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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.
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.
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 , 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 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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.
I’ve played Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] and I liked what I saw. A brief visit to just two areas suggested a more confident and open approach to first-person stealth-action. My preview focused on the level design because that’s where most of the improvements seemed to be but Eidos Montreal are also determined to improve player character Adam Jensen. That’s already evident in the improved control scheme, particularly as it relates to use of cover, but it’ll also be felt in his new augmented abilities. You can see some of those in the new trailer below.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided[official site] is already looking like a worthy follow-up to Human Revolution as well as an inventive prequel to Ion Storm’s original cyberpunk classic. When we visited the studio to play the game earlier this month, we also spent time talking to two of the brains behind the game about the inspirations and processes that go into this bleak vision of the future.
First up, here’s Jonathan Jacques-Bellet te, executive art director at the studio. We spoke to him about collaborative storytelling, fashion, architecture and graphic design. Along the way we learned about content cut from Human Revolution, the places that Deus Ex is going next and why Jacques-Bellet te believes that India could be a perfect cyberpunk setting.