Blog 404: Invisible Sequel

Deus Ex has no sequel. It really doesn’t. It might, might just have a prequel in a little while. But it most definitely has no sequel.

So why did I feel the urge to replay Invisible War, and finally give in to it? It’s hard to imagine how one could go so wrong after the triumph that was Deus Ex, and next to the very solid continuation of the Thief franchise in Deadly Shadows.

I played this game once, and once only. “It can’t be that bad,” I thought in the shop. “Somebody will have modded it to be like the real Deus Ex,” I thought. Oh no. It was that bad, and there was no editor.

So here follow, in no particular order, a number of gripes. Sadly, these are by no means everything that is wrong with Invisible War. Spoilers are almost guaranteed to ensure, but really, they don’t matter because they’re for a game that doesn’t exist. Spoilers for Deus Ex may ensue by accident, but they don’t matter because you already know the game inside-out.

Club VOX

“I love the music, but I hate this scene.”

Club VOX patron, Deus Ex: Invisible War

In Deus Ex there are a number of clubs. They’ve all got thumping soundtracks, and though some of them are quiet (let’s face it, with martial law in force, the Metro closed and mechs stalking the streets, would you go out clubbing in Paris?), they are by and large very vibrant. If you’re not hanging around the Russian sailors in the Lucky Money, then you might be failing to chat up Sandra Renton in the Underworld Bar. (Where is my mushy romance sub-plot?)

The club in the early stages of IW is frankly abominable. There are two dancers on the mezzanine dance-floor, an empty area beneath this save for two men and two bodyguards. I mean, what? Even the VIP area contains nobody but a bartender and a black market weapons dealer. Where are the hordes of meaningless but mildly amusing commoners?

The use of music itself is also pretty suspect. In Deus Ex your music is, to use a media studies term, “non-diegetic” — it’s background noise outside the actual game world. As if Invisible War wasn’t bad enough that it reduced the music volume almost to the point of non-existence, music inside clubs spontaneously becomes diegetic — 3D sound that is emitted from an actual point in the game world. And when you, say, read a book or open your inventory, all the world sounds… disappear.

Fuckin’ atmosphere — how does it work?

Okay, Denton's habitat is quite nicely done. At least, this main chamber is; the grays and the rooms from the real game are a little bit embarrassing.

Bitesized

Deus Ex sprawled. Take, for example, the NSF headquarters mission early on — you can go down into the sewers, up over the rooftops, sneak through alleys. The warehouse district is big and it’s all one level.

Invisible War maps are very very claustrophobic. You can’t walk five minutes without a loading screen (though I suppose I prefer right-clicking a door to walking around a very twisty corridor) tearing your shit right up. Though the load times aren’t particularly gruelling on a machine like this, they are still quite intrusive.

And then there’s that apartment block where there are only five apartments, and nary a fake doorway to give the illusion of things being bigger. Every mission seems to be so damn short. Five guards and two little spiderbots? Bingo, you’re through.

Then again, the entire game is so damn short. An unusually large part of me thinks that’s probably a good thing.

Despite the relentless advance of technology, cleaner-bots got bigger and slower.

Radial Interface

It’s big and it’s clunky and it’s pretty damn annoying. Rather than some slick bars around the edge of the screen, I have this big circular thing slathered across my field of view. Not to mention all the horrible graphical artefacts introduced by trying to put curves in a square world.

In Deus Ex, my inventory, my augmentations, skills, goals, everything — all accessible via one interface. Yes, the ‘i’ key takes me straight to the inventory page, but from there I can still click to get to all others. The bright sparks behind Invisible War decided that, no, all of these interfaces should not be accessible from each other. Just because I forget my hot-keys all the time…

Finally, they decided to make the ‘quick load’ button F12. I don’t know if you remember, but ‘F12’ is the button for the flashlight in Deus Ex. And quick save is ‘F10’ (what shelved purpose did they have for ‘F11’, do you think?). Before you jump down my throat, you cannot change these buttons. Maybe I should dig around in an INI… If I can find it amongst the horrific mess they made of the familiar Unreal Engine folder structure.

To top it off, the interface is slow and unresponsive. Is that a prompt coming up? Give it five minutes to fade you out and spin the box in.

Even the infolink is now horribly intrusive. I'm sorry, were you in the middle of a fire-fight? I've got something to say!

In Need of Botox

Invisible War has not aged well. Up against the graphical glory that Unreal Tournament 2004, or even Unreal II, managed to squeeze out of the Unreal Engine 2, it is horribly lacking. Despite its general crapulence, though, the butchered Ion Storm version of the engine does run very very well on the modern system — no tweaks, no compatibility mode required — removing the terrible terrible lag my old (still respectable, according to the specs on the bag) machine used to experience with the likes of dynamic shadows and bloom floating around.

Yes, bloom, Invisible War had it before it was cool. Not to quite the same extent as today’s games, but it is there.

But the game looks so crusty. Characters’ feet wobble around on the floor when they’re talking, animations look awkward and… Okay, who am I kidding, Deus Ex wasn’t the most well-animated game either.

Even the weapon designs seem to dull. Take the riot prod; in Deus Ex, it’s very dynamic and interesting, plenty of detail squeezed into that low res, low poly shell. Here, the riot prod is a stick with some transparency and the odd lightning crack.

Let’s look at this another way; the women are butt ugly. And you know how I judge games on the attractiveness of their womenfolk. I know a nice piece of low-poly ass when I see it, and I ain’t seeing it.

Well, Ava Johnson is pretty saucy... Shame she turns out to be an AI. Why does a pilot drone need such a nice interface? Mmmm.

Throw Physics to the Dogs, I’ll None Of It!

Do you remember when physics engines were new and exciting? When games had to put limits on the number of ragdoll corpses on show at any one time because it was so cutting-edge you probably couldn’t handle it?

Then maybe you’ll remember Havok physics. The most glorious physics engine in the history of mankind.

Imagine a world where just walking into something can send it hurtling across the room. Imagine a world where all objects slide across all surfaces like they’re on oil, careening around at the slightest provocation. Imagine running and jumping at a heavy barrel to send it bowling towards an even heavier barrel, knocking them both flying. Imagine just picking something up causing all nearby objects to run off the table.

Welcome to the world of Invisible War.

The bench is always the most silent way to eliminate Manderley.

Universal Ammunition

Whoever said this was a good idea? It might make conceptual sense, but it’s gameplay suicide. The whole point of different ammo types is that you run out of your favourite and have to make do with other weapons you’re not too keen on — creative thinking, pushing you out of your comfort zone. Here, you just empty the clip of the rocket launcher and… whoops, you don’t have any alternatives. Even the Dragon’s Tooth replacement is a bit shit, being mostly unable to cut down wooden doors.

Even two kinds of ammunition (say, solid state versus batteries) would have been something to work with. Maybe the limit amount of ammo you can carry is just really harsh, but even sniping with the wookie bowcaster drains the ammo meter.

I didn't kill this scientist, but if I knew he would end up like that... The magic of Havok.

Non-Linearity

I’ve always said that true non-linearity is an impossible dream. Deus Ex had it in the right levels; the non-linearity was more in how you dealt with specific situations and reacted to events than in lol conflicting quest goals all over the fucking place. I mean, fuck. It hurts more because half of the conflicting goals turn out to have been all for the same people anyway (Coffee Wars stuff: same company. WTO versus the Order: same Illuminati).

They're all going to wake up tomorrow with terrible headaches and wonder about the divine justice meted out upon them. Alex D stalks the world and nothing can stand against his chloroform gun. Except bots.

Alex D.

S/He’s a weak lead. JC Denton does not fuck around asking stupid questions and generally whining like a little pre-pubescent bitch. JC Denton goes in there and fucks shit up. Almost ever line of Alex D’s dialogue ends with one question, probably two. He has such a weak voice, too. He’s just all wrong! And as if the continuity police were fed up enough, he was a full grown man that looked nothing like this in the tank in Area 51 — a place which also, according to the hilariously mashed up backstory, got blown up.

I hope you'rre not going to wearr those mirrored sunglasses durring a night operration, Saemon Havarian. Oh, wait, this isn't a BioWare game?

Make Four Endings

I think the biggest slap in the face is that none of the endings actually appeal to me. The wonderful draw of Deus Ex is that all three endings have their attractions — the Illuminati, well, there’s no social collapse and chaos and maybe you can steer them in the right direction; Helios, the ultimate benevolent dictator would administrate the world perfectly; and blowing the whole lot up would spell true freedom for the people of the world (at least for a couple of generations).

None of the endings for Invisible War appeal to me. JC Denton’s ending involves forcibly augmenting the entire population of the world, homogenising the human race by spuriously recombining all their DNA and spying on their minds. The Illuminati have grown up to be complete dicks that want you to kill everyone, and the Templars are mad fanatics. I do not want any of these people in power, so I decided to go for the last option — kill them all.

But rather than killing them all leaving the world to trundle on as it was before, it turns out that there’s a massive nuclear war that turns the Earth to glass, and the only people that survive are the Omar. Fuck.

This man's arm is Invisible War's plot.

It’s Not All Bad

I quite like the NG Resonance AIs that are actually a global spy network.

You're very perceptive... for an AI. The real NG Resonance is not as nice as her AI.

I quite like the cute little spider bots, especially the fact that you can throw them as grenades.

Dance... It's all I wanna do so won't you dance... Spider bots don't rotate, they jump on the spot until they're facing the right way.

I quite like that Ava the AI helicopter becomes deliciously flirty if you keep… using her. She reminds me a lot of Admiral Hackett (only ever speaking through a slight flanger), and completely coincidentally, my theory is that he is actually an AI too.

I've never been chatted up by a helicopter before. Jock certainly wasn't this flirty.

Conclusion

Deus Ex: Invisible War is an unmitigated failure of a game, a complete train wreck. It’s incredible to see just how far the masters behind Deus Ex fell when they made this hunk of junk, especially when Thief: Deadly Shadows was made by the same people and is so surprisingly good.

The game could have been saved. If they’d continued all the good features from Deus Ex instead of stripping them out and delivering us a hollow dumbed-down shell…

I think the best thing they could have done, though, would have been to make Ava Johnson not an AI and have a mushy romance sub-plot with her.

“…yes; you feel something. I must know what you are feeling.”

– Helios, Deus Ex

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