“We plan to give people a sense of freedom and a prosperous world. In practical, historical terms, that’s about as good as it gets.”
There’s really nothing all that cool about cyberpunk visions of the future. They are dystopian nightmares of relentless technological progress at the expense of the human condition and the accumulation of vast wealth by a small, unaccountable few as billions live in squalor. It’s hell, and we can say that with even greater confidence than the genre’s pioneers: we’re living it now.
The continued fascination with the genre is largely aesthetic; CDPR literally just made a game around the very idea of the genre, drawing on the visual palettes of defining cyberpunk hallmarks throughout film and literature. But lighting the path to hell in attractive neon pinks and blues doesn’t make it any less shitty, and it’s time writers and creators started envisioning new futures instead of replicating old ones that have already transitioned into our dire present.
Besides, gaming’s own cyberpunk masterpiece was released in 2000. A paranoid melting pot of conspiracy theories, Ion Storm’s Deus Ex understood the dystopian roots of the cyberpunk genre, telling a story of institutions, government and otherwise, that failed to fulfil their basic pledges to the people they were meant to serve—and the devastating consequences that ensued.
As a hypothetical future it was, and remains, remarkably prescient. And in its depiction of widespread and crippling inequality amidst a lethal plague, its echoes of our present moment are more than a little chilling.
It was followed a few years later by Deus Ex: Invisible War, which, as I’m sure everyone reading this knows, was somewhat controversial for being seen as a considerably inferior experience to the original game. I think that’s absolutely true, but I also don’t think it’s an important detail any more.
Invisible War is what it is.
My hope is that people reading this don’t just roll their eyes when they read what I’m about to say, because I’m not aiming to forward a deliberately contrarian viewpoint—it’s just how I see it. Invisible War, then, is the best Deus Ex game after the original. And not by a small margin, either. Human Revolution was a fantastic game, and taken on objective merits a slicker, top-shelf product compared to Deus Ex’s first (and, well, only) sequel.
But I don’t think the defiantly cyberpunk Human Revolution is a very interesting game, nor do I think it pulses with the spirit of the series—and Invisible War is and does.
The general consensus is fortified against this stance. Even some of Invisible War’s own developers now disregard its existence. ‘Invisible Bore,’ sneers one friend. ‘In this house we love and appreciate the Deus Ex games that are not Invisible War,’ mocks another. Bad friends both, and a reminder that, really, it’s not worth having friends at all.
Invisible War is set twenty years after the events of Deus Ex, which culminated in JC Denton merging with the Helios AI as he destroyed both Bob Page and Area 51, severing global communications and triggering an event known as the ‘Collapse’.
The post-Collapse world of Invisible War bears plenty hallmarks of its cyberpunk past, but this is a science-fiction game first and foremost. This distinction might be the most important qualifier for Invisible War’s worthiness as a successor to Deus Ex. It’s something a lot of fans reacted negatively to, and I’ve read some of its developers argue that the fans are right: the game strayed too far from the world of Deus Ex (i.e, cyberpunk).
Yeah, it did—but for the best possible reasons. It envisioned a new future, with its own stresses and anxieties, born out of the world Deus Ex inhabited. It moved forward and the result, I think, is pretty fascinating.
This future is a weird and frightening place in which humanity is at last rising from the ashes of a shocking dark age, and where competing factions are at war over what shape the ultimate form this rising humanity will take.
The two factions central to this struggle are the WTO, led by former political revolutionary Chad Dumier, and the Order, a religious organisation which aims to subsume all faiths under the guidance of the mysterious ‘Her Holiness’. One speaks to the need for economic and political centralisation to enshrine human freedom, the other to the spiritual needs of the individual whilst espousing a collective movement away from industry and towards nature.
Both are seeing their power undermined by the re-emergence of nanotechnology and its radical impact on the human body.
The technology that gave birth to the Denton brothers, and which Bob Page utilised in his failed attempt at world domination, is starting to flourish in new and unprecedented ways. It has inadvertently allowed the Templars to emerge—a group of fanatics who seek to ‘purify’ the planet, namely by committing genocide against the biomodified.
At its heart, Invisible War’s narrative—which is really fucking good, actually—speaks to a shocking lack of imagination and political courage on the part of some of its key players—and the terrifying power of bigotry to swell in number when enough people are left to fend for themselves in darkness.
Is all of this to say that Invisible War is some forgotten masterpiece? Absolutely not. It is a game hobbled by technical limitations, leading to tiny, often sparse levels that rely heavily on a few small flourishes to work.
Like Thief: Deadly Shadows, which was released around the same time and built on the same engine, it comes with the ability for players to ally themselves with individual factions. This could’ve been interesting, but the game undercuts its own efforts at every opportunity, as you can never really fall afoul of anyone. Ignored the WTO’s instructions and assassinated a scientist at the Order’s behest? It’s okay, they’ll still have another task for you.
I would also question the logic of choice-based loyalty when the game features a clear-cut villain in the Templars and their leader, Luminon Saman. No matter how many times they try to kill you—and oh, they will—Saman still solicits your aid. It’s all a bit laughable.
And yet the game works.
I think its tiny levels have an ambience all of their own, even when the engine can’t be relied upon to faithfully depict its larger ideas, like Seattle having a city on top of a city, or a colossal arcology in Cairo. It’s all still there in the details, partially lost in the mist of unrealised ambitions, but I can still reach out and touch it—the idea that Invisible War is something awful is just not true.
The gameplay has been streamlined since Deus Ex and arguably for the better. Its menus, whilst simplistic, are far easier to navigate. Your nanotech upgrades have similarly been reworked, becoming ‘biomods’ that you can install throughout the game to improve your abilities. They’re better deployed here than in Deus Ex, although the balance is poor: you will end up with a massive surplus come the end. Combat is also improved, but given it was atrocious in Deus Ex I’m not inclined to award it too much praise.
Invisible War deserves your time. If it can’t keep it, that’s fair enough, but give it a chance. It’s well-written and thoughtful with a science-fiction world more interesting than many give it credit for.
It also has a notable sense of fun about it. In the Cairo arcology you will find a recruiting booth for the Templars. That’s the Knights Templars. A recruiting booth. It’s eminently silly…
…but if you think it’s too silly, you probably haven’t been paying enough attention to our own insane, dystopian present.