Thursday, March 24, 2016

Deus Ex: Invisible War - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Having played Deus Ex and its sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War relatively close together, one thing is certain—Invisible War gets a bit of a bum rap. Though it's not nearly as inventive as its predecessor, Invisible War makes a valiant effort to stay loyal to the classic Deus Ex formula while also trying to modernize it in some ways. Of course, the parts where it flounders stick out like a sore thumb, but its certainly not a betrayal to its namesake, nor a black mark on the series... it remains a mostly fun—albeit inferior—entry in the franchise.

Is the game a step down from the original? Yes. Streamlining is a common occurrence among renovated sequels/reboots nowadays (largely due to the necessity of being console-friendly), so it's easy to look back and see how evident the signs were in Invisible War: locations are smaller, the game-space is far more restrictive, the inventory has been simplified, and skills have been outright abandoned. Biomods still play a significant role in the game but you're reduced to only having six of them, with a good portion of the enhancements being entirely passive. And on top of that, the game is far easier to blow through since you can dispatch most humanoids with little effort and gather a squadron's worth of medkits, omni-tools, and biomod canisters.

Yet simplification is not always a bad thing. No longer do you have to meddle in bothersome inventory management or hit pause to turn on several of your biomods for a single attack. A denser environment leads to a more meaningful use of space, and a smaller pool of biomods creates tougher choices on how to augment your character (I was torn between high melee damage and stealth optimization). While I enjoy having an assortment of gameplay options available to me, I can also appreciate how Invisible War cuts straight to the point. It may be too harsh of a cut at times—there's fewer NPCs for world-building and every "alternate path" is sadly brief—but for the most part, the direction Ion Storm took here makes sense.

Again, this is not to say I loathed the unrestrictive nature of the first game; the most memorable parts of Deus Ex were where I backed myself into a corner and had to puzzle out how my melee build could survive. By contrast, most of Invisible War's problems were solved by oafishly thwacking someone over the noggin, rendering them unconscious in one or two blows. The game also slips up by making combat against some highly armored enemies mandatory in a couple of sections, forcing me to forego my nonlethal tendencies and utilize explosive ordnance. I may have been disappointed that playing the first game as a pacifist was so difficult, but Invisible War exacerbates this problem to a ludicrous degree. To add to the list of frustrations, the AI is pretty mindless, the combat feels dated, by 2003 standards, and friendlies become aggressive due to strange circumstances (like if you happen upon a random spiderbot). Never would I argue that the gameplay design of this entry trumps the first.

Invisible War is also not as long as its predecessor, clocking out to nearly half of its length. This was somewhat of a blessing since the game didn't have long enough legs to support such a grandiose adventure, though it nevertheless remains an appetizer to Deus Ex's entree. Thankfully the plot was surprisingly robust—I came out satisfied with where the story went and the direction each faction took. True, it's idiotic that Saman was far more shallow and atavistic than he first appeared to be (I thought he'd be more Marx and less Spanish Inquisition), but I felt the direction taken with JC's side was superb, since the Helios merger was clearly a questionable choice. The only downside to the narrative I can think of was that it wasn't well supported with the text found throughout the world (sure did find a lot of coffee books [and yes, I get the metaphor]), yet I still enjoyed the story just as much as the first.

After landing in Cairo, I soon came across a checkpoint in the South Medina. What was striking about this checkpoint wasn't just that the SSC guard was a woman, but on her desk was a picture of her husband, as denoted by the text hovering over it. I thought to myself, "See, this is the kind of creative flair that adds to the world and gives even the lowliest enemy some personality." One mission later, that guard (and only that guard) had been aggro'd for some reason I couldn't comprehend (did the camera above the checkpoint not like me?), so I had to avoid that spot for the rest of the game. I feel this perfectly captured the dualistic nature of Invisible War: on one hand you have a cool follow-up to one of the greatest PC games of yore, but on the other... it sure can be dumb about stuff.

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