As unfair as it is to begin a review of a game with a mild spoiler, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided demands it. The reason being that a brief digression reveals both the game’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness.
In one of the game’s side missions, Adam Jensen – Deus’s gravel-throated cyborg protagonist who boasts facial hair any hipster would kill for – comes across one of the most malignant characters I’ve encountered in a game for a while.
The character in question isn’t some cybernetically-enhanced terrorist or corporate sociopath. No, this bloke is a former doctor who experimented on his patients, warping their ability to control their emotions.
If this didn’t make him bad enough, now that one of his former patients has escaped, he wants Jensen to eliminate them – not because he’s worried they’ll hurt anyone, you understand, but because if they’re captured alive, his rather despicable past activities will be a matter of public record.
The lead up to the confrontation with this spineless slime-bag is as well-written and well-thought-out as he is. Since I don’t want to reveal anything further, I’ll just say that the mission in question plays to the strengths that the Deus Ex series became revered for: it’s open-ended, it has multiple outcomes, it gifts the player oodles of choice and it’s brilliantly constructed.
In fact, this side mission is so good, it throws into sharp contrast just how restrictive a lot of the game’s main story missions are and how thumpingly ham-handed the narrative can be at times. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided takes aim at some pretty provocative issues – prejudice, terrorism and corporate malfeasance among them – and it tries to present its narrative packaged in classic Deus Ex style. It succeeds in parts.
The plot in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided kicks off several years after the events in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you never played the latter, don’t worry: the former has a ten minute cinematic you can watch that’ll catch you up on current events.
For the rest of you, here’s the deal: after a signal was sent out that made augmented people homicidal, which resulted in casualties on a global scale, the non-augmented world cracked down. The post Human Revolution world is one of segregation: augmented people have been thrown into slums, are required to carry papers and are subjected to abuse and exploitation by the non-aug populace and the authorities.
Aug-rights groups have started springing up and they’re portrayed as a pack of terrorists by the mainstream media. Jensen is assigned to an Interpol unit based in Prague who are investigating an aug-rights group suspected of a train station bombing. Since this is a Deus Ex game, what initially appears to be an open-and-shut case proves to be something more far reaching.
The developers work hard to present a world balanced on a divide built by prejudice. The player is almost constantly surrounded by anti-aug graffiti and both civilians and cops refer disparagingly to Jensen as ‘clank’. But these trappings aren’t as effective at conveying the game’s myopic backdrop as the side missions, which afford players a lot of time to explore the central game hub of Prague.
As they travel through its myriad cobbled streets and neon-clad train stations, players will run into myriad characters, each with a story to tell and a task for Jensen to accomplish. Without heading into specifics, Jensen’s Prague is a city in which the amoral prey on the weak and in which cynicism and brutality are assets.
Many of the missions only have a tangential connection to the game’s main narrative, although they’re all worth completing. First, they do a much better job in portraying the aug oppression than the main story and anti-aug slurs; second, they allow the player to earn the precious Praxis Points needed to unlock Jensen’s combat augs.
There are some augs players of Human Revolution will be familiar with – such as Jensen’s cloaking device and the social enhancer – and some that are brand new. Apparently Jensen was in a coma between games and some unknown parties added new augs during that time, including tracking vision, swords that shoot out of his arms and remote hacking for terminals. The new augs, incidentally are in an unstable state so players have to shut down some of them in order to use others.
The lion’s share of the player’s experience will consist of Human Revolution’s trifecta of stealth, gunplay and hacking. Its predecessor’s lousy boss battles aside, Mankind Divided doesn’t really enhance or fix any of the issue that hampered gameplay the first time around. Stealthy play forces players to consume bio-cells and exercise the patience of a saint; gunplay never feels as weighty or as visceral as it should; hacking feels like it should be more fun than it is, and it pops up way too often.
The game’s shine really dulls, however, in its main story missions, in which players are shoved into an area – sometimes outside the game’s main hub – that’s crawling with armed foes, cameras, turret guns and the odd robot sentinel. It’s not that the player is outgunned and outnumbered in these encounters that grates, it’s that Jensen is effectively in a corridor that the player needs to traverse that offers a paucity of choice.
Stealth here is trial and error, which is made arduous due to the game’s loading times. Running and gunning isn’t exactly a brilliant approach since the noise will bring enemies running towards the player in their droves. Players can attempt to take some of the heat off Jensen by hacking turrets, cameras and robots, but, once again, the hacking mini-game is too frustrating to really enjoy.
Deus Ex: Humankind Divided is not a bad game – in fact, it’s a pretty good one – but playing it, one can’t help but feel there’s another, better game trapped inside it. There’s a lot to admire in Jensen’s latest adventure (the absolutely awful ending notwithstanding), and in its best moments it simply soars. But for a game set in a world of bleeding edge technology, Deus Ex: Humankind Divided fails to connect when players are left to rely simply on augs and combat, and shines when it places human stories front and centre.
Oh, the irony.