PC Gamer

At the end of Thief: The Dark Project, one of its characters muses on the future. Beware the dawn of the Metal Age, he says, looking out over the steampunk city. That line was contributed by Terri Brosius, one of the game's writers and designers as well as the voice of Viktoria (she also provided the memorable voice of System Shock 2's villain Shodan). The dialogue was a spur-of-the-moment addition, but it helped shape the series. Thief II would eventually be given The Metal Age as its subtitle, and the story of an industrial revolution overtaking the city would become its plot.

That's how committed the original trilogy of Thief games are to their foreshadowing, and it's part of what makes them unique among immersive sims.

In Warren Spector's post-mortem of Deus Ex all the way back in the year 2000, he coined the term 'immersive sim' to describe the type of game he and Ion Storm had created. Deus Ex needed its own subgenre because it is, as he put it, part role-playing game, part first-person shooter, part adventure game. Immersive sims are games that combine elements of other genres so you can play them your own way, with multiple paths to discover, each of which lets you jump genres as you please. These are the games where you can get past obstacles by talking or sneaking or killing, or sometimes even hacking them or casting spells at them or flying right over the top.

All that variability, all those systems intersecting to encourage player choice and freedom, are what it takes to count as an immersive sim. They don't require a conflict between philosophically distinct factions going on behind the scenes, but it's a common element nonetheless. Deus Ex has its Illuminati, System Shock 2 has the Many versus Shodan, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines has competing undead clans, Dishonored has the Hound Pit Pub loyalists acting against the spymaster's conspiracy, and so on. In the Thief trilogy, progenitors of the immersive sim, it's the religious cults of Hammerites in conflict with Pagans, with the Keepers looking on as kind of referee-assassins.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided continues the tradition of player choice, but without some of Thief's subtlety.

You can't just dump secret history on a player straight away. Immersive sims are about freedom to choose your own way of playing, and not engaging with a bunch of boring exposition is a valid choice. (These are usually the games where you can jump on a table while someone is talking to you.) Instead designers hint at the backstory, letting players uncover it so we feel like we're learning things we're not supposed to, experiencing the the same rush we get from finding an unlikely method of infiltrating security.

Subtle as a thief

In Thief: The Dark Project, the first of the series, the Pagans are a cult you don't know much about until you realise one of your employers, Viktoria, is a member. By this point you're at least four missions deep and have been facing off against the rival Hammerites since mission two. But as early as the game's opening level, 'Bafford's Manor', there are hints of what's to come.

A letter from one of Bafford's agents describes Viktoria in passing immediately after summarising how the Hammers are interfering with his plans. Each mission's introductory cutscene opens with a quote from a song or prayer, several of which turn out to be Pagan texts. Those things are seeds that will bear terrible fruit later.

By the time you meet Viktoria you've probably forgotten the letter that mentions her. It's just one of many pieces of scene-setting in a level that also includes notes to a chef about how to prepare dinner, ledgers of illegal payments, a warning to the guards that they need to lift their game, and a letter about expensive relics worth acquiring. Some of these seem immediately relevant as a thief those descriptions of valuable relics are useful pointers, as is knowing the guards have a reputation for drunkenness but others are pure scene-setting.

Thief is full of the kind of scene-setting that broadens your view of its world, and that allows it to hide foreshadowing like this in plain sight. The first conversation you overhear outside Bafford's Manor is two guards arguing about going to the bear pits. One insists it's a good time because the scrawny bears have been fitted with spikes that make them vicious, while the other is old enough to remember when bears were terrifying beasts who didn't need all that knifery strapped to them.

While the bear pits are never mentioned again the theme of nature in decline becomes central, and a world where people need to be reminded the natural world is dangerous as the Pagans plan to has just been set up.

That's the best kind of worldbuilding: hinting at what's to come without you even realising it, while giving the feeling of a larger world beyond the levels you explore. Contrast that with Dishonored, a game that does many other things very well but is full of dialogue in which characters blatantly foreshadow later levels. During Corvo's prison escape through the sewers you overhear two of the City Watch talking about how scary the Flooded District is, setting up a level there. Granny Rags tells you her parties used to be even grander than the ones at Boyle Manor , as you'll see in that level.

If the bear pits conversation happened in Dishonored it would be to foreshadow a level that culminates in choosing whether to assassinate a mechanical bear or free it from servitude to rampage through the Distillery District.

Thief: Deadly Shadows, the third game in the series, has a famous mission set in the Shalebridge Cradle, an abandoned building with a history of horrors that include periods where it was used as an orphanage, an insane asylum, and both at once. If that seems unlikely, Kew Asylum here in Melbourne housed both the mentally ill and wards of the state until the 19th century.

You might hear an optional conversation in the Stonemarket hub about Shalebridge Cradle if you visit the right shop between levels, but you're just as likely to become aware of Shalebridge Cradle in the Old Quarter hub, where it looms over the eastern streets. You've passed its frightening visage and wondered what's up with the world's creepiest building over there before the story's got to the point where you realise you'll need to jump the wall and explore it. You're already dreading the place.

The foreboding Shalebridge Cradle.

While immersive sims tend to foreshadow both their stories and locations, there's something else they need to hint at as well. These are games defined by their freedom of choice with regard to styles of play, but worried about the possibility players might not notice solutions and try to brute force every problem, shooting their way through and not having a good time.

The first level in Thief to give you complete freedom in how you infiltrate a building is 'Assassins', in which you break into the mansion of a crime boss named Ramirez. The outer wall has an open entrance, but it's guarded, the walkway is well-lit and it's covered in crunchy gravel that makes a lot of noise when you cross it. It's doable, but there are better ways over that wall. Adjacent to a low section of it there's a Tudor-style protrusion with wooden windows, which make perfect targets for a rope arrow. It's also possible to go low-tech and stack crates until you're high enough, which you're clued into by two neatly stacked crates nearby.

Once past the outer wall there's the mansion itself to breach. There are two balconies that can be jumped to from guard towers, which your eyes are drawn to by tiled roof sections that happen to be bright red. A gap in the back of the building is noticeable from a distance because of the distinct shadow it casts.

These clues about entrance routes aren't repeated in later levels you can't trust red roofs and stacked crates forever but are there to make you realise how many options are available so that you start to hunt for them yourself.

Thief II ramps up the number of secrets within each level, but even with as many as a dozen hidden rooms and stashes to discover their placement is always just as subtle. A shooting range conceals a lever among the arrows embedded in the wall behind the targets, a bookshelf is slightly out of alignment, a glint of light pokes through the edge of a stone in a wall. Compare that to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which sometimes hides one of the many ducts you can climb into behind a crate but more often plonks them into the corner of rooms beside a neon sculpture.

Even harder to notice is the Thief games' use of water as an element of level design. When you transition from the relatively safe streets of the city to the more dangerous interior of Bafford's Manor it's through a well, and when you travel from the empty utility station outside Thief II's Shoalgate Watch House to its well-guarded inside, that's also through water.

The haunted mines below Cragscleft Prison are entered through water, and so is The Lost City. A bridge has to be crossed before you arrive at the manor in 'Assassins', and though you don't have to swim out of the well in 'Precious Cargo' it starts raining once you exit.

In every case water marks a dividing line, emphasising that you've crossed into a high-risk area without the HUD needing to note it. Even if you're unaware of the motif, subconsciously the idea that things are about to get real as soon as you get wet seeps in as you play.

Compared to the original Thief trilogy, other immersive sims feel almost insecure and more obviously designed in the ways they lampshade upcoming twists in their story, later levels you'll explore, and the ways you can explore them once you reach them.

With their ubiquitous airduct entry points and audiologs scattered around incongruously to insure you don't miss a single nuance of backstory they rarely surprise us in ways that feel organic. The gun that goes off in act three was not only on the mantelpiece in act one, but two guards talked about the odds of it going off and then recorded the gunshot and left the tape in a nearby trashcan.

Thief lets you know what's possible but does so with subtlety. It's a game about hiding that hides its own possibilities in plain sight, and other immersive sims could learn from that.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (John Walker)

A second PC patch has been released for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, hopefully leaving fewer players divided (do you see, because “divided” is in the title of the game) over the annoying mouse issues, as well as other tidying up.

… [visit site to read more]

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (John Walker)

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] has received its first patch-me-do, now ready to be added via Steam. It’s not a biggun by any means, but should stop some of the more immediately annoying crashes people have experienced. They’ve also made some suggestions about improving performance by, well, telling you to switch off MSAA altogether.

… [visit site to read more]

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

With Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] coming out on Tuesday (read our review), Pip comes to Alice with an important request.>


Alice: Hullo there, old chum! What’s cracking?

Pip: The internet under the strain of all the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided reviews popping out of their embargo wombs, through the various CMS birth canals and into the digital world, I should think. On a related note, I have a question…

Alice: You evidently already know where babies come from, so what can I help you with?

Pip: Alice, I don’t get Deus Ex. Explain to me Deus Ex.

… [visit site to read more]

PC Gamer

The Statue of Liberty doesn t play a huge role in either Deus Ex or its sequel, but I ve still come to think of it as the symbol of those games. It book-ends the series-as-was, prior to Human Revolution. The first mission of Deus Ex, the last mission of Invisible War. In the first game, it s a symbol of ambition: one of the largest and most intricate game spaces designed up to that point, full of secrets and ways to chart your own path.

In Invisible War, it s more a sign of submission, where the sequel s many concessions to the original Xbox hardware are all on display. The inferior aesthetics that make every location look the same. The map split into chunks because the system can't keep it all in memory. The once natural choices now stated outright, blunt and simplified. Everything that the original map did so well, its return trip fails miserably to match. Such is the risk of following up one of the best games ever made.

Looking back all these years later, the question isn t whether or not Invisible War was a better game than Deus Ex, because the answer is a flat no. It just isn t. Coming second to one of the greatest games of all time would hardly be a shame, though. Now that the disappointment has faded, and a new incarnation of Deus Ex has gotten its own sequel, is it time to re-evaluate Invisible War for what it is, rather than what we hoped for 13 years ago?

It d be great if the answer was yes, but replaying it now, Invisible War has aged about as poorly as a game can. Much of this is, again, the result of having been designed for the original Xbox, though the bland futuristic setting and inferior writing somehow make it feel like both the big budget sequel and cheap straight-to-video knock-off of the first game.

The 20XX files

Invisible War raises the stakes by going 20 years further into the future and tries to drive more of the story through characters and relationships, but it never quite manages to land the quantum leap or compensate for the issues those choices introduce. Invisible War s hub areas are poorly conceived locations, tiny and bereft of detail. Easily the worst is the Cairo Arcology, home to the great and good, which feels like it s modeled after an airport departures lounge and features an open recruiting booth for the Knights Templar. It s explained that they re simply advertising where the people they want to recruit are, but its conspicuous placement still feels a world away from Deus Ex s gritty conspiracy theories.

The frustration is that Invisible War isn t a lazy sequel by any stretch. It s desperate to reinvent both itself and the series, and to find the next big leap. It tries so hard from the very first moment, an awesome intro that sees the entirety of Chicago wiped out by a nanite weapon. It goes out of its way to offer more choices on its main path than Deus Ex, with multiple factions to work for at any point instead of a forced transition from government yes-man to rebel agent.

This time, we re not dealing with goodies and baddies, but distinct groups with their own agendas: the World Trade Organisation, religious group The Order, and the awkwardly named ApostleCorp, run by Deus Ex hero JC Denton. The missions only offer slight variants, like killing a scientist or stealing his gun, but it s enough.

Invisible War tries, but its reinvention just doesn't work. It s not all because of the technology, though that certainly doesn t help. The missions are too short due to the tiny map sizes, and the world both too futuristic to resonate and too far beyond the engine s capabilities to properly depict. Seattle, for instance, is a two-tiered city connected by an inclinator , but forget any picturesque views while travelling. It s an interior location that, like much of the game, looks like a succession of slum and warehouses, slightly melted into metallic blue and grey.

Invisible War could be forgiven its technical shortcomings, but they're just the start of its problems. The deeper issues are rooted in its basic design. The faction system, for instance, spends most of the game bouncing between being comical and just plain broken.

Seattle looks like a succession of slum and warehouses, slightly melted into metallic blue and grey.

Wander into an apartment block, the Emerald Suites, and the head of the WTO a complete stranger at this point phones up to ask if you d mind raiding the Minister of Culture s bedroom. The intro starts with you under attack by the religious faction, nominally to rescued from a fate as a test-subject for the not-particularly-scary Tarsus Academy, only instead the leader of the assault has decided to kill everybody. Yet despite this, the Order can t get it into its head that, just maybe, you might hold something of a grudge. Instead, for the rest of the game, they re constantly in your head as if you directly work for them.

This reaches a head in Cairo. If you choose to ignore the Order and choose to instead kill the plants in a greenhouse on behalf of the WTO, they actively send a couple of agents after you. Kill them, and the Order respond with, more or less Now you see what happens to our enemies. Unrelated, got another assignment for you if you re up for it. Hello? Hello?

Imperceptible war

This isn t just cherry-picking a couple of silly moments. The whole sweep of Invisible War is basically like this, with none of Deus Ex s focus or sense of danger to pave over the silliness. Even the element of freedom is badly affected by the small levels and minimal payoff for taking different paths and approaches. The story is terrible, most characters completely forgettable despite its best efforts to give them depth. The ridiculous, apocalyptic scale of the endings goes far beyond anything that the game has earned up to that point.

Yet ironically, when Invisible War steps back from the big picture to sweat the small stuff, it s often surprisingly effective. Its subplots are far better than anything in the main story: the mystery of AI helicopter pilot Eva, the way that each faction is represented and given an enthusiastic face by one of your fellow Tarsus students, or the feud between rival coffee shops Pequod s and Queequeg s, which turns out to be a mirror of the real global situation (false competition, with the Illuminati secretly owning and puppet-mastering both the WTO and the Order).

And yes, as everyone who played Invisible War has been waiting for, there s the genius of NG Resonance. This virtual pop-star, knowledge broker and not-very-subtle government informant (played by the singer from the band Kidneythieves, whose music appears throughout) is easily one of the best inventions in the game, being a case where humanity and technology are allowed to combine to create something interesting. Sinister, yet friendly. Futuristic, yet approachable. It s no wonder that when Invisible War is brought up, NG is almost inevitably the first fond memory.

The other futuristic changes proved more controversial. To its credit, Invisible War wasn t afraid to change things up. Its biggest innovation though, universal ammo, really didn t work. The idea is that rather than having dedicated bullet ammo and rocket ammo, you have an ammo pool. A bullet uses up a mere blip. A rocket uses up a ton. The idea was to expand on player freedom by ensuring that all their tools would be available at all times.

In theory, it s a great idea. The catch is that it was so easy to waste your shots, especially not knowing when the next refill would be, that it often left you without any of them. Worse, even if you played carefully, it was impossible to play tactically without any real idea of when the next ammo stash would be. At least with conventional ammo you can be fairly sure that more bullets will be along soon, but it s probably best not to waste a precious rocket.

Some people loved this system. Overall, though, the implementation was judged a failure, and not a model that future games opted to bring back for further exploration. It was, however, the kind of innovation that helped Invisible War s reputation over the years as a game that at least attempted to break new ground and take Deus Ex forwards as a series, instead of just assuming its problems were solved. It certainly wasn t a lazy, coughed-up sequel designed to make a quick buck, or one that lacked for talent behind the scenes.

Instead, it was the victim of technology that wasn t ready, and a team that hadn t quite grasped the spirit of Deus Ex team leader Harvey Smith later confessed to having taken it too far out of the familiar, and relying on the advice of hardcore players and fellow designers about what was wrong with the original game, rather than leaning on players who loved the original to hear what it did right. (Smith would of course later more than make up for this with Dishonored, which despite being overtly mission based rather than offering a continuous Deus Ex style flow in sprawling social hubs, is as close to being a Deus Ex successor as anything that officially bears its name.)

The future, yesterday

And what of the other argument, that while it fails as a Deus Ex game, Invisible War is still a solid RPG on its own terms? Sadly, going back really doesn t convey that. It s not an awful game, but even if you forgive its technical faults (and it really doesn t run that well even today), it s a stodgy, lifeless, uncharismatic adventure. Invisible War got its reputation as a decent RPG because in 2003 and much of 2004, the demand Well, show me a better Deus Ex style game could only be answered with Well, there isn t one.

This wasn t, however, because there were inferior attempts, but because Deus Ex and Invisible War stood alone.

Today the most obvious comparison is Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, from less than a year later. It s a game that holds up despite itself most of the time, and not even that at the end. As clunky as it is, Bloodlines setting, its characters, its choices and its general vibe help obscure the kinds of flaws that shine bright in Invisible War.

Much like fellow disappointing sequel Thief III (minus the Cradle and a couple of other good bits), Deus Ex: Invisible War is a game that sits in a bubble as the result of its time s weaknesses rather than strengths. It d be great to think of it as a lost classic, but even at its best, the kindest compliment is: It tried.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Edwin Evans-Thirlwell)

Shower scenes seldom Make You Think, unless it’s about what exactly you’re getting for that Premium Netflix subscription, but if anything sticks out for me about the impressive yet oddly unexciting Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site], it’s the sight of Adam Jensen washing his hair. Eidos Montreal’s latest presentation begins in Jensen’s new Prague apartment – a casually affluent man-den where you can phone other characters, watch newscasts that track your decisions through the story, answer emails, tinker with crafting resources, and generally get acquainted with the sleek, cadaverous sort-of-human in your charge.

… [visit site to read more]

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Graham Smith)

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.>

Human Revolution has myriad faults, but they hardly matter to me. Square Enix Montreal’s first crack at replicating Deus Ex is a perfect example of how the right creative decisions can make up for any number of constraints.

… [visit site to read more]

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.>

We’d remember Deus Ex: Invisible War more fondly if it weren’t named Deus Ex, wouldn’t we? So let’s imagine that.

Released in 2003 by Ion Storm, Invisible War is a flawed but pretty fun FPS action-RPG, where we get to be a swanky cyborg larking about in that grim cyberpunk future.

… [visit site to read more]

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Adam Smith)

is it easier to get away with this look in summer?

Everything looked rosy when I traveled to Montreal to take a look at Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] earlier this year. The areas I played improved on Human Revolution in every way that matters and Adam Jensen controlled better than ever. All was well and I was looking forward to playing the game in February, right around my birthday. Moments ago, word arrived of a six month delay – the game will now be coming out on August 23rd.

… [visit site to read more]

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

Disappointing endings are a staple of Deus Ex games, aren’t they? That’s fine, though, because almost everything leading up to those final two minutes when you choose which button to press is pretty great. Unsurprisingly, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] will be continuing the series’s sequel tradition of openings which kinda ignore which button you picked, but the ending this time will be more than a mere button-press. So its lead writer say, anyway.

… [visit site to read more]


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