Deus Ex: Invisible War - what's good about the series' worst?

Revisiting the second series instalment 13 years on.

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 297. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US. 

Deus Ex opens on Liberty Island pier. Under the nighttime glow of New York’s skyline, JC Denton gets to work, first making his way across the island, then infiltrating the statue and taking out the NSF terrorists inside. As an intro, it’s indicative of the game to come: large, open and potentially alienating. No concessions are made. Deus Ex throws you straight into the deep end and challenges you to swim. 

By comparison, the opening of Deus Ex: Invisible War is a paddling pool. Alex ‘D’ gets to work, walking through a blue-grey corridor—not yet trusted with the tools that would allow her (or him) to break into the rooms of her fellow Tarsus recruits. She enters an elevator, triggering a loading screen. Playing now, on Windows 10, that loading screen forces a quit to desktop. Moments later, Invisible War lurches back to life, and the loading bar completes. 

It’s bizarre, and it happens on many occasions. Invisible War has many loading screens. Like Liberty Island, the intro is indicative of the game to come: condensed and constrained. Invisible War is not a bad game—would Kieron Gillen have given a bad game 92% in his PC Gamer review?—but it’s not a good sequel. It takes Deus Ex’s wide open spaces and reduces them to a console-friendly size. Normally I wouldn’t blame consoles for ‘dumbing down’ a PC game.

In this case, however, it’s impossible not to see the compromises created by its Xbox release. Deus Ex is able to use its large spaces to create a sense of realism through sparse but effective environmental detail. The streets of Hell’s Kitchen are wide, and littered with barrels, crates and garbage bags. In Invisible War, the locations feel cramped and chunky. Seattle—the first hub—feels more like a mall than anything else. What should be a major US city is instead an underwhelming series of cramped corridors and staircases. The first time I played, I didn’t realise I was outdoors. It’s about as underwhelming a cyberpunk dystopia as I’ve ever experienced.

Where is the series now?

While its story perhaps doesn't do it justice, the latest Deus Ex that released earlier this year—Mankind Divided—is a beautiful, smartly designed game set in a gorgeous futuristic city. 

Other locations, Cairo and Trier, Germany, are more recognisably urban, but still just narrow streets for NPCs to stand in. When I replay Deus Ex, I still feel immersed by the environment. That’s not the case in Invisible War. Despite the graphics looking better than in Deus Ex, it’s aged worse. The problem is compounded by the number of NPCs able to exist in each environment. Seattle’s Club Vox—seemingly one of only two businesses operating in the upper city limits—has more staff than patrons.

Nevertheless, Seattle is an enjoyable slice of intrigue and backstabbing. Ion Storm makes effective use of limited space by offering a nested stack of sidequests—each contact simultaneously someone else’s target. It starts when a WTO employee tells me to infiltrate Club Vox and find proof of the owner’s tax evasion. While there, the owner asks me to assassinate a lawyer in the nearby Emerald Suites. Tracking down the lawyer, I impersonate an arms dealer, swindling him out of a few hundred credits before killing him.

For completing the job, I’m given access to the VIP area. Inside, I meet an Omar trader who asks me to break into the cellar to scan some alien DNA. (What? Your local nightclub doesn’t have a cryogenically frozen alien corpse?) As a final twist of the knife, I have the option to reveal the Omar’s presence to NG Resonance—the club’s AI hologram, and a surveillance tool for the WTO. This last act proves a backstab too far for my morally flexible Alex. The latex-encased hive-minded traders appear throughout the game, and the discount I’ve earned is far too useful to squander.

Decisions, decisions

For all of Deus Ex: Invisible War’s failings, it’s still fun to explore its possibility space—reduced though it is. Do you enter a locked room by using bio-augmented legs to jump into a vent? Do you disguise your thermal signature to sneak past a robot? Do you bribe the custodian into giving you the master key? At its heart, Invisible War is a game about these decisions, and how they’re informed by your specific build. Invisible War jettisons skills, meaning you can’t accidentally waste your points on swimming. Instead, augs handle both active and passive bonuses. You can pick from three per body part—two legal, one requiring a special black market canister—and the selection is varied enough to enable a diverse set of playstyles. This time, I went for a more lethal build, and got a morbid kick out of using a vampiric black market perk to absorb corpses for health.

In terms of gunplay, Invisible Warmanages to outperform its predecessor. It’s a testament to how good the best parts of Deus Ex are that it’s still lauded, despite the fact that shooting accurately requires you to stand completely still while the crosshair fixes into place. This is a terrible system, and Invisible War was totally justified to do away with it. It’s not a great shooter, but lethality feels more viable. It’s harder to justify the other systemic changes, however small. 

Where Deus Ex hides story in emails, Invisible War has none. Where Deus Ex gives you the tactile pleasure of typing a password or door code, Invisible War automates everything. Where Deus Ex forces meaningful inventory management, Invisible War thinks a health pack is as big as a sniper rifle. Ultimately I think this hurts it more than the size of the environments. Deus Ex’s small, seemingly inconsequential details add to the sense of immersion—making the world feel more believable. 

By foregoing these tricks, Invisible Warseems sterile. At least Ion Storm attempted something different with the story, although, in true Invisible War style, it doesn’t quite work. Throughout, Alex can choose to change her allegiance. But, whatever the choice, there’s never any consequence—to the point that the two initial factions are both puppets of the Illuminati. It’s a twist that’s mirrored within an excellent chain of sidequests about warring coffee shops. Both are, in fact, owned by the same corporation. A fitting end for a series in love with conspiracy, but such narrative nihilism ultimately renders your corporate espionage meaningless (albeit enjoyable).

HUMAN DEVOLUTION

"Seattle looks like a succession of slum and warehouses, slightly melted into metallic blue and grey." - Richard Cobbett also laments Invisible War's failed ambition.

Eventually, the real players are revealed—The Templars, Illuminati and ApostleCorp, led by Paul and JC Denton. It’s a reprise of Deus Ex’s ending, but fleshed out. The consequences are darker, and every option feels like a compromise. It’s to Invisible War’s credit that, despite all of its problems, it does manage to expand upon the story beats of Deus Ex in some thoughtful ways.

Invisible War also deserves recognition for setting the template for Eidos Montreal’s more successful sequels. Deus Ex is a singular game, one that excels despite (and, some might argue, because of) its idiosyncrasies. Invisible War is the first, failed attempt at taming the formula—and in the process making it much more accessible and mainstream. But Ion Storm was ahead of its time, and the technology of 2003 wasn’t up to the task. 

Luckily for Deus Ex fans, the technology of 2011 was. Human Revolution was able to build upon Invisible War’s structure and refinements, while restoring some of the size, freedom and complexity of the original Deus Ex. Maybe that doesn’t excuse Invisible War, but it does, I think, justify its existence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Phil has been PC gaming since the '90s, when RPGs had dice rolls and open world adventures were weird and French. Now he's the deputy editor of PC Gamer; commissioning features, filling magazine pages, and knowing where the apostrophe goes in '90s. He plays Scout in TF2, and isn't even ashamed.
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