Deus Ex 2: Invisible War

December 21, 2003

[floatleft][/floatleft]The first Deus Ex, released on the PC and later on the PS2 over three years ago, was spearheaded by the up and coming developer Ion Storm Austin with Warren Spector in the director’s chair. The game was released to a flurry of raving reviews and game of the year accolades, in no short part due to it’s branching mature storyline and “play as you want” gameplay. After multiple delays and an unusually high amount of hype, Deus Ex: Invisible War has been released. Does it live up to its older brother?

Before I get down to things, I first would like to strongly caution anyone who has not played the original Deus Ex to do so before they play IW. There are multiple references to past events that occurred in the former game, and certain characters in IW will not have the same impact upon you if you haven’t played through the first Deus Ex. Furthermore, this review contains no major spoilers, so read without caution.

Making certain you know IW does indeed still have some RPG elements left, the game forces you to first create your character. Granted, you can’t alter any ability points or skills, but you can choose between male and female models and their respective skin tones.

As soon as you finish making your character, IW shows you a spectacular FMV of a terrorist attack that obliterates the city of Chicago. From here, IW plants you into the heavily bio-modded boots of one Alex “Don’t Ask” D. at the Tarsus Academy in Seattle. The game starts off with you first having to escape the Tarsus Academy, which is under attack from a group of extremists called The Order. After some instructions from the Tarsus Academy director, Dr. Nassif, via an implant in your cranium, you are set free to explore. While escaping is indeed your ultimate objective, you can freely get there however you want, as fast as you want, and with as much stolen loot as you wish.

[floatright][/floatright]I will not spoil the game’s story for you, but rest assured it’s every bit as mature as the first game, complete with many twists and surprise character appearances. The game’s story spans multiple regions, including Cairo, Egypt and Tier, Germany. Each location has its own microcosm of problems that you will become enwrapped in, and how you deal with them garnishes either praise or abashment from the multiple groups attempting to use your skills for their own agendas.

Much like its predecessor, IW allows you to choose what group or corporation you wish to ally yourself with. There’s the mega corporation WTO, the balance seeking Order, and the extremist ApostleCorp to name a few. Each of these groups will have objectives for you to complete, and choosing one group’s objective over another may result in a hired hit on you or other negative consequences. All of these groups fight over you the entire game so do not worry about having to choose one early on and sticking with it the entire game.

For the most part, the story is well implemented and will be one of the driving forces behind your continuing escapades. My only gripe with it is its linearity compared to the first Deus Ex. You don’t have nearly as many conversational choices as in the first, and not until the very end must you make a drastic game altering choice. Up until that major decision, you can do jobs for anyone or no one and not have a certain group drop you as its courier. You can certainly kill almost whomever you want, but even if that pisses off one of your clients to no end, they will still generally in the end come back to you. Only if you continuously refuse their missions and systematically eliminate their chain of command will they not only refuse you, but also send assassins to take your sorry ass out. Therefore, the game will at first to most seem more linear than the first, but truthfully, it’s just as open. You just have to know where and how to look.

IW is a relatively short game, taking me around 15 hours to complete (I did not rush and openly searched for items). However, one of the bonus’ of an open-ended game is that it allows for a great deal of replay value. I strongly recommend playing through IW again, as you can’t possibly see everything your first play-through, and the game has multiple endings to see, which is reason enough to play again.

IW for the most part carries over its predecessor’s gameplay elements, which is a good thing. Bio-mods return, which are canisters that allow you to upgrade certain parts of your body. An eye implant bio-mod for example will enable regeneration, while an arm bio-mod will result in expanded strength with melee weapons. You have multiple areas of your body you can upgrade, and each one has two regular bio-mod options, and one “black market” bio-mod slot. Black market bio-mods are illegal and usually more powerful than their sister mods, and they are harder to get your hands on. Some of the more memorable ones include Bot Domination, which allows you to take first-person control of any mechanical bot or turret and use it against your foes. Another allows you to consume dead corpses for health – very useful if you like to kill anything that moves. Hacking has also returned as a black market bio-mod, albeit a little less player involved. Now, when you hack, you just wait for a green bar to finish loading before fiddling with cameras and turrets. My only gripe with the bio-mod implementation in the game is that there are just too many bio-mod canisters. By the end of the game, my character had full bio-mods for every part of his body, and still had some canisters left in his inventory.

[floatleft][/floatleft]One of the more drastic changes over the first game is the inclusion of a new HUD. The developers crafted it to make it seem as if you are peering through the character’s eyeball, hence its circular nature. On the left are your slots for weapons and items and on the right are your bio-mods. At the top are your health and electric energy bars. The game has two bots that come in handy – a health bot and repair bot. This HUD works very well and is a refreshing change, but if you find it unnerving, you can tweak its opacity in the option menu.

Since IW takes place 15 years after its predecessor, the game’s weapons have evolved into more future-esque devices. All of the first game’s memorable weapons make a return, including the much-vaunted sniper rifle, versatile pistol, and electric prod. You will also gain access to an energy sword, flamethrower, shotgun, SMG, tranquilizer, and the devastating MAG gun. Perhaps my favorite weapon though, isn’t even a gun. The spider bomb is a small grenade you lob, and upon detonation, a small spider bot emerges which will follow you around and electrify foes for you. Throw multiple spider bombs and you will have a small mecca army on your hands. All of the game’s weapons are useful and delicately designed. However, one of IW’s biggest changes is with the weapons’ ammo. Gone from the first game is individual ammo for each gun, and in its place is universal ammo. Universal ammo is exactly that, one type of ammo. Each gun uses the same type of ammo, however, some guns use a different amount per shot than others. The shotgun for example might deplete eight bars of ammo while the pistol only two. In theory this could have worked out, but in execution it’s flawed. Since ammo is limited in the game, you will most likely go through the entire game using either just the pistol or SMG. This is due to an imbalance in the damage the guns do. A mid-range shot gun blast takes multiple tries to kill its target. While the pistol may take a few more shots, the shotgun eats so much more ammo per shot it’s not strategic to use it. Also, some have called the sniper rifle as being too powerful, as it is a one hit gun, but only when zoomed in. However, it also eats a large amount of ammo, so I found it to be properly balanced.

Level design wise, the game is respectable. The environments are relatively small, but lovingly crafted with shadows and interactable materials. There are also a plethora of well-stashed multi-tools and health packs.

The game’s controls are standard FPS fare, and handling is responsive and quick. Aiming speed can be tweaked, and while it’s not as good as a keyboard and mouse, it’s as best as the Xbox will get.

If you thought Ion Storm Austin couldn’t push the hardware after their PS2 port, you wouldn’t know it looking at IW. The game is simply astonishing – everything from the real-time shadows to pixel shaders and bump mapping create a very believable and stylish game. Of its entire graphical prowess, two things stand out the most – the games Havok 2 physics engine and the game’s real time lighting/shadowing.

[floatright][/floatright]Every light in the game reflects in real time – even when you alter the environment the light changes accordingly. Trash bonfires flicker as accurate shadows reflect onto steel beams and characters’ faces. Take a chair and throw it near the fire and its shadow will alter and stretch, all in real time. In perhaps to show it off, IW is fundamentally dark, very dark. Luckily, you have your trusty pistol flashlight, a graphical beauty in itself, to light up those dark places.

IW also features the Havok 2 physic engine, which has been grafted onto the Unreal Warfare shell code. What does this mean? For one thing, you will see the most realistic and interactable physics on the Xbox. The physics are so incredible and fresh that I spent literally the first 20 minutes of the game throwing dead bodies at fans and tossing trash bins down stairs. Every moveable object in the game has its own physics model, and when you make two objects interact with each other, you start to see the beauty of it. I remember quite clearly moving a trashcan to the top of a stairs, and throwing a dead body at it. What ensued was not only hilarious, but it felt right. If you were to nitpick, you could say the physics are a bit exaggerated, especially for the dead bodies. You can be shooting someone in the chest with a pistol, and suddenly when they die they’ll do a triple back flip onto a desk and fall over. This situation might not be an accurate physics model, but I would choose it anyway, for nothing else than it’s highly amusing.

In a certainly odd move, IW’s characters rarely if ever perform facial animations. They will lip-synch their words, but they never convey emotion in their face. This isn’t necessary, but it can sometimes feel strange when you only see a staring zombie talking to you.

This entire graphical splendor comes at a cost however. IW runs on average at 30fps. This isn’t a bad thing, but things can bog down heavily when you are in intense firefights. The frame rate can hit 20fps, but never gets into the single digits. The low frame rate might annoy you at first, but once you get into it, you forget about it and barely notice it. Certainly a flaw, but not a game-crippling one.

[floatleft][/floatleft]IW’s audio strategy is very similar to the first Deus Ex. There is very little in-game music, and if there is, it’s very quiet and low-key. This is a shame, because IW’s music is actually very well done. The IW musical theme on the menu screen is familiar and nothing spectacular, but once the female vocals kick in, it gets addicting fast. Sadly, you won’t hear any of this in-game. So exactly what does IW’s audio mainly consist of? Speech. All of the characters speak their lines aloud, unlike KOTOR which pick and chose who spoke and who didn’t. Even NPC’s who you can’t enter a dialogue with speak and will sometimes say important information to remember later. All of the in-game speech is well-done and top notch, and no one comes across as annoying or over the top.

In-game effects like weapons fire sound adequate and accurately portrays the way the weapon looks. The flamethrower sounds especially nasty, in no doubt due to the way the people you light on fire scream “Water, water, give me water!” Interestingly enough, the developers at Fable removed the ability to kill children. However, in IW, when you investigate the children’s Tarsus Academy, you can freely light up any pre-teenager you want.

IW supports 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, as well as HDTV 480p.

Many have criticized IW for getting more monotonous and boring the more you play – which is exactly the opposite of how I felt. If you can get through the first couple of hours in which you aren’t told anything and are forced to run errands for reasons you know not why, you will find a highly enjoyable and beautifully crafted game that is easily one of the Xbox’s best RPG’s to date. I do not hesitate when I say IW is easily Knights of the Old Republic’s equal in both quality and enjoyment. Go into IW with an open mind and stick with it, and you will find one of the best games of the year, on any console.