After my praise for Deus Ex, a few people solicited my opinion on its successor, Deus Ex: Invisible War. Never one to turn down the opportunity to over-analyze at length, I offer the following:
The biggest flaw with Deus Ex: Invisible War is that it was a complete departure from what was established in the original. Invisible War was weak in precisely the ways that its forbearer had been strong. This alienated fans, and probably earned the game a worse reaction than it deserved. It wasn’t a terrible game, it was just a terrible Deus Ex game.
Deus Ex Sr. was also famous for having a tremendous supply of real estate. Many levels were massive in scale. They didn’t always work aesthetically (the Hong Kong section of the game had some particularly awkward and inappropriately boxy level design) but they were always interesting areas to inhabit. While it wasn’t possible to actually build a working model of New York, the Hell’s Kitchen area was at least symbolic of New York, an abbreviation of the genuine article. In contrast, the world of Deus Ex Jr. was fleeting and consisted mostly of outdoor closets and corridors, connected by loading-screen airlocks. The cities failed to resemble anything of the sort, and the game never gave the impression that there was a larger world beyond the walls. The airport and subway station in particular were comical in their minuscule, playset simplicity.
About the only thing they did keep from the original was the one thing they should have remade fresh. The story in the original Deus Ex was a complete, self-contained entity. It wove together a lot of popular conspiracy theories to make a world of mysteries and revelations. Each time you uncovered a secret it led to a bigger, deeper secret. It culminated in the ultimate paranoid fantasy: A madman set on using technology to make himself a god. It was satisfying, but it was also concluded, and appending another story onto the end of it was a terrible idea. Like grafting an extra leg onto Selma Hayek, adding onto something great does not necessarily constitute improvement.
Invisible War tacks a new story onto the end of the original, and in the simplest and most uninteresting way: The secrets are all re-buried and you get to dig them all up again. All the old characters pop up and are trotted around as you work to re-unravel the conspiracy. Again. They’re all up to their old tricks, which is a shame because we’ve seen these tricks before. Everyone you meet goes out of their way to explain how they are related to characters and events in the original game, as if they were bypassing the character and trying to address the player directly. Look! Remember me? We met in the last game. We’re together again! Isn’t this fun?
It would have been far better to keep the premise and throw out the story. Start over with a new mix of conspiracies. You could even keep the character of JC Denton, but drop him into a different reality this time around. Instead of working for UNATCO, maybe he starts off as a cop or a bodyguard or a secret service agent. Instead of a plague, society is dealing with some new designer drug. Or weapon. Cyborgs. You know, whatever. The foes would be different and their goals would be different, but the process of unraveling a series of escalating conspiracies would remain the same. The first time you uncover the Illuminati is fun. The second time through, you begin to wonder how these guys ever kept their organization a secret in the first place.
Compared to other FPS titles, it was a fine effort and worth a look. But it never managed to escape the shadow of Deus Ex. In terms of scope, story, characters, and gameplay, it was a feeble attempt to capture that former splendor. It was a short game with tame aspirations, obliged to play the nostalgia card in an effort to cover up for its lack of depth.
I played it all the way through.
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