It’s probably a bit misleading on a blog called “This Game Sucks” to review a five-year-old game that doesn’t suck at all, but temporarily rebranding the joint “This Game Was Well-Reviewed By Critics But Largely Shunned By Fanboy Dicks” would be impractical. Tempting, but still impractical.
Upon its release on December 3, 2003, Deus Ex: Invisible War had some crazy-ass venti-sized shoes to fill. Coming out on the heels of what many still consider to be the best PC game of all time must have been like following the Beatles on Ed Sullivan; that luckless magician could have juggled chainsaws and solved quadratic equations while playing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” on an ass-clenched kazoo and it wouldn’t have made any difference; at that point, nobody was paying attention anymore. Similarly, Invisible War could have presented Michio Kaku with a tidily giftwrapped, ready-for-prime-time Theory of Everything while lovingly polishing John Malkovich’s head to a shimmering luster, yet flaming idiots across the globe still would have derided it for being dumbed-down and “consolized.”
One of the things that hurt Invisible War wasn’t that it was “dumbed-down;” it was actually a very intelligent game that dealt with sophisticated themes and sub-themes, such as the appropriate roles of government and religion, dependency on and rejection of technology across varying socio-economic strata, and the manipulation of fear as a catalyst for corporate profit. Timeless stuff, to be sure, but where Invisible War floundered most was with its inevitable comparison to its older sibling.
Deus Ex was a masterful game in part because it contained multiple elements that reinforced some of the most fundamental mechanics of play and survival known to humanity (collection, customization, and feedback). The spatial inventory was a terrific way to peruse and interact with everything you’d collected throughout your time in the game world, and the distribution of goal-based skill points was helpful in creating a system of feedback (points awarded) and reward (improved skills), along with enriching the personal stake that each player had in the game by allowing the customization of skills and abilities.
The omission of the skill points and the limited upgradeability of the nanoaugs (three levels of upgrade in IW, four in DX), coupled with the limited upgradeability of the weapons (only two upgrade slots available for each), is largely what spoiled Invisible War for those who’d waited three-plus years for its release; the illusion of a player-driven experience was severely hampered — if not altogether eliminated — by the many limitations and restrictions on the choices that were available for solving problems. Consolidating the lockpicks and the multitools into a single, multi-function device is an example of how something can make sense from a design perspective (eliminating seemingly redundant mechanics), yet at the same time work against you by limiting the scope of the player’s involvement in the game’s extrinsic fiction. The same can be said for universal ammo; it might have made sense on the drawing board, but in practice it helped to remove the player from the fiction that he crafted for himself while playing the game. (While playing as a sniper, finding 30.06 ammo is rewarding and specifically significant to that individual experience.)
Even today, five years later, Invisible War’s biggest problem (bigger than universal ammo and no skill points and fewer overall choices) is that most people are incapable of analyzing anything beyond the context of their own experience. Anything they like is Good, and anything they don’t like is Bad, and as far as they’re concerned that’s the end of the story, but such subjective, dogmatic valuation is ultimately flawed, because, as Steve Martin once pointed out, it excludes metaphysics. This means that there are specific criteria that determine the “good” or “bad” of any game, and which exist independently of personal preferences and opinions.
When evaluated on its own merit, Invisible War is a great game. It’s only with comparison to the original Deus Ex that it suffers, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s smaller in both depth and scope than the first, but when judged for what it is instead of what it might have been, I challenge anyone to formulate a credible argument against the game’s intrinsic virtues.
I’ve liked plenty of bad games (Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat, Too Human, Jedi Power Battles), but this doesn’t mean that I would be justified in abandoning all critical faculty and upholding my personal preferences as empirical truth in order to label these games as patently “good.” Too much of that goes on already, leading to the subjective existential nightmare we call “popular culture.”
Both the PC and Xbox versions of Invisible War are rife with low-resolution textures and frequent load screens, and the PC version ran slowly on even the most advanced gaming rigs of the day, but in spite of its aesthetic shortcomings it remains imminently playable even today. It provides a badly needed foray into the arena of player-driven customization and expression, in spite of the fact that it doesn’t stand up to its progenitor; with the lone exception of the intrusively frequent area transitions it can hold its own against any first-person shooter released over the last five years. While it lacks the moral barometer of BioShock, and the tight, immersive presentation of HalfLife 2, it feels less like a watered-down rehash of its predecessor than does BioShock (in regard to System Shock 2), and it’s much less likely to force a fight than either of the two, giving the player the option to determine when it’s best to sneak, and when it’s best to go in with the enemy Paste-O’-Tron running at full-blast.
Any unfavorable assessments of the game which are based on nothing but the fact that it’s not Deus Ex should also be considered at face value and judged for what they are; mindless fanboy rants inspired by an inability to evaluate anything beyond the relativistic borders of personal opinion.