Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided “Augment Your Preorder” Cancelled

Whelp, guys and gals, it’s happened. The official Deus Ex twitter profile announced today: “You asked for this: we are cancelling the “Augment Your Pre-Order” program. Read all the details here – https://www.deusex.com/news/aypo-cancelled“. If you’re not familiar with the program, it was a somewhat gross system where you choose which pre-order bonus you’ll receive, with more pre-orders unlocking more options, with the last “bonus” being that the game would be releasing four days early. I write about it here.

Yeah, I’m not used to companies actually responding to customer feedback like this- although not without trying to cover their backs. The announcement post claims that the program was devised to give us customers choice, because “when we choose those packages ourselves, and split them across regions, it has caused frustration.”

While people are frustrated when games offer different pre-order incentives at different outlets and regions, it’s not the inconvenience of having to find a copy of the game at an outlet you don’t use that’s the cause of the frustration, rather the fact that it feels less you have a complete product when pieces of the game have been cut out and scattered to the four winds. While Square Enix and Eidos Montreal seem to be making the right move in terminating the program, their attempt to cover themselves feels kind of disingenuous.

Credit where it’s due, though- the announcement post goes on to explain that, to “make things right” with customers, applying all of the pre-order bonuses to every pre-order or Day 1 edition purchasers. Furthermore, the game’s release date is no longer changed in accordance with pre-order numbers, and everyone will gain access to the game on February 23rd, 2016.”

It is nice to see the companies owning up to their mistake and going back on their gross program. Sure, it seems like this move is motivated by PR rather than customer service, and pre-order bonuses are a bit of an icky concept anyway, at least it’s a step in the right direction for now.

Image credits: techtalk.currys.co.uk

What Makes A Good Boss Battle?

Boss battles are about as deeply entrenched in video game DNA as life bars; it’s hard to think of a series that doesn’t feature some kind of boss battle. Even in games like Top Spin and Fifa 20XX, there are the big events like Wimbledon and the Cup Final that the game builds up to, where you’ll compete against harder opponents. In conventional story-driven series, boss battles help to break up the action; you’ll progress through a level, build up to the boss, overcome the boss, then move on to the next area. It’s a well-trodden and comfortable rhythm, and a perfectly sound way to pace a game. So, this begs the question: what makes a good boss fight?

Firstly, let’s look at some examples of bad boss fights. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, an otherwise solidly crafted game emphasising player choice, is marred with boss encounters that essentially force you to take down the bosses with good old fashioned murder bullets. Not only are these encounters particularly dissonant in pacifist playthroughs, they also betray the game’s tenet of freedom of approach. You can’t sneak past them without a trace, you can’t really hack stuff to your advantage; if you haven’t geared up with offensive gear in favour of a stealthy playthrough, you’re going to have much more frustrating time, and it’s not your fault because apart from boss battles, the game has been selling player choice.

Another frequently-touted example of a poor boss is the fight with the Joker at the end of Arkham Asylum, in which the Joker is beefed up on a more-potent variation of venom, Titan. While the fight doesn’t break gameplay consistency, since brawls with large Titan-enhanced enemies were already in previous encounters, the boss is egregious because it doesn’t make narrative sense. The Joker is a thinker; he’s dangerous because of his genius, not his physical prowess. He’s only a threat to opponents in combat because of his sheer unpredictability. Batman shouldn’t beat him in a battle of brawn, but a battle of brains, and the final boss fight with the Joker just broke the narrative and character consistency that the game had been wonderfully building up to that point.

So, then, a boss battle should be consistent with the game, both in terms of mechanical design and narrative design. Dishonored is a good example of a counter to Deus Ex, since both games encourage exploration and flexible approach to the levels. Dishonored has the protagonist Corvo Attano chasing down targets in a corrupt government, most of whom are related to his fall from grace as the Lord Protector of the Emperess. Dispatching these targets are essentially the main objective of each mission, so they’re acting as bosses in this game. Rather than requiring you to eliminate your targets through murder, Dishonored allowed attentive players to dispatch targets in non-lethal ways. For example, you can mark one target with a heretic’s brand, which leads to him being kicked out of his high office, effectively removing the threat he imposed. This approach to design allowed players to make choices which suited the narrative consistency of their play style, and none of the choices of approaching targets betrays the narrative themes of the game up to that point.

Setting aside narrative concerns, a commonly held belief is that a good boss battle tests what you’ve learned about the game so far. Bloodborne boss Father Gascoigne is one such boss that epitomises this philosophy. The second (or first, if you take a certain route) boss in Bloodborne, the Gascoigne fight takes place in a cemetery and is more or less a trial by fire; relentlessly charging you with formidable speed and power, players that haven’t yet learned to dodge and parry attacks will have a hard time beating him. You can also make use of the grave stones in the area to give yourself some breathing room to heal and time your attacks, which emphasises the use of environment that’s so important in Souls/Borne games. Lastly, there’s an item you can acquire before the Gascoigne fight that allows you to render him immobile for a short period of time, which let you get in some much-needed hits. This teaches you the importance of preparation and the rewards of exploration, as well as providing a narrative gut-punch once you understand the circumstances surrounding Gascoigne.

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Conversely, games have made use of boss fights as ways to expand the player’s mind beyond what they may have learned in the preceding sections of the game. Forced to adapt new strategies to deal with the boss, the fight often plays out more like a puzzle until you work out the right method of dealing with the enemy. The Metal Gear Solid series is famous for this approach; while much of the games focus on stealth, most of the bosses require unique strategies. The Psycho Mantis fight in MGS is well known for its genius, making the player plug their controller into the player 2 slot so that Mantis can’t read the Snake’s mind, rendering him beatable. In fact, each boss battle in MGS embraces a completely different play style; a prolonged sniper battle with Sniper Wolf, a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with Vulcan Raven, a simple fist fight with Liquid Snake… each encounter distinct and memorable as the last, and very little to resemble the core gameplay of the game.

I think that Shadow of the Colossus may be the purest example of this style. While your mechanical options are the same in each instance, each colossus requires a different approach; sometimes you need to bait a certain attack to be able to climb up onto them, sometimes you need to sue the environment cleverly, and sometimes you need to hit a weak spot. Climbing each colossus is a puzzle in itself, as you navigate their massive bodies in search of weak points where you can damage the creature. I think that game which use this approach to boss design tend to be more successful in creating more memorable and varied encounters.

All in all, I think that the best boss fights are those that are memorable. They should be hard, but fair, and most importantly, true to the game. It’s clear from Dishonored and Metal Gear that we can have varied, interesting and unforgettable bosses that improve the game rather than acting as a barrier to the player.

Image credits: alphacoders.com, gbhbl.com

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided- Don’t Augment Your Preorder

For those of you that’re out of the loop, Square Enix have announced their preorder incentive for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. It’s called “Augment Your Preorder”, and it’s kind of like the Kickstarter stretch goals system in that the more people that preorder the game, the more preorder bonuses there are to choose from, the last goal being that the game releases 4 days early.

Yeah. Screw this thing.

When are companies going to understand that divvying up content so that no (sane) person can have a fully complete version of a product, really pisses everyone off? It’s a terrible practice on a PR and customer relations level, and it just leads to degradation of the art form.

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The target number of preorders for the five (!) tiers of goals are secret, which probably means that no matter how many people fall for this rubbish, Square Enix gets to come out with a press release claiming that all of the tiers have been reached, and, yes, they’re very proud of how the community has already rallied around the game. I can just picture the smug release now.

Now, there’s been a fair amount of outcry, although I’m not sure how much outrage will actually lead to a change in this kind of practice. We’ve been putting up with this blatant disregard for customers and games as an art form for years now; as anyone who remembers the absolute clustermolest that was the list of Watch Dogs editions and pre-order incentives. Pre-order incentives in general tend to lead to a system of haves and have-nots, and you really don’t want a customer paying for a full-price triple-A game feeling like a have-not.

Now, I’m not totally against pre-ordering like many people are. For instance, I myself pre-ordered the Pip-Boy edition of Fallout 4, because that is a very exclusive product that I’d probably have to resort selling my organs for had I relied on eBay scalpers down the line. But, in this case, the blatant disrespect for the consumer is such that I just cannot condone pre-ordering this game. And that makes me sad, because I love Deus Ex, and the developers probably had little to no say in Augment Your Preorder program.