PC Gamer

In the earliest Deus Ex design document, written three years before the game was released in 2000, Ion Storm established the philosophy of their ambitious cyberpunk RPG. “The key to role-playing is giving players the freedom to act as they see fit,” it reads. “And a deep world simulation that allows them to solve problems in a variety of ways is the best way to do this.” 

And that’s the core of what makes Deus Ex a PC classic. The sheer breadth of its systems and the complexity of its level design is unmatched, even today. A lot of things were cut from that document—including a level set on a space station—but Warren Spector and his team’s original vision of a deep, rewarding RPG set in a rich, simulated world remained intact throughout development. 

When Deus Ex was being developed, The X-Files was deep into its fourth season. And Chris Carter’s cult show is an obvious influence on the game, with its government conspiracies, shadowy secret organisations, men in black, and bug-eyed aliens. The design document confirms this, describing the story as “leavened by its dark, mysterious, conspiratorial tone” and any tinfoil hat conspiracy theory you can think of, from Area 51 to the Bilderberg Group, factors into the story in some way. It’s a world where paranoia about ancient secret societies pulling the strings of government is entirely justified. 

In the ‘high concept’ section of the design document, Ion Storm asks: “Is it better to live free in a world of chaos or live safely in an ordered world of someone else’s design?” And that’s one of the major themes in the sprawling, labyrinthine story. You play as JC Denton, a government agent enhanced with augmentations that grant him superhuman powers. 

When the game begins he’s employed by a branch of the United Nations created in response to the growing threat of international terrorism. But after learning that his bosses have ties to a sinister Illuminati plot, he joins his brother Paul in the resistance against them. “Deus Ex plugs into two popular fantasies,” reads the document. “The millennial madness that’s gripping the world, exemplified by The X-Files and a general fascination with conspiracy theories. And the desire to play with high-tech espionage toys.”

And it’s these toys, as well as Denton’s augmentations, that makes every playthrough of Deus Ex a wildly different experience. The first level, Liberty Island, showcases everything that’s great about the game’s open-ended design and how it rewards creative thinking. It’s smaller than other levels, and I’m still finding new ways to infiltrate it. The statue not only provides a useful navigation point, but her missing head, blown off by terrorists, is an evocative piece of world-building. A clue that maybe everything isn’t totally cool in this dystopian vision of the future.

Terrorists have taken over the island, and you have to deal with them. But how you go about this is truly up to you. There are dozens of entry points into the statue, some more dangerous than others. If you want to waltz in through the front door, you can. But you’ll have to find a key, hack a series of cameras, and deal with a security bot. Or you can stack crates to climb up to the statue and avoid the security systems altogether, but will have to deal with a group of terrorists in an open area without much cover. You learn these things through experimentation, and that’s part of what makes Deus Ex so compelling. You’re presented with these big, complex puzzles and the game leaves you to figure out how to solve them by yourself. And when you do, it’s hugely satisfying. 

Walk and talk 

But it’s not all espionage and infiltration. Outside of missions you’re free to explore, talk to NPCs, complete sidequests, and learn more about the state of the world through documents and news reports. Deus Ex is an enormous game, featuring three massive cities—New York, Hong Kong and Paris—and other locations including Area 51. You simply couldn’t make a game this big today with the visual fidelity expected of modern games. In New York you witness the devastating effects of the mysterious Grey Death virus, while in Hong Kong you team up with Tracer Tong and the Triads to investigate an Illuminati presence there. There are so many secrets hidden in these city hubs—and overwrought philosophical debates to be had with talkative NPCs – that a thorough playthrough of the game could easily take 50 hours. 

But while the levels are huge, they’re not big for the sake of it. This was another thing Ion Storm outlined in their design document as being important. “So many games simulate huge worlds and brag about it,” it reads. “Witness Daggerfall with its hundreds of generic towns, its shallow conversations, and its randomly generated quests. We feel there’s more to be gained by limiting the size of our simulation so we can increase the density of interaction.” 

And this density of interaction is another of Deus Ex’s many strengths. Its levels are filled with things to prod, poke, switch on, and mess with—from incidental details like flushing toilets to intricate security systems that can be manipulated to help you sneak through the level. “This gives the illusion that this is a real, vital It’s all gone a bit X-Files. His vision is augmented. place,” reads the design document. “It makes the levels feel like they have a life of their own, independent of player action.” 

And it has a sense of humour too, often as a result of this freedom and interactivity. If you stumble into the ladies’ bathroom in UNATCO’s Liberty Island HQ – which most players will as they hunt for secrets and hidden items—your boss Joseph Manderley (who recently appeared in Mankind Divided) will give you a stern talking to about it. Ion Storm knew players like to explore every nook and cranny of a level, and they made a joke in response to it. 

It’s a small detail, but one of countless tiny reactive moments that reinforce the idea you’re having an impact on this world, not just existing in it. And who could forget mechanically-augmented agent Gunther Hermann ranting about getting the wrong soda from a vending machine, convinced the maintenance man has a vendetta against him. The story deals with some heavy stuff—mass surveillance, corruption, conspiracies, viral epidemics—but it offsets it nicely with some dry humour.

The illuminati sends a squad of men in black to kill your brother.

A great example of the game’s reactivity can be found in the Hell’s Kitchen level. Denton’s brother Paul, who ends up being hunted by the Illuminati, is holed up in a grimy hotel. It’s called the ‘Ton by the locals, referring to the fact it was once a Hilton, but the ‘HIL’ on the sign has faded away. After completing a few missions in New York, Paul’s safehouse is compromised and the Illuminati sends a squad of ‘men in black’ agents to kill him. 

These guys are armed with heavy weapons and can take a ridiculous amount of damage. Paul tells you to run and escape through the bathroom window, which most players will do when faced with these seemingly impossible odds. If you escape, Paul dies and never appears in the game again. But if you stay and fight, and somehow manage to kill the men in black and the UNATCO troops who’ve invaded the hotel, Paul will appear in Hong Kong. It’s unlikely that players at this stage in the game, especially on their first run, will have the skill or augmentations to win this fight, but the fact you can is precisely why Deus Ex is such a special game. It has a response, even if it’s just a line of dialogue, for almost everything you do. 

All mod cons

One part of Deus Ex that’s really showing its age though, is the visuals. It’s a hideous game, with blocky environments, blurry textures and ugly character models. But luckily there are mods that will sort most of these problems out, including the incredible Revision. This overhaul is free on Steam for anyone who owns the GOTY edition, and as well as fixing bugs and remixing several maps, it makes it look slightly nicer to modern eyes. But it does change quite a few fundamental things, so if you want to play the game as Ion Storm intended it’s probably best to stick to the original version. 

Then there’s Shifter, a mod that adds further depth to an already deep game and exists to, in its creator’s words, “remove the suck” from the the illuminati sends a squad of men in black to kill your brother base game. It introduces a skill point system that rewards you for feats the vanilla game would ignore, like taking out a room full of men in black. It makes enemies smarter and tougher. And it gives weapons alternate fire modes, including launching napalm bombs with the flamethrower. Again, installing this will seriously alter the game, so think carefully before trying it—especially if it’s your first playthrough. Some people don’t like Shifter or Revision at all, but that’s exactly what PC gaming, and Deus Ex, are all about: choice. 

The game is still totally playable without any mods, of course. But you might have to dig through some forums to find out how to get it running at modern resolutions. The Game of the Year edition (whatever that means) is often on sale for a tiny amount of money on Steam, so if you’ve never played it before, there’s really no excuse. 

There’s a long-running internet joke that whenever Deus Ex is mentioned on a forum, someone will reinstall it. And it’s something you should consider. Because 16 years later, even if the visuals don’t hold up, the game definitely still does. 

PC Gamer

Hitman: Blood Money was, for a long time, a pinnacle of sandbox stealth games. Each level had a dizzying number of possibilities for assassinating your targets. For its time, the AI felt intimidatingly complex, and learning to navigate through all the layers of guards and NPCs and their various interactions was tense. So watching all of that fall to pieces as speedrunner 'Saintmillion' beat the game in 36 minutes by exploiting the hell out of the AI is one of the highlights of the Awesome Games Done Quick speedrunning marathon happening this week. I'll never see Hitman: Blood Money the same way again.

Adding insult to injury, Saintmillion demonstrated how utterly breakable Blood Money can be as a Silent Assassin on Professional, its hardest difficulty. The former means that he can't blow his cover, leave any witnesses, bodies, or equipment behind, can't be seen on camera, and can't kill innocents without making it look like an accident. The latter means he's doing all of that against AI enemies in top form—they're more assertive, aggressive, and do more damage. For someone like me, it's an almost unfathomable challenge. For Saintmillion, it's a walk in the park.

Although the first mission gets off to a rough start as Saintmillion gets busted by a guard, which takes place in a cocaine factory disguised as a winery, it's otherwise an effortless, two-minute sprint. With impeccable timing and understanding of where the some-odd 30 NPCs could be at any one time, Saintmillion kills his two targets and blitzes through the level.

But as the speedrun progresses, things go from impressive to downright ridiculous. Stealth games often depend on a sense of immersion. Players need to believe that the guards who patrol the area aren't just robots following an automated path, but people. That's why the Hitman series has always gone to great lengths in making characters seem unpredictable and human. Saintmillion's speedrun shatters that illusion in hilarious ways.

The metaphorical hammer breaking Blood Money's sense of difficulty is Agent 47's coin. While his guns might seem like his most prized tools, Saintmillion quickly explains that the coin is the source for his godly ability to infiltrate any level. "The coin in this run is really broken," Saintmillion explains. "When you throw a coin at people and they don't see you hold the coin, they just do what's next in their patrol scheme—or series of things they were doing."

Using this simple trick, Saintmillion is able to exploit just about any guard into doing exactly what he wants. One minute they're about to attack him for trespassing and the next they're fixed intently on the shiny piece of change laying on the ground as if nothing ever happened. My favorite use of the coin happens at 39:24 in the video above (25:16 in the speedrun) during the mission, A House of Cards. Agent 47's third target is Sheik Mohammad Bin Faisal Al-Khalifa who is followed by two armed guards everywhere he goes. But Saintmillion has a hilariously simple solution. 

It's one of the few moments I burst out laughing during Awesome Games Done Quick. The way everyone in the room stops to look at Agent 47 holding a coin is just so ridiculous.

Saintmillion's speedrun is full of these moments that make the whole thing worth a watch from start to finish, like throwing a coin at a glass ceiling so that it shatters and kills two targets at the same time. But my favorite comes later, during the mission You Better Watch Out, when he is forced to cruelly gun down a small dog. Why? "I have to kill the dog," he explains. "The dog is a witness and I will not get Silent Assassin because the dog will tell the police." That's not hyperbole either, as this guide suggests players need to, at the very least, sedate the animal prior to the assassination. But hey, speed is a factor here. Besides, it fits nicely with AGDQ's inside joke of "kill the animals."

So far, this has been one of my favorite speedruns done at AGDQ. While speedrunning is always an incredible feat, it's especially satisfying seeing someone trivialize what was once considered an amazing stealth game. If you have your own favorite moments from AGDQ so far, let us know in the comments. 

PC Gamer

Elon Musk isn't just the wealthy super-genius behind SpaceX and Tesla Motors, he's also a man who knows something about videogames. It's not immediately evident, as he initially appears to stumble over a game recommendation request at the end of a Y Combinator interview—the only title that seems to cross his mind is Overwatch. His kids play a lot of Hearthstone, he eventually adds, which is the sort of thing a person says when he's awkwardly grasping at straws. But then someone mentions The Last of Us, which leads to talk about the importance of story in videogames, and suddenly Musk is off to the races.    

"I think [storytelling in games] is really neglected. That's the criticism I heard of the latest Deus Ex, that the storytelling is kind of lame. Whereas the prior Deus Ex, and the original Deus Ex, the storytelling was amazing," Musk says. "Some of the older games, the graphics and sound were terrible, so they had to rely on storytelling." It's important to note here that Musk didn't just cite Deus Ex and Human Revolution, but that he also utterly refused to acknowledge even the existence of Invisible War. That's the sign of a man who really knows his stuff. 

Thanks, Glixel

PC Gamer

Now that our game of the year awards are out of the way, we can get to the serious stuff: ventilation shafts. They’re a pillar of modern game design, shunting players from one level to the next, telling spy wannabes that a square aluminum tunnel is all espionage requires, and giving the hunted a temporary haven from their mouth-breathing pursuers. The most iconic protagonists in PC gaming depend on inexplicably designed air convection systems to save the world time and time again.I'm going to revisit a few of the most recognizable vents from PC gaming history and evaluate them based on rules I’m making up as I go. One lucky duct will win the coveted PC Gamer Gust of Approval for best vent.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution 

Gif sourceThe original Deus Ex invented the concept of ventilation shafts, and as a result is exempt from competing. Unfortunately, further iterations of ventilation shafts from the new handlers at Square Enix didn’t do much to blend them into the environments or make them feel like genuine air ducts. Instead, they serve as well-lit (somehow), long graves where you hide your dead. How many bodies can you fit in an impossible space? Deus Ex: Human Revolution steps beyond the veil.Even worse, the vents aren’t in compliance with the ASHRAE standards for acceptable air quality. According to section 5.1.1 of the guidelines, “Where interior spaces without direct openings to the outdoors are ventilated through adjoining rooms, the opening between rooms shall be permanently unobstructed.” These dead bodies are breaking the law.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

They are deeper, wider, and more Jensen-sized. Seriously, they’re massive. And they’re always hiding behind vending machines and small crates, leading directly to and fro with plenty of slats along the way just in case you need to see where all the guards are hanging. Subtlety doesn’t circulate in the near future, I suppose. Air isn’t getting through those suckers in a sensible way. It’s a fact: these vents blow.

Watch Dogs 2 

Pitiful, but so pitiful, I can’t help but love it. There’s been no effort made to hide that this vent in a multi-billion dollar tech company building was built specifically for drone passage. (Just a heads up, this is how you get raccoons.) Watch Dogs 2 makes little effort to mask its videogame vents as anything but transparent chunks of level design. It’s one of the bigger problems I had with the game, that it promises options for infiltration, but vent layouts are so arbitrary and assured to lead directly between points of interest that they start to feel like a big billboard, stating ‘Sneak here!’

Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes 

Gif sourceOK, so it’s more of a drainage system, but it might also push some air around. Note the more rectangular design gives the impression that they’re a tighter fit than most videogame vents, which makes for a more immersive ventilation shaft experience. Were I in a crime film, I’d consider using such a discreet, small passage as a good place to hide the murder weapon. Were I in a videogame, I’d glitch through the floor and fire my weapon with reckless abandon. In conclusion, I love the compress of MGS5’s passages, but otherwise, they rarely make sense. Often, they’ll just lead from a hole outside a building in a direct line inside. You’re going to get raccoons, damnit.

Half-Life

So very, very dark. Like a damn vent should be! If I’m supposed to suspend my disbelief that these big metallic crawlspaces are mean for air circulation and not hiding headcrabs, I want them to at least distract me with tension. The vents are otherwise featureless, vanilla shafts. Four walls, grey, nothing particularly special about them. At least they acknowledge you’re going to get critters with such impractical vents, even if they’re interdimensional face suckers.

Half-Life 2

Talk about sequelitis! No innovation. Expect more flat, boxy aluminum textures, more headcrabs popping out to say hello, and most grievous, of course, are the impractical air convection layouts. The thought makes me shiver, not because it’s abhorrent, but because damn, it’s cold in here, Gordon!

Batman: Arkham Series

Gif source

Gotham’s vents are comically large. Bruce Wayne isn’t a small man, especially with an extra few inches thanks to bat ears. And crouching isn’t easy in all that armor—it’s going to bunch up, Bruce. I’m sorry but your tummy is getting pinched beneath those plates. God forbid you drop a quarter. To accommodate all that batmass, the vents essentially serve as a venue for badguy shadow puppets and an echochamber for the Joker’s prolonged loudspeaker monologues. They’re a nice place to hide in if you’ve been spotted, but their design won’t win any awards from us. Often they serve as a comically short passage between two rooms, ensuring the only air they’re circulating is Wayne’s big ego.

WINNER — Alien: Isolation

We praised Alien's production design during release, and Creative Assembly's extraordinary attention to environment detail extends to the design of its vents. The aperture entrance to each vent is accompanied by a slick cylindrical animation and shrill soundbite that sounds like a sword being pulled from its sheath. Foreboding, a bit, considering there’s probably a hungry alien in there.Isolation’s detailed lighting and shadows give the impression that Sevastopol is a hulking, intricate tangle of retro-futurist industrial design. As you crawl through every vent and maintenance shaft, you’ll get small glimpses into the guts of the station, a smoky mess of pipes and dim lights and scattered tools. The result is a space station that feels so vast and cobbled together that its tiny passages and maintenance systems feel plausible. Vents that don’t make sense, make sense on Sevastopol.To the team at Creative Assembly, you’ve creatively assembled good passages behind the walls for players to bonk around in that don’t feel like a mad maintenance man’s pet project. Your congratulatory PC Gamer Gust of Approval should make it your way soon.

PC Gamer

We’ve been playing stealth games for decades now, infiltrating military bases undetected, choking henchmen from behind and packing ventilation shafts with their naked unconscious bodies. But making sneaking fun isn’t easy. Full spatial awareness, how to communicate your visibility, and reliability of tools and AI behaviors are a hard thing to pin down. Luckily, these games pull it off without disturbing a single dust mote. They’re the best stealth games you can play on the PC right now, and what we recommend for players looking to get their super quiet feet wet. 

Deus Ex

Deus Ex' sandbox structure made it a landmark study in open-ended design. The large environments and varied upgrade tree are designed to give you ways to solve tasks expressively, using imagination and forethought instead of a big gun. Nearly every stealth game on this list borrows something from Deus Ex, and it’s easy to see why.

Deus Ex pulled off experimental, player-driven stealth design in huge, tiered environments. It was the cyberpunk espionage dream, and for many modern developers, it still is. The last two entries in the series, Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, play with similar, more streamlined design, and while we recommend them as well, they still can’t brush with the complexity and novelty of the original. If you’re not big on playing old games, install some mods like Deus Ex Revision, and give it a shot.

Hitman

After Hitman: Absolution, it seemed that Blood Money would stay the golden standard for silly stealth sandbox shenanigans indefinitely, but IO Interactive surprised us all with Hitman’s new episodic format. For the better part of 2016, we were treated with a new level every month, each featuring a different setting, layout, and pocket universe of NPCs going about their clockwork lives. Agent 47 is the screwdriver you get to jam in wherever you choose. Watching the mechanism break around you (and reacting to it when things go wrong) is central to Hitman’s charm.I like the way Phil put it in his season review: “Strip away the theme and fantasy, and you're left with a diorama of moving parts—a seemingly perfect system of loops, each intersecting to create a complex scene. It's left to you to decide how you want to break it—whether it's by surgically removing key actors, or by violently smashing it all up with guns, bombs and a stuffed moose.”

Supported with a steady stream of updates, including temporary Elusive Targets and remixed levels, it’s still possible to play the entirety of season one in new ways (and season two is already in development). We might be getting a steady stream of Hitman forever, and videogames are better for it.

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

In the years since Chaos Theory, Splinter Cell and the majority of stealth games have veered from a focus on purely covert scenarios, and it’s easy to see why. Chaos Theory is a complex, punishing stealth game whose gratification is severely delayed (for the better). Getting through an area without a soul knowing takes pounds of patience and observation, and getting caught is not easy to recover from. It was a slow, arduous crawl, but a crawl unlike any other in the genre, with a level of realism we haven’t seen since. 

Accompanied by a Sam Fisher at peak Jerk Cowboy, as difficult as it was, we laughed through the pain. The multiplayer was also a bold experiment in asymmetry at the time, pitting Sam-Fishery spies against first-person shooting soldiers in a tense game of hide and seek.

Thief 2

Alongside Deus Ex, the Thief series introduced new variables to stealth games that have since been adopted as a standard nearly across the board. Using light and shadow as central to your visibility, Thief made stealth much more than the visible-or-not dichotomy of implied vision cones. 

The Thief series is still unparalleled in the subtlety of its narrative and environmental design. Jody Macgregor sums it up in a piece on the very subject: “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.”

The first two Thief games are interchangeable as the ‘best’ for most players, so be sure to play them both, but the second takes the cake as a best-of recommendation for working out some UI and AI kinks from the original. But with both games, install a few mods and it’s fairly simple to make them easier on the eyes and our modern design sensibilities. 

Mark of the Ninja

The biggest challenge facing stealth games has always been how to communicate whether or not you’re visible to enemies. While we’re still working out the kinks in 3D games, Mark of the Ninja solved just about every problem with two dimensions. 

Through clear UI cues, it’s easy to tell how much noise you’re making, whether or not a guard can hear it, and what spaces in the environment are completely safe to hide. There’s almost no room for error, at least in how you interpret the environment and your stealthy (or not) status within it. Accompanied by swift, springy platforming control and a robust ninja ability upgrade tree, by the end of Mark of the Ninja the challenge reaches high, but so too does your skill.

Dishonored 2

What surprised me most about Dishonored 2 is the density of its level design. Like other stealthy immersive sims, it features huge levels with any number of potential routes for getting through, but Dishonored 2 is the first to make me want to see every inconsequential alleyway. Nearly every space is as detailed as a room in Gone Home, decorated with natural props and people that tell a specific story. 

There are more systems and choices than ever, and while you explore, how you dispose of or sneak by guards is a playful exercise in self-expression and experimentation. Emily and Corvo have their own unique abilities, and a single playthrough won’t get you all their powers. Summon eldritch tentacle arms to fling psychically chained enemies into the sea, or freeze time and possess a corpse during for a particularly, uh, daring escape. Just make sure not to miss Sokolov’s adventure journals, they’re a treat.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

I think The Phantom Pain’s appeal is best summarized by how everything going wrong typically means everything is actually going well. Samuel’s anecdote from his review is a perfect example: “I forfeited a perfect kill-free stealth run of one mission because I couldn’t get a good enough sniper angle on my target before he took off in a chopper. Sprinting up flights of stairs to the helipad, my victim spotted me just in time for me to throw every grenade in my inventory under the chopper, destroying it, vanquishing him and knocking me over, before I made a ludicrously frantic escape on horseback. It was amazing, and I’m not sure it would’ve been vastly improved had I silently shot the guy and snuck out.” Wish I could’ve seen it, Sam.

For a series to go from weighed down by cutscenes, spouting nonsense about nuclear war and secret Cold War contracts with a few simple stealth sequences to a full blown open world stealth sandbox masterpiece (and on the PC too) was quite the surprise. As a silent Big Boss, there are hundreds of hours of wide open stealth scenarios to tackle in MGS5, despite its thinner second chapter. Systemically, this is one of the most surprising stealth games ever made, and as bittersweet a swan song as Kojima could leave us with before departing Konami for good.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

It took me six months to finish Amnesia. It doesn’t allow you to play stealth games the way you’re used to, and by removing old habits, so goes your sense of security. The sanity mechanic intentionally denies you your habits by distorting your view and slowing down your character while looking at a patrolling enemy monster. Lovely, beautiful, safe, warm light also plays a part. The darker an environment, the sooner you’ll lose sanity, but if you whip out a lantern, guess who’s going to spot it? That gross bag of skin patrolling the halls. The enemy AI isn’t particularly smart or surprising, but in an atmosphere as rich as Amnesia’s you’ll think they were put on this earth to hunt you down, specifically. If you can stomach the scares, it’s a must.

Alien: Isolation

More than an incredible homage to ‘70s futuretech and the world of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece in horror, Alien: Isolation’s chief antagonist is a major step forward in first-person stealth horror design. The alien is a constant, erratic threat. It actively hunts you, listening for every small noise and clue of your presence, hiding in wait above for a sneak attack or—what’s that sprouting from your chest? Nice try. But besides the accomplished alien AI, Isolation makes good on its 25-hour playtime by constantly switching things up. 

As Andy Kelly wrote in his review, “In one level you might lose the use of your motion tracker. In another, the alien won't be around so you can merrily shotgun androids like it's Doom 3. Then your weapons will be taken away, forcing you to make smart use of your gadgets. It does this all the way through, forcing you to adapt and readapt to different circumstances, using all the tools at your disposal.” Alien: Isolation is both a striking, authentic homage to the films, and a consistently creative stealth gauntlet. If you don’t mind getting spooked, don’t miss it.

Invisible, Inc

Invisible, Inc nails the slow tension and tactical consideration of XCOM, but places an emphasis on subversion of enemies and security placements rather than direct confrontation. You’re not an overwhelming offensive force, and getting spotted almost always spells your doom. 

Chris puts it well in our Best Design award from 2015: “To the stealth sim, it introduces completely transparent rules. You always know what your options are, what the likely results of your actions will be, and your choices are always mitigated by resources that you have complete control over. There’s no chance failure, and very little trial and error. You either learn to make all of these totally-fair systems dance, or you fail.”

The turned based format means you get unlimited time to make a decision that would take a split second in a real time stealth game, but because of the extra space for consideration, Invisible Inc. piles on the systems, making every infiltration a true challenge, but one comprised of fair, transparent rule sets. Dishonored may test your sneaking reflexes, but do you have the deep smarts to be a spy? Invisible, Inc will let you know one way or the other.

PC Gamer

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

PC Gamer

NOW PLAYING

In Now Playing articles PC Gamer writers talk about the game currently dominating their spare time. Today Lorna Reid goes to the opera in Hitman: Blood Money.

Throwing myself down an opulent corridor in a hail of bullets, dressed as a painter, was not how I pictured my return to Hitman: Blood Money. As I stumble down a flight of stairs, still holding a bloody hammer, I m forced to concede that picking a lock in plain view of a guard wasn t a good idea. Nor was using the hammer in the undignified kerfuffle that followed.

In light of the new game s release, and with its Paris Showstopper shredding me, I decided to return to arguably the Hitman series crowning glory. And I just had to pick the Paris Opera House, didn t I?

Feet that had been so used to the layout of the grand building suddenly falter in the labyrinth of passages. Where the hell am I? Why is there inadequate signage? In the event of a fire, this place would be an outrageous death trap. The irony.

I m too busy getting worked up about Parisian health and safety standards to pay attention to where I m going, and get stuck in a door that opens inwards rather than outwards. I m turned into a bullet sponge. Again. My time in the Opera House is a three-act farce, more lethal to my self-esteem than I am to my two targets.

As my former prowess with the game fails to materialise I keep going back for more, working towards an ending where my targets, not me, get carted off in body-bags. This time I decide to stay out of trouble hah by engineering an accident, and set off to sabotage the winch for the chandelier, tucked away at the top of the opera house. One little problem... I can t find it. I only have to go up. How hard can that be? Staggeringly, it seems. I yank open doors, alarm guards, barge into the ladies dressing room and retreat amid a shower of screams. I pick locks and swear at staircases that go the wrong way. Fate and a shitty sense of direction conspire against me and I end up accidentally killing someone in a toilet before being gunned down by guards.

Restarting, and this time attempting to be a smart arse, I disguise myself as an actor, complete with a fake World War I pistol. I appear on stage as an executioner, hitting my mark beautifully. Then, in an unforgivable bit of overacting, I accidentally shoot my target a second time. My cover s blown. Shots erupt around me, I stumble off stage, and, in the ensuing chaos, inadvertently discover the door I d previously spent an age searching for. Feeling a Basil Fawltyesque meltdown coming on, I rattle up flights of steps to the roof space of the auditorium and find myself near the bloody winch room. There s no time to whip anything with a Silverballer because, in my frustrated rage, I slip off a gantry and die an ignoble death on the stairwell below.

As an assassin and an actor I ve failed. Worst of all, I died wearing an embarrassing moustache.

Despite the curtains closing on yet another of Agent 47 s lives, I couldn t help but conclude that Blood Money s sense of fun remains. I may have failed multiple times but I enjoyed it. I also learned that you should never send Frank Spencer to do an Agent s job.

By Lorna Reid

PC Gamer

WHY I LOVE

In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil's blown away by JC2's best weapon.

I was disappointed with Just Cause 3 for many of the same reasons that Andy outlined our 67% review. It s an incredibly repetitive, grindy experience that turns chaotic action into a chore. Overthrowing evil dictators should only feel like a job if it s your actual job. But worse than the failings of JC3 s progression systems is how unimaginative its tools are. 

There are a few exceptions. There s the wingsuit, which is brilliant. There are the tethers, which are ridiculous. There s the opportunity to upgrade your infinite C4 into a rocket-powered physics toy, which is an idea of unparalleled genius. Elsewhere, though, it s all pretty standard. In the context of an absurd action sandbox, the game s many assault rifles feel painfully dull. Putting a stream of bullets into endless waves of people wasn t fun to watch in Rambo IV, and it isn t much fun to do here. 

Fortunately, I don t think JC3 is beyond saving. All you need to do is look at its predecessor. Much like its sequel, Just Cause 2 is surprisingly short on ways to push against the outer limits of creativity. The tools that do exist are even more basic and restrictive. You have a single, weak tether, and a finite amount of regular, non-rocket-powered C4. Its structure is more suited to improvisational violence, but you have only a limited set of options with which to create it. Two things expand that sandbox in delightful ways: mods and DLC. 

It feels strange to praise Just Cause 2 s DLC, because much of it isn t noteworthy. Rather than large content packs, all of the game s optional extras are small, seemingly insignificant microtransactions. Much of them are pure filler, but one small addition—available as part of the preposterously named Black Market Boom Pack—changed how I interacted with that world. 

It s called the Air Propulsion Gun, and, as the name suggest, it shoots air instead of bullets. It s a high-powered short-range burst of force that results in some of the best physics-based mayhem since Half-Life 2 s Gravity Gun. It s not quite on a par—Rico still doesn t have much small-scale agency beyond making things explode—but sending a soldier spiralling into the air with a propulsion blast is funny in a way that doesn t get old. 

It provides the best physics-based mayhem since Half-Life 2 s Gravity Gun.

The problem with guns and explosions is they remove things from play. An enemy helicopter is an interesting problem to tackle, but shooting it down simply takes it out of the equation. That s why the more interesting option is to grapple up and hijack it. The problem has been flipped into a solution, thus forcing the enemy to respond. 

That s also the genius of the air propulsion gun. It doesn t remove things outright. A soldier is sent flying backwards, but the impact won t necessarily kill him. A vehicle can be flung into a group of soldiers, possibly exploding, but maybe not. It s a weapon in form and function, but one that doesn t do direct damage. By shifting the kill to the moment of impact, you re no longer instantly removing the threat. Even if your enemy only exists for a few extra seconds, those lengthened interactions feel more dynamic, surprising and enjoyable. 

It s even better when combined with the community s BOLOPatch trainer—a tool offering invincibility, and infinite ammo and unbreakable tethers. Avalanche has never quite perfected the balance of the Just Cause series, and so I ve always found it better to forego the difficulty for pure, unrestrained action. Military bases are cleared through a constant stream of powerful propulsion. Tens of soldiers dance and flip helplessly through the air in a mass juggling act performed by a petty, unkillable god. It s one of the silliest power fantasies you can play. 

I d hoped Just Cause 3 would build on this amazing DLC gun. So much effort has gone into improving its physics and effects but there s precious little that makes use of such enhancements. Like Just Cause 2, the majority of JC3 s weapons are designed simply to remove aspects of play. I find it really frustrating that the game can be so creative in some aspects, and so tediously restrained in so many others. 

My hope is, just like with JC2, Avalanche is saving its best tools for DLC. If that s the case, it s a shitty business model, but I d still happily pay a few extra pounds for weapons that manipulated the world in more interesting ways. Just Cause 3 falls short of its reputation as a cartoonish action playground. With some more imaginative weapons, it would be instantly, immeasurably more fun.

...

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