I recently played through ‘Deus Ex: Invisible War’ again. (I used the full edition of the excellent Visible Upgrade mod, which I highly recommend. It bundles a borderline essential hi-res texture pack – seriously, in retrospect some of those original faces are just… not right – with a miscellany of little fixes and tweaks which just make your life easier.) I don’t do this very often, to put it mildly.
Some people seem able to regularly re-experience the fiction they love without running the risk of it starting to seem boringly over-familiar. My girlfriend is a prime example of this. She re-watches her favourite movies all the time and takes great comfort in them being a constant companion. Also, she’s just finished reading a book she discovered she loved, and she’s planning on immediately re-reading it.
This is totally alien to me. I’m just not like that. Or at least I fear I’m not like that. I’m not really willing to risk it and find out for sure. I only return to my favourite games/movies/books with extreme infrequency. In part this comes down to the fact that I simply do not derive much enjoyment from diving back into them too soon or too often. I’d struggle to re-engage with them properly and it would feel like a waste. It’s like trying to defy a mental refractory period. Yeah, that’s just not for me. I prefer to let years and years go by; let my fondness for it percolate; let my memory of its particulars start to fade a little bit, become blurry, so that I can rediscover them anew.
But it’s also a matter of worrying that if I overindulge in that repetition, I’ll begin to weaken my connection to the thing itself. I’ll know it too well – inside and out, beat for beat – and I’ll become numb to it. This scares me. I love, and I mean really love, so few pieces of fiction when it comes down to it. So a certain measure of… preservation is called for, I believe.
As a result of this approach, when I do decide to revisit something I adore, it feels like a big deal. It becomes its own sort of mini-event. Which serves to amplify the whole experience, make me really focus on savouring it and its specialness. However, this can have some unexpected side-effects as well. It’s daunting, honestly. It’s half like opening a time-capsule and half like partaking in a sacrament. You get what I’m saying? It almost means too much to me, has too much personal significance. I need everything to be ‘perfect’ when I come to sit down and dive back in. (My OCD certainly doesn’t help with that.) And it can be hard to step outside those obligations which my reverence for that thing seems to imply, and just… you know… relax and have fun with it again.
I know all that might seem silly. In some sense, it may well be. If only recognizing their silliness could diminish or even vanquish one’s irrational compulsions. But, sadly, no. More’s the pity.
It was something I struggled with a fair bit on this playthrough. And this game is quite the magnet for such difficulties, let me tell you. Because depending on what day you ask me the question, it’s possible I might say that ‘Deus Ex: Invisible War’ is my favourite game of all time.
You know when you love something so much that even thinking about it weirdly makes you happy? Like, a tiny little burst of giddy nostalgic joy you could reliably summon even whilst sitting in a dentist’s waiting room? That’s how I feel about ‘Invisible War’ (as I’m going to refer to it moving forward, for brevity’s sake.) It transports me back to my square-eyed boyhood. Being in my small, dark bedroom, guzzling energy drinks like I was trying to replace my entire blood volume with sugar and caffeine, sitting four feet away from the television screen, and becoming hopelessly lost in an awesome new video-game. Good times, man.
It’s not just how much I ended up liking the game either. It was also kind of an important milestone for me. It came along at just the right time and played a crucial role.
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely played video-games before the original Xbox. In terms of my console lineage, I have vague memories of playing a Sega Mega Drive (a.k.a. Sega Genesis) when I was really young, and then when I was a bit older I had a PS1. But, being a little kid, I was gravitating to just playing fairly light, simple games on them. And I enjoyed those games but they still just felt like… toys. If you see what I mean. They were cool, and certainly a fun way to pass the time, but, meh, so were action figures or Lego sets or remote-control cars. Then the Xbox came along and changed everything for me. By that point, I was just about old enough to start playing and appreciating more complex or challenging or story-driven games. And in particular it was ‘Halo: Combat Evolved’ (the other competitor for my favourite-game mantle) and ‘Invisible War’ which radically altered how I felt about video-games as a whole. They made me fall in love with the medium. Their storytelling and their world-building and their sense of atmosphere and their gameplay were all just so amazing to me at the time. They totally absorbed me. I couldn’t put them down.
Funnily enough, I stumbled onto both of those games without having any idea what the hell they were, and I think going in blind helped intensify their effect on me. ‘Halo’ just so happened to be a game included in the Xbox console bundle I got for Christmas. (Or, at least, I assume that was mere happenstance because, hmm, I think my mom had let her Edge magazine subscription lapse by that point.) Imagine my surprise when a game that the retailer was forcing you to buy as part of a bundle turned out to be so good. And as for ‘Invisible War’, I remember going to Blockbuster – which, my god, always required a fair amount of cajoling and begging because my parents were understandably loath to drive all the way back and drop off the rentals – and just kind of luckily choosing it. My tendency was, if I had already rented all the games I actually knew about, I would basically just go by whatever cover art looked rad and drew me in. Not a very wise selection process, I’ll grant you. But it happened to work out in this case. I’m guessing after I picked it up, I read the back of the box and was intrigued enough to give it a try.
Obviously I didn’t know that a lot of people disliked the game. And, even crazier, I’m almost positive I didn’t even realize that the game was a sequel. (Weirdly, I made somewhat of a habit of jumping into a series by first playing the less-loved sequel to a well-revered game, and really enjoying it nonetheless. ‘Star Wars: KOTOR II’ is another instance of that.) In fact, just to stress my level of ignorance, if you’re wondering whether I was one of those dumb kids who thought it was pronounced ‘Deuce Ecks’ until I finally heard someone else say it out loud, the answer is: you bet your sweet ass I was. I feel I’m still living that down to this day. It’s the type of shame which, rightly, never leaves you. You can only learn to cope with it.
Anyway, when I got home and threw that disc in the Xbox and sat down to play, probably not expecting too much from this mystery game I’d rented, I was fucking riveted. My memory of my childhood is patchy, but I can very distinctly recall a precise emotional snapshot of what it was like breathlessly playing those first couple levels. (It’s exactly the same as with ‘Halo’, in point of fact.) It sucked me in, in this really intense way. There was a sense of awe, I think. I could unmistakably tell that this game was extremely special and I was so smitten with it already and it was blowing me away, even if I couldn’t have said why. There’s a quiet, heady, blissful excitement which bubbles away inside you when that realization occurs. It’s weird. It’s like you can sort of partially step outside of yourself in that moment. You can somehow tell, even as you’re playing it, that it’s affecting you in a new way, that you’re engaging with it in a manner that video-games haven’t caused you to before. The experience is incredible, and you can’t drink it in fast enough, though you’ll certainly try. And when you’re – what? I guess twelve years old, maybe? – all that’s pretty damn intoxicating. It leaves an indelible imprint.
So, yeah, long story short: I loved the fuck out of that game.
But in case you need more emphatic proof of the extent of that fanboyism, I present to you the ever-so-slightly embarrassing Exhibit A below:
When I got my first iPhone as a young teenager, I learned how to jailbreak it and alter the back-end system files to make custom homescreen themes. All so I could throw together this ‘Invisible War’ theme, replacing all the app icons with the weapon and biomod icons ripped straight from the game itself. I came across this screenshot of my handiwork whilst recovering the data from an old, broken hard-drive I had left moldering in the back of a cupboard for years. And I just had to smile upon seeing it again. There was even a wee swell of pride too. If nothing else, I have to admire younger-me’s commitment to totally un-self-conscious dweebdom. There’s something kind of pure about it. I was into what I was into, and I guess I was just psyched to let it bleed into all aspects of my life.
(Exhibit B, for the sake of overkill, could be this awesome ‘The Greasel Pit’ – a rundown, shady bar featured in an early level – t-shirt I bought and still have to this day. I’ve more or less worn it out at this point. And it’s cool, because it’s one of those ultra rare times where you can be reasonably confident that you really might be the only person on the planet earth wearing a reference to this thing/game.)
There you go. The defense rests its case. Hopefully I will have sufficiently conveyed that I wasn’t fucking around when it comes to this nerd shit. I was not a fan of this game like everyone at least kinda, sorta likes ‘Game of Thrones’ or Marvel movies. No, I decided that it was – for some ineffable reason which I’m not entirely glad to discover is much less vividly apparent to me now – important and/or neat that when I wanted to bring up the weather app, I got to tap on a little image of the bulky, bad-ass double-barreled shotgun from the game. For real, if that doesn’t elucidate the point I’m trying to make, I give up. You’ll have to just take my word for it. Pinky promise. Scout’s honour. Cross my heart and hope that natural cellular regeneration will gradually erase those unsightly myocardial score-marks I just left there.
It’s because of how gaga I was for the game that I became such a vehement apologist – for lack of a better word – for it against its many equally disdainful detractors. (I’m talking about during the Xbox generation, of course. I fully recognize that I may be just about the only person who still gives even the slightest, ghostliest semblance of a fuck about this point to this day.) Now, I’ve never contended that ‘Invisible War’ is a perfect game. Even as a besotted preteen with my eyes glued to the screen whilst I played it, I wouldn’t have tried to tell you that. I just thought that it was, taken on its own merits, very good indeed. That is, relative to the standards of its contemporary console-based peers. And, of course, that judgement was very much influenced by the fact that I wouldn’t play the original ‘Deus Ex’ until much later down the road. (A game I would then also fall madly in love with. It enraptured me in a similar fashion.)
This is all fairly important background info for the nature of this post. Because it will explain why it was notable that when I played through ‘Invisible War’ recently, it was the first time that I’ve ever really noticed all of its many faults. Not just ‘noticed’, actually. I found them glaring and unignorable.
I think this heightened perception is indeed largely due to the fact that just a few months ago, I also re-played ‘Deus Ex’ itself. (I talk a little bit about that experience in this post.) Naturally, I’ve played both games a bunch of times over the years, but I’ve never played them near enough back-to-back before, and appraising them in close succession was definitely… eye-opening. It’s no coincidence that most of the badmouthing of ‘Invisible War’ one hears is based upon comparing it unfavorably against the benchmark of the first game. This is a juxtaposition I’ve always considered to be quite unfair, given the (unquestionably well-deserved) legendary status that ‘Deus Ex’ has attained. Its cultural as well as historical significance – if one may reach for such grandiose terms here – in the world of gaming is sizable, to be sure. And thus it is cherished and exalted in a way that goes far beyond just it being a great game. So how could a sequel possibly hope to compete with that? It was hamstrung from the very start. Such was my line of thinking anyway. And why I considered ‘Invisible War’ to have been subjected to so much unreasonably severe criticism from the fan-base.
I’m not sure I can say that anymore…
That frame of reference has started to seem indispensable – a clarifying lens – to me now.
I realize that this post is going to be delving into the nerdy minutiae of a not beloved or well-remembered game which came out about fifteen years ago. Meaning that all this is perhaps only going to be relevant to a tiny fraction (i.e. you have some memory of ‘Invisible War’) of a tiny fraction (i.e. you played ‘Invisible War’) of a tiny fraction (i.e. you play video-games to begin with) of people. But, hey, them’s the breaks. I find myself with quite a lot of shit I want to say about it and a blank page waiting for me to spew all those thoughts out onto it. Besides, I’m… moderately… certain that reading a blog post is already, like, opt-in to begin with. So you wouldn’t be here, dragging your gaze along these lines, if you didn’t think there was some possibility that you could find the imminent analysis at least minimally interesting. That means you agree, by way of an implicit logic-trap contract, not to be bored by any of the opinions I’m about to disgorge. The law is clearly on my side here. I hope you can see that. And don’t bother getting a second opinion from your big-city lawyer. Internet jurisprudence is a brand-new and ever-evolving and, to be blunt, largely unfathomable field, so they would no doubt just bamboozle you with legalese applicable only to meatspace or embarrass themselves with baseless speculation. Save your money, in other words.
Oooookay. I’m going to start by pointing out just a few of the things I actually do like about the game. To try and establish some measly modicum of balance here. (Because, it bears stating plainly, I still love most things about it.) Gosh, it’s hard though. I realize I find it quite difficult to articulate why I appreciate the game so much. A lot of it comes down to intangibles and more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts stuff. So these really are just going to be the little tidbits I’m able to put into words. On the flip side, I’m sure I’m gonna find it easy as pie to expound upon its problems at length. Alas. Isn’t that always the way?…
And keep in mind that everything I have to say here, positive and negative, are impressions I formed on this most recent playthrough. They’re just what occurred to me this time around. Which means that this is in no way a comprehensive explanation of my thoughts on the game. That would likely require 50k words and exhausting the maximum of patience I could possibly ask for from any reader twice over.
Still, I wish I could at least give you an extensive, detailed account of why I loved the game so very much way back when, I really do. But, as aforementioned, sadly my recollection of my childhood amounts to a photographic memory… if those mental-images were akin to the grainy, postage-stamp resolution ones produced by the infamous Game Boy Camera. (Wait a second. In an instance of disquieting irony, I just realized I think I do maybe have an extremely hazy memory of owning that adorably primitive GBC at some point…)
Well, first things first, I really, really like the opening to the game. An enigmatic, cloaked figure wordlessly steps out into the middle of a busy downtown intersection. He’s oblivious to everything around him. Because he’s wreathed in an eerily stoic and absolute sense of purpose. In his hand, a small device – a vessel, in fact – which contains the seeds for the unmaking of the world. He detonates this device without any pomp or hesitation whatsoever. And from it explodes a surging sludge of nanites (i.e. self-replicating nanobots) which begin rapidly flowing forth. A little like the start of the biblical flood. Well, if its waters were… hungry. The sludge voraciously consumes and disintegrates everything it comes into contact with: people, cars, even entire buildings. (Man, I’ve always found any kind of ‘grey goo’ scenario to be both so fascinating and so horrifying.) A scant few survivors, including you, manage to get to a helicopter in time and are whisked away to safety. Yet, as you flee, a scene of total annihilation is left in your wake. It has taken only minutes for a large section of a major city to be erased, and this wrecking-ball-to-kill-an-ant was all to destroy a research/training facility which was tucked away somewhere in it. I mean… come the fuck on! That’s some awesome shit right there. If that doesn’t make you sit up and pay attention, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe check yourself for a pulse?
I also think the core gameplay mechanics are still tight and fun. I almost always play any kind of FPS/RPG by taking a stealthy approach, and this willingness to be a little patient and a little cerebral enables the game to show you its best side. Because the level-design is great at blatantly encouraging you to view each possible enemy encounter as a self-contained puzzle. You scout out the area from every angle, see where each enemy is… map all avenues of approach and decide on the optimal one… figure out what aspects of the environment may present opportunities or impediments, and preemptively take care of them… and finally, mentally envision what combination of your weapons/items/powers will allow you to most cleanly and quickly execute your plan of attack. I find this process of meticulously setting the whole thing up and then pulling it off to be super satisfying. And there’s a good range of variables for you to experiment with as you assemble your little scheme of delivering-swift-death-with-finesse. (Incidentally, the rag-doll physics from this era of games are delightfully absurd. Blast someone in the face with a sniper rifle and watch them go somersaulting weightlessly through the air, like a leaf whipped about on an eddying wind.)
I will say though, you do kinda have to compel yourself to go to this extra effort. For the most part, the game is unfortunately balanced way too easy, even on the hardest difficulty. That’s not me trying to humblebrag about my OMG AMAZING UBER-SKILLS either. I’m decent enough, I guess. ‘Invisible War’ does just lean towards making the most common enemy-types undemanding to dispatch. So you can definitely skate by just sitting in a ceiling vent and lazily carpet-bombing the room below with grenade-spam or, hell, even rushing in all guns blazing as long as you have a powerful weapon and enough medkits. You’re essentially robbing yourself of what makes the game enjoyable though. That point deserves to be emphasized. If you play this game like a typical shooter, I can see why you’d come away unhappy. The gunplay, taken by itself, is basic. And the enemy AI during actual firefights is… uh, look, let me put it like this: Mensans, these motherfuckers most assuredly are not. If you duck behind cover too much, to break the line of sight, they freeze up like you’re suddenly playing four-dimensional chess with them. And there’s a couple of other ways that they can get discombobulated and stand around like dopes so you can just pick them off at your leisure.
(Oddly enough, although you’d of course also be very ill-served by playing ‘Deus Ex’ like a plain ol’ shooter, I think you’d undoubtedly have a much better time than with ‘Invisible War’. The playspaces are far bigger, for one thing. That allows encounters to feel more spread-out and complex. Having to give greater consideration to the spatial component of your tactics (e.g. accounting for verticality, many pieces of cover, large and small distances) will just inherently create that impression, however illusory it might be. And the enemies, whilst not necessarily smarter, are more mobile and aggressive and formidable. Eh, I don’t know, just something that occurred to me right now. Having fun with the FPS dimension of ‘Deus Ex’ is a bit more foolproof.)
This is where I start to run into difficulty conveying what I mean with any real exactitude. Because one of the things I like most about the game is just its overall… look or vibe or feel, however you wanna put it. I’m a big fan of cyberpunk stuff and this game happens to nail an almost-perfect version of it for me personally. Somehow even slightly more so than ‘Deus Ex’ itself did, which is really saying something. There’s just a certain quality, a certain ambiance, it really pulls off superbly that I find myself quite infatuated with, even if I struggle to put it into words. The best way I can describe it is that there’s this subdued, sedate, but somehow also tensely moody thing going on. A contradictory mix I just can’t get enough of. It’s very distinctive and very few video-games I’ve ever played have featured it. Yet ‘Invisible War’ has that coolness oozing out of its every pore.
It’s interesting to me that, tonally, the two games are trying for such notably divergent things with their plots. ‘Deus Ex’ is more dramatic, more cinematic, has an epic scope and feel. It’s full of emotion and fireworks. Because it’s very much going for: bad-ass operative battles to unravel huge conspiracy, destroy evil cabal, and save the world. It’s mixing quite a lot together really. It creates a pleasing emulsion of action-movie tropes and gritty sci-fi dressing and novel-of-ideas winsomely sincere philosophizing. On the other hand, and to be frank here, ‘Invisible War’ feels like: confused mild-mannered dude tries to figure out what’s going on and where he might like to fit into other people’s grand plan. In a weird way, it’s kinda just a twisty-turny detective story at heart. That’s not necessarily better or worse. It’s just… different. You feel less like some steely super-soldier and more like a genetically-enhanced everyman (oxymoron though that seems) who’s simply searching for answers about himself but who can also capably put bullets into brainpans when the need arises.
That takeaway is further cemented by the fact that the protagonist Alex D – I’m speaking of the male version here – genuinely does have a strangely and very conspicuously laid-back vibe. It may be a little jarring at first, but it actually really grew on me. I very much like the voice-actor (or, rather, his voice), who I don’t think I’ve ever heard in another video-game since. It’s interesting. He really does just sound like a relatable, normal guy, which is a refreshing casting choice.
Something else that’s worthy of note is that ‘Invisible War’ is – or perhaps just feels – a lot shorter than ‘Deus Ex’. This has the upside of making the story feel very tightly delivered. Everywhere you go and everything you do seems integral to the plotline unfolding. There’s really not much excess fat there. I have no idea whether this was the result of purposeful restraint or whether it was just a shorter development cycle and so the game had to be of a modest length. Either way, it serves to give the game a trimness, a nimbleness. And once all the story threads are revealed and start to knot together and the climax is on the horizon, things move nice and fast. I’m not always a fan of that breakneck pace, but I’d contend that it works well here. (As a sidenote, I have to say, I quite admired the fact that there are several levels set in places you probably wouldn’t really expect to pop up in a cyberpunk game. An Egyptian medina and, well, the icy barrens of Antarctica are examples of this. It’s cool that they tried to push the envelope a little bit, tried to go in an unconventional direction now and then.)
This is one place where ‘Invisible War’ may well actually best – possibly accidentally – its older brother. I mean, let’s not pretend that ‘Deus Ex’ is without its imperfections. Trust me, I adore that game so much it hurts, but I can still see the reasons why it’s a flawed-but-lovable masterpiece. One of those is its pacing. There’s just no way around it. Some of the (*ahem* filler) levels in the last third of the game are quite bland, especially when contrasted with how absolutely awesome and unforgettably iconic the NYC, Paris, and Hong Kong levels are. It’s not even that they’re shitty, it’s just that there’s a noticeable dip in quality. To varying degrees, of course. And, hey, I’m not saying that the Missile Silo could feasibly pass as a proof-of-concept demo/test level, completed detached from the storyline, which was thrown together in pre-production. I’m not saying that at all. I’m not. So just quit your badgering already.
Okay fine, I am. It’s a level which temporarily convinces you of the virtues of speedrunning. Fuck. You pulled it out of me. You know what? I want that retroactively stricken from the record. Done? Good. And don’t you dare repeat it elsewhere. Go ask that fancy lawyer of yours, whose laughably limited expertise in solely offline-law might finally come in handy, what a ‘cease and desist’ letter means. I’ll even use a big scary font – perhaps wingdings; the most unsettling font of all – to really intimidate you into complying.
(Time for a brief, semi-related digression. I remember reading about some of the planned levels which never made it into ‘Deus Ex’. These included travelling to an orbiting space-station and then the moon, as well as visiting the White House. That kinda blows my mind, honestly. It’s so bizarre. I don’t know about you, but I thank the good lord above/below/inside all of us that these levels never saw the light of day. Talk about unwittingly dodging a bullet. Because the game that ended up shipping is – and this is part of why I love it – actually quite a grounded cyberpunk spy-thriller with even touches of hardboiled noir-ness. That’s not to say that it doesn’t minorly deviate from that seriousness once in a while or have unintentionally funny moments, but I think that blasting off into outer-space or schmoozing with the President in the Oval Office would have flung it straight into over-the-top, ridiculous, semi-parody territory, which is somewhere I would not have enjoyed seeing it venture.)
(And if I could throw in a totally-irrelevant aside too for good measure. To be sure, ‘Deus Ex’ is a fine name. The truncation of the longer root phrase is maybe a tad inartful and pointless, yes, but overall the meaning is maintained. And it goes without saying that that meaning is perfectly-suited to the game itself on a bunch of different levels. However, I also read that the game was originally going to be called ‘Troubleshooter’. It is, it seems to me, exceedingly rare that you hear about an alternative name for something and think “hmm, that’s actually pretty great too.” But this is indeed one of those cases. ‘Troubleshooter’ is fucking rad. It’s such a fetchingly, quintessentially 90s name for a video-game. Yet the later working title was ‘Shooter: Majestic Revelations’ which is just a real… weird… mix. Awful, awful title – what is it with these guys and needless shortening? – but decent, intriguing subtitle. Given that this direction was where they were trending, I would have liked to be a fly-on-the-wall in the meeting where someone pitched and successfully sold the peculiar name ‘Deus Ex’ to everybody…)
Lastly, but certainly not least(ly?), I’ve gotta say something about the inclusion of Kidneythieves’ music. At the time, I think this was the first game I had ever played that featured a real-life band’s music, and it really struck a chord with me. It’s woven into the game in an appropriate way – it’s not too overused or too in your face – and it really fits perfectly. That mix of soft, sensual songs and hard-edged industrial rock which Kidneythieves has got going on really helps give the world its particular flavor. (I should also say that Free Dominguez, the band’s lead singer, voices a minor but memorable character in the game, and provides a nice voice-acting performance. For someone who is presumably unused to the job, she succeeds in infusing a lot of personality into her role.) I discovered Kidneythieves through this game and they have since become one of my favorite bands. It was a nice synchronicity that they happened to come to me as a pair, it must be said.
Alright, now for the bad parts…
It pains me to do it. But, ahhh, what can you do? The game does have major flaws. And I figure I might as well articulate them. To maybe try and figure out where the balance lies once they’re all newly accounted for.
Moreover, although you will not at all be hard-pressed to find someone else to detail the game’s problems to you, I’ll be doing so from the unique angle of someone who actually loves the game. (I feel like I’m doing one of those cloying airline announcements. “We know you have a choice when it comes to posts trashing this game and we thank you for choosing this rinky-dink blog.”) So, given that I’m starting from a place of unabashed fanboyism, if even I have to begrudgingly admit that some aspect of it sucks…. you can be pretty fucking sure that it sucks.
A lot of the following is inevitably going to take the form of direct comparison to ‘Deus Ex’ because, to be fair, that’s where the game’s shortcomings become most apparent and describable. Such was the unpleasant lesson of playing them in close succession
I’ll start with the most obvious, and probably most important, difference between the games. In terms of the scope and size of their levels, the games have rather dissimilar feels, for reasons which are lamentably as trivial as technical constraints. ‘Deus Ex’ has a lot of large, wide-open, usually outside spaces for you to explore at length. That sense of exploration is awesome, and absolutely key to the experience. And there’s a lot of cool stuff (e.g. little scenes between random NPCs, hidden areas, world-lore information), unrelated to progressing the main storyline, waiting to be found all over the place.
‘Invisible War’ is just about the opposite. My understanding is that the developers felt beholden to creating something suited to the Xbox’s specs because the game becoming a console (and thus more mainstream) success as well was such a priority. I think this aspiration is totally understandable. And anyone who derides it with the benefit of hindsight is just being silly. It’s easy to see why they’d feel they had to protect the future of their development studio by taking reasonable steps to widen the selling potential of their game. And it was reasonable. I mean, jesus, it’s not like they picked the fucking N-gage, and went all-in on it as their lead platform.
(Man, I know I’m joking, but can you imagine? *Shudder* It would have had to be a goddamn text-adventure overlaid on low-res screenshots of the actual game. Y’know, as a side-note to this side-note, if you want to bum yourself out/laugh through the tears, go look up a video of the Elder Scrolls ‘game’ they shamelessly shit out on the N-gage. As someone who puts a lot of stock in the power of language, it pains me to admit this, but words can’t quite do this atrocity justice. It really is something you’ll have to see for yourself to believe. It features a draw-distance of approximately five feet and a framerate I could best by making a flip-book version of the game. There should have been a class-action lawsuit on behalf of everyone who bought and played it, on the basis of it hurting their brains. Perhaps irreparably.)
No, they chose the Xbox, which – although, yes, not very beastly compared to the PC tech then – was still by far the most powerful console of its day. (Looking at some late-stage Xbox games though, one can’t help but wonder whether every drop of what the console could do was squeezed out when making ‘Invisible War’…) And they even forwent the less powerful PS2 altogether, at the cost of missing out on the lucrative opportunity of its much greater install-base. So, all in all, one can see that they weren’t just going for an indiscriminate cash-grab. They made a smart, measured choice.
However, obviously the compromises required to make the Xbox version viable turned out to be more negatively impactful than they probably envisioned, but, look, gambles don’t always work out. Even cautious ones.
I’m talking, of course, about the downsizing of the game world itself. It’s a choice which means that ‘Invisible War’ just has a much more enclosed, constrained feel to it. Most of its playspaces are relatively small, and usually interiors. And even the larger levels are split up into chunks by loading-screen gateways which mean you’re denied any sense of actual continuous roaming. Now, one would hope that the counterbalancing benefit of this would be that the areas themselves are imbued with more detail-density. You want there to be a luxurious abundance of… I don’t know… things… nestled in nooks and crannies to make the world seem real and vibrant and alive (by 2004’s standards anyway). This, I’m sorry to report, is not the case. For reasons which I just cannot fathom, the world is a lot barer than you’d like it to be.
When I originally played the game, I think I enjoyed the smaller, closed-off feel its levels have. Although it does impart a sense of greater linearity and guidedness, it’s also true that it can also make everything feel a bit more tightly focused and in-your-face and accessible. I’m now no longer inclined to believe that this is a remotely worthwhile trade-off overall. I mean, there are places where it works well-ish (e.g. Upper and Lower Seattle) because it actually fits: the universe fiction gives you plausible reasons why the enclave and slums, respectively, you’re venturing into are so cramped. But then, more often, there are places where it just seems dumb. Places where it’s just immersion-breaking and a pain in the ass. The worst culprit of all is the game’s final level, Liberty Island. Which was, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, where you find yourself at the beginning of ‘Deus Ex’. Now, it was such an excellent (and – be still my little fanboy heart – memorable) first level in that game because it’s so big and open and you can really meander around it and get the lay of the land. It was so clever because it showcases the central design-philosophy of exploration and the wide breadth of choice you have when it comes to crafting your own individual play-style. Accordingly, it really is actually kind of… embarrassing… that the version of Liberty Island in ‘Invisible War’ is, despite being the same size, split into (if I recall correctly) three or four gated-off sections separated by loading screens. Like, what the hell is that? There’s no way to spin that, it just sucks. Come on guys, if you don’t want to invite unflattering comparisons to the first game, don’t take a beloved level from it and butcher it into a fragmented pale-imitation.
From a story perspective, the major inescapable weakness is that you, as Alex D, are merely choosing whether to help JC Denton execute his plan from ‘Deus Ex’, which is already 95% in place. So it’s like you’re just nudging him over the finish line really. And thus there is a slight sense of pointlessness hanging over the whole affair when you reflect on it afterwards. Yet, when I first played ‘Invisible War’ and didn’t even know who the fuck JC Denton was, this aspect of the plot seemed kinda cool. Coming at it from that state of ignorance was crucial. It meant that there was something fascinating, something thrilling about unraveling the mystery of this incomplete-demigod trapped in a comatose hibernation and the vaguely cultish devotees hoping to revive him. Once again it becomes evident why me playing the sequel before the original helped me love it so much. Because the other way around, you’ll basically be able to put all the pieces together about what’s going on as soon as you learn that JC Denton is at the heart of the warring groups’ conflicting goals. And your reaction won’t be much more than “oh… I see.”
Additionally, quite a few of the characters leave a lot to be desired. You find yourself bombarded by underdeveloped, barely-there characters who nonetheless somehow play big roles in how everything unfolds. Billie Adams is the case-in-point here. The intended arc of her character’s story is simple. Your childhood friend is leading a double-life, has a secret allegiance. She gradually tries to lure you into joining the nefarious fanatical sect which has recruited her and warped her mind. (Corruptio optimi pessima and whatnot.) When you refuse, she views you as a threat and you are tragically forced to kill her. The problem, though, is that she appears very infrequently throughout the game. So she establishes no real connection to you/Alex D and feels like essentially an irrelevant character. Therefore, when she confronts you at the end of the game, this showdown which is supposed to be a huge deal because you must fight your lifelong friend actually has almost no emotional effect whatsoever. It’s not even an anti-climax. It’s just a non-event. Yeah… They really dropped the ball on that one.
Then there’s Saman. (As far as I know, it’s unclear if this is a mononym or if you just don’t learn his full name.) Saman is another blunder really. The Knights Templar, and their militant opposition to transhumanism, make for an intriguing antagonist. But their leader is very much a throwaway villain. He’s also barely in the game and frankly quite dull. He feels half-baked, like an afterthought. And yet he’s supposed to potentially be able to entice you, the player, into siding with him. Otherwise the only reason to opt for the Templar ending is, uh, to get to see that cut-scene. But this dude couldn’t convince a fucking horse to eat an apple. All he does, once he lets his mask slip and he’s on the warpath, is berate you and self-importantly drone on about nonsense. It’s tedious. And, spoiler alert, it doesn’t get any less tedious as the game goes on. And eventually you start to just tune out this snooty, power-hungry, intolerant zealot straight from Central Casting.
Talking of endings, there’s a great deal that needs to be said on that point.
For some important context here, we need to revisit the first game again. Because I like the trio of possible endings to ‘Deus Ex’ a lot! In my experience, I’ve noticed that pulling off multiple-endings in an RPG game well seems to be surprisingly difficult. Because this final, all-important choice is the capstone on a particular branching path of previous decisions or preference-building which the player can come to feel very strongly attached to. And so it will come to retroactively colour all of that, for good or for ill. The pressure to get them right then, to make them seem like fitting and satisfying outcomes, is enormous.
Thankfully, ‘Deus Ex’ hits it out of the park. Its endings are all very thought-provoking and distinct. And, as is vital, each one feels properly set-up by the events and themes of the game itself. What’s most interesting about them, though, is that there’s not really a ‘bad ending’. Sure, they’re all extremely drastic and high-handed solutions for how to ‘fix’ a world descending into chaos. But the key is that you’re still always defeating Bob Page and his depraved, maniacal lust for totalitarian omnipotence. And you could also make an argument for why each ending potentially represents, even if just compared to the alternative, a positive development for humanity. There’s hope lurking in the cracks, somewhere. You just gotta be willing to look for it. Let me play devil’s advocate and show you what I mean.
The merging with Helios ending could seem promising if you believe that a quote-unquote ‘benevolent dictator’ is not only truly possible but also worthwhile. Humanity’s worst instincts need to be curtailed. On that we can all agree. But every attempt at species-wide self-policing has always proven corruptible or insufficient. Perhaps because people cannot, when push comes to shove, truly abide being told what to do by other mere mammals. The answer, then, is for there to be something above all of us. An incontestably powerful and all-knowing paternalistic authority with a perfect conception of justice. And liberty. And human well-being.
Religion tried to achieve this by just pretending there’s a deity (the ‘this game only works if we all act as if the Monopoly money actually has value’ approach) but there were two fatal flaws in that plan. The first is that fallible beings cannot truly invent and impose an infallible system of fairness. As will quickly become apparent when they try. Biases or sloppiness prevail every time. The second is that eventually people will start to grow dissatisfied with an aloof made-up deity who hides behind the curtain and issues secondhand dictates. The day will come when they’ll think “if this fucker cares so much about us, where’s he at? Why isn’t he hanging out right there in the sky, waving at us like a proud father as we go about our day? Why isn’t he smiting that asshole who scratched my car for no reason?”
The solution, therefore, is to actually build a man-made god so that man in turn may be made peaceful and prosperous. All that’s required to realize that bright future is abiding by its rule. And JC Denton, as someone who seems to be almost preternaturally devoid of any hatreds or ego or dictatorial ambition, would appear to be a good candidate to add an element of human understanding to this AI overlord. It’s a match made in
heaven the transgenic-ridden bowels of a re-purposed Area 51 lair.
The re-establish the Illuminati ending doesn’t require much explanation. Its allure is simply that, hey, at least it’ll guarantee stability. Civilization would be secretly controlled and guided by shadowy puppet-masters. And individual freedoms would be eroded in myriad subtle ways, yes, but the safety blanket of the resulting status quo may well outweigh that. Twenty-first century capitalism is a million miles away from an immaculate system, yet it does manage to keep most people fed and housed and vaguely content. Compared to pandemonium, that’s something. Something wondrous, even.
The Illuminati would be custodians of that security. Ensuring that humanity is frozen in this moment forever. A reasonable bargain, one could argue. The average person would be permitted a certain measure of self-ownership and possible flourishing, like a kid being given an allowance. And they wouldn’t even resent being profoundly patronized in this way, because they’d be none the wiser. They’d get to just go about their lives. Go to college, pursue a career, start a family, etc. Without the specter of cruel subjugation by foreign conquerors or global extinction hanging over their head. For although wars may still exist under the Illuminati’s rule, they would be but isolated exercises meant as a bloodletting of the excess wrath which lurks in the hearts of men from time to time. A small and carefully conducted sacrifice, to put it plainly. Regrettable. But necessary. Serving to quarantine inevitable violence far away from society itself. And thereby vicariously ridding the civilian psychosphere of its latent shreds of aggression and making an overall peace possible.
The inflict a technological dark-age ending is perhaps the most difficult one to view optimistically because it’s such a blind gamble. Still, I think it has its merits too. One of the game’s most obvious messages is that advanced communication technology, such as the internet, is an unbelievably dangerous tool when it’s weaponized by evil people. And so this ending offers a reset, if nothing else. It will be a hiccup in the timeline of civilizational progress and it will cause extreme disruption and dismay, but it will also allow humanity to regroup. To take a second run at figuring out how to connect itself globally in such a way as to prevent anyone hijacking those systems and wielding them against the common good.
(In case you care to know, that’s my favored ending. I’m not a luddite, just a realist. ‘My’ JC Denton sides with Tracer Tong and plunges mankind back into that recuperative darkness beneath the stars, where there’s no information overload or surveillance state.)
The decision to blend together all three of these endings to create a canonical backdrop for the events of ‘Invisible War’ is… well, let’s not beat about the bush. It’s unideal and it’s crude. That being said, you can understand why it kinda had to be done. They were confronted with an unenviable conundrum. They’d backed themselves into a corner and the only way forward was to feign total confidence and blurt out “what? this isn’t a corner, this is a hallway!” and then turn around and magically walk through the wall. And, credit where credit’s due, the workaround they devised actually works out… okay. It’s serviceable, at the very least. Somehow they did manage to weave together the story kernels of each ending into a plausibly coherent amalgam.
Of course, the one problem with this retconning which no amount of cleverness can solve is the fact that, by definition, the player chose a different ending and thus created a timeline which now doesn’t exist even as a hypothetical. Whereas imagine if the developers had just chosen an ending to run with…
(And, the way I see it, the Illuminati one was the no-brainer shoo-in there. If you’ll be so kind as to permit me to plagiarize from my own fan-fiction which will be released on Usenet later this year, the writers could perhaps have shown how corrupting that all-encompassing power invariably is by having the player team up with a grizzled, excommunicated JC to face off against Morgan Everett, who time has progressively made into a mad king. This would have served as a commentary on how the battle against tyranny is always self-perpetuating, always cyclical. An ouroboros of dethroning wicked men and then becoming one yourself and then having the crown wrest from you too. Also, Everett is a fine candidate for a friend-turned-betrayer, is he not? Because his dark-side is already hinted at by that awesome semi-hidden scene where you can opt to euthanize Lucius DeBeers and free him from the hell of being kept as an oblivious, barely-alive human Magic 8-ball.)
By zeroing in on a single ending, that would at least leave the other ones intact, albeit trapped in a prison of abstraction. But when you kill off/overwrite ALL those timelines instead, you produce an unavoidable disconnect for the player, a feeling that the in-game choice is rendered moot. Like I said, unideal. Especially for a game series which purports to be centered around the player’s decision-making.
To get to the main point at hand though, I… don’t love the endings to ‘Invisible War’. They’re just not done very well. Largely because two out of the four are, in an unambiguous way, horrible, horrible dystopian outcomes. I’m talking about the Templar-theocracy and Omar-wasteland endings here. The latter is particularly egregious because it, uhhh, doesn’t really make much sense. Not just in that it doesn’t add up. Worse, actually. You’re not even given anything to try and add up.
Its hollow logic amounts to this: all the faction leaders on Liberty Island have been killed, so… for some reason… the fertile power-vacuum which results doesn’t cause a new ruling group to coalesce and take the reins… but, instead, there’s two hundred years of ceaseless war… and finally the earth is ruined in a nuclear holocaust and only the hardiest, most inhuman dregs of humanity survive. Well, alrighty then. *Weary sighing* Simply put, I hate this ending’s guts. I’d like to print out a description of it and attach it to a dart-board. And throw a whole box of darts at it. And then fire a rocket-propelled grenade made of pure loathing at it.
Because (A) it’s completely, utterly, blaringly incongruent with the feel of the games. It’s more like some weird homage to the Fallout series or something. (B) It effectively destroys the Deus Ex timeline post-‘Invisible War’. Which is akin to hard-coding a GAME-OVER screen into the potentiality-pathways of the actual canon itself. Or to provide a more vivid analogy so you can better feel my pain, imagine you’re reading a choose-your-own-adventure book and you flip to the wrong page and the book just bursts into flames. ‘How fun and novel’, you won’t think. Especially as the skin on your hands starts to melt and bubble. And then (C) the concept of the Omar (their shared consciousness, their hyper-modified bodies, their placid mercantilism) is one of the most interesting things explored in the game, and this basically reduces them to boogeyman-cockroaches of the apocalypse for the sake of a cheap gut-punch to the player’s expectations. All that combines to leave a very bad taste in my mouth, I have to say.
Then there’s the Illuminati ending, which is literally the same as the equivalent one from ‘Deus Ex’. The organisation is just helmed by different people. And finally there’s the Helios ending… I think it’s fair to say that the game lays down more than a few hints that this is the ‘true’ ending in some sense. It’s the one which receives the most time spent on selling it to you. And the justifications offered for it are the most fully-developed and persuasive. Whether this was done because it best aligns with the writers’ philosophical views or because it just feels right to be uniting the Dentons, I don’t know. But it is a bit unfortunate to have a clearly-preferred ending because, again, it kinda contravenes the whole Deus Ex ethos of respecting the player’s agency above all else.
It’s also interesting to me that this version of the Helios ending is very much not the same as the one in the first game. It’s quite a lot darker when you think about it. Because in ‘Deus Ex’, the Helios-JC hybrid was merely going to assume control of the world’s computer-based technology to exert its will. Whereas in ‘Invisible War’ it means to actually modify – involuntarily, one hastens to mention – every human being in order to create a hive-mind, ostensibly in the pursuit of a perfected frictionless democracy. However, once it’s in your brain, you’re trapped in what is plainly the most totalitarian form of control and oversight possible. That’s fucking scary, man. There is no antidote to a tyrant who can remotely rewire your neurons with invasive airborne nanites. So you better hope you stay on good terms with your new god.
Moving on, there’s somewhat of a paradox when it comes to the game’s voice-acting. It is undeniably better than in ‘Deus Ex’. Yet even that comes with a catch. It’s ‘better’ in the sense that there seems to be a higher caliber of voice-actor employed across the board and they’re giving more sober, realistic performances. The drawback to that is it’s also a little… boring.
You see, the thing is, the voice-acting in ‘Deus Ex’ definitely isn’t bad per se. It’s simply a product of its time. It comes from an era where the limitations of video-game graphics meant you just couldn’t really convey very much, if anything at all, via a character’s facial expressions or body language. This often ensured that the way characters were voiced would be fairly over-the-top, because much of the burden of conveying what their personality was like fell to the impression their voice gave you. And so, you end up with wacky, exaggerated voice-acting performances like Gunther Hermann. The utility is undeniable. You listen to him speak for ten seconds and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s a surly, tough-guy Schwarzenegger analogue. Or take Bob Page, whose sharp tone is as villain-esque as could possibly be managed. So you instantly infer that he’s a sinister, duplicitous figure. It’s even the same with JC Denton himself. You know that you’re playing someone who is imperturbably calm and composed and calculating and aloof just by listening to him speak. Now, there’s inevitably a slight cheesiness which results from these simplistic, on-the-nose choices, but they also mean that the characters are positively dripping with a fuckton of… well, character, for lack of better term. They’re fun. They lodge in your memory. Yeah, Gunther Hermann and Anna Navarre are kinda ridiculous, but in a charming way. It’s quaint and outdated but it’s also enjoyable, it livens things up. Whereas in ‘Invisible War’, the characters feel more like real people, but are also all the more forgettable because of it.
(Whilst I’m on the topic of voice-acting, I feel I have to point out how crazy it is that one of the main antagonists from ‘Deus Ex’, Walton Simons, is just voiced by one of the developers making the game. And, uh, you can kinda tell… To be fair, I actually find the performance to be quite passable in its own way. There’s definitely a sort of disquieting icyness and gravitas imparted to the character by the stiffness of the line-reads. But… still. Generally you, y’know, want to outsource that kind of thing, and for good reason.)
When it comes to world-building and characterization, a notable simplification in ‘Invisible War’ is the fact that there’s just so much less stuff to read. I know that seems like an odd point, but stick with me. In ‘Deus Ex’ you’re constantly snooping on people’s emails by hacking into their computers or reading excerpts from books/newspapers or checking notes on datacubes. Each of these little snippets of insight may not seem like much on their own, but they really add up over the course of the game. They help make things, the fictional universe itself or particular characters you encounter, feel more fleshed-out and understandable. And, hey, it’s also just a nice distraction as you’re playing. Something to break up the monotony of creeping around the level zapping oblivious guards in the back of the head with your riot-prod. (‘Non-lethal’ option, huh? I’m no neurologist, but I’m pretty sure even if they do survive, the brains of those poor fucks are now scrambled eggs. “Sorry guys, I’m not yet at the stage of the plot where I come to my senses and ally with your insurrectionist militia. I hope you won’t hold a grudge because I snuck out of the shadows and gave your mind an electroshock enema. I’m sure all those erased memories of your kids being born weren’t that important…”)
In ‘Invisible War’, however, this component is reduced to almost nothing. Which is a step backwards, a regression. Not good. I mean, sure, in one or two small ways, the reliance on actual text to convey information about the world is arguably translated into a more realistic and immersive form. For example, the sort of news bulletins you used to read on info kiosks are now read aloud to you by newscasters. Fair enough. But the rest of the stuff? It’s not updated, it’s just gone, and you miss it. Especially those glimpses into what people are saying in private. Because without those, your comprehension of who the characters truly are, what their motives are, how they connect to other characters, and so on, is much less well-rounded and deep. Call me naive, but I have to imagine that this misstep was the result of limited time or perhaps misplaced focus. As a purposeful decision, it makes no sense. ‘Deus Ex’ proved that story-telling instincts which err on the side of voluminousness are well received when it comes to constructing a world players want to get lost in. Why you’d choose to abandon that, I just can’t imagine.
Now a point about gameplay. ‘Deus Ex’ certainly wasn’t impeccable when it comes to this, but ‘Invisible War’ does a really ill-judged job when it comes to resource-scarcity. That’s a pivotal aspect of the game, of course, because it’s the key to forcing players to be strategic and to use their items/currency/ammo wisely. Disappointingly, I found that if you scour the levels with even halfhearted thoroughness, you’ll soon end up with a big (and continually so) surplus of everything: multitools, credits, biomods, etc. So that you can buy what you want or unlock what you want without a second thought. This is a mistake which undermines the core design philosophy of the game. A.k.a. Pretty Serious Shit. It’s a common piece of speculation from the detractors that choices like this were meant to cater to a (perceived) lesser degree of skill and patience on console gamers’ part. I hope that’s not true. I hope it was just a simple error in judgement when it came to balancing the game. But… let’s just say that one can easily imagine that specious imperative slowly materializing in someone’s mind as they watched a focus-testing session which bad luck had conspired to fill with dummies.
Coincidentally, there was a bizarre and oddly comedic glitch I randomly encountered at several points – it was following me, I tell you! – throughout the game which served to perfectly symbolize the non-scarcity problem. (I’ve no idea whether the glitch was caused by some quirk of the mod I was using or just buggy code in the base-game itself.) It was like some weird horror movie cliché. There was a multitool floating above the ground and every time I turned around, more of them had appeared alongside it. Because the NPCs, pacing back and forth gormlessly as they tend to do, were continually bumping into this bundle of glitched multitools which is what was causing more to spawn. You can see an early point in this cycle’s repetition in the video below:
I found that if I allowed this glitch to keep vomiting out multitools over and over and over again, it would eventually get to the point where a large section of the floor was just completely carpeted with them. And, easily amused child that I am, it was pretty funny to then be wading through hundreds of multitools – no doubt testing the game’s physics engine to the max – with the NPCs around me taking no notice whatsoever. I only stopped this escalation because I was worried it would become so graphically taxing that it would crash the game. Though I suppose part of me will always wonder, on my deathbed too no doubt, what it would have been like to fill the entire room to the brim with a horrifying, suffocating, undulating sea of multitools.
(By the way, I’m willing to swear on a bible that I didn’t pick up any of those phantom multitools. I’m too straight-laced to cheat in my playthrough. Which, I have to say, I feel should count as a form of character reference in a job application or court case. In fact, I kept my game saves in case they ever want to check. “Your Honor, if I may. I only ask that you ensure the court computer is running version 1.20 of the game client, otherwise there are some compatibility issues when importing saves, and I’d just hate for the jurors to miss out on this proof of my soul’s inherent goodness.”)
Staying on the topic of gameplay, I think many of the oft-repeated grievances are just nit-picking, to be quite honest. For instance, take the universal-ammo system. It reliably gets trotted out as proof that the game’s designers were… well, if not necessarily gulping down absinthe like a fish, at least taking a little victory sip after writing each line of code. I think this is unfair, personally. For one thing, we just don’t know – and, I’m not too proud to say it, may never know – how well those men and women held their liquor. So the absinthe’s effect on them may actually have been negligible. And for another thing, the choice to make ammo usable by any weapon was not as boneheaded or detrimental as it’s made out to be. It wasn’t a brilliant move, okay, I’ll grant you that. I mean, it has an interesting enough justification in terms of the game’s fiction. In short: there’s a monopolistic arms manufacturer who has created a proprietary technology integral to all their products – as is the ultimate corporate wet-dream of course – wherein the same protean mass of nanites is utilized by every weapon, because it can reconfigure itself into different forms of ammunition as needed. So it’s like an ultra-advanced 3D printer sitting right there in the magazine of your gun. That’s a pretty cool sci-fi concept if you ask me. Nevertheless, I also won’t deny that implementing it meant needlessly streamlining an already very simple game mechanic. And it wipes out the age-old metagame layer of deciding how and when you want to employ various ammo-types (which can, it must be said, occasionally create fun strategic dilemmas.) But, even still, for my money it doesn’t detract from the gameplay experience here in any noticeable way at all. I even forgot about the absence itself as I was playing. So it was misguided but harmless, in other words. Yet the way people bring it up, you’d think it was equivalent to the developers removing the ability to turn fucking left.
And, like I said, there are quite a few of these tiny could-be-better elements sprinkled throughout ‘Invisible War’ but, again, they don’t actually hurt the game in my opinion. So just, y’know, be a little skeptical when someone gets all po-faced and presents them to you like a hideous bill of indictment. It’s a sign that they really didn’t like the game – which is fine – but then probably also decided they needed to find some reason to dislike every single part of it.
To wrap up, I just have a few miscellaneous points:
- The music is nowhere near as good as the first game. Which is tragic, because the soundtrack to ‘Deus Ex’ is… utterly sublime and delightful and irreplaceable, for lack of an even stronger form of praise. What really sucks though is that you’ll barely even notice the music in ‘Invisible War’ at all. It’s very minimalist and muted. I can understand what they were going for, and even why, but it just doesn’t pan out. There was a sort of acoustical loneliness I often encountered when I was wandering through the levels, where I was longing for the music to actually assert itself and keep me company. (The one notable exception to this complaint is the main menu/title theme. I really, really adore it. It has a strangely potent effect on me. Seriously, I could be standing in the middle of a raging windstorm and hear someone humming it, badly, through a crackly walkie-talkie and it would still send shivers up and down my spine.)
- On balance, ‘Invisible War’ is much less philosophically high-reaching than ‘Deus Ex’. The only two ideas it explores in any depth are the deceptions by which an authority may control its subjects and the ethics/implications of biological modification. Whereas ‘Deus Ex’ is, if anything, wildly overambitious in this area. It doesn’t know its own limitations, but in the best possible way. It’s clear that the writers were determined to cram in everything they could possibly have to say – a weakness I may have a special sympathy for – about the range of lofty subjects they tackle. And they often hit upon insights of remarkable force and eloquence; there’s writing in that game which genuinely has literary merit, and yes I do really mean that. (Given the time, that’s a way bigger accomplishment than it may seem at first blush. Go remind yourself of some of the video-games it was sitting on the shelf next to in 2000 and… I think you’ll see what I’m getting at.)
Besides which, in ‘Deus Ex’ there’s just this winningly earnest and almost over-excited quality to it all. Like someone who’s just read a big pile of tomes which expanded their mind and is now champing at the bit to articulate all the new ideas/opinions they’ve formed. And, hell, they do a good job of somehow fitting it all into the game. (Though there is some just straight-up naked info-dumping about real conspiracy theories.) Yes, you might be a little taken aback when some loquacious bartender engages you in a debate about the best form of government, but given that the game can’t exactly just contrive to have you bumping into an endless stream of elbow-patched philosophy professors out gallivanting in the bad part of town, you’ve kinda gotta give the writers some leeway. A little suspension of disbelief, you feel me?
- It’s weird to me that the first half of the game is almost totally devoid of any real linkage to ‘Deus Ex’ and then the second half is cocooned in a spiderweb of connections to its storyline. (I did enjoy the Nicolette Duclare/Chad Dumier reveal. Them feigning opposition to divide-and-conquer and gradually solidify a new continuity-Illuminati was a clever twist. And very fitting.) It’s a bit of an abrupt transition really. You think they’re gonna ease you into it, but then they essentially just dump a whole heap of stuff in your lap real quick. This is a side-effect of the game being so eager to race to the finish, I have to imagine.
- Listen, do I love the Grays? Was I psyched that these whiny, monotone pseudo-aliens popped up repeatedly in the course of the game? Am I likely to go on Etsy and pay some talented crafter to custom-make a Gray plushie for me? The answer to all three is, in order: no, no, no but it would be pretty cute. Frankly, I wish the Grays had not been given any kind of role in the plot. They puncture the more serious and unfantastical vibe the game otherwise strives for and generally succeeds at.
- ‘Invisible War’ does a little fan-service here and there, but not enough as far as I’m concerned. I know it’s twenty years later, but, jeez, would it have killed them to put a Zyme rehab center in Upper Seattle. Or plant a few Oracle emails here and there, to suggest that the little-known transactional AI in the first game somehow survived the death of the so-called ‘net. Or show that Sandra Renton fled to Europe to start a new life, and became a brothel madam in Trier. Or maybe you even run into the Erin Todd/Wayne Young/Decker Parkes trio whose dramatic little escape saga you’re only obliquely exposed to previously. I mean, I’m just spit-balling here. But, y’know, just sprinkle some cool little deep-pull references like that, to wink at the hardcore fans. That would have been nice. Because even the actual attempts at fan-service they do make are kind of limp, kind of half-done.
Here’s some examples to show you what I mean. We get one measly chapter from a sequel to the fun made-up parody novel, ‘Jacob’s Shadow’, featured all throughout the first game. Also, the Liberty Island level is shockingly devoid of all the obvious easter-eggs which you’d expect it to be crammed with. There’s a couple, yeah, but honestly they feel pretty paltry. And then there’s the part where you visit JC’s sanctum and jump through a couple playable flashbacks to moments from ‘Deus Ex’… Sure enough, this sets your heart all aflutter at first. But you quickly realize that they’re going to do nothing with it. You just briefly get to walk through dead, empty versions of rooms you recognize, and then it’s over. What a missed opportunity. There was so much they could have done with that, to play around with and subvert your memory of those locations.
As I draw this big, unwieldy beast of a blog post – would you believe that I always sit down at the keyboard thinking I’ll be lucky if my thoughts’ll stretch to more than a few thousand words? – to a close, I have something pertinent to say about the two more recent Deus Ex games/prequels. If you’ll permit me, that is.
First of all, I dug ‘Human Revolution’ quite a bit. I thought it managed to do the impossible, by soft-rebooting the franchise in a really smart way. It made the fan-friendly move of carving out a separate chunk of the timeline and then executed (very well, one should add) its own spin on what a modern Deus Ex game could be. It was fun, it was polished, it was completely self-assured in its approach – never to be underestimated, that – and it had a cohesiveness-of-vision which is both very satisfying and very admirable. And the way that in-game world looks… oh man, oh man. Like everyone else with functioning eyeballs, I fucking love the slick, futuristic art style it created for itself. (It was like visual heroin; I just couldn’t get enough of it.) Okay, a few grousers might complain that it goes a tad too far in giving every single thing in sight a triple-coat of undiluted industrial-grade Cyberpunk™ aesthetic. These are the same people, I dare say, who’d also wrinkle their nose after trying a slice of cake because it’s too chocolatey. I struggle to relate to that line of thinking. I happen to enjoy a bit of maximalism now and again. And I suppose I’m of the opinion that the only ones who should be fretting about too-much-of-a-good-thing are ascetic monks and elderly folk with heart conditions. Call me crazy, but I don’t think many from either category have played ‘Human Revolution’. I mean, alright, a couple grandpas on cardiology wards might have gotten past the prologue level in Sarif Industries. But, like, they probably used a walkthrough or whatever. And, at any rate, I don’t think that counts for very much.
Oppositely, I found ‘Mankind Divided’ to be a game that was impossible to like. And, believe me when I say, I went into it very much wanting to. I guess I should point out that there were a small handful of cool aspects – hey, it’s still got that Deus Ex spirit artistically, so I’m an easy mark – and some interesting ideas, but they just served to spotlight how boring the rest of the game was. I really have to give special mention to two things in particular here. The first is that the almost unbelievably braindead enemy AI is unforgivable in a game released this recently. The second is that the in-game version of Prague (where, alas, you spend a lot of time) was hands-down one of the most aggressively bland and tiresome levels I can remember playing in the last ten years. I’m not just saying that for effect either. It’s the exact sentiment which was being repeated on a slow, endless loop upon the scrolling ticker tape screen of my mind as I slogged through that part and all its side-missions. A sort of silent self-protest chant, mutinying against the doggedness of my own completionist instincts. Futile but nonetheless pestering.
Overall, ‘Mankind Divided’ just felt phoned-in. It came across like a game which didn’t know what it wanted to be. That’s a cardinal sin creatively and its consequences are dire, as is plain to see. I really did not enjoy the game and, to be blunt, got to the point where I had to force myself to finish it.
When I did get to the credits though, I… confess… that one of my first thoughts was along the lines of “huh, well that should make people look back a hell of a lot more fondly on ‘Invisible War’ now.” I blush to add that there was just an ever so slightly self-satisfied tone to that pronouncement. (Something I only feel comfortable telling you because you are, of course, sworn to keep everything I say in the strictest of confidences. Another darling little quirk in this blog’s Terms-of-Service. Which is, by the by, four hundred and thirteen pages long and totally, utterly – I really can’t stress this point enough – unenforceable. I hope you read it closely nonetheless. It more so falls into the category of a gentleman’s agreement, I suppose. And that very fine cyberpunk monocle you’re sporting? The one that’s all polished black metal and unsubtle neon lighting, and presumably so unreasonably heavy it’s slowly wearing a hole into your orbital bone? Well, its distinct air of refinement, as well as its implication of forward-thinking sensibilities, gives me hope that we can come to an understanding. Meet me in the foyer and we’ll discuss this over a triangular glass of hyper-brandy. Whatever the fuck that might be.)
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that ‘Mankind Divided’ was only marginally less critically well-received than ‘Human Revolution’. It boggled my mind. I was aghast. Aghast I tell you! Not only because it scuppered any chance of ‘Invisible War’ finally shedding, or rather transferring, its long-suffering status as black sheep of the franchise. (Though it’s funny to recall that it too got a lot of great review scores when it came out.) But also because I found it so explicable that I could seemingly be the only one who could see that the game is clumsy and lackluster in pretty much every important way.
Yet therein lies the rub, does it not? ‘Cause I bet if I were to be instantaneously reborn as, say, an impressionable twelve year old boy with no memory of the series and I then happened to come across that game in the same way I did ‘Invisible War’… fuck it, I may well have fallen in love with it despite its inadequacies too. Yeah, I can see that. I really can.
That’s my main takeaway here, honestly. The context of encountering something can be so incredibly fucking important sometimes. Like, I’ve just expended a lot of clackity-clacking telling you, in detail, all the ugly parts and shortcomings of ‘Invisible War’ that I find myself newly able to see clearly. And it’s definitely painful when you revisit something you worshipped as a kid and discover that it just doesn’t hold up quite as well now that you’re older. But let me tell you what I’ve realized. Even those bones I now have to pick with the game don’t really matter when I step back and make a full accounting of how I feel about it. They’re actually just a small fraction. The majority of the game, I still love to death. And why? Because I was that twelve year old boy and this was one of the games which first amazed me and bewitched me and made me become infatuated with gaming itself. My love for it, therefore, is profoundly grandfathered-in. It’s embedded so deep in my neuronal web you’d need an icepick, a hammer, some plastic drop-sheets, and a soundproof room to even try to dig it out.
I think explicitly recognizing that unshakable affection is, at least in part, why I can finally criticize the game’s flaws without it feeling like… umm… sacrilege or trying to rob myself of something I enjoy, I guess.
And as someone who also considers ‘Deus Ex’ one of my favorite games ever, I have no problem conceding a couple important things. It’s strange, but I can’t help but think that ‘Deus Ex’ has aged much, much better than ‘Invisible War’. There’s a certain ineffable timelessness to it, a frozen-slice-of-gaming-history quality which encourages you to focus on what it is, instead of what it hypothetically could have been.
There’s more to the matter than just that though. On these most recent playthroughs, I finally realized, in a startling and conclusive way, that ‘Invisible War’ is just objectively not as good a game as ‘Deus Ex’. It’s simply not. There, I said it. I was brave enough to say what everyone else has been yelling for fifteen years now. Go me. And it’s easy enough to admit, because it’s so true. ‘Deus Ex’ is as iconic and fervently-beloved as it is for good reason. It’s just such a goddamn well-made game, with such endearing attention to detail. It’s a blast to play, through and through. And you can really sense that it’s suffused with that undefinable spark of… greatness. Maybe that’s because it just somehow had one of those once-in-a-blue-moon dream-teams of talent working on it. Maybe, given the context of its release, its opportunity to be so groundbreaking energized the developers and made them try to go all-out on innovating every little thing. Maybe some entirely different reason. I can’t say. (Though man I’m curious to know what is is…)
But, yeah, I’ll be damned if I don’t still think highly of ‘Invisible War’ all the same. I guess sometimes the rose-coloured glasses are just welded to your face. Kinda nice, that. It’s comforting to know that no matter how much everything else – your perspective, your standards – may change, certain parts of you will always remain pretty much static. Constants, which form a hidden constellation of self, floating like tethered buoys in an ocean of personal flux.