Sunday, August 21, 2005

Another Review Dashed

I was going to
give a huge, thorough review of Deus Ex: Invisible War. Until I did a quick internet search and came upon this review, which spells out almost everything I had labored to put into words. Fuck.

So I'm condensing my review and using it as an excuse to drift off into an exploration of theme and influences. Known as noodling, in guitarist circles.

From here on out, DE:IW is the abbreviation for the game in question.

I got DE:IW on an impulse buy at Best Buy, where they were selling it for a measly nine bucks. While I itched for some of the new breed adventure games, their price point remained at thirty. So the necessity for thrift bore out.

This game appeals to one of my main loves - conspiracy. It is the lovechild of Illuminatus! and Blade Runner and The Invisibles. Add a dash of feuding-coffeeshops-as-microcosm (not quite a cliche of any genre . . . yet!).

The school in which you, as main character, matriculated is known as the Tarsus Academy. It is a School of the Americas of the future, producing warriors specially trained (and modified) for use as political instruments. If the military is about decimation, the Tarsus agents are about surgical precision. The political organization in charge of the schools is the WTO - the World Trade Organization.

It seems the WTO has stabilized society after the Collapse (the first game is referenced well, though it would have been nice to give access to the backstory earlier in the game for those of us that can't remember the details). They fix prices, limit movement, enforce curfews and generally provide the predictable kind of socialism-tinged-with-fascism that has made places like Japan and Sweden such pleasant places to live - for some.

Opposing the WTO is the Order. They seek to make a global church. In other words, they wish to exercise the same kind of control the WTO has, only instead of economics they want to control religion. For those who wonder why this hypocrisy isn't readily evident to the members of the Order, well, that's just how religion is sometimes.

The Order is threatened by a group calling themselves the Knights Templar. In Foucalt's Pendulum one of the characters said that a lunatic was always recognizable "by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars." Then let us delve into lunacy.

The Templars are fanatical (more so than any of the other factions - which isn't saying much) as is evidenced by their willingness to decimate an entire city just to destroy a lab doing modification research. They believe in human "purity" - as in no genetic manipulation - and have infiltrated the two main factions in pursuit of their aim.

Melding the economic and religious conspiracy theories into the science fiction genre could have created a sloppy mess, but some fine writing manages to make it work. I've heard say that "true" science fiction presents a plausible world extrapolated from current advances - that it is a speculation based upon scientific knowledge, not future-fantasy.

Using this standard, then I can say that almost all throughout DE:IW provided plausibility, in plot terms (the gameplay needed some tweaking). The core conflicts center on debates that have only become more and more relevant since the game's release: genetics and human-modification, nanotechnology, weapons manufacturing, terrorism, globalization and ideology.

The introduction of NG Resonance delighted me. She is an AI construct as well as virtual pop star, a hologram hovering and gyrating in bars and public spaces. She acts in the game as a sort of impish partner - filtering information fed to her and trying to sniff out crime. Which I guess makes her a virtual informant; If not for her delightfully devilish willingness to expose all kinds of corruption and hypocrisy she might be seen as just another tool of the WTO. I was reminded of Jane, the AI construct that befriends Ender Wiggin in Speaker for the Dead. There is an enormous, confusing plot hole toward the end relating to NG, but her addition to the story was nevertheless a treat.

If there were a core to this game, it would be choice. The exposition of plots and philosophical debates force the player into a position where choices in-game can matter, not just to the player-as-gamer, but on a personal level. And while a completist might re-load a special save just so they can play out every possible outcome, there is bound to be one particular ending that resonates more forcefully with their own worldview. Playing through the other options does not render choice meaningless but acts as a way to bring closure to the 'what-ifs' - something which, at least at the moment, reality does not allow.

My major disappointment with the game is the lack of support available (not too surprising considering Ion Storm's final death spasm in February of this year, but still a damn shame). It is clear that the PC port was an afterthought. Even after installing the only patch released the game suffered from some glaring bugs, the worst of which was a random crash to desktop (occurred at least five times). There is also no map editor, and while the game is a few years old the engine still has much to recommend it: Speedy levels, dynamic lighting, a decent Havok physics system, nice sound propagation (courtesy of a modified Thief 2 system) and plenty of branching script options - good for compact, plot-driven levels.*

It actually seems perfectly suited to the notion of episodic content.

Let me call up Joss Whedon, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison and JJ Abrams and see if they're on-board.

*And here's hoping that the code resurfaces sometime shortly under some kind of open-source license.

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