, misguided parent. Seeing as even RPGs are usually action-based when it comes to games debuting on consoles, I certainly did not expect to be writing this review for Quandary.

Imagine my surprise, then, when it became more and more obvious as I was playing Deus Ex: Invisible War that, indeed, it could be considered an adventure or more precisely, an action adventure. And a darn good one at that. Now, this is not a point-and-clicker by any means. Superficially, what with things such as gun and ammo selections, first person views, and a real-time environment, one could conceivably assess this as... well, an action game. But they will be mistaken. Because the point of this game is not to shoot, or kill, or even avoid things trying to kill and shoot you. No, the point of this game is its story, the way it develops based on your actions, the way it is told by the characters you meet, and those characters themselves.

And rest assured that if I was able to complete this game, as dexterically-challenged as I am, then anybody could. Moreover, I obviously chose the easiest difficulty setting, and can comfortably claim that it hurt my enjoyment of the game not one iota. You don't need a 15-year old's nimbleness of fingers to go through the shooting sections. You do, however, need the patience and interest to see a lot of story unfold. You will need to move it along and make it happen. In short, you will need the mentality of an adventure gamer, combined with a willingness to go through short bursts of adrenaline rush.

I remember the first "action adventures" - pathetic attempts to mix a genre that had become hot after Quake with a genre that was rapidly going out of focus. I love adventures, the original, point-and-click-clever-puzzles-storybook affairs. Give me a Sanitarium, a Last Express, or even a 7th Guest any day, and I'll be a happy person. Action adventures, unfortunately, came out and it became very clear early on that making poor adventure games and tacking on a poor action engine does not a good sales strategy make. Most attempts were quite pathetic, with the most egregious example being King's Quest: Mask of Eternity.

On the other hand, action games were getting better and better. When you get a few best sellers in a particular genre, companies start pouring more money into development, making it possible to realize larger and more sweeping visions. The first example of what I might call a successful mixed breed in this arena was Thief: the Dark Project (T:tDP), a pretty amazing game that was erroneously called an Action-RPG even though it had little to no character development, that statistical element that is so essential to RPGs as an offspring of tabletop strategy war games.

And so, in an effort to finally come back to the topic at hand, I would first like to set the tone. DE:IW, my dear reader, is the best action-adventure I have ever played. Heck, if you are one of those who don't mind a real-time engine in your adventures, it's also one of the best adventures. If someone asked me five years ago, when I was still lamenting the dearth of good adventures and the slow and painful metamorphosis that my favorite genre was undergoing, what I imagine could save it, I could not have come up with a good answer. But Ion Storm did with DE:IW, and they did so rather magnificently.

Of course, Ion Storm would probably be rather offended with the term "adventure", and I am pretty sure they never thought of DE:IW as such. They don't make adventures, and who wants their efforts associated with what is admittedly a shrinking niche market? So maybe my review will not be quoted on their website. No matter. DE:IW (and, I am told, the original Deus Ex), has truly recreated the action adventure genre, capitalizing on the tremendous technology advances of the past few years to make it possible to see their stories unfold in an environment that is far more realistic than that which was available during the days of Leisure Suit Larry.

And you get a lot of story With DE:IW. Not only is it a good story, with much that goes on behind the scenes, solid plot twists, and good writing, it is also internally consistent throughout. Having played many games where the story breaks down due to unforeseen actions by the player, I was unduly impressed with Ion's achievement. I could not detect a single time where any of the various storylines broke down, regardless of whether I followed them in the perceived order or not, or simply tried to break them down on purpose. There were zero glitches.

This becomes even more impressive when considering the amount of story available to be told. I spent hours going back and forth, trying different approaches to problem solving, and discussing my efforts with all the in-game characters. DE:IW never faltered, always delivering something fresh to keep my breath baited and giving me ample reason to uncover the next plot element. In doing so, DE:IW makes it very easy to suspend disbelief, a hard task considering the somewhat ambitious story. In fact, the only time I felt any sort of disconnect was during the opening movie, which is rather abrupt and apparently ties into the end-story of the original Deus Ex.

That opening movie also triggered my first complaint about the game, which is that Ion Storm apparently forgot to have it subtitled. Thus, if you are hard of hearing or are simply not a native English speaker, some of what's going on is lost. This is true of the end-game movies as well, and is a little unfortunate considering that everything else has subtitles available. But even if I can forgive this oversight, I find it more difficult to forgive the lack of synchronization between the speeds in which characters talk and the subtitles scroll through. It is extremely disorienting, and since longer "speeches" tend to appear during moments of crucial plot-advancement, very frustrating to deal with.

This problem, however, will not affect the vast majority of gamers, and DE:IW does have a compelling story to tell. In fact, the game could easily be converted into a successful screenplay. If that were to happen, Blade Runner would certainly have a run for its money.

The world around you
As I mentioned earlier, I am terrible with a gamepad. No quick fingerwork for me please; I need time to consider my actions and translate them to appropriate key presses. DE:IW allows you to choose different routes to go through, and again does so amazingly well. Sure, you can have a blast with melee or ranged combat, if you are into that sort of thing, especially in the higher difficulty settings. While enemy AI in combat is not brilliant, it seems serviceable to me. Then again, I only tried it out for a few minutes to gain a basic impression; that's not my style and not how I like to play.

I much prefer stealth, sniper-type action, where clever utilization of the surroundings, appropriate use of resources, and maximization of positional and environmental advantages allows me to go through the game while rarely even being detected. Not surprisingly, my favorite weapons became the silenced sniper rifle and mag rail, and guided rocket mode of the rocket launcher, with secondary preference to the bolt caster and assassin pistol. The range of weapons in DE:IW is staggering, and choosing the right weapon modifications to suit your style of play provides for a strong element of judgment and tactics.

But DE:IW doesn't stop there. As part of the game's premise, your alter ego is biomodified. What this means is that you can use canisters based on a nanotechnology that allows you to improve certain aspects of your abilities. For example, an eye biomod could be added to provide vision augmentation, or the ability to see in the infrared. The tricky part is choosing the correct biomods, since there are a total of fifteen to choose from (three to a body part) and only five slots available. While you can switch between different biomods for a particular ability, you are limited by how many biomod canisters you have, and seeing as each possible modification has three levels (requiring three canisters to reach maximum improvement), making the right choices early on can be crucial to your success. I thought it was a brilliant scheme that was implemented beautifully, and while I never lacked for canisters (due to my extremely cautious nature, meaning I never even used two of the five modification slots until very late in the game), there is only so much you can do before running out of modification options. Overall, I found between fifteen and twenty of each type of canister, which allows for quite a bit of variety in your choices but does not really allow careless use.

DE:IW makes several other surprising changes to the conventional model. One that stands out is the use of ammo. In DE:IW, all weapons are ammo-agnostic. That is, they all use the same type of ammo, rather than different ammo types. When I read the manual, this sounded like an over-simplification, until I started playing and understood the clever mechanism Ion Storm implemented instead. Basically, each weapon drains a different amount of ammo per shot and firing mode. This works very well, and makes it easier to handle the bookkeeping while still maintaining the realism of having to make weapon choices when low on ammo. I applaud this approach, as it makes the game easier to play while maintaining a high enough level of tactical... essence. It also makes the "ammo scavenger" weapon mod (reducing the ammo drain per shot) that much more valuable, and as far as I could tell, it was also the rarest in terms of availability; I believe I only found two of them.

The HUD interface is also very effective, designed to not block your view of the world while still providing all the required information. Working the inventory does take a bit of getting used to, and there are some quirks, like the inability to easily put away a weapon or undo an erroneous key press. I would also have preferred a stronger indication of which weapon is actually chosen, as some of them seem quite similar in the main window and especially during intense scenes, it is a little difficult to quickly discern what exactly it is you are holding at any given time. Until, that is, you try to toss that grenade from within the darkness only to find too late that you instead lit the whole place up like a Christmas tree.

What matters
You might be wondering at this stage as to why I haven't discussed what the game is about yet. There's a good reason. You play Alex D., a biomodified human - cyborg? - fifty years in the future. You start the game in your, for lack of a better word, alma mater, Tarsus academy in Seattle. That's about as much as I will tell you, since the game makes a point to toss you into the thick of things without much preparation, and my explaining more would ruin the experience.

Instead, I would like to discuss the mechanics with which Ion Storm chose to relay the story. They will play a major part in whether you love or hate this game, and love or hate it will be; there is too much here for anyone to remain indifferent. DE:IW utilizes a clever scheme of mini-quests that further particular storylines while maintaining an overall grand sense of adventure with an underlining main plot. This provides a strong illusion of open-endedness while avoiding the naturally ensuing trap of aimlessness. Essentially, in each play area you will receive a number of primary and secondary goals to complete. The main difference between them is that some primary goals must be attained while none of the secondary goals have to be completed. Additionally, some goals carry over between areas, although they are not listed in your goals screen. These overall goals are tied to the main plotline.

You have several paths to choose from as you proceed through the game. You can choose to align yourself with one of the factions fighting for supremacy in a world gone haywire. Or you can do as I did, becoming a mercenary and playing everybody off against each other as you uncover the story. Your choices have significant effects on how the story unfolds, triggering different responses from different characters and in many case, different goals in each area. Some of the choices are presented very well, with moral and ethical considerations that are designed to make you think as well as feel your way through.

However, and this is where DE:IW's design becomes a point of contention, none of these choices truly affects the end-game. While your experience reaching the final scene will likely vary greatly if you make different choices, you will eventually be faced with the same ultimate question as the game nears its end. It is very likely that you will be certain of your answer by the time you reach that point, and to me, this points to the greatness of DE:IW's presentation. What it all comes down to is that the whole game is designed to give you enough of a background so that when you do reach that pivotal plot point, you will simply know what the right answer is. Once you make that choice, you will have one last mission after which you will be faced with the consequences of your actions.

For many, this will ruin the game. After all, if it doesn't matter what you do during the game since you will be faced with exactly the same dilemma in the end, what's the point of playing it through? I think this approach fails to appreciate the point DE:IW tries to make, which is that your choices in life do matter, and the convictions you develop through experience reflect in how you view morality, ethics, and life itself. DE:IW unfolds like a good book, leading you to its inevitable conclusion while presenting you with the hero's struggles to make sense of a crazy world.

On a slightly technical note, I also liked the fact that I could, indeed, see all the various endings once I finished the game to see how different approaches would have worked out. And again DE:IW shines; as when I was done it was obvious how the way I played Alex made my choice easy at the end. This internal consistency, combined with a strong delivery and not a shred of cheesiness certainly work in DE:IW's favor. It should also be noted that there is no "right answer", only the morally correct answer based on your path through the game.

A new world
DE:IW did crash a couple of times, a rarity in the console world. It also tends to slow down to a crawl in certain weird circumstances, such as when trying to jump into angled surfaces while crouched. These are minor problems, as are the ones I mentioned earlier, but all in all they add to an uneasy feeling that it could have used just a little bit more play testing.

But that is pretty much all that I can complain about. DE:IW will certainly appeal more to a mature audience. It rewards curiosity and patience more than it does quick fingers, and is definitely not aimed at the action crowd, who will likely finish it in less than five hours (as opposed to my sixteen or so) and wonder what the fuss is all about. I was highly impressed with its unique format, the twists on conventional gameplay, and the mood it sets throughout with spectacular graphics and audio.

All in all, DE:IW proffers an intriguing storyline, powerful presentation, and relentless execution, delivering it all with a punch. It more than does its bit to merrily further the action-adventure genre along. DE:IW is certainly worth the price of admission - if you intend to play it the way it was designed. Explore, get involved, have repeat conversations with the people you meet as you uncover what mysteries await you. Let everything sink in.

Suspension of disbelief has never been easier. rating:  

Copyright © Barak Engel 2004. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Reviewed on XBOX

PC requirements:
Windows 98SE/2000/XP (95/NT not supported), Pentium IV 1.3ghz (or AMD Athlon XP equivalent), 256MB RAM, 32MB DirectX 9 compatible 3D graphics card, 100% DirectX 9 compatible sound card, 4X CD-ROM drive, 2GB free disk space, 100% Windows 98 SE/2000/XP compatible mouse and keyboard