I don’t know if I’m going mellow in my old age, or if it’s a symptom of inevitable brain decay, but I am feeling forced to admit that there is something compelling about the ill-advised Deus Ex sequel Invisible War. (My previous examination of the game was hardly complementary. Was I really so angry back then? … What do you mean, “you still are”?)
I need to try to nail this feeling down and contain it before I end up doing something stupid like conceding that Invisible War actually exists.
The first thing that popped out at me as being wrong this time was the dialogue. It feels somehow… stilted.
I don’t just mean technically — though the teletype system does always take longer to print out the text than it does for the actors to speak it. I mean in terms of actual conversational flow, too. People seem to all-too-often descend into massive monologues, strings of loosely connected sentences required to expose the plot and tacitly explain gameplay mechanics (the Omar merchants are particularly bad for implying you don’t know what a grenade does). Deus Ex, say what you like about its voice acting, seemed much more able to wind its exposition into natural sentences.
This is, of course, a massive counterpoint to the apparently cluelessness of Alex D. For all she’s very clever and well-educated, she’s completely daft and most of the time responds with “So?” or “What?”
That does, though, begin to reveal perhaps a little of the charm that can be found here.
While a lot of the dialogue chugs along, the thug dialogue around Lower Seattle is brilliant in its contrasting lingo — new slang terms are thrown around with impunity. Meanwhile, Alex D might have originated in the slums herself, but she’s been in posh academies for most of her life and uses the pseudo-scientific jargon we’re all familiar with from the original game, staring blankly at the barrage of unknown street talk.
Like the time she speaks to the bookie at the greasel-fighting pit, where he tells her off for saying “transgenic” when everybody else calls them “gobs” — a tip which she blithely ignores as she repeats the word in her next line.
(… You know, that’s probably it. JC Denton is the man I want to be — cool, calm, always in control and always with a witty rejoiner. Alex D is the man I am — well educated but ultimately pretty useless at parsing the world around him.)
When I recently (“recently”) played The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, I remarked that its overall visual attitude reminded me of Invisible War. Now, playing Invisible War, I am somewhat reminded of Oblivion — because Invisible War is actually an open world game in microcosm. In fact, in many ways it’s even more open than that.
The double-sided main plot is perhaps worthy of note, even though it gets short-circuited further down the line. You are not forced to pick a faction until the conclusion of a major level, and until the later stages of the game most choices are not particularly irrevocable, so you can do big swathes of the double-plot in parallel for more loot and more exposition.
It’s worth doing this because they are only roughly symmetrical — yes, both angles culminate in leaving Seattle to get the Mag Rail, both organisations wanting roughly the same thing, but both missions leading up to this require different skills and occur in different environments. You could pick one side exclusively and only play through half the game, if you didn’t want to backtrack quite so much.
This relative depth and twistiness of narrative is, of course, offset by the laughably miniscule levels. On the other hand, with Cyrodiil being a vast expanse of mostly repeated content, couldn’t Elder Scrolls games do with a bit less geography and a bit more depth anyway? (Let’s sidestep for now the fact that the original Deus Ex managed a much better balance of geographical size and environmental/narrative depth.)
The illusion does start to break down a bit when you realise that everything occurs in pairs — never in triples or with no choice at all (at least until the end). Two pilots, two main quest factions, two coffee shops… The abundance of choice actually leads to a lack of variety in the end. (It’s a similar complaint to one I level against Mass Effect 2, where all the characters have one retrieval mission and one loyalty mission — the obvious structure starts to feel very artificial.)
Maybe the most fun we can have now is realising how blatantly Human Revolution rips off Invisible War, in plot and in world-building. Hengsha constructed on two levels, a platform keeping the rich above the poor — gosh, looks like Seattle got there already. How about Adam Jensen’s tissue allowing anyone to be augmentated without rejection — whoops, ApostleCorp’s new biomod architecture does that too.
Ultimately, though, I think it’s actually in the humour.
Invisible War isn’t shy of poking fun at everything; its humour is much less dry than the original Deus Ex. JC’s pithy comebacks were always a delight but they were in-universe humour, sarky remarks the characters themselves could appreciate — here, though, there are plenty of overtly ridiculous situations played out with a sly wink but nobody in-game gets the joke. NG Resonance’s global AI spy network of holographic chatbots, the petty terrorism of the Coffee Wars quest chain, the security bots that dance on the spot to turn around, the greatest hits compilation of all religions that is the Order…
Human Revolution, on the other hand, plays even its more fun parts absolutely, painfully straight. Adam Jensen floating to the ground on a glowing yellow ball of sparks? I never asked for this.
What am I saying? I think… I think I like Invisible War. Sure, it’s an absolutely abysmal sequel to Deus Ex in terms of mechanics, and beyond that it’s no more than a mediocre shooter or sneaker, but it’s got bags of style and wit and… Well, it’s cute. That’s the word for it. Tiny levels, funny AIs, daft little spiderbots — it’s just plain cute.
So I might be willing to admit it’s not actually that bad, but Deus Ex still has no sequel. Let’s call it… Expanded Universe. We can acknowledge its existence, but still be content that any missteps are completely non-canon.
Whew. That was a close one.