Review: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

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Cover art for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but sometimes a flawed game ends up being a much more memorable experience than games that do everything right. When a game has noticeable flaws that it’s not afraid to hide and, most importantly, excels in other areas, it’s easy to forgive those failures and look past them, at which point the experience is all about the highs and not the lows. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of those games. The FPS mechanics are a bit clunky, the graphics were outdated even by the time it was released, character models are simple, with stiff robotic-like expressions and movements, and the dialogue and voice acting are throwbacks to the days of Resident Evil, and not in a flattering way. But the atmosphere, story and amount of player choice was outstanding, lending itself to multiple playthroughs. Human Revolution is one of my favorite RPGs from the seventh generation, and instead of cringing when a terrible line of dialogue was delivered, I laughed along with it, then got back to being a mechanical super-soldier.

To say I was intrigued by the sequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, would be an understatement – the title was one of my most anticipated of the year. The biggest question I had going into the latest installment was whether developer Eidos Montreal could build upon the aspects of Human Revolution that were lacking, while still delivering a satisfying experience. After all, the world of Deus Ex is one in which the Illuminati are the bad guys, and they’re mentioned with a straight face numerous times. It’s a bit cheesy, which, coupled with the quirky flaws, makes for a game that feels like a guilty pleasure. If those elements were removed, would the game still retain it’s charm?

The short answer – yes, Mankind Divided manages to improve in some areas while still being an amazing RPG, albeit with some clunky, sometimes awkward moments. In hindsight it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but Mankind Divided typifies the phrase two steps forward, one step back – for all of the new improvements, the game stubbornly clings to the past, both for good and for bad.

A Machine God

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The combat is vastly improved in Mankind Divided.

Human Revolution always felt like a stealth game first and foremost – sure, players could play as a traditional, guns-blazing soldier, but it didn’t feel as refined as the stealth mechanics. Slipping from cover to cover, hiding in the shadows, felt great, natural even. Running after an enemy and trying to line up a shot on them? Not so much (it’s the reason I relied heavily on the shotgun). Fortunately, Mankind Divided greatly improves the combat mechanics,  feeling like a competent FPS, a change that solidifies the central premise to Deus Ex: giving players a robust list of choices for handling any situation.

It all starts with the controls. Playing on the Playstation 4, I was happy to see that the title featured numerous control types, so players could choose whichever one works best for them. It’s always nice to see that type of variety and customization in a title, especially one that is as complex as Mankind Divided. Players can go from sneaking through an office to multi-level gunfights in a matter of seconds, and the numerous control types all accommodate that level of flexibility and spontaneity.

The controls are merely a sign of things to come – because playing a full-on combat style is now viable, Mankind Divided feels like a much more refined RPG. There are an incredible amount of ways players can complete objectives, and thankfully the game isn’t broken down into a binary system of stealth or combat. There are numerous stealth options for each mission, plenty of combat options, and even options that take a bit from column A and column B. Each method feels different and unique – my two playthroughs, a non-lethal stealth and a combat-heavy approach, felt like two different experiences, and I’m eager to run through it a third time with a sniper rifle, mixing the styles together. Gun customization makes a return, and much like the rest of the gameplay it has slightly expanded, so players can switch on-the-fly between different sights, muzzles and ammo depending on what the situation calls for.

But the real stars of the show are the augmentations. In the world of Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, humans can augment their bodies with mechanical upgrades, which have multiple uses. People can get a neural augment for picking up on social cues and tells, which in turn enables them to manipulate people by playing to their personality type. Or they can replace their arms and legs with mechanical ones, and jump 20 feet in the air while throwing a refrigerator. Basically, they’re super powers, and in Mankind Divided they turn protagonist Adam Jensen from a super soldier to a mechanical god. The number of augmentations players can choose to upgrade is much more varied than those found in Human Evolution, and each one is useful because they all accommodate different styles of play.

This goes beyond the game simply playing better – one of the biggest mistakes Eidos Montreal made in Human Revolution was that they forced players to take a violent route in key story moments, specifically boss battles (there was an attempt to change this in the Director’s Cut, but players still had to eliminate those bosses). With Mankind Divided, if the player wants to complete the game without killing a single person, bosses included, they can do so. Again, this feeds into the central premise of Deus Ex – provide the players with numerous options, and turn them loose. There is no right or wrong way to complete an objective, at least in terms defined by the developers. Right or wrong is defined by the player, and Mankind Divided provides them with the tools to make those choices.

In addition to every gameplay aspect improving (especially the hacking minigame, which actually feels like a game now and not mindless tedium), Mankind Divided sports a new game plus mode right out of the box. When I’m playing this game again for the fourth time, this is the reason why – when I’m  buying all of the DLC a year from now, this is the reason why. I cannot stress enough how much better this game is knowing that I can take my progress into a new playthrough and approach situations from a different angle. The result is that I am far less afraid of failure, freeing me up to explore and experiment, which is when the gameplay shines brightest. If I am unable to save a person on one playthrough, I can try a different approach next time and see if that works out, and I can do that without having to worry about upgrading or having enough ammo or resources. And if I do want to start from scratch, that option is always available.

A Whole New World To See

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The atmosphere has just as much an impact on Mankind Divided as it did on its predecessor.

I was so impressed by the use of atmosphere in Human Revolution that I dedicated an entire essay to examining what it did right, and how crucial it was to the experience. I summed up my thoughts on the atmosphere as such:

“Although Deus Ex: Human Revolution isn’t the first game to emphasize atmosphere over gameplay, it’s the best example of how powerful that can be when handled properly. Everything from the music to the color palette to the level design works to create a sense of unease, of conflict spanning the entire globe. Yet it also creates a sense of hope and comfort, and a level of familiarity that allows some of the more far-reaching and abstract story elements to feel natural. Some may argue that the gameplay will age poorly (or already has), but they would be missing the point – Human Revolution will always be relevant because it creates a strong sense of time and place, a portal into a world where cities are built atop other cities, and friends go out for a beer after work to catch-up. It’s sense of atmosphere will always remain strong, and without that atmosphere, the story of Adam Jensen would already be forgotten.”

Thankfully, this tradition continues in Mankind Divided. The majority of the game takes place in Prague, and although it’s not the biggest virtual city, it’s dripping with character and rich with detail. The world of Mankind Divided is filled with much more violent conflict than its predecessor, and in place of hope for a brighter future is apathy, anger, despair. As the title suggests, the world is divided over the issue of human augmentations, and cities like Prague, once a beacon to the augmented (augs), have been hit hard by pro-aug terrorists lashing out at a rash of anti-aug sentiment that sees augs riding at the back of the train while naturals (non-augmented individuals) ride up front. The detail in Prague, from the signs that hang from restaurants that read “Naturals Only” to the random citizens who will curse Jensen when they see his augments, creates a tense, oftentimes chaotic world, a powder keg ready to explode. Drones patrol the streets at all times, and state police officers in large exo-suits, similar to power armor in Fallout, oversee police brutality levied at augmented citizens. The conflict is felt in every store and alley in Prague.

It’s easy to see how this atmosphere of oppression and violence could start to feel suffocating, and not necessarily in a way that the developers intended. Thankfully, Eidos Montreal strikes a nice balance between a city that’s open enough to let the player breath, and dense enough that there’s something interesting around every corner. I may be in the minority, but I wasn’t fond of the world design in Batman: Arkham City, specifically because it felt like I couldn’t move more than 10 feet without some new emergency or collectable flashing across my HUD. At the same time, I understand that creating large expanses of land to wander, as seen in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, aren’t always practical, and can be a drain on developer resources. Eidos Montreal’s recreation of Prague provides an excellent example for developers use to gauge the size of their game worlds, and the amount of content they’re putting in there – it’s a near-perfect balance of space to explore and things to do.

Another way Eidos Montreal elevated Mankind Divided was to have Prague undergo a stark transformation as the game unfolds. Each act in Mankind Divided ends with the player leaving the city for a mission, and when they return the city has changed in ways both subtle and obvious. At the start of the game, it’s daytime, the color blue is prominently featured on buildings and people’s clothes, and the city, while on edge, seems to be functioning normally. However, off in the distance the player can hear the familiar rumble of thunder, a nod to the approaching storm. By the end of the game, Prague is caught in a torrential downpour, and the state police have implemented a curfew, and anyone caught violating the curfew will be shot on sight. It’s incredible watching a city change so much over the course of the story, and it further demonstrates the power atmosphere can have within a game.

Just like the number of gameplay options, getting around Prague can be done a number of ways. You could walk down the street toward a destination, which will still allow you to hear the ambient conversations citizens have, some of which leads to new paths players can take either through the city or through a quest. Or you could sneak and crawl your way through ventilation shafts and sewers, unlocking hidden routes that can take players from the front of an unassuming shop to a hidden entrance of a world-renowned bank known for its security. Nearly every notable location in Prague seems connected in some way, and even deep into my second playthrough I was still discovering new routes and ways to bypass security guards and alarms.

That said, the first sign that Mankind Divided was about to take a step back came in the level design – not in Prague, but in the levels players visit for story-specific missions. Although these levels feature the same attention to detail found in Prague, they were far too short, and I found myself flying off from these locales just as I was getting a lay of the land. Ignoring sidequests, Mankind Divided can be beaten in less than ten hours, and most of that time will be spent in Prague. As great of a job as Eidos Montreal did with the city, I would have liked to spend more time in the places outside of Prague, because they seemed just as intriguing and filled with possibility.

To London and Back

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Locations like Golem City look impressive and intriguing, but the player’s time there is far too short.

In Human Revolution, the story took players around the globe to some exciting sci-fi inspired locales. From Hengsha, which is a city built atop another city, to Panchaea, a large installation in Antarctica which would help combat global warming, players were swept up in a large conspiracy that affected the entire world.

This is where Mankind Divided stumbles back a step. It commits the sin of having a story that isn’t terrible or great – it’s bland. Gone are the days of trotting across the globe to some secret black site located on a mysterious island, and in its place are day trips to London to stop a terrorist attack. Granted, that’s still an important thing to prevent, but the entire story of Mankind Divided centers around a potential fourth terrorist attack by a secretive group of villains. Not in stopping all of them – the first two happen before the events of the game, and the third attack occurs at the opening of the game. Eidos Montreal followed up a global conspiracy that impacted billions of people with a routine job for Adam Jensen and his partners.

This is what I mean when I say the story is bland – it feels like it should be the lead-up to a bigger resolution, instead of being the primary focus. Granted, this also means that the story is much more focused and easier to follow, two issues that were prevalent in Human Revolution, but that focus comes at the expense of excitement or a real reason to care. The majority of the game takes place in Prague, which the player develops a connection to, and the fourth terrorist attack doesn’t even target the city. This led many to calling the ending of Mankind Divided abrupt, even jaw-droppingly bad in execution, and I’d argue that’s due to the scale of the story – it’s a drop in the bucket when compared to its predecessor. Yes, there are a few loose ends that never get addressed, and hopefully they see some resolution in the upcoming DLC, but it’s unfortunate to see such a bland, limp story at the center of otherwise an incredible game.

This uneventful story also has an unforeseen impact on other successful elements of the game. In the lead-up to the release of Mankind Divided, publisher Square Enix released trailers for the title, which showed protesters carrying signs that read “Augmented Lives Matter” (this scene does not appear anywhere in the game – it was used for promotional purposes only). There was pushback from critics who saw Square Enix co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement to help sell a video game, and although that argument can and should be made, it also opened the door for Mankind Divided to make a statement about the current political climate here in America. While the atmosphere may focus heavily on the segregation of naturals and augs (to great effect), the uninspired story means that this analogy to a real-world issue is used for little more than window dressing. Without that commentary, the political implications of Mankind Divided are forgettable, which might actually be the best-case scenario here. One could argue that the allusion to racial segregation, police brutality against minorities and the Black Lives Matter movement is at best cheap, at worst exploitative. If the story and world are going to allude to a hot-button issue that dominates the climate the game was created in, then the developer better be prepared to say something about that issue, instead of using it to generate controversy and free advertisement. I’m sure there are people at Eidos Montreal that wanted to include some form of social commentary, and it seems like the exact thing that a board of shareholders would run screaming from.

This is yet another example of games becoming diluted just so they appeal to everyone. Eidos Montreal crafted a world in which a new form of discrimination is tearing humanity apart, and instead of saying whether that’s right or wrong, they stepped back and let the player project their own feelings onto the world. Not only does this result in a bland, exploitive story, but it doesn’t challenge the player to reexamine their own views. Art has the power to transform how people view an issue, and Mankind Divided was primed to make a bold statement. Instead, players can play as murdering, racist jerks if they want, just to appease someone’s bottom line.

Thankfully, taking attention off the weaker elements of the main story are the vastly superior side-quests. Mankind Divided follows in the steps of Human Revolution and takes a much-welcomed approach to side-quests – there are far fewer than most RPGs, but each one is well crafted, and doesn’t rely on tired cliches such as fetch quests or escort missions. Each mission features its own unique story that adds depth and character to the world, and some of them even progress throughout all three acts. One mission in particular sees Adam Jensen helping an AI program escape from its creator, and culminates in a conversation in which Jensen helps it move through the process of becoming sentient and self-aware. The impact this story has on the canon of Deus Ex is of far more significance than the main story, and is much more compelling. These stories are the gems of Mankind Divided, and further proof that when it comes to side-quests, less is more.

A Thrilling Adventure Told at 10 Frames Per Second

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Fighting off enemies in Prague is made difficult when the game slows to 10 frames per second.

Eidos Montreal owes a huge amount of gratitude to developer Hello Games. Thanks to Hello Games and the controversy surrounding their latest release, No Man’s Sky, no one is paying attention to the extremely poor condition in which Mankind Divided released. To say there are issues would be an understatement – frame rate drops are common when wandering the streets of Prague, and they aren’t brief affairs – at various points the game slows to a crawl for 15 seconds at a time.

But 10 frames per second is nothing compared to the game-crippling bugs plaguing the title. For some, this can mean that those awesome augmentations they invested in and upgraded will suddenly stop working, and there is no way to reset them to get them working again. For others, an entire section of Prague, which is critical for the main story, just disappears, never to be seen again. I personally encountered a bug on both playthroughs that marked two side-quests as being completed, simply by walking into a specific room. Keep in mind, these quests are seemingly unrelated, but for some reason the game completes both of them if the player walks into an unassuming apartment.

Recently, I’ve become a big proponent of what I see as a much needed shift in the way we think about games. I’ve argued that games are an evolving art, which means that they’ll never truly be finished from a development standpoint. That’s great when it results in patches and content that expands the game dramatically, as was the case with Mass Effect 3, Destiny and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Those are great examples of games as an evolving art form. Mankind Divided is the polar opposite – this is the trap gamers worry about when they hear that games will never be truly finished. The unoptimized performance and amount of bugs seen in Mankind Divided should mean that this version of the game never saw the light of day – it should have been delayed (another practice we strongly encourage), and released in a stable, playable state. Eidos Montreal has issued a couple patches since the game released, but in my experience the game performed worse after the latest patch for the Playstation 4 version. I still believe that developers and gamers should look at games as a slow burn that will change over time, but if more games release in a state like Mankind Divided, it could derail that shift in thought.

Humanity Divided

When it’s all said and done, I believe 2016 will be looked at as one of the best, if not the best, years in gaming. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided certainly doesn’t hurt that notion – it’s a terrific game, with incredible gameplay and a rich atmosphere. But I can’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment at the quality of the story. If Mankind Divided were to hit the emotional highs and lows of its predecessor, we would be looking at an instant classic. Instead, we’re looking at a great game that will get mentioned alongside better games to bolster the argument that 2016 really is an amazing year for games. While there are much worse fates, it’s disappointing to see potential and opportunity go to waste. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I start my third playthrough, failing to see the irony as I stab enemies with my hands.