Platform: PC CD (2), XBox DVD
Released: December 3, 2003 (US) / March 2004 Europe (projected)
ESRB: M for Mature
Developer: Ion Storm
Publisher: Eidos
Genre Keywords: FPS, RPG
The best way to describe the sequel to the groundbreaking Deus Ex is to call it rushed. With the holiday season 2003 approaching rapidly, Invisible War was one of the few games to actually make their promised delivery date (unlike Xenus, Far Cry, Half Life 2, Soldner, Unreal Tournament 2004, Starcraft: Ghost and Breed, to name a few). Unfortunately, the timely delivery came at the sacrifice of beta testing and that intangible quality of "final polish", both of which show their ugly faces throughout the game. Prematurely triggering or even broken quests, incorrect dialogue, loose plot, unexplained areas and the fact that the game shipped for the PC with the XBox settings on the master CD all seem to confirm this.

Despite this, Invisible War is still an enjoyable adventure game with elements of shooting and stealth alike, RPG ability to customize your character to a certain extent, and interesting loot to find. In this manner, it's quite like the first game, except with upgraded graphics and "streamlined" (some reviewers prefer "neutered") gameplay. Let's hear a bit more about that...

Gameplay

The world is a recovering post-apocalyptic scenario, with cults, corporate megaliths, decentralized and weak governments and private security concerns running the show. Poverty, plagues, mass unemployment and crime are the norm.

You play Alex Denton (you can pick your preferred gender at the outset of the game), a young mercenary wannabe enrolled in a school training you to become a fully certified badass, when your world is turned around by a raid on your facility. You escape into the streets, where - armed only with a few choice items you've snagged on your way out - you set out to discover the truth about the raid, your facility and even yourself.

To avoid spoilers, I will just say that the plot is surprisingly similar to the first game, but feels more loose overall. This springs primarily from Ion Storm's decision to set the player free immediately (instead of doing missions for an organization as in the first game), and in a lesser degree to let the player choose their gender. Since the player is completely free, and the game must wrap-up at some point, the world around the player feels very unresponsive. Even extreme hostile behavior towards a faction will result in little penalty, even in the endgame where you must make your choice. Again, this is hardly different from the first game.

The game is played from a real-time, first-person perspective, aided by a HUD with built-in IFF, ammo counter, inventory management and health and bioelectric power (or mana for your special powers if you wish) displays. You can access subscreens for image storage (such as photos or maps), logs (but no longer conversations or gained info) and objective updates, or for tweaking your weaponry or your own abilities - all standard accoutrements of a RPG.

Weaponry

As in the first game, you have an assortment of weaponry to choose from - pistol, dart gun, shotgun, assault rifle and rocket launcher to name just a few - each has a secondary firing mode, and can be customised. Unlike the first game, you can only add two weapon mods to each weapon, so choose carefully. This means that weapon mods can no longer be used to make an uber-weapon which would fire very far, be very accurate, have no recoil, and have extra ammo capacity - however, new abilities have been added that allow you to use explosive ammo, EMP-charged ammo, or glass-melting ammo (melts silently and doesn't trip alarms, unlike shattering it). You can now also boost weapon damage directly with a "Damage Modifier" mod. The limitation of two rather cryptically defined mods per weapon means that a player will face some tough and uninformed choices (how much damage is increased, how much EMP damage is dealt, or how much ammo is saved by the mods is not given).

In a burst of fiendish inventiveness, Ion Storm has made all the weapons use the same type of ammo - just varying amounts of it. Apparently all the weapons are capable of synthesizing their own ammo needs from the nanites you carry - so you only need to find these Unified Ammo (UA) clips in order to increase your overall ammo count. Since the ammo is generated on the fly, there is also no more reloading - apparently Alex is capable of plugging the clips into him/herself - let's leave where as an exercise for the imagination. While decreasing immersion somewhat, this change does not really affect gameplay (despite wild debates raging on the IS forum to the contrary) - you have to watch your ammo as always, but now you can stick with your choice weapon as long as you have ammunition.

Skill System

The skill system of the first game has been removed, which is both good and bad. It is good because the player can now use any weapon with the same degree of skill - you no longer need to hoard skill points so you can improve your aiming with a pistol, for example. On the other hand, some players consider this a bad move, as there was a definite feeling of progress as your in-game avatar became more proficient at shooting, using lockpicks or medpaks, or even swimming.

Lockpicks have been rolled into multitools, and the amount needed to circumvent any device (or door) is preset - you cannot improve your skill anymore. All doors give your HUD a display of how much damage the door can take before it'll give, and how many multitools it requires. Discovering keycodes or passcodes is now automatic - if you know the code, the door will open; if not, you will automatically equip a multitool.

Biomods

The biomod system has been reduced to five reusable slots, each of which can accomodate three (3) different biomods - although only one at a time. Two of the three biomods are the "legal" kind, and one is a "black market" type, simply requiring the use of a different type of canister to install. The biggest difference is perhaps that you can use any canister to install any biomod (as long as they're the same legal/black market type) whereas the first game set your upgrade pace by providing a specialized mod for each part of your body throughout the story. There was no way to get the cloaking device early on, for example - now you can do whatever you wish right from the start. Finally, you can change biomods throughout the game, although you'll lose your previous upgrade level (for example if you had a black market level 3 spy drone and swap it for regeneration, you lose all three levels and would have to build it up again should you switch back once more).

The biomods include such assorted things like regeneration, infravision, cloaking from organics and bots alike, missile defense or remote bot control. A few passive implants have also been introduced - this means they can be activated, but do not use any bio energy until their task is actually performed (such as missile defense - the drone only uses bioenergy when it zaps a missile).

The Graphics

The world of DX:IW is dark, much like its predecessor. Using a mix of real-time shadows, active and interesting lighting, pixel-shading, bump-mapping and a special effect called "Bloom" (which is a blend of in-game anti-aliasing and distance lighting, heavier for far-away objects than nearby to simulate real world distance blurring), Invisible War's graphics are perhaps the hottest out at the moment. Unfortunately, this is hard to see by the casual player, as the resulting effect means that the world is dark, brown and blurry. The consensus appears to be that many of the effects could have been accomplished with hacks instead - the framerate gains might have been worth the sacrifice of not using the latest technology. As for me, I like it - but then, I know what all the techniques do. The famous Havok 2 physics engine is the icing on the cake, allowing for unprecendented interaction with the world, which lends visual flavor to the proceedings - the weight for bullets seems to be off however, as firing at a corpse will fling it with a vastly excessive amount of force.

The world is also quite small. Whereas due to the XBoxification of the game or reasons of cross-platform performance, all of the maps are considerably smaller than the first game's. While overall the sizes are perhaps similar, the levels are cut-up into a hub + many terminals, which means a lot of level loading. Quite frequently you will need to run from one terminal to another through the hub, and the level loads will literally take a longer time than running through a hub. This makes exploration of levels considerably shorter by virtue simply of the smaller size - whether it's better to have huge, sprawling and empty levels (DX1) or smaller, tighter, content-packed levels (IW) is again, up to the reader.

The AI

As a hybrid stealth shooter role-playing game, Invisible War had to deal with a lot of varied behavior from player and AI alike. However the dev team dealt with it, the result seems to be the same old "Ah, I heard a noise! .... It's probably nothing." routine that we all know and loathe. The only improvement immediately visible is that enemies will now throw grenades if they have such - otherwise it's the same old blunder-into-your-killzones lemming behavior.

NPCs aren't very interesting either; despite early shots showing us behavior like sitting down, group conversations, having a beer or going to the loo, the final product's NPCs are only capable of walking in very simple loops (sometimes bouncing into walls) or standing in place, occasionally spouting random phrases. Sitting seems to have been forgotten for some unfathomable reason (except in one coffeeshop in Trieste. ONE). Again, the only improvement from the first game is that they're now aware of each other and, upon coming within a certain distance of each other, will spout directed barks at each other. I guess that's something...

The Audio

The audio is quite good, from voice acting to ambient to weapon sounds to in-game music, courtesy of pop-industrial group Kidney Thieves. Their industrial noise and angsty vocalist fits the mood of Invisible War quite well. The first game's voice acting was not very hot, but IW pulls it off far better. Weapons are sharp and harsh, as should be. Perhaps my only complaint is that your own walking sounds are so loud - but then the only way to be silent in the game is to have the silent walking implant, so this also is a good interface decision, notifying you audibly that you will be heard.

Conclusion / Opinion

Yes, it's Deus Ex. Yes, you still have plenty of choices in an interesting world. Yes, the atmosphere is definitely grim and murky just like the first one. But.

I liked the fiddly bits. I liked reading the sarky bits on weapon mods penned by Carter (gone); I liked hacking into other people's emails (gone); I liked knowing exactly by what fraction of a percent that particular mod will boost my weapon specs (gone); I liked being prevented from being able to do everything, since every game could play out differently (still a bit there, but narrowed down to which biomods will you focus on this time). I liked things being so hard to find or discover that it was even odds every game (I played the original 5.8 times - the sixth time was right before Invisible War came out) whether I would find Gunter and Anna's destruct codes, and whether I would find all the secret areas. I even liked the implants being permanent, as it lent a feeling of identity to my version of JC Denton. I feel that having access to all mods from the start prematurely gives away all of Alex's abilities, and makes him/her far more plug 'n play - the process of building and discovering a character's abilities is diminished. And of course I prefer vast sprawling areas to prowl in to dinky and downright claustrophobic ones.

Invisible War, while still an enjoyable game, is not the Deus Ex I was looking for. I have moved along.

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