Genre : Action
Developer: Ion Storm
Release Date: December 2, 2003
The original game, which I was unfortunately exposed to via the decidedly lackluster PS2 port (where the R3 button either made you throw your gun at someone or enter "sneak mode"; this was an unwise choice on someone's part), was definitely a shooter. You had a lot of options as to how, and how often, to shoot people and robots and what-have-you, but it was decidedly shooter-oriented.
Deus Ex: Invisible War is not really a shooter. You can occasionally shoot; there is shooting in it; but it does not have the shooter vibe to it. It is, rather, an open-ended and versatile first-person adventure game, where at any given time, you have a great deal of influence as to your character's capabilities, your current storyline goals, what side of the titular war you're on, what you can do to raise a little cash, and whether or not that dork over by the cash register lives to see tomorrow.
As Alex D., whose skin tone and gender are up to you, you're an orphan and a trainee in the Tarsus Academy. As a trainee, you're equipped with biomod wetware technology, making you stronger, faster, and more durable than ordinary humans, with the ability to choose and equip further, special modifications.
The world around you is slowly recuperating from the Collapse, a period of global war and destruction following the events of the original Deus Ex 2; J.C. Denton's actions at the conclusion of that game wound up crashing the entire global communications network. Now, the WTO corporation serves the general populace as both economic hyperpower and protector.
One morning, out of nowhere, you get flown to Seattle in a big damn hurry, after unidentified terrorists use nanotechnology to reduce the entire city of Chicago, and your foster parents, to several hundred million tons of brittle ash. The next morning, when religious fanatics attack your academy, you get to find out exactly what your training and biomods are worth, and what they've really cost you.
Invisible War is a game about choices. Choose violence; choose deadly force or nonlethal weaponry. Choose to be sneaky; install biomods to muffle your footsteps, conceal your presence, and mask your heat signature, and creep through vent ducts, past unseeing opponents and blind robots. If two people are fighting, choose a side, or play them off against each other, or simply ignore the whole damn mess.
At the beginning of the game, you're drop-kicked into the middle of a conflict, which you're only allowed to see a very small part of. On one side, there's the WTO, which is obviously not telling you the whole truth, but which has trained your character from the age of thirteen; on the other, there's the Order, an organization dedicated to unifying the world's religions, and which may very well have good intentions but introduced itself to you with a hail of bullets. ("Hi!" *BLAM* "Join us!")
From that central plot branch, the rest of the game unfolds; are you the oppressor, or the oppressed, or some combination thereof? As a WTO agent, you'll be carrying out acts of corporate espionage, which benefit the free market and thus benefit society. If you go to work for the Order, you'll wind up assassinating people in the name of a higher cause. You can see the moral difficulty. It's very much in keeping with the whole game's ambiguous, conspiratorial, cyberpunk vibe; nobody here is exactly "good," as we'd understand it.
The plot works well with that, too. You're very clearly supposed to feel indecisive and torn between two warring factions, and that works out well. The more you learn in Invisible War , the more questions arise, and the storyline stands up remarkably well to scrutiny. Sure, it's intricate, but it should be; it's like a Chinese puzzle box, constantly doubling back upon itself.
How you go about your missions, on the other hand, is almost entirely up to you. Each weapon you obtain can have up to two modifications made to it, ranging from the addition of a silencer to the ability to fire explosive shells, and, as noted above, Alex D. him/herself is equally adaptable. If you want to play Invisible War like a standard FPS, load up on combat mods, fast healing, and extra damage. If you want to use sneaky tricks, opt for a black-market biomodification technology that lets you take control of enemy droids and turrets, and a neural uplink device that allows you to hack security consoles.
I admire that more than you can imagine. I've played a lot of adventure games, and sooner or later, they bust out with the unfortunate linearity. Invisible War , if anything, is almost too open-ended; it weighs you down with available options until you're not quite sure who to believe or what leads to follow up on. You do wind up following fundamentally the same basic plot track, whatever you do, but the game is packed with subquests and side quests and blatant cash runs, each of which have the same flexibility as the main game does.
For instance, there's a crimelord in Old Seattle who's holding a plane against its pilot's debts, and you need that pilot for your first real mission. To get the crimelord off his back, you can kill her (storm the place and shoot your way through all her guards; or sneak in and reprogram her security systems, then silently kill everyone on that floor of the building; or sneak onto the roof of her building and shoot her), or pay the pilot's debt off.
You might've noticed that I haven't talked much about the gameplay itself up until now, and there's a reason for that. As a collection of ideas-a plot, a script, the details thereof, adventure ideas and their implementation--Invisible War is damned near unquestionable. If you get into this game, you'll be playing it for a long time. Like Knights of the Old Republic, it's adaptable enough that it'll be different for almost everyone playing it, and offers new experiences if you deliberately choose different options.
The problem is, then, if you can actually get into it. Invisible War kind of looks like it was meant to be a much, much better game than it is, with a lot of half-finished ideas that aren't taken quite far enough.
Take, for instance, the action. You have lots and lots of options, ranging from pelting an enemy with whatever's lying around, like trash cans or shipping crates, to blowing someone's head off with a shotgun. Several of your biomods can be configured in attack mode, breaking down enemies' bodies to give you health or hitting opponents within range with a toxic shock. That part's good.
Everyone around you almost always has at least a pistol, if not something heavier, and/or is backed up by automated turrets that cannot be destroyed with small-arms fire, or very powerful, heavily armored combat droids. Therefore, you either get to return fire, or you're mulch. That's less good.
While it's nice having a vast and varied set of combat options, it doesn't mean a hell of a lot. If a fight starts, all of your combat options dwindle rapidly to "shoot everyone," unless you are picking on unarmed people, in which case it is not a "fight" and it is more technically referred to as a "mugging" or "aggravated assault." Invisible War winds up being a first-person shooter with a large number of ways, built right in, for you to commit suicide.
The same can be said of the game's approach to its storyline events. It's nice to be able to pick a side, and to go out and perform all of these different missions, and to custom-design your character's abilities, but none of it works quite as well as you'd hope it would.
You have very limited inventory space, in a game where you can pick up and carry around a ridiculous number of items. This is compensated to some extent by your ability to drop anything, anywhere, and come back for it later, but that in its turn looks kind of silly. It cracks the veneer of desperation and dystopia if I can leave a pile of guns lying around in the crumbling ruin of Old Seattle, then come back three hours later to find it completely untouched.
Ammunition, particularly at the start of the game, is really hard to find. All your guns run off of the same clip, thanks to nanotechnology, so if you run out of bullets, you run out of all your bullets in all your guns at once, and some of them use that clip up very, very quickly. There's nowhere you can go to simply buy more ammo, either. The only things you can buy, at least initially, are candy bars, cans of soda, and hazardous, illegal black-market nanotechnology; there's no such thing, for some reason, as a damn ammunition store. You can sometimes claim a half-expended clip from a dead opponent, but only sometimes. They always drop their gun, but as far as you're concerned, that gun might as well be empty.
The graphics just don't look right half the time, with stiff and inexpressive character models walking around, repeating the same dialogue endlessly, in a world that looks like it forgot how to use electric light. The Invisible War™ is apparently only invisible because no one turned on the bloody light switch; otherwise, people would see you emptying a shotgun into people, plain as day. Maybe it's only invisible to you, since everyone else in the game can seemingly see in the dark.
The people who employ you, on either side of the fence, and their faceless minions, all alternate wildly between either being stupid, or being psychic. If you go to see the Order immediately at the start of the game, the moment you can, they'll greet you like a long-lost relative. If you then go see Donna Morgan, chief of the WTO, and get her side of the story, those Order members in their lair will automatically attack you the next time they see you; the stink of WTO clings to you, or something. If you kill them all, or run away to the back room, the Order's current leader, Mai-Lin, will give you your next mission without a second thought, even while her people are firing automatic weapons into the room.
The same applies to the people on patrol in the WTO hangar. If you've gone into a certain room in a dingy tavern in Old Seattle, and heard about a certain mission, the people in the WTO hangar will know this somehow and go instantly on the attack. It doesn't matter if you're visibly unarmed, or if you just received a mission from Donna Morgan and you're running straight down the WTO plot track; the hangar guards will be on you like stink on a monkey the moment you walk through that door. It is unwelcome and slightly annoying.
I could go on for a while at this. The menus are clunky, your various methods of accomplishing a mission all depend largely on finding new ways to kill someone, there's no way to negotiate with anyone short of bribery, and many of the biomods are not as effective as the brochure would lead you to believe.
I keep playing Invisible War , though, despite the above complaints, because it's really not that bad a game. I want to see what happens next, and I want to hit upon the sweet spot in every mission that'll get me through it with my skin intact.
It's frustrating, though. There are so many great ideas on display in Deus Ex: Invisible War, but the implementation is spotty at best. With a little more time in development, and maybe a little more imagination, the game could've been really great. It's a great effort, but a missed opportunity.