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Video games for conspiracy freaks

"Deus Ex: Invisible War" and "XIII" have enough paranoid plot lines to satisfy even the hardiest black helicopter fanatic. Review by MSNBC's Tom Loftus.
A lawyer with some shady contacts tastes the stun gun in "Deus Ex: Invisible War."
A lawyer with some shady contacts tastes the stun gun in "Deus Ex: Invisible War."ION Storm
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Conspiracy-based video games, be they about shadowy multinationals, crooked weapons scientists or probe-wielding aliens (or all three combined), are plentiful, but successful versions less so. The art lies with weaving plot and game play in such a way that players are motivated to finish — not just for the sake of blasting away the bad guy (highly rewarding though that may be), but to discover "what really happened."

With varying results, two games released late last year push enough conspiratorial plot lines to satisfy even the hardiest black chopper fanatic: "Deus Ex: Invisible War" chronicles the battle for world control in a post-apocalyptic future; "XIII" finds inspiration in a story line of missing identity and assassinations.

Deus Ex: Invisible War
Seattle after the apocalypse ain't all lattes and scenery. A shadowy international corporation maintains an iron grip on trade and security, turning the metro area into a maximum security office park. Conspiracy bubbles. Competing coffee houses plot terrorism. Millennial cults recruit disaffected denizens. Who to trust?

That "nothing is what it seems" forms the subtext for this genre-bending first-person-shooter/role-playing game that is a sequel to 2000's award-winning "Deus Ex." Conspiracy and political polemics are weaved into a gripping open-ended experience where your actions influence the game's conclusion to an extent rarely experienced in gaming.

The player assumes the role of Alex D., an apprentice training to protect businesses in the unstable year of 2072. After Chicago is leveled by terrorists in the chilling opening sequence, Alex D. must choose a side in an "Invisible War" pitting various ideologues against each other for world dominance.

As a futuristic corporate warrior of sorts, Alex D. combines weapons familiarity with an advanced physiology capable of handling nanotechnology -- "biomods" -- that enable such skills as stealth or the ability to hack into the circuitry of hostile robots.

But listening is Alex D.’s greatest power, indeed the driving force of game play. "Invisible War" is populated by hundreds of characters and the world that is painted through their dialogue makes "Invisible War" a compelling experience.

"Invisible War" touches upon a world rife with conspiracy, a world of multinational organizations of ill-defined powers and shadowy terrorist figures with whispered links to state rulers; a world of subtle shadings of gray. Sound familiar, news junkies?

Everyone is right, yet everyone is guilty. Throughout the course of the game, Alex will be offered missions like breaking into the apartments of the power elite, assassinating weapons scientists, or rifling through secret files. The missions Alex D. accepts shape how he (or she -- players can choose either gender and yes, the choice can affect certain situations) will interact with characters later in the game and what side Alex D. will take in the battle afflicting the planet.

It's not that simple. The main players in "Invisible War" emit mixed messages. In one scene Alex D. may be running away from The Order, hooded New Agers with guns. In the next, The Order may try to recruit Alex for a mission. The WTO, another organization vying for Alex D’s loyalty, maintain safe shopping mall-like urban enclaves, but its boast of making the planes run on time sounds eerily familiar.

As a first-person-shooter, the option to blast one's way through missions is always there. But combat in "Invisible War" is unchallenging for anyone with deep first-person-shooter experience. Indeed, it seems as if the game designers deliberately want players to attempt other means. Sneaking around potential enemies -- and eavesdropping on their plot-driving conversations -- can have big payoffs.

Unfortunately, the voice acting -- and there is a lot of it -- sounds stilted. One would think that the destruction of Chicago would warrant a little panic, but characters mutter like they're discussing car loans.

And yet players would be hard-pressed to let the voice acting stand in the way of a ripping conspiratorial yarn. For this reviewer, the hooks sunk in somewhere between discovering an excerpt of a treatise from 19th century political philosopher John Stuart Mill in the apartment of a terrorist-slash-coffee vendor and a conversation with an automatic weapons-bearing WTO security guard espousing free markets.

'Invisible War' boasts a number of endings. Alex could wind up as a member of a secret corporate ruling class or a "back-to-nature" terrorist. How he (or she) gets there depends on the choices you make. In a world of conspiracy, learning whom to trust isn’t easy.

XIIIThis first-person-shooter grabbed attention at last year's E3 for its graphic novel-inspired animation, but its release just prior to the holiday flood of titles went virtually unnoticed.

You begin the game on a generic East Coast beach with no name, no weapons and no memory. The only identifiable mark: The numeral XIII tattooed on your chest. Several minutes into the game, some toughs do recognize you, but you're too busy dodging their bullets to ask for help.

As play proceeds, hazy flashbacks, keys to security boxes and cryptic conversations spell out your character’s past as a member of a top-secret government agency somehow mixed up in the assassination of the president of the United States.

And the game uses the visual metaphor to the limit. A well-placed head shot may produce a sequence of three or four comic-book panels—essentially still shots—chronicling the baddies demise in sequence from the bullet entering the body, to the blood spurt to a comic book “NOOOOO!”

Eye catching, but ultimately irrelevant in the same way that the movie “Hulk’s” use of comic book art couldn’t save that wanna-be summer blockbuster. When the wonder of ‘XIII’s’ graphics wears thin, so does playability. For a first-person shooter, the controls can be oddly un-precise and the lack of control in combination with the comic-book style can be deadly. Soon “XIII” looks and feels less like a stylish thriller and more like a comic book with paper cut-outs.