Deus Ex Mankind Divided | Principal Platforms: PC (Version Tested), PlayStation 4, Xbox One | Developer: Eidos Montreal | Publisher: Square Enix | Genre: First-person Shooter | Year: 2016
It seems that the further the Deus Ex franchise gets from its cyberpunk-themed roots, the more controversial its reception inevitably becomes. And that’s not to say that this newest entry subtitled Mankind Divided comes up short with its provoking science fiction, only that its more gritty realism has attracted criticism over the past year.
Deus Ex is no longer a complex yarn of grey aliens, super computers, and classic conspiracy stories. Now it’s a complex yarn of arms dealers, international terrorism, and the subjugation of minority groups. These are the broad strokes of Human Revolution up close and personal with Adam Jensen’s world now entering an era of – in Eidos’ own words – “mechanical apartheid“; a new age where augmented individuals are feared and bullied by the “natural” people and their Illuminati puppet masters.
The writers’ use of a provocative term like “apartheid” is emblematic of the distance between this sequel and its forbears and is just one of the controversial ingredients that has made this game so divisive. And the hard truth is that for every actual scene of persecution that Mankind Divided depicts, none of it ever really conveys a meaningful message beyond the basic sentiment of prejudice is bad.
The emerging threat that certain augmented individuals pose is meant to add spice to the faux debate, but since we control an augmented protagonist who can do pretty much anything he wants, the impact of those themes gets defused pretty quickly. We view the world of Deus Ex through the empowered lens of a cyborg killing machine and that’s necessary if we’re to believe that one man really can ravage an entire enemy base with uppercuts or covertly steal all the beers out of the police precinct’s fridge. But too often does it risk turning all the prejudice and hatred into background noise; stuff that doesn’t really affect the player in their privileged position.
As Interpol agent Adam Jensen, players have special clearance to go about unmolested and from a video game perspective this does make perfect sense. Adam might occasionally get a smacked bum for using the train designated for “naturals”, but on the whole Mankind Divided doesn’t let its commentary compromise its enjoyment factor.
Eidos uses these sensitive themes more as verisimilitude to enhance the believability of their dystopia without enforcing a political agenda or otherwise holding up the player from clotheslining another gangbanger in a nearby alleyway. To make a long story short, if you go into this game looking for an insightful comment about the topic of prejudice then you’re going to be massively disappointed. If however, you’re more concerned with sneaking about, hacking computer terminals, and using explosive harpoons to pin mobsters to walls, then you’re going to have a much better time of things.
In gameplay terms, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a wonderful distillation of all the things that made its prequels so great. Eidos Montreal have put considerable effort into their world building and throughout Prague; where most of the game’s events take place, you’ll discover many interactive areas that feel alive with possibility.
It’s easy to get lost in this sprawling metropolis, though you probably won’t mind too much if only because you’ll get more time to appreciate the gorgeous in-game graphics and 3D modelling. The art style might look a tad plainer when compared to Human Revolution’s gaudy orange sheen, but Prague is a more pragmatically realised environment than Detroit ever was and the sheer amount of hi-res clutter that goes with that approach is likewise very impressive, even down to the individually modelled magazines on book shelves and the pencilled-in schedules inside communal washrooms.
Character models benefit from smoother animation and the more peppy facial expressions help the narrative maintain its heft in the early going. The Task Force 29 HQ bustles with hive-like activity and Adam Jensen is a bit more lively in conversation when he wants to be, though he’s still very much a Robocop sort of lead; the kind of guy you just want to see kick ass rather than argue the toss.
That’s ultimately for the best too as the writing does veer into tropesville on more than a few occasions. Like XCOM 2, characters are prone to spouting ellipsis and the number of over-the-top Russian accents are bound to wear thin. The game also has one of those intros where your character loses all of their abilities (always irritating that) and later you’ll find references to fictional drugs, false utopian settlements, and typical futuristic acronyms such as “ARC”.
Another developing staple of modern gaming; the inclusion of a ‘Red Light District’, is also present and it too is a bit jarring when viewed alongside Prague’s more rustic milieu. There’s no content here that one would deem overly shocking, but it is genuinely amusing to see what effort the game goes through to draw your attention to it. NPCs and mission objectives almost seem to scream: “go see the Red Light District”, “have you seen our Red Light District?”, “Come to the Red Light District!”
Even if Deus Ex is getting slightly blander in this sense, it certainly hasn’t lost the ability to be cinematic. A superb recap video catches you up on the over-arching plot and the number of meaty side quests on offer will draw you further into Jensen’s world. The writers are very crafty at reminding you about who the major players are and there’s plenty of optional flavour for those who go looking, whether its retrieved via hacking emails, initiating optional conversations, or clocking the subtle references to older games and the official novels like Deus Ex: Black Light.
Mankind Divided plays like a dream too. The array of control schemes are smart, tutorial pop-ups are superbly integrated, and the dependable thrills in both the stealth and action-based slices are just as fun as they’ve always been. The mission levels are tremendous in their scope and yet they never betray that trademark Deus Ex quality of allowing multiple routes around any given problem.
In one instance I found myself trying to get into a locked apartment. I was sticking to a strict ‘no hacking’ policy at the time so accessing the front door was a no-go. I hadn’t spotted the precarious ledge that might allow me in through the open window so I checked the adjoining apartment and found a ceiling grate that could get me in through an air vent; classic! Sadly, the damn thing was too high off the ground in order for me to reach and I didn’t have enough Praxis points to spring for the enhanced jumping ability that could get me up there. Now granted, my eventual solution of using Adam’s strength augmentation to upturn the downstairs fridge as a platform was not very elegant, but it got the job done and once again highlighted why Deus Ex is so revered for its thoughtful mission design.
It’s a shame when bugs have to upset this rhythm. I’ve experienced the odd CTD, a number of flickering textures, disappearing gun turrets, and some badly glitched NPCs. What’s also strange is the near terrible waypoint system. The map screen itself is fairly robust and useful, but the crucial waypoints that lead to your next objective are extremely unreliable and often direct you to the wrong place entirely. I became impossibly stuck in one mission because my HUD marker had sent me into an endless loop starting at the top of a particular elevator shaft. It took an arduous Google fact-finding tour to work out where I’d gone wrong which was a huge shame seeing as how tense and exciting the mission had been up until that point.
In some ways Mankind Divided doesn’t go far enough in distinguishing itself from previous games. The new weapon crafting system doesn’t really inspire, the alternate ammo pick-ups just add more clutter to your inventory, and the new ‘vendor trash’ items are an entirely pointless addition whichever way you choose to look at them.
Adam’s new suite of ‘beta’ augmentations are pretty sweet though as they offer new tools for overcoming or outsmarting enemies and security systems alike. The big conversations are still satisfying too, even if they are a tad underused this time around, and there are still consequences that players will have to deal with depending on their chosen approach. A scant few instances borrow Fahrenheit’s ‘snap decision’ mechanic and honestly; I wished Eidos had done that more often as there were quite a few moments where a timed dialogue selection really would have added a bit of extra tension.
As alluded to previously, Mankind Divided’s central conspiracy forms a more grounded tale and thus its genre has taken a step closer to military science fiction over that of pure cyberpunk. The plot develops from Adam Jensen’s infiltration of a smuggling operation to a subsequent run-in with Viktor Marchenko; a hulking mass of weapons-grade muscle that fancies himself a modern day revolutionary. The final showdown with Marchenko acts as the only boss fight and it’s certainly better thought out and a lot more climactic than the limp boss encounters that mired Human Revolution.
The final mission may well be the highlight of the game too and overall the journey as a whole does not feel as short or truncated as was suggested in earlier previews. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided does feel like a complete and worthy chapter in the Deus Ex canon, but I will agree that the awkward ending format – that revolves around a bunch of choices that ultimately make no real difference to anything – creates an abrupt feeling that screws up the catharsis of the game’s conclusion and can potentially lead to another infamously flat finish.
Mankind Divided doesn’t need much of a hand in the infamy stakes either as Square Enix’s rage-inducing inclusion of microtransactions, into what has always been a dedicated single player game, does a better job at spoiling things than any weak ending or off-colour headline could ever do. The main menus and the new alternative gameplay mode called Breach are host to microtransactions of a truly insulting pedigree from the paid-for Praxis Kits and wholly unnecessary credit boosters of the main campaign to Breach Mode’s booster packs.
The microtransactions tailored for Breach, that unlock everything from advanced weaponry to cheat-based power-ups, are almost essential for anyone looking to tackle the mode’s hardest missions and there’s the rub; why is Square Enix expecting you to pay more money in what is already a full price AAA release? And more to the point, why is this promoted in a mode that is single player only? The publisher here is actually expecting you to pay money to compete with yourself as Breach is nothing more than a single player experience with score attack leanings; that’s it.
The screen entry for these exorbitant purchases aren’t correctly rendered either with certain packs featuring incorrect labels and even spelling errors. It’s a sorry state of affairs to see such a once lauded series being associated with this embarrassing nonsense and to think that valuable programming time was wasted here is just nauseating.
The hangover from Mankind Divided’s abandoned ‘augment your pre-order‘ scheme is still present in the “free” DLC mission that’s ironically titled Desperate Measures. In this standalone chapter (that’s completely walled off from the main game) Jensen goes out looking for a mad bomber and you can clearly see the seams of what used to be a side quest before it was unceremoniously snipped out and offered up as a “separate” piece of exclusive content. Clearly Square Enix are keen to release another director’s cut edition somewhere down the line, but doing so in such an artificial and invasive way is extremely galling and it’s a rare player indeed who will derive enjoyment from side content that cannot yet be integrated with the main campaign mode.
I take no pleasure in bringing down Deus Ex: Mankind Divided because as a moment-to-moment experience it is certainly up there as one of the best entries in the series. There are plenty of little touches I’ve not yet mentioned; the tweaked XP yields, the moody cutscenes, and the restrained use of the “I never asked for this” meme are just so commendable and overall it’s still a joy to walk in Adam Jensen’s shoes and think about all the crazy shit that you’ll get up to next.
However, Square Enix needs to re-evaluate their approach for the inevitable sequel and if they really are keen on developing this new Deus Ex Universe of theirs then they need to seriously consider the damage they’re doing to the brand’s image with their anti-consumer practices. A video game featuring politically-charged content is one thing, but a video game omitting content and generally pissing off players is quite another.
Until next time, followers.