November 7, 2007

Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003)

I'm going to begin this entry with two words: "Harvey Smith". What does that mean to you? To me, it means there's a chance Harvey Smith will find this post and respond to it, since he responded to Steve Gaynor's casual diss of Invisible War, and -- breaking news -- Steve only played the demo.

Deus Ex is one of my favourite games of all time. I said that last entry with Fallout, but this time I actually mean it; I'm not just trying to lend myself credibility. Like most Deus Ex fans, I hold the rather boring opinion that Invisible War is, in a lot of ways, a total misfire. And yet, I think it is highly underrated. I'm not going to go into why it's not as good as Deus Ex because you can go anywhere for that. Here are some things I do want to talk about.

Invisible War doesn't operate on the same scale as Deus Ex. It's about half as long, but much tighter in structure. Far from the dense, sprawling semi-epic that was its predecessor, Invisible War is more like a stripped-down action/thriller that takes place over one day. When Invisible War really works, it's when it embraces this new format.

This isn't necessarily to suggest that Invisible War is only successful when it's as far away as possible from Deus Ex. Invisible War does a great job of -- spoiler alert! -- gradually phasing in characters from the original, culminating in the return of Deus Ex hero JC Denton, which is by far the most interesting reuse of a character in video game history, excluding the games I haven't played or have forgotten about. JC's return may not be all that great in the traditional video game sense, in that you and JC don't instantly team up and shoot the shit out of government agents side by side, in typical video game pleasure principle fashion. After being mythologized throughout Deus Ex and most of Invisible War, JC Denton is positioned here not as a villain, but, disappointingly, a high-minded schemer who wants to use your character, Alex, just as much as everyone else. Invisible War delivers a sobering lesson about hero worship.

It's a bold move that deserves so much more credit than it has ever received. By no means am I implying that subverting expectations like this is automatically a great choice. I mention it because the only critical point I've ever seen about this plot development is that it isn't what players immediately wanted, therefore it stunk.

Let me get away from Invisible War apologia for a minute and return to Invisible War-as-action/thriller. Invisible War contains one of my favourite levels ever: the return to the Arcology in Cairo, the penultimate stage in the game. This multi-story building has been overrun by militia, and your Die Hard-esque infiltration of the building isn't even the good part. The actual fighting's almost irrelevant. What matters is the ultimate goal of the mission, which I'm arbitrarily choosing not to spoil. But every faction who's played a part in the game is invested in the outcome, and have agents on site to ensure a favourable result. Everyone's in the same place for the first time. As you walk through this very uneasy armistice, everyone waits on you to make what is not an easy decision. Finally, you feel that your decisions matter; that a sword is hanging over your head. I did just slam the design paradigm of having the player always be the most powerful, important character in the game except for FINAL BOSS, but there's really something to be said for finally being the center of attention.

The level is a brilliant convergence of basically every major element in the game. It's a hard act to follow, and, indeed, even this game can't do it. While your big choice (memorable because it reintroduces a major Deus Ex character) is ultimately disappointing since it subsequently proves to have little consequence, numerous little choices start to pile up, and these do matter. It's the level where (almost) everything pays off before the later denouement.

Your buddy Leo Jankowski, for instance, is in real trouble, and his life is in your hands. Another character kidnaps your on-again/off-again ally Klara Sparks and threatens to execute her if you don't make the big choice his way. You can try and save Klara, but that means having to fight one of your former employers, Donna Morgan, who, unlike her employers, hasn't ever done anything to fuck you up; whose only crime is loyalty. Invisible War is not so different from Deus Ex in that the emotional depth is understated, and for the most part whatever meaning the character has is what you project upon them. But you give a little, you get a little.

Because of the tenor of this whole mission, it has my favourite line in the entire game. One faction sends you to the epicentre of the conflict, where you make your big decision. Once you make this decision, the ceasefire will break and the factions you shut out will be really pissed. One faction in particular occupies the hangar where you make your decision, and to help them you have to give some blood for... something, I don't even remember, I played the game four years ago. This hangar's swarming with soldiers and robots ready to turn hostile at a moment's notice, and you open the door and this middle-aged genial doctor solemnly walks up and asks you for your blood. You have two possible responses. You'll only need one.

"Go to hell" is the best line in the game. Lowbrow? Yes. But this is Invisible War at its best: nowhere near as philosophical or as deep as the first game but as a streamlined action/thriller, it's the tops.

This might be more praise than Invisible War has ever received in one place, so let's put a halt to that right now. All of the magic of this level is undone by the next, which attempts to maintain this engaging dynamic instead of building on it, rendering your big decision totally meaningless. And then the ending sucks. After winning an uninspired boss fight, the game cuts immediately to one of four outsourced cutscenes that narrate in the vaguest possible philosophical terms about what basically the world was then like. No follow-up on you or any of the characters you're interested in. It's over in twenty seconds and then it cuts to the credits -- which you have to click through?! Go to hell.

But we'll always have Cairo.

(Harvey Smith.)

So in my blogging history, I've praised Deus Ex: Invisible War and contradicted Fallout? What a contrarian. Next up: so you thought you knew what the rules of this blog were, huh? Wait until I completely subvert them! The blog so far has all been a training exercise for level 19.


Anonymous said...

I've played Invisible War yet again and must say, the initial disappointment slowly wears off and I started to like it. The story is exciting, deep and worthy of its predecessor. Graphics, voice acting and interface are good, gameplay is mostly enjoyable - so what went wrong? What buggered me most from the start were all the little things... DX 2 is missing most of the loving detail that enriched the original and has serious presentation problems: the slow subtitles and trailing speech pauses; boring, repetitive behavior of the background (non-)characters; missing discoveries and alternate storylines; the whole unreal feeling of the game.

Where Deus Ex was like a gradual dive from sanity into an underlying world of secrets, part II is like a caricature. Who takes all this conspiracy babble seriously? Yet, to appreciate the philosophical meat of the game, you have to stomach common sense (much more than in part I). The characters are neither loveable nor despicable - they're lukewarm, childish, and the main (male) hero really sounds like a loser.

I wonder if a little more development time would have bettered it, but maybe not. This is as good as most games get.

I don't expect Deus Ex part III to be any different, but I'm always ready for a pleasant surprise ;-)

Harvey Smith said...

Good critique, positive and negative. We made lots of mistakes, but much of what went wrong wasn't based on deliberate design decisions: Much of the design stuff that I regret was fallout from technical or organizational mistakes we made. We made such horrendous mistakes related to technology, team and studio growth that we had to scramble to even ship a game, sadly. In many ways, large-scale games can only be as good as the process and logistics behind them. Another painful lesson. Lots of people don't understand this, understandably, never having worked inside a large team; it often seems from the outside that a bunch of terrible decisions were made, consciously. (A few were, but most of what we disliked about the final game wasn't stuff that we set out to do deliberately.)

Duncan said...

Harvey, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad my elaborate ploy actually worked, even though it took 10 months.

If you have time, you might be interested in these newer posts: "0451" and "Liberty". I'd love to read your responses to those.

Thanks for the games!