The stories that Eidos Montreal, tell in what could now be considered the Deus Ex Universe, elicit themes of change and adaptation vs resistance and conservatism. The warring social politics between transhumanism and organic naturalism are the bedrock of this ideological conflict, and in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the conservative naturalists are winning. This shift in political power from Eidos’ previous game, Human Revolution, is an unintentional metaphor for just how much this latest instalment of Deus Ex has to offer. It sticks to what the franchise knows and not much else. But much like the sequential phenomenon between Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4, where the latter title made only iterative improvements on its hugely successful predecessor despite years past, Mankind Divided has managed to get away with refinement over revolution.
“The Incident” is a repeated reference in Mankind Divided’s story. It is responsible for the socio-political oppression of humans with inserted or attached cyborg-like augments, offering context to the augmentation apartheid that ravages the series’ new setting, Prague in the year 2029. At the end of Human Revolution, a global event triggered an augmented meltdown, commanding every partial human being to fly into an involuntary murderous rampage, leaving countless dead. Human Revolution depicted a near-even standoff between the two ideologies – both of which had considerable corporate and congressional backing. However ‘The Incident’ tipped the scales in favour of the conservative naturalists, leaving “Augs” feared and oppressed in this current game.
The layered lore that surrounds both the present and past Deus Ex games is quite dense, rife with capitalistic and political espionage on almost every level. And while this alone is usually a turn-off for me, Mankind Divided lines its narrative with a concrete, though not insultingly simplistic, story that pays off in a much better way than what was seen at the end of Human Revolution. The depictions of civil oppression, mind you, don’t rise above what’s present in most games that wrestle with racism and classism. However the non-pretentious complexity that exists even at the top level is sophisticated enough that, in the end, this augmentation apartheid is handled fairly well.
There are a number of stories to tell here obviously, and the Deus Ex world-building formula works its hardest to deliver them to you in a multitude of ways. For those new to the franchise, hackable emails, e-books, newspapers, and NPC dialogue are constantly thrown your way as you explore these densely lived-in cities. Though this may sound like your typical modern RPG made in the last 10 years, Deus Ex sets itself apart in its structure of narrative discoverability. This is enacted through finding or breaking your way into apartments and office spaces in well-populated areas, making you feel as if you’re often lurking in places you shouldn’t be.
Prague is the perfect setting for this, split into several districts connected by a nifty loading screen with our returning protagonist Adam Jensen looking all badass in his trench coat riding the subway system. While Prague has a lot to say, its sense of style in this futuristic Eastern European setting greatly diminishes what Human Revolution had to offer. The distinct black and gold colour schemes of the previous game have been toned down considerably, and instead the game opts for a more conventional look that’s largely less impressive despite how much better Mankind Divided looks technical-wise. The undulating soft base synths from Human Revolution’s soundtrack have also taken a subtle step back, which further removes Deus Ex from its endearing Blade Runner inspirations. All is not completely lost however. There is a moment in the game in which one of your few trips outside of the hub area takes you to Golem, a machine ghetto that makes the oppressive police of Prague look tolerant, but does so in a city that’s a striking call back to Eidos’ previous work. Visual displays such as the haphazard assortment of florescent gold tubes strung together by strikingly incomprehensible networks of black wires makes you wish that Mankind Divided was more of a globetrotting adventure just to see the visual representation of new areas.
In many ways, the gameplay itself also brings on this slight feeling of regret. So much of Mankind Divided’s story takes place in Prague, that if you just even lose the slightest bit of interest in the story embedded throughout the city, your time there can get boring fast. Though Prague is, in many ways, ground zero of augmented oppression, there’s often not a whole lot of active combat you engage in within the first half of the game – unless of course you decide to take it upon yourself to gun down any civilian, law enforcement, or story character in plain sight. Much of your time here will be spent advancing the plot by deciding whether or not you’ll be hacking doors, stacking dumpsters to climb through windows, or navigating through vent networks all while conversing with various characters in primary and secondary quests. There is a palpable level of satisfaction when problem-solving pathways to your next objective, however the exploration to combat ratio is so heavily tipped in the former, that Mankind Divided’s pacing often feels sluggish.
At its core, the entree of choices at your disposal is what defines Deus Ex, and does so in such a way that few games offer the same sense of agency. When Adam Jensen is forced into action, he has the option of incapacitating or extinguishing his enemies covertly or with brute force. Such choices are made through Adam’s augmentations which are represented by a skill tree that gives you access to both his old and new hidden abilities – all of which are purchased by Praxis Points awarded each time you level up. Skills such as the returning Glass Shield that renders Adam invisible, can be further augmented with Cloaked Takedown, which allows him to eliminate foes up close without breaking his invisibility. You can also use one of Jensen’s new augments such as the Typhoon, an AOE ability that has a lethal and non-lethal option to flatten everyone surrounding him.
Eidos tries to make the act of choosing between Jenson’s abilities a constant aching dilemma, however there were some caveats and flaccid rulesets that took the sting out of deciding where to spend my Praxis Points. Maintaining inventory space is a never ending struggle in Mankind Divided, where ammo, weapons, and other items need to be consolidated. Abilities such as Typhoon use ammunition, so in order to avoid the inventory headache, I skipped this ability entirely. Mankind Divided also brings forth some added context to Adam’s new abilities. Early on, you’ll uncover hidden augmentations that exceed the limit of those in which he can keep active at one time. I decided to activate his P.E.P.S. (Projected Energy Propulsion System) as part of my non-lethal path which pushed his usage above his threshold to 150%, however I could hardly tell the difference. Not only did I never once experience any repercussions for doing so, but later in the game, Adam is gifted an item that eliminates his usage cap, making the concept of augmentation budgeting moot.
Dedicating Praxis Points to certain augmentations can allow you to avoid conflict almost entirely. Increasing your hacking proficiency to breach certain doorways, and equipping abilities such as Leg Silencers and Icarus Dash award more pacifist playstyles. In Human Revolution, this existed within the realm of the “proper” way to play as messing around in loud firefights often felt clunky, since the controls weren’t attuned to that style of play. That’s not the case in Mankind Divided. Popping guys off from behind cover feels appropriately satisfying, whether that’d be up close with a shotgun, or from afar with a tranquilliser rifle. The arsenal is nearly identical to that of the previous game, however Eidos has added Crysis styled weapon customisation options where holding a button will pull his gun up close in first person, allowing you to switch out muzzles, sights, and ammo types on the fly. This flexibility on combat is thankfully replicated in Mankind Divided’s boss fights. Well… make that one boss fight. Ridding the game of bosses almost entirely was Eidos’ answer to the lamented encounters from Human Revolution. But the one boss fight seen in this game is a successful culmination of all of Deus Ex’s combat design into one room.
Mankind Divided has a New Game + Mode, which is valuable insofar as to giving you the opportunity to retry combat rooms with a beefed up Jensen, or sneak your way into areas that weren’t accessible to you in a previous save. Breach is a different mode entirely that presents itself with a small self-contained story and a striking visual style. The style itself is more of a reskinning than anything else since the gameplay mechanics and animations are identical to those seen in the main story. While it’s pitched as a way to offer an alternate space to try different tactics that you may not feel comfortable using in the main game, Breach is just plain boring and not worth your time. Levels constantly repeat themselves in these Super Mario-esque overworlds, and the combat arenas are tight and confined as opposed to the gaping settings in the main game – so much so that you’ll often find yourself limiting your options for the sake of minding your surroundings. You won’t miss much if you ignore Breach entirely as the main story offers over 20 hours of content.
Deus Ex’s DNA as a stealth action game, which allows the player to author their own experience, cannot be compared to many games, with the slight exception of Arkane’s Dishonored. The series prides itself on the element of choice in all facets of the experience, whether that’s to slice and dice your way through an entire room, or put everyone to sleep and slip by without a trace. There’s always several alternate solutions to the same problem in Deus Ex, and Mankind Divided is no different. Eidos might have re-balanced all options to make them all feel relevant and rewarding, but all feels too familiar with what was already done so well in Human Revolution. This new Deus Ex might have got new parts installed, but it’s still running off of the same old machine.
A slick new firmware update
Deus Ex Mankind Divided takes iterative steps, even in the 5 years since Human Revolution, and is all the better for it despite being all too familiar.