I’m playing Deus Ex: Invisible War again at the moment. There’s an absolutely stunning moment in the game, one where everything slots together and it presents itself as the remarkable piece of work it truly is. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.
Invisible War wasn’t released to the praise many had expected. We all know that, and the reasons why have been discussed time and time again. I always dissented. Through Wayback, I tracked down the review I wrote of it at the time, for the now-defunct VideoGamesLife. It was a 91%, at the end of a slightly awkward (though at the time, I thought it was awesome) concept article, running through all the different traits people loved about the original and how they were tackled in the sequel. But the conclusion was the important bit. That Ion Storm, yet again, had created something ambitious, intelligent, player-centric and forward-thinking.
There’s absolutely no doubt about any of that, even all these years later. It’s still, without a doubt in my mind, one of the most brilliant games of the decade. But this time, its problems stand out. And this time, that one spectacular moment that defined the game first time round… well, it continues to remain elusive.
It’s one piece of dialogue, which I remember being around the mid-point of the game. I’m just on my way to Trier, around five hours in, so it should be coming up. I can’t remember who said it, or even entirely what was said, but it’s a moment of completely startling, utterly natural frankness from an incidental character. It’s the sort of candid, snapshot-of-life dialogue that even the best films can’t get right.
I’m worried it may have already happened. I’m worried (delighted?) games may have moved on to the point where I’m not impressed by that any more. I’m worried I may have missed it.
Invisible War does a lot of things right. The choices matter. Though the game doesn’t branch as incredibly as – say – recent insanely ambitious amateur DX project The Nameless Mod, there’s always the sense that the decisions you make in this world are having some sort of consequence. They’re also not black-and-white, most of the time. It’s long enough since I completed the game that I can’t remember how everything pans out. Initially, I sided firmly with The Order, the initially over-zealous religious organisation that outed my previous teachers as an unethical science squad. Moreso, now, I’m edging towards the WTO, the faceless yet seemingly level-headed and relatively non-violent organisation In Charge Of Everything. I mean, I don’t want to kill that scientist, just because he’s behind some weapon I don’t care about. I’m just not that type.
But it’s not clear-cut, because Deus Ex has always had this fantastic tendency of having its characters lie, betray and change plans on a whim. Few games dare to do that, but more should try, as it adds a spectacular level of depth to the storytelling.
I’m being careful who I side with. I want to make sure I end up in the situation where that character delivers that fantastic line.
It also does the non-linearity thing better than, well, anything. People criticise the amount of air vents, or the fact that the options are almost always identical on each mission. I think that’s fabulous. On pretty much every occasion involving breaking into somewhere – most of the game, then – the options are laid out in front of you from the outset. It’s the same reason why the skillset’s been toned down, the ammo’s been pooled and the inventory’s gone slot-based. In other words, it’s all about the by-the-second decisions you make at a given point in the game, because that’s how you want to play. You’re not restricted by your previous decisions – in terms of how you’re approaching the challenges, that is, not the story – and, instead, you’re playing an evolutionary character that’s entirely catered towards variable play. The options for explorative progression are obvious, because they need to be obvious in order to allow this.
(Another great example being the fact that crates with shit inside are see-through. You know what you’re wasting the multitool on, y’know? That’s fair. That works.)
Something nags, though. Well, a few things – odd jumps and gaps in the voice acting being a minor but persistant niggle – but one big problem stands out above the rest. I’m wandering around Seattle near the start, looking for people to speak to. I’m not really finding any. I’m over in Cairo, in the largest Mosque in the world, and it’s all a bit underwhelming. I’m in the Greasel Pit, a seedy bar in a slum, and it thrives. It’s one of the few places that does in the entire game.
On missions, it’s fine — the sneaky stealthing is as great as any comparable game you care to mention. But in between, in the hubs that provided some of the most inspirational moments of the first game, it’s dead. There’s just no atmosphere to Invisible War’s regions.
It doesn’t help that they’re so small, so frequenly broken by loading times. It’s made worse by the fact that the outdoor areas are so implausably created that it beggars belief. Consider how exquisitely, say, Half-Life, System Shock or BioShock worked on creating a believable world to inhabit. In Invisible War, you’re constantly, obviously, working within the confines the level designer has worked within. Even in the outdoor areas, you feel boxed in, claustrophobic. Outside, you’re still caged. It just spoils things.
As a result, I’m finding myself pressing on with the main game, instead of searching around the lifeless hubs for side-quests. I don’t want to be there. They’re not special, and in a series that should be at the forefront of this sort of thing, their not being special is genuinely upsetting.
It was in one of these hubs that the character delivered the line. I’m sure of it. It might have been in Trier. I think it was, so after the weekend – since it’s a busy one – I’ll get back into it, and go searching. If memory still functions, Trier’s conclusion marks a slight decline in everything, as it all gets a bit silly and alien-infested. So I really hope I find my moment before then. Otherwise, though mechanistically wonderful, I’ll leave Invisible War crushed by the lack of life, and the ineptitude of my own wonderful recollections of my first journey through what I remain certain (hopeful?) was a remarkably brilliant game.