What happens when the world changes? Do you fight for the oppressed, flawed as they may be? Or do you join the persecutors, intent on keeping the peace even if it goes against everything you stand for?
That’s what Deus Ex: Mankind Divided asks of you. The game follows 2011’s Human Revolution, picking up two years after the tragedy of the Aug Event, when every augmented human was taken over by a sociopath and taken on a murdering spree.
But the mainstay of Mankind Divided is not its story. It is better understood as the narrative thread that holds together a number of genuinely intriguing set pieces of action and stealth. If only it could get out of the way more often.
When you start up the game there’s a helpful twelve minute catch up video for the events from Human Revolution. But let’s not fool ourselves, the main story is trash and the video does little to assuage you of that. The complexities and overwhelming number of shady corporations and bodies soon leaves you reeling and confused, especially if you haven’t played Human Revolution.
I also have a problem with the way Mankind Divided sets up its story of oppression and insurrection with liberal references to actual contemporary world events. Posters with catchphrases such as “Aug Lives Matter” and strong analogies to Nazi oppression and minority ghettoisation abound, yet Mankind Divided has nothing notable to actually say on the issue. At best it points out the oppression and injustice, but protagonist Jensen isn’t a hero for justice. Instead he is an observer, a sojourner in a world that he, by virtue of his position is largely excluded from.
Ignoring the story however, which is mediocre at best, we can focus on the gameplay. Environments and Jensen’s abilities have been closely designed in concert with one another. This leads to satisfying moments where by just looking at a scene you understand what you can and can’t do with a decent range of abilities (Augs) at your behest.
The streets of militarised central Prague, where you spend the very large majority of your time, is riddled with secrets for you to discover and use those abilities. Though why Jensen feels that he has the right break in, steal and hack almost everything from any old apartment or store is not entirely explained. Yet breaking into a stranger’s laptop can set off a delightful chain of events that can quickly take up hours of your time.
When you do finally get around to the main storyline and into a mission you can play the game really in a way that make sense to you, which I appreciated greatly. The story forces Jensen into a “factory reset” of his systems, letting you build the type of player you want to be. Yet while you can build a sociopathic killing machine, Mankind Divided clearly wants you to move among the shadows. I ended up as a relatively stealthy hacker who wasn’t much of a fighter.
But if you want to max out all your abilities, it is perhaps a little too easy to do so. Side missions, which were often more interesting than the more story, provide literally thousands of experience points if you don’t rush through the game. These side quests offer some genuinely interesting moments that helped flesh out the world that Jensen has found himself in. A favourite of mine was a random discovery of a cult hidden in the midst of the sewers.
Quests are interesting and complex, and even the fetch quests are never simple or boring.
That said, I was never quite sure what doing side missions would actually achieve for me (beyond the XP and a chance to unlock my abilities) and what I would lose out by abandoning or failing them. Yet some of the missions are barely “side” missions at all; they are important contributors to the main story in a variety of ways that I won’t spoil. So as the side missions tend to be higher quality than the main story anyway, I highly suggest following them all to the end, as much as possible. And remember that even though you may think you have hit a roadblock, Mankind Divided usually provides a way to get past it – even if it means going off script.
Too often however you’re walking back and forth between markers on the minimap for far too much of your time. I found the pacing overall to be uneven with long stretches of endless conversation before I could really get into the action. The talk is boring, stilted and overly long. While the choice-driven dialogue system helpfully shows what you’re actually going to say (unlike, say, the Witcher 3), I was regularly bored by what NPCs had to say. Once I found the skip audio button (B on Xbox One) I used it exceptionally frequently.
I wasn’t such a fan of the energy system either, which meant there was an appreciable cool-down time between actions (at least at first), often leading to funny moments of literally running around goons waiting for my energy meter to refill before I could perform a one-hit knockout.
Silly first person platforming sections were also a strain, and the floaty camera system didn’t help to ground me in understanding where I was spatially. Disconcertingly, when you grab an item Jensen doesn’t actually touch it, instead the item floats in front of you, which seems like a strange omission on Square Enix’s part, one that disconnects you a little from what’s actually happening.
Your protagonist Adam Jensen might as well be a John Doe for all the personality he brings to the table. He speaks in a husky monotone that tended to grind, but that may be a personal affectation of mine. His overly-cool, never ruffled personality is disingenuous, especially considering some of the extreme events in the game, let alone the continued effects of the Aug Event. It makes him feel wafer thin, and I struggled to connect to him at all. I never understood his part in what was happening or why he cared at all.
And at least on the Xbox One, this game sometimes struggles. The character models remind me of upscaled port from the previous generation. Hallmarks for this abound in the bad animation, puppet-esque lip syncing and overall rather static environment. Particularly jarring are the high-resolution main character models and the rather previous-gen looking NPCs – often visible in the same conversation. Mirrors don’t reflect you either, pointing out that the game was designed around you, not you around it. Which is fine, but the best games (such as the Witcher 3) integrate player and world seamlessly, leading to a much more believable and immersive experience.
That’s not to say there aren’t some great looking locations – Prague’s version of Kowloon’s Walled City is a demonstration of the game’s still unique and attractive “renaissance” art direction.
I also encountered a number of times where frame rates plummeted below 30 frames per second, especially in cutscenes. Load times are overly-long too, which for a game that some will want to run through perfectly (and dealing with frequent reloads) could be a deal-breaker. Mind you I was playing on pre-release code on a console not known for its fast storage, so it may be patched in the near future or be better on other platforms.
For all the ways I was disappointed by it, I can’t wait to see some of the more intricate ways that players take hold of Mankind Divided’s well-crafted systems, and create some undoubtedly truly impressive set pieces. Whether this game was not for me, or simply didn’t click, I found Mankind Divided to be a good game held back by its interminable story, uninteresting characters and rather bland setting. Still, Deus Ex games are a unique type of experience, and for those that enjoy it, you can easily lose hours exploring Prague doing side quests, or perfecting no-kill, no detection runs of the mainline story. There are also story DLCs (one of them already available) and the speedrun-friendly Breach mode to keep you coming back and perfecting. As a package this is a good deal. Solid mechanics are fortunately the core of the game. They pull the game through, and will keep you coming back for more.
Released: August 2016
Platforms: PC (Windows 7 or higher), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action, SciFi
Developer: Eidos Interactive, Square Enix