Deus Ex: Invisible War – Part of the Post-9/11 Zeitgeist

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Two years after the release of Deus Ex, the world is a fundamentally different place. Terrorism has attacked the United States in a dramatic way, war has spread again in the Gulf States, and the future of our marriage with technology seems uncertain. Where Deus Ex attempted to look into the future, its sequel Invisible War attempted to critique policy positions by existing government and expose bad behavior of corporations at a time where many were beating the drums of war. But as a sequel to a critically acclaimed game, does Deus Ex: Invisible War stand up to the original?

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Story:

2072. JC Denton’s shadow war with the Majestic 12 triggered the Collapse, a period of global war and economic depression that shifted the balance of political power among the remaining superpowers. In this vacuum, many have stepped up to replace them. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has converted major cities into city-states. The Order, a Unitarian religion, promotes their faith by preaching the virtues of Neo-Luddism. The Knights Templar push outmoded precepts of body purity as taught by Christian faith with a militant force. The Omar, a hivemind comprised of cyborgs, run a hidden economy they hope will bring them closer to a true transhumanist future. And the ApostleCorp wishes to spread that same technology so that all humans are modified. These events have made JC Denton into a scapegoat these powers wish to eliminate or exploit in order to sway public opinion and implement their plans for global control.

A terrorist attack in Chicago rushes candidates from the local Tarsus campus. Alex Denton (this can be male or female depending on the player’s choice) and his friend Billie Adams, are evacuated from their school to another location where they are again attacked by the Order. Under the cover of chaos, Billie reveals to Alex that she’s a member of the Order. She joined after learning that Tarsus has been using the trainees as test subjects, and now she wants Alex to join her.

Alex follows Billie to Seattle where he meets Lin-May Chen, second-in-command of the Order. But until Chen can trust him Alex is sent on a recon mission to discover what became of Order agents sent on a rescue mission to Tarsus. Alex does as he’s told only to discover that those agents had defected to the Knights Templar, believing that the militant tactics of Luminon Saman could truly end transhumanism.

His many travels puts Alex on the WTO’s radar, and he is forced to choose an alliance while he investigates the factions in control. During these investigations, it’s revealed that the Knights Templar were behind the Chicago attack and have been using Alex to further their agenda the whole time. Agreeing with her fellow agents, Billie defects to the Knights Templar. The Order must now rely on Alex to help them.

Meanwhile, the ApostleCorp, founded by Paul Denton, is running experiments at Tarsus facilities all over the world. Paul’s organization seeks to make augmentation available to all people in the world, making a global, classless society. Alex learns this after meeting Tracer Tong, ApostleCorp’s current leader. Tong is working off science he obtained after JC Denton merged with the AI Helios. Their primary test subject, Paul, rejected the first round of universal augmentations. He, like JC who eventually rejected his merger with Helios, has been placed on ice. Tong solicits Alex’s help in repairing JC’s body and sends him to Antarctica.

There, Alex runs into Chad Dumier and Nicolette DuClare, leaders of the WTO and the Order respectively. These warring factions admit that they’re the creation of the Illuminati, not enemies. They, like every other faction, know what Alex has been up to, and offer him an option he can choose to end the global conflict. That’s when Billie catches up with her friend and challenges him. After beating her, Alex manages to revive JC who informs him that while he’s been away, Paul has been abducted from the ApostleCorp campus in Cairo.

When Alex makes it back to Cairo, he is presented with three options for resolving this game’s central conflict: Alex can side with the Illuminati and kill Paul to stop the Knights Templar; side with the Knights Templar and Alex’s body is used to end augmentation forever, or Alex can rescue Paul. After deciding, Alex heads to UNATCO’s old headquarters on Liberty Island. The Majestic 12’s communications protocol has been triggered. Alex, given the protocol from each faction, has the ability to do one of the following: side with JC and Paul by merging with the JC/Helios AI, making augmentations available to the world in his new station as a god, introducing a new age of true equality; side with the Omar hivemind by uploading nothing and killing the faction leaders, triggering an age of chaos and disorder; join the Knights Templar, killing the Denton brothers, ending modification forever, and starting an age of religious rule; or Alex can side with the Illuminati, allowing them to retain control over the world by spreading enlightenment through their prism.

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Deus Ex: Invisible War came out in 2003, at the height of President George W. Bush‘s War on Terror. Even the tagline of the game echoed this: “The future War on Terror”. This made the overall narrative more accessible players than the original. That meant it relied less upon philosophical ponderings and more on direct finger-pointing to the factions that are involved. Invisible War is made up of predators and prey, and Alex has the freedom to choose which are worth siding with.

Invisible War differs from Deus Ex by not embracing shades of gray and clearly defining moral authority in an attempt to guide the player to an outcome. It’s still a decent narrative, especially for a video game, but the complexity of the original is diluted in this sequel.

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Visuals:

Two years is a long time in gaming, and players were glad that the Unreal Engine 2 gave Invisible War a much-needed improvement in the graphics department, especially when it comes to dynamic lighting. In 2003 things like mood lighting and appropriate shadowing weren’t expected, yet Invisible War managed to implement this and in doing so created a world with a little life. This made neon signs appear closer to the real thing, made helicopters appear menacing as they swooped, turned alleys into gaping maws. Many may not have thought about it then, but it was the beginning for an era in gaming now that developers had more options in how they were able to arrange environments and set up in-game cutscenes that better managed the illusion of the setting. That was essential for maintaining the mood of a cyberpunk future that was in many ways more tone appropriate than the original.

Characters, however, still suffered. While there’s limited character creation for Alex, many NPCs repeat, and a lot of them in immediate approximation. This is made worse by stiff animations that didn’t take advantage of what other developers were doing with the Unreal Engine2 at the time. But these many of these issues have been modded by the community since then.

Sound:

Sound effects were massively overhauled from the first. Guns sound better. Bombs boom bigger. Tools sound like they’re being put to the test. Music is another story. Not a lot of on offer in terms of tunes regardless of story points or location, and they’re not varied, which may drive players to plug in their own soundtrack before long. This sameness carries over to voice actors. Too many parts for too few voices. That makes Invisible War‘s claustrophobic environments feel smaller still.

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Gameplay:

By now it’s clear that Deus Ex: Invisible War had a goal in mind: to be more accessible to more gamers. There was a difficulty curve in the original that made players learn adaptability in a way they may not have had to before. Firstly, the grand open spaces of the original were done away with, and instead, players maneuver through tight spaces, down longer corridors, and stick to paved paths. This made it easier to get around and always be mindful of their destination, but it also discouraged exploration. Devs at Ion Storm seemed to be aware of this as many of the game’s easter eggs were taken away from hidden messages and instead put directly into hidden conversations. This meant there was less need for travel now that players could just keep talking and eventually learn all they needed.

Secondly, this new design discouraged the need to play stealthily. Without the room to sneak about, and an enemy AI that wasn’t too bright, most players went in treating this RPG as a shooter. It’s easier to just mow down enemies than apply tact. Universal ammo for all weapons certainly made this easier, but that also removed planning from gameplay as there was an assurance that players would always be overstocked in supplies.

Thirdly, and perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the gameplay is the lack of choice. While it seemed that as small a decision as giving a bit of soy influenced JC in Deus Ex, Invisible War limited most decisions to leading conversational prompts. With players aware of when their decisions were being tallied tension over player action is lost. This is also why many of Invisible War‘s characters feel wooden since they exist mainly as a terminal to provide story paths rather than active agents with an investment in the world’s future.

All of this makes augmentations feel worthless. With no reason to think of how to play and no incentive to do anything but shoot, there’s little reason to embrace the future as a cyborg.

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Verdict:

Deus Ex: Invisible War was the cyberpunk game everyone could get into. This meant a protagonist players could design, mechanics they could adapt to with little difficulty, and a story that told them when their decisions would matter. Adding to that the blending of wild conspiracy theories, the real war on terror, the price people in the West were being asked to pay by their governments, and pop culture cues like that of the Da Vinci Code, and the Deus Ex franchise was no longer prescient but relevant. It was more effective in reflecting the present rather than predicting the future.

Fans of the original still harbor a lot of resentment over this game due to the high bar set by the original. No longer was their favorite game a hardcore RPG but a shooter with some text adventure and RPG elements tossed in for good measure. Still, those who love the original have made the effort to try out Invisible War, and at ten hours you may be encouraged to explore paths not taken the first time around.

Deus Ex: Invisible War – 7/10

One Response to “Deus Ex: Invisible War – Part of the Post-9/11 Zeitgeist”

  1. […] Deus Ex: Invisible War – Part of the Post-9/11 Zeitgeist | Neon Dystopia – Aug 22, 2016. Where Deus Ex attempted to look into the future, its sequel Invisible War attempted to critique policy positions by existing government and expose bad. Universal ammo for all weapons certainly made this easier, but that also removed planning from gameplay as there was an assurance that players would. […]

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