The coolest shades in games has returned in fine form.
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: August 23, 2016
Copy provided by publisher
Human Revolution made its mark on the Deus Ex series in impressive fashion. Returning to a critically acclaimed universe – with a prequel, no less – was a tough job for anybody, but Eidos pulled out all the stops to create an authentic entry, one that brought the series’ name back into good standing after the notoriously maligned Invisible War.
Wisely sticking with the late 2o20s, Mankind Divided puts the spotlight on Adam Jensen once more, now a member of Interpol and investigating terrorist threats in Prague. Following the “Aug Incident” in Human Revolution, where people upgraded with mechanical parts were manipulated into losing their minds and becoming violent, augmented humans are now mistrusted and shunned – no longer fashion symbols, considered less than so-called “naturals.”
In its own earnest way, Mankind Divided explores themes of prejudice, social divides, and authoritarianism, though it has better luck with some aspects of its social commentary than others. Despite the surface veneer of neutrality and the risk of running into a fallacious “both sides are equally bad” justification, it’s pretty clear where Deus Ex stands on certain issues.
The Augmented are portrayed with near universal sympathy, while Prague’s sneering police officers are discriminatory, oppressive, and often violent. Jensen, despite being committed to his job and seeking justice no matter the politics, is an Aug himself, and Mankind Divided attempts to portray the city’s mistreatment through his eyes.
Jensen is regularly stopped before entering new areas of the city, forced to wait as police officers check his identification. Passers-by will mutter slurs such as “clank” as the player navigates the streets, and there are constant scenes of the Augmented being put against walls and threatened at gunpoint by those in charge.
It’s not a particularly deep exploration of the subject, but Mankind Divided tries, and for the most part is pretty good at not trying too hard.
While there are some missteps – I think referring to the anti-Augmented as explicitly “racist” is tone-deaf for a start – Mankind Divided is nowhere near as on-the-nose with its commentary as previous Deus Ex games have been. It’s not sitting on the fences, but it’s not going so far as to put its foot in its mouth – for the most part.
The main thrust of the plot is an investigation into several terror attacks that have been pinned on the Augmented Rights Coalition – a group that has been fighting for Aug rights in the years following Human Revolution. It’s not quite the globetrotting affair Deus Ex games usually become, with the vast majority of Jensen’s case taking place in and around Prague, but the city is huge and Eidos does an incredible job mining hours of quality content from one major hub area.
Side missions are by far the most enjoyable aspect of the game. The main plot is fun and decently written, but it’s nowhere near as compelling as some of the optional quests Adam can undertake. These range from foiling a “Neon” drug operation to hunting down a serial killer who’s been stripping Augs of their mechanical parts.
Each side quest is a lengthy and storied case involving crime scene investigations, meetings with carefully crafted characters, and the occasional bank break-in. Eidos allows itself to be bolder with its writing in these optional adventures – a bit more social commentary, and a lot of unique ideas that take the concept of cybernetic enhancement to some dark places.
Human Revolution‘s flexible gameplay was fantastic in 2011, and it’s honestly needed few changes if any in the five years since. Outside of some tweaks, Mankind Divided is incredibly similar to its predecessor, with stealth, gun handling, hacking, and his range of augmented abilities remaining indistinguishable.
As always, Jensen is free to approach a mission sneakily, using stealth augments such as cloaking and silent footsteps to pass without a trace, or he can go all blazing with arm blades, gunfire, and a volley of mini-rockets firing from his metal musculature. Regardless of one’s approach, the game can be played lethally or non-lethally.
There are weapons and augs that allow you to kill in silence or incapacitate in the loudest fashion possible – and vice versa. There’s an option to talk your opponents into submission, or just go ahead and kill them. You can hack security monitors to turn robots against their users, or shut everything down completely with EMP grenades and a ton of firepower.
Also, there aren’t any of those boss fights that people hated in the last game, save for one large scale conflict at the end that’s actually quite enjoyable and feels like a Metal Gear Solid encounter.
PRAXIS kits are attained via experience or rare item finds, and used to upgrade Adam’s augmented form. Improved hacking skills, body armor, targeting systems, and more all return from Human Revolution, but a number of brand new toys are unlocked early in play. Such fresh playthings include electronic darts that remotely taze enemies into submission, concussive blasts that can send everything in range flying, and some good ol’ fashioned Bullet Time jazz.
The new abilities are labeled as “experimental” and require deactivation of other augments to stop Jensen overheating – at least for a portion of the game. Those who focus on a particular playstyle will barely feel this conceit, however – it’s easy enough to just zero in on the augments you want and switch off everything else, plus it’s only a temporary problem.
Despite the excitement of these wacky experimental augments, I have to say they’re nowhere near as good as what Adam already had.
Some of the new functions are pretty useful – the Icarus Dash is basically a Dishonored style blink teleport, which makes navigation easier – but the original feature set is simply the most practical, and players of the last game will likely migrate toward old favorites than delve too deep into the new, less versatile, offerings.
Remote hacking is great, however. I regret not trying it sooner than I did, as the power to remotely shut down robots or unlock cars for alarm-free looting is a surprising amount of fun despite appearing to be mundane and worthless.
With a handful of additional powers and a ton of familiar territory, it’s easiest to simply describe Mankind Divided as more of the same – but I have no problem with that assertion. More of the same is fine by me.
2029 Prague is gorgeously designed from a navigational perspective – every environment is painstakingly crafted with multiple playstyles in mind. The streets are littered with hidden paths, whole apartments full of bonus items or intriguing lore, and large buildings you could conceivably spend hours just exploring and trespassing in.
I’ve got to admit, however, that I’m a little disappointed Eidos decided to move away from Human Revolution‘s famous “black and gold” aesthetic. While I appreciate the aesthetic change reflecting a new mood and symbolizing grimmer times, there’s no strong visual language to replace what Human Revolution had.
Thanks to its bright daytime scenes and less fantastical color palette, Mankind Divided is more pedestrian in its overall style – beautiful to look at, certainly, but lacking the strong unifying identity that made its predecessor so remarkable.
This changes somewhat as day turns to night throughout the course of the game and takes on an overall darker tone in more than literal ways, but even at its most cyberpunky, Mankind Divided lacks a unique visual flair.
Human Revolution really was the only game to make the otherwise despised “piss filter” look great, and MD‘s lack of any filtering at all is noticeable.
Attacks, character designs, and environments all look fantastic, though basic character animations appear to be quite awkward and clumsy.
Dialogue scenes see Jensen twitching and fidgeting like a bad animatronic, while whoever he shares a scene with frequently shakes a fist emphatically regardless of what they’re actually saying. It all looks rather comical, which isn’t helped by how many of the actors are really hamming it up next to the ever-mumbly Jensen.
The PlayStation 4 version is also affected by glaring framerate dips that can occur during busier areas of the city. This is especially noticeable when sprinting, as the engine appears to be desperately loading new areas before you reach them. Expect frequent, but not dealbreaking, stuttering if you plan on playing the console version (PC code was not provided before review, and could always go either way).
One major problem with Mankind Divided is its ending. Despite providing over thirty quality hours, the game does have an abrupt end without giving away any clues that the final mission is, indeed, the final one. It’s presented as just the next chapter, and its true nature as a conclusion is shocking – not least for the issue of several unresolved plots and the general feeling that the whole main story was just chapter one of something bigger.
The jarring nature of this game’s end certainly lends credence to the idea it was once designed to be something bigger before being split into a trilogy.
When one’s done with the story, there’s an online mode called Breach, which I do not recommend. It’s a series of virtual reality “hacking” missions where you navigate maps to download data and then escape before the system A.I. stops you. Conceptually it’s like Mike Bithell’s Volume, but in practice it’s a really blatant free-to-play style game that constantly tries to sell you “packs” to improve your performance.
It’s dull, an extrapolated version of the main story’s most boring sequence, and it exists to sell you things. Ignore it.
Even with a somewhat disappointing final furlong, one can’t help but be satisfied by what Mankind Divided has to offer. A solid story that manages to keep its more ridiculous elements in surprising check, tons of gameplay options with hours of optional material, and the simple satisfaction that comes with being a mechanical metahuman, the latest Deus Ex is possibly the most accomplished in the series, despite not being as complete as it seems it should’ve been.
At its very worst, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is just as good as Human Revolution, which is really not a problem if you think Human Revolution was absolutely bloody marvelous.
I’m sure you can guess what I thought of it by now.