Second Look: A war that's invisible? deep
The first Deus Ex game is, in my opinion, perhaps one of the best games I've ever had the pleasure of playing, if not THE best. Upon its release in mid 2000, it was critically acclaimed and ended up winning well over 50 game-of-the-year awards. The graphics weren't amazing at the time (and are rather dated now) but certainly good enough (utilizing the at-the-time astounding original UT engine), the sound was pretty damned decent, the music was awesome and the gameplay was unbeaten. For the uninformed it was a genre-bending game in the most extreme way: two parts FPS, one part strategy and one part RPG, the gameplay was not only excessively well thought out but so deep and immersive you could spend hours in the menus and conversations alone. It's the only game I still play at least once a year to this day. Having said that, it's pretty hard to best the best, but Deus Ex: Invisible War sure tries damn hard.
One of the things I like most about Ion Storm (at least Warren Spector's teams) is the fact that they don't just pump out games to make money - they make games to be as perfect as possible. Both Deus Ex games were given a "when it's done" approach (the best in my opinion, as much as I hate waiting) and even before work on IWar started, the team (slightly revised from the team which worked on the first game) sat down and looked at Deus Ex again. They examined what they did right, what they did wrong and why things were the way they were. This seems to be a step often skipped by those in the gaming industry, and the revisions made to the second game in the series show a lot of honest reflection as to what the gaming community wants in its games. Having said that, not all the changes are (in my opinion, as a huge fan of the first game) for the better, yet most of them make the game a lot easier to get into then its precursor.
Originally, the game's complexity lay in its user-definable options - there were skill sets in which you could "train" yourself and then upgrade upon acquiring enough skill points (awarded for completing missions and side quests). In addition to the augmentations you could install on your genetically engineered body - Deus Ex (the first one) takes place in the near future, and the second takes place some years after that. It seems that technology has both evolved and devolved in this particular game world though, since while you can now uninstall bio mods (augmentations) and switch them out (something you couldn't do in the first game, which had it's pros and cons) the skills system has been removed, so you can't upgrade your healing, swimming, hacking etc abilities. There is a bio mod for computer interfacing which allows you to hack, but it takes up a critical aug slot that you'll likely want to use for something else.
On the topic of augs, while there was a pleasant variety in the first game and a whole whack of slots (9 to be exact), you were still forced to make some hard choices since similar augs went in the same slot - there was thermal masking which hid you from cameras and bots but left you visible to human opponents, or there was the straight out cloak which had the inverse effect, but you could only install one or the other. Now, while you can have both thermal masking and cloaking, there are only 5 slots to choose from, and while you can uninstall augs you no longer want (keeping in mind that this removes any upgrades you've made to them - you can upgrade any aug twice - and that bio mod canisters aren't exactly abundant) it's still somewhat irritating to be so limited in which augs you're able to use, since all categories have three choices (two regular and one "black market" aug which gives you powers like bot domination, a vampire effect and the computer hacking interface) but one is generally heavily favored. The only change I made playing through the game the first time was removing my fast run aug and replacing it with the always-on silent run instead, which doesn't drain bio-energy as most of the others do. While the game is certainly all about choices, you had to make some pretty serious ones in the first one considering your augmentations and I'm not inclined to say that adding the ability to change your choices by sacrificing 4 slots was a good trade, but rather one that makes the game easier to manage.
Along those lines, the inventory has been revamped and the number of menu screens condensed, much to my disappointment. It's a logical step since having as many menus as the first game did on a console would be somewhat nightmarish, but the detail in them was fabulous and added a lot to the realism of the game world. What once was a long and incredibly time-consuming web has now become a few condensed threads - there's your goal screen, you images, some basic notes, your aug screen and your inventory screen. It may sound like enough, but it was nice to look back at the conversations you had last week with some NPC and realize some story tidbit you were unclear on. My biggest gripe, however, is with the inventory screen. Once again it's easier to manage than in the last game, but easier isn't always better - while the father of the franchise gave you a series of squares in which you had to allocate weapons and items, every item or weapon in the game now takes up one slot, which obviously removes the tediousness of moving your items around to cram the most in there, but that was part of what made the first game so in-depth - the amount of control you had over nearly everything and how relatively realistic everything was, menus included. While a one-items per slot system does make things easier, it's sort of ridiculous to be able to carry around a rocket launcher, flame thrower, shotgun, sniper rifle, assault rifle, hand gun and bolt caster along with some med kits and bio-energy canisters in a semi-realistic world.
Inventory aside and bio mod system aside, this is a great game. The story is phenomenal (though not as incredibly amazing as the first, which had greater plot twists and did a better job of making you feel a part of a larger and more important group) and while I didn't get the sense of belonging somewhere as I did in the first game, it's due simply to the fact that you have far more choices. Whether this is a good thing or not will soon appear in an editorial, but in the meantime suffice it to say that I can't blame any sense of not definitively belonging somewhere on the game designers as much as on myself, since the game's so open-ended that you can truly do as you please regardless of objectives given to you. While the locations you're sent to is a somewhat streamlined set of events, and you still have to complete (or make a point of sabotaging) at least one mission out of every set you're given to advance, but this is somewhat unavoidable. While the amount of choices you're able to make is phenomenal, on the downside there's not usually one clearly right and clearly wrong faction to choose from, they're all kind of in the gray area in-between, which works against the game - in a game like Knights of The Old Republic, you can choose what is clearly the good path or clearly the evil path. While most of the time life isn't quite so cut and dry, it still makes the game more playable. This isn't a knock against IWar, but it means that you have to spend a lot more time in the game doing things you're only semi comfortable with since you can't really choose to be in a good/evil mindset. Having said that, the devs really did a fantastic job in making you actually feel bad, good or uncomfortable with what you're doing in the game world, because once again the characters and story are so lively. You may not necessarily feel part of a team, but you're damned well gonna feel part of a larger and very real world.
This high level of immersion is greatly created by the absolutely fantastic visual and audio elements of the game. I honestly felt like I was walking in an interactive 3D rendition of some futuristic world from Myst the graphics and lighting are so good. I can't think of a better looking Xbox game, not even Splinter Cell. Having said that, it does slow down in combat at times, which is rather hindering and kind of points you more in the stealth direction instead, something running against what the guys at Ion Storm really wanted. Nonetheless, the graphics are truly astounding, making the first game look rather visually unsatisfying and archaic all at once. The music, on the other hand, is debatably not quite as good as in the first - while there is a lot of very moody ambient music, none of it's quite as memorable as in the first installment. The sound and voice acting is easily as good as the original however, and link that to the fact that the impressive physics engine was adapted to be a sound physics engine as well, to which enemies and allies alike can and will respond, and you're presented with one of the best aesthetic packages on any console at the moment, frame rate dips or no.
The character models all look fantastic, the lighting is remarkable, the textures are crisp, and the levels are all huge and detailed. There is one problem with them though - they're not very memorable. Part of Cairo really sticks out in my head, and Liberty Island as well (though that's because they took the opening level of the first game and butchered it into something prettier but far less impressive) but that's more or less it - the first game was loaded with memorable locations, and perhaps that's because you visited each one a few times, it added a lot to the gameplay. The levels are perhaps larger, but at the same time they lose some of their character in that respect. The whole game isn't necessarily like that, but the setting of a game is a very important factor and without character, looking pretty isn't always enough.
The problem with reviewing a game like this is that you can't really give away too many aspects without spoiling the story. Having said that, I'm going to try to carve a rough picture without giving away any specific details, so if you're wary of spoilers then skip this next paragraph.
The story starts you off as Alex D., who escaped San Francisco as it was being wiped out by an as-of-yet unknown enemy. You end up in Seattle with a friend from your program, and throughout the course of the game you'll make many a shocking discovery about who you are, who she is, who the people you were working with are and who the other major factions in power are as well. Unfortunately, while it's all immersive and well written, there isn't that much that's horridly surprising after the first game. Most of Alex's major epiphanies are mildly surprising at best, but the shock value's just not there. Perhaps it's overly obvious hints like the "D" in Alex's name or the fact that you're attending an academy of augmented students, but while there are good plot twists there's nothing that really makes you drop your jaw on the floor like in the first game or even as in KOTOR. Having said that, topping the first game is nearly impossible in that respect so I couldn't really have hoped for more, yet at the same time, it would have been an amazing feat.