The original Deus Ex was one of those unfortunate few games whose critical acclaim was greater than its commercial success. The game had an open-ended structure, fantastic graphics and immersed players in its sci-fi drama like few games before it. But the lack of consumer support relegated the game to a cult-like following that was underground and quiet but certainly rabid.
With the sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Ion Storm and Eidos hoped to both live up to existing fans’ expectations and entice more people to join in the fun. And on most counts the game succeeds. The story compels players to make just as many moral decisions, the graphics are jaw-droppingly gorgeous and the open-ended gameplay provides more subtle ways to influence the overall story than Knights of the Old Republic. At times it feels as though Ion Storm tried to do just a little too much, though, which leads to some minor missteps and snafus.
To summarize the story is pointless; players are faced with so many decisions and biomod enhancements (think “bionic man”), all of which can affect the plot, that it’s safe to say few people will have exactly the same experience. For people who want the Readers Digest condensed version, though, here it is: players assume the role of Alex D., who leaves Tarsus Academy and must search for answers to whether the Academy was a research institution for a New World Order-like faction trying to create the perfect person, or whether it was a safe haven where overseers were protecting residents from an anarchist faction. Sound daunting? It is. Sound involved? It is. Sound like fun? It is.
To some gamers, that story might be a little disconcerting. After all, the screenshots and early descriptions of the game often focused on the guns and stealth more than the role-playing elements. But make no mistake about it, DXIW is at its heart a role-playing game. After leaving the Academy, players engage in traditional role-playing fare: talking to non-playable characters, taking on or refusing tasks, allying with certain factions and managing an inventory of weapons, special abilities and power-ups.
Some of the power-ups affect weapons, such as fitting a glass-melting tool or silencer onto a gun, but the most intriguing “power-ups” are the biomods that give Alex D. new abilities. Want to gain the ability to see through concrete walls? Use a biomod. Want to make yourself invisible to robots and other mechanical devices? Use a biomod. Want to be able to hack into high-level security systems and control robots? Use a biomod.
Where many RPGs would make these decisions difficult, though, DXIW makes biomods sparsely scattered but available enough that players achieve significant enhancements relatively early in the game. As a result, biomodding often becomes more about what seems “coolest” at the time or seems to suit the level than it does a long-term, “I’ll-need-it-later” decision.
Perhaps these easy decisions are a “bone” that the developers threw to gamers, because the story-related decisions in the rest of the game can be incredibly complex and affect on the plot. At the same time, though, this exposes one of the game’s weaknesses: false gameplay promises. For example, players are faced early on with the opportunity to install a biomod or save it for later use (as all biomod canisters are treated). Nine times out of 10, gamers are going to install a biomod; it’s just how people work. A later mission, however, has players seeking out an individual for information. As luck would have it, this person doesn’t approve of biomodded folks, so he and his guard open fire on Alex D. after two lines of dialogue.
Many RPGs would offer various response options when this conversation unfolds, perhaps giving players the option to lie about their appearance or strike a money-related deal. No such luck in DXIW. Instead of making moral decisions (and indeed, some decisions amount to that) in the context of a conversation, open-endedness in DXIW is based on the tasks players acceptor decline. This technique certainly requires a lot of thought before players accept a job, and at times it makes the game feel deeper than most RPGs today, but it also cheapens slightly the role-playing aspects.
So, too, does the game falsely promise that people can play the game however they wish: stealth, shooter or somewhere in between. Using the scenario above, for example, there are no two ways about it, players will fire a weapon regardless of the role they want to play. True, the game provides a fair share of non-lethal weapons (shockers, tranquilizers and the like), but it certainly tests the definition of “shooter.” If the literal definition involves a gun, the gameplay promise is right. By most accounts, though, DXIW involves as much firing of a weapon as, say, Splinter Cell, and that was most certainly an action game. To say Invisible War is open-ended is an understatement, but to say it can be played however people want is a bit misleading.
It’s also an understatement to say DXIW has fantastic graphics; it’s among the best-looking of all Xbox games. Nearly every object in the expansive environments is bump-mapped, the lighting is spot-on, and the non-playable characters and creatures are fantastically modeled. Couple these features with the most realistic physics in any video game to date (if you can ignore the fact that Alex D. can pick up huge wooden crates) and the players will feel as though they’re in a living, breathing world.
Yet with this outstanding eye candy comes the game’s one graphical snafu: a poor framerate. Ion Storm pushes the graphics card in myriad ways, but the minute players start a conversation and decide to leave early, Alex D. enters a two- to three-second slow-down, and not because of some magic spell. With the conversation, graphics and movement, something has to give, and the framerate is the unwilling victim. Ironically, the game’s gunfights don’t generally suffer from the slowdown, so it may just be an issue of the game shipping before it was fully optimized.
It’s easier to forgive the slowdown-instigating audio, though, when you realize how outstanding it truly is. With sound this good, it’s no wonder the processor wants to focus on audio instead. From the musical score to the voice acting to the environmental sounds, DXIW sounds nearly perfect. Weapons charge and fire as “realistically” as sci-fi weapons can. Doors muffle ambient sound and voices better than windows. Guards patrolling a hallway can actually be heard getting closer or farther away based on the echo of their footsteps. There’s truly nothing to fault with the audio in DXIW, and gamers with Dolby Digital setups are in for a particular treat.
As with any role-playing game, the gameplay options keep DXIW fresh for quite some time, and that replayability is augmented by the fact that there are multiple ways to clear a level. The game doesn’t deliver on the promise of playing through the game stealthily and then a second time with guns a-blazing (as KOTOR allowed all-Light or all-Dark play, for example), but the sheer number of missions and the types of moral decisions ensure at least 30 hours of play for the involved gamer.
And what a glorious 30 hours that will be. Deus Ex: Invisible War is not without its faults, but it’s easily one of the top three role-playing games of 2003. The very realization that it’s a role-playing game may put some people off, but those people will be missing out on a fantastic experience. The Xbox is a console in need of good RPGs, and Deus Ex: Invisible War fits that bill quite handily. Here’s hoping this sequel sells better than the original, and that gamers can have yet a third opportunity to live the life of Alex D.
- Gameplay: 8.8
- Graphics: 8.9
- Sound: 9
- Replay: 9
- Overall: 8.9
- A fantastic game, if you’re an RPG fan or not.
— Jonas Allen