Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a highly-polished, well-designed, eminently enjoyable game that sits amongst the best titles of this generation on the merits of its gameplay. Extensively exploring its intricately realised environments is a peerless pleasure. It’s such a shame, then, that the game’s narrative is marred by a couple of conspicuous issues; problems that are clearly the result of Square Enix’s meddling with Mankind Divided’s development, divvying up the game’s planned content into multiple games to form a trilogy.
Two years after Adam Jensen’s trip to the sea floor and revelations about shadowy cabal The Illuminati at the end of Deus Ex: Human Revelation, tensions between augmented people and “naturals” are high. Everyone’s favourite Swiss Army Human Jensen is a double agent working for Interpol’s Prague-based anti-terrorist group Task Force 29 whilst investigating Illuminati infiltration in the organisation through collaboration with hacktivists The Juggernaut Collective. Since the “Aug Incident” at the end of the last game, where the augmented population were triggered into a lethally aggressive state through Illuminati machinations, segregation of augmented humans is well underway- a situation that’s not helped when a series of aug-linked terrorist attacks occur. Adam Jensen must juggle political motivations, widespread prejudice, and a host of experimental augmentations installed without his knowledge in pursuit of truth, justice, and the impeccably bearded way.
Gameplay wise, not much has changed since Human Revolution. Adam Jensen still controls through a mixture of first- and third-person perspectives, with a cover system optimised for stealth and a suite of unlockable and upgradeable augmentations dependant on a carefully maintained battery meter. You can pursue a range of different play styles, incorporating stealth, hacking, and all out action depending on how you apply the Praxis Kits earned through levelling up to unlock and upgrade new abilities for your semi mechanical body.
The most obvious additions to gameplay are Jensen’s new experimental augmentations – powerful new abilities that stretch his system to its limit. You can trigger thick dermal body armour, incapacitate foes with concussive or electrical blasts from your arms, and hack certain electronics from a distance to turn the tables on your foes. The drawback of these upgrades is that they require you to “overclock” your system, which can lead to issues like overheating and failure of certain augmentations at random. This is potentially mitigated by an optional item which grants you free reign to tap into all of that sweet, metallic potential risk-free.
Although sound, Mankind Divided’s gameplay could use a little bit of ironing out. For instance, you can lug unconscious or dead enemies’ bodies around to hide them from their peers. This process should be quite easy, but it’s fraught with issues. The (admittedly hilarious) rag doll bodies often catch and latch onto objects or walls when you attempt to drag them around corners. You never feel like you have a solid grip on their body either, since sometimes Adam decides to just drop the body without your knowledge or consent. Most frustratingly the command prompt on Xbox One for picking up a body is the same as the one that lets you look at your gun to switch between different ammunition types and firing modes. On more than one occasion I’ve been caught by a patrolling guard because Adam suddenly decided to take an keenly intense interest in his stun gun’s serial number while squatting guiltily over a convulsing goon.
Still, ninety-nine percent of the time the foundation of Human Revolution’s established gameplay is pretty damn solid, and Mankind Divided’s runaway triumph lies in its level and world design. The game’s hub, set around your Prague base of operations, initially seems a little bit small- you can sprint across the explorable length of the area in a couple of minutes- but it’s soon clear that the space contains multitudes of pathways. Most buildings are honeycombed with a plethora of apartments, offices, and hidden rooms. Exploring Prague feels like delving into a trove of intricate puzzle boxes requiring a mixture of approaches to crack into, and in my experience there’s always something worth finding in any given locked room. You might find valuable materials, codes to storage lockers, entire side-quests, or even story critical items you’ve stumbled across by chance- something I managed in a brief spate of apartment-diving in one of the ritzier joints. The city evolves, too, offering new opportunities as time passes and night falls to reveal that seedy black-and-gold spirit that you know and love from Human Revolution.
It’s not just Prague that gets this fastidious attention to detail. Missions that take you away from the city let you delve into similarly rich and complex areas as you fight your invisible war. Level layouts might seem to follow a more linear path than you’re used to in the sprawl, but there’s always a wealth of choice awaiting you.
That’s the design philosophy at the core of Mankind Divided: levels are built to accommodate player choice. Pretty much any approach you can imagine and spec yourself towards is supported down to rewards for each approach: you’ll gain similar amounts of XP taking enemies down through up-close stealth attacks, bombastic action, hacking their security systems to turn against them, or circumventing your opposition altogether by seeking out hidden paths. You can skip entire heavily-guarded sequences by finding and stacking enough boxes to climb up to somewhere you’re not “supposed” to be. Even the AI is remarkable; antagonise a shop’s bodyguard by stepping into and out of the stock room, and when the ensuing gunfire and panic draws police they’ll fire upon the bodyguard because they’re the one that’s seen to be breaking the rules (yes, Grand Theft Auto allowed you to call the police on people responding to your attacks first, but it’s such a rarely-seen detail in AI that it warrants mention). Mankind Divided’s world and rules always accommodate the astute and the imaginative with its potential for emergent play.
Unfortunately, although the bricks-and-mortar of gameplay guided by a beautiful design philosophy blueprint make for grand architecture to behold, there’s a serious fault in Mankind Divided’s structure. No matter how well crafted the torturously metaphorical building, a weak narrative foundation threatens to compromise the whole effort.
Take the elephant in the room: the “Mechanical Apartheid”. Although not so pronounced in the game as in its misguided marketing campaign, the theme of “augmented” as a racial identity just doesn’t feel like it holds water. Although the all-but mandatory adoption of augmentations in manual labour industries essentially creates a population that “didn’t ask for this”, the issue remains that, unlike in real life racial conflicts, the persecuted group in this universe actually is inherently more dangerous than the majority. That’s even before you mention the recent Aug Incident, which shows that in a realistic worst-case scenario augmented people can be controlled by their bodily accessories to ruinous effect whether they like it or not. There are so many interesting and fitting places the game could’ve explored with augmented people, deeply exploring themes of ableism, industrialism, or expensive and ineffective healthcare systems. Instead, we have to make do with a blunt bludgeoning over the head with unsuitable theming.
That’s a shame not only due to the game’s inept allegory potentially alienating people of colour, but also because the ways the game showcases widespread prejudice are actually quite clever. Not content with just pseudo-racial slurs heaped onto dialogue, persecution bleeds into the way you interact with the world, too. Everywhere you’re seeing the state mistreating augmented people, arresting them without warrant, hassling them in the street, and exploiting them when possible. It’s stuff that would usually warrant intervention in any other game, but it’s so pervasive and widespread that you really don’t feel like you can help. An especially powerful, while simultaneously very subtle, detail is found in the game’s subway stations used to zip between Prague’s districts. You’re supposed to walk right to the end of the platform to board the train on the Aug-specific train car. Every mission marker leads you to this spot whenever you need to use the train. However, if you board the train from any of the “Naturals Only” spots, you’re greeted by a police officer at the other end and forced to wait through a 30-second cut scene where they check your papers and tell you off. It’s a small delay, but really hammers home how infuriating it can be to jump through unfair hoops.
Mankind Divided’s powerful attention to storytelling details in the environment kills me because it’s so focused on forcing a 1:1 augmented-as-race metaphor that just doesn’t fit. All that attention to detail and potential lying in the subtext is cheapened by inappropriate theming.
Aside from the game’s underwhelming use of its setting, Mankind Divided is beset by conspicuous issues of pacing. The game just barely tells enough of a complete story to justify itself as a single release, but the path to its sudden and disappointing conclusion is riddled with baffling decisions of plotting. You start the game with a full suite of upgraded abilities, but when you inevitably lose them you’re a couple of hours into the game (a move that could be defended through giving you enough time to get to grips with your many options to decide the path you’re going to pursue with upgrades, but story-wise it’s very jarring). There’s a tutorial that teaches you the ins and outs of gunplay at your office’s firing range that crops up after about five hours of play. Plot advancement is paper-thin and prolonged in a way that makes it obvious that Mankind Divided was intended to be a longer game, but has been hacked apart to fill out multiple releases- and that’s thrown a spanner into the pacing of the game’s events.
The game isn’t too short by any means- the dense world and wealth of side-missions pads out the experience admirably, but the story has not been adequately changed to make appropriate use of its allotted time post-division. The flailing attempt to appease this split is epitomised by the conclusion of the game, in which a (not joking) five minute long news report in which Eliza Cassan, the (albeit intentionally) limpest character in the whole world, covers events linked to your actions in drab monotone.You can almost feel Square Enix shoving a bookmark in the middle of the story and yanking from your hands, Eidos Montreal looking on sadly.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a beautifully presented, eminently replayable and immersive game that offers tens of hours of Renaissance-flavoured cyberpunk escapism. While its core gameplay and world design are top-notch, the experience is sullied by significant narrative weaknesses as the game struggles to justify its most prominent theme amidst producer-driven meddling. That’s not to say that Mankind Divided isn’t worth the plunge; it’s still a fantastic game worthy of everyone’s attention. It’s just that this particular painting is too many missed strokes away from being a masterpiece.