Stories have entertained our species for years. From the inception of the oral tradition, to the invention of the pencil and dictation, all the way through to the theatre, typewriter, the printing press, and ultimately the evolution of digital technologies that allow us to tell all kinds of stories in all manner of ways: stories have entertained our species for years. The latest incarnation of this age-old tradition of transmission – gaming – has departed somewhat from this time-honoured model. Games these days are ever-pushing towards ‘open-ended’, build-your-own-story experiences, with nuanced scriptwriting and challenging plots being neglected in favour of Minecraftian experiences, wherein simply doing is enough. With the trend set to continue, only one man can salvage us from the sea of mediocre, lie-laced games that seek to bury gamers in their respective sandbox without ever telling them why. Only one can alter the path gaming is now on. He never asked for this, but his power – and Eidos Montreal’s impeccable storytelling – might just be the key to our salvation in the face of the veritable sky full of tedium-simulators. Can Adam Jensen turn in the performance of his second lifetime, or will he be joining the rest of les miserables in the ever-growing pile of gaming gaffs?
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided: PlayStation 4, Xbox One [Reviewed], PC
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 23 August 2016
Price: £49.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
If Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is anything, it’s striking. From its visuals to its narrative, the game is utterly compelling straight out of the gate. We had a taste of the narrative complexity and production values that the game would boast from the powerful trailers; but the game itself is brazenly contemporary regarding its socio-political story beats, and their startling parallels and relevance to contemporary issues. From the outset, words like ‘terrorism’, ‘oppression’, ‘police brutality’ and a veritable thesaurus of Orwellian terms are peppered atop the game’s narrative, pulling you into each and every interaction. Dialogue is rarely skipped, and you’ll often find yourself leaning into your screen, carefully considering Jensen’s next words – as if they were his last.
The world of Deus Ex is a world of the powerless fighting the powerful: and knowledge is power. Interactions between NPCs’, television broadcasts, newspapers, emails and ebooks scattered throughout the world: all lend to an immersion that many games fail to achieve, while still giving you useful information about the world Adam Jensen is trying to save. The world of 2029 is no overly-colourful masquerade trying to hide the game’s inadequacy, nor is it a graphically sub-par open world populated with nothingness, left to be filled by meta-game wishful thinking or roleplaying. Deus Ex is a game for its time, not of its time; offering you a smorgasbord of experiences, peoples and rationales’ to sample. Simply put: Mankind Divided’s game worlds and narrative are a welcome change of pace in the current quagmire that is the videogame landscape.
To this end, the sandbox environment of Prague 2029 is more than a hub world – it’s a spider’s web, with each strand taking you further and further into the complicated inner-workings of the game’s various characters and factions. After the tutorial mission – that delightfully leaves no punch pulled – Jensen returns to his base of operations within the Czech Republic, and from here he can Gumshoe his way through all manner of complex narrative arcs, evolving sub-plots and engaging, uniquely motivated characters. Taking on missions from the citizenry often ends up with Jensen engaging in tactical stealth, cunning espionage or all-out action, all of which blend superbly to form the body of Mankind Divided’s gameplay. The almost-seamless flexibility the game demonstrates regarding your decisions and actions is simply unparalleled. Many games’ purport to allow you the freedom to play your own way, but no story-driven, narratively complex experience can come close to actually affording you the freedom of play that the Deus Ex series is known for.
Building on the mechanics established by its predecessor, Mankind Divided allows you to embrace whatever playstyle you choose in order to deal with the various missions you’ll receive from NPCs’ throughout the hub location, as well as the main missions that see you jetting off to various locations around the world. Although these locations are not as complex as some of the areas from the previous game, they do still offer unique challenges, and the visual disparity between locales is impressive. Prague’s many districts range from dilapidated, hopeless slums to affluent, corporate city squares, with a racy and lacy red light district and a sprawling sewer system in between. The ‘promised land’ of the Utalek Complex is a dystopian melting pot of tensions between the augmented and the police, with a claustrophobic, tiered design that juxtaposes itself against the sprawling, multi-faceted design of Prague’s numerous districts. Even a design choice this simple speaks volumes of Mankind Divided’s greatest feature: the depth of detail that has gone into the game’s presentation.
Unique advertisements, painstakingly designed outfits and edifices, and a game world that responds to your decisions: Mankind Divided is a work of deliberate deliberation. From the isometric configuration of Adam Jensen’s profile to the overall aesthetic of the game, shapes and sounds conform to bring Eidos’s stylised vision of 2029 to life in a way that most game worlds struggle to do. The world of Deus Ex – every menu, every storefront, every weapon design – cuts an impressive figure, although the illusion is a fragile one at times. For all Mankind Divided’s flair, there are flaws. A crafting mechanic has been introduced into Mankind Divided, and thankfully it isn’t as laborious as you might think. ‘Crafting parts’ can be picked up in the world and spent on creating items and ammo. Crafting parts can also be redeemed in exchange for improving weapon stats such as damage and firing rate. With each upgrade purchased, the cost for all upgrades increases, meaning that crafting parts are never in abundance. The system isn’t really a ‘crafting’ one, and I’m thankful for it. The last thing gaming needed was
The system isn’t really a ‘crafting’ one, and I’m thankful for it. The last thing gaming needed is another tacked on survival mechanic, although it’s inclusion is somewhat uninspired, and seems to be apolitical one more than a necessary one: a meagre attempt to grasp at the Minecraft crowd perhaps? Speaking of weapons, modifications and ammo types can be jostled in-game by holding X. This feature allows Jensen to dynamically shift his focus from world to weapon, customising it to suit the current situation. Although this addition looks great and keeps players out of sub-screens, the immersive quality of this mechanic is squandered by the fact that the action does not take place in real-time. The game comes to stop, allowing you more than enough time to tweek your kit before pressing on. Certainly a stylish addition, this weapon modification is hardly ‘on the fly’, and once again Mankind Divided shows its age.
Frequent framerate issues further mire the whole experience, even when next to nothing is happening on screen. From frantic firefights spilling onto every floor of the Palisade bank to silent sojourns through the Czech capital, the framerate struggled at various times and with varying degrees of brouhaha. This technical shortcoming did become a problem, especially when it interfered with my remote hacking of a security drone, or at times when the skipping of frames allowed patrolling enemies to round my cover and spot me, ruining my chances of that ‘ghost’ accolade being awarded. Alongside framerate issues, character animations routinely faltered, or simply regressed to a Fallout level of absurdity. Watching a Czech policeman do a moonwalk, on the spot, while his gun phased in and out of existence, was a difficult thing to see. Multiple instances of this amateur-level of design really affected my experience with Deus Ex, and the resulting desynchronization with the game was felt tenfold as I witnessed the A.I augment reality itself by passing through walls, glitching through plate glass windows and simply violating the intricately designed spaces I had spent ages infiltrating. Although these problems were exactly that, they were certainly not game-breaking, and although I could not forgive them, I could certainly forget them in light of the overall design of the game.
These technical faults found further passage into the realm of my short-term memory thanks to the labyrinthine locales that make up Deus Ex’s game world. The scope of these areas is simply marvellous, and infinitely astounding. Levels consist of ventilation shafts, pipes, rooftops, windows, hidden passages, vulnerable walls and many, many more methods of infiltration. If Eidos ever designed a “Where’s Waldo” book, the publishers’ would declare him legally dead: such is the prowess of their ability to hide so much in such a dense space. While these spaces fail to compliment the action-oriented approach regarding gameplay, players looking to Solid Snake-it up will be in for a treat. Maps play out like puzzles, with keen observation being rewarded with new ways to penetrate enemy lines. Every time you commit to a route, you can’t help but be seized by that creeping feeling that a better way might still be waiting to be discovered. The seemingly paranoid compulsion to assess every nook and cranny eventually turns into a professional evaluation of each area Jensen enters, with experience bonuses incentivising such calculating play.
As mentioned previously, these spaces are not suited to accommodating firefights, with the aged cover mechanic being sped up somewhat by a roadie run and nought else. Deus Ex’s cover mechanics, from rounding to shooting out of it, are simply too static and feel old compared to the rest of the game. These systems have not transitioned well from Human Revolution, and such elements feel archaic and contrary to the sleek, lithe presentational ethos. This problem spills onto character animations, too. While NPCs interact with each other in dialogue sequences, they remain awkwardly situated, occasionally flapping their arms or gyrating on the spot, yet never really interacting with each other like human beings should. These traits, although quintessentially Deus Ex, are far from celebrated hallmarks of the series, and should have been dropped from Mankind Divided altogether. Be that as it may, the stocky, inarticulate nature of manoeuvring cover did not render the traversal of levels impossible. With enough planning and decisive action, the levels can be made to work for the player, regardless of playstyle.
Of course, crawling through pipes and vents might be all well and good for the likes of Mario and Batman, but when you’re a mecha-deity badass with enough implants to make the Kardashian household jealous, you know you’re going to want to use them. Mankind Divided certainly addresses the flaw of the previous game – the nullification of stealth in light of forced boss fights – by giving players a varied arsenal of brand new augmentations that supplement both stealth and combat. From eviscerating Nanoblades that can be fired from a safe distance, to electrified projectiles that ensure quick and quiet pacification: the binary relationship that existed between passivity and aggression in the first Deus Ex game is all but erased thanks to Mankind Divided’s ‘experimental augs’. These new toys enable Jensen to pacify targets from a distance, get up close and personal while negating all damage, and even slow down time in order to allow you to dispatch enemies however you choose. While one experimental aug might not seem game-changing, when these powers are combined, the result is intoxicating.
Jensen might have seemed like a tough guy before, but now he is virtually Jesus Christ 2.0. Enemies using Titan shields can be taken down with a flurry of Tesla rounds, while combatants eager to flank your position and overwhelm you can be repelled with a surge of the PEPS aug. There is no challenge that the player cannot overcome, considering the right tools are used. A personal highlight of mine had to be utilizing the TITAN overshield against a police exo-suit. Engaging the unit up close, I soon found myself overwhelmed… until I realised I was Adam Jensen. After that, I deployed my experimental augmentation – that looks just as awesome in-game as it did in the trailer – assaulted the exo-suit, tossed an EMP grenade and ultimately swung around the back of the beast in order to execute a stunning takedown animation. To quote Alec Baldwin: ‘You ask me if I have a God complex? I am God’ I thought to myself after defeating my foe! Power without restraint. Style without compromise. Substance without sacrifice.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, although not as technically impressive as one would expect from a AAA title with a home console pedigree and the likes of Square Enix behind it, has quality action and stealth gameplay, while still managing to make the reams of dialogue-heavy gameplay compelling. The debate sections are brilliant, and as far as this review is concerned, wholly emblematic of Mankind Divided: considered, deep, thought-provoking and immensely challenging. As you interact with key characters, you will be presented with several conversation options that can steer the ensuing debate into one of several directions. With each dialogue option comes a slew of philosophical, existential, emotional and political considerations, resulting in players performing psychological evaluations of their opponents while engaged in a tense, semantic chess game. The rationale of Jensen and his opponents is thoughtful and challenging, and at its best the dialogue and voice acting merge to present these ethical challenges to the player themselves. You get so invested in the reason and the rhyme of each character that you genuinely feel for them: whether you despise them, sympathise with them, object to them: you connect to the characters’ as a result of easy to follow – yet philosophically complex – machinations. You aren’t left utterly stumped by characters’ rhetoric, nor do you feel intellectually insulted or babied.
The writing of Mankind Divided is excellent and as compelling as the very best HBO has to offer – yes, this game is written better than Game of Thrones before you ask… because we both know you watch it. The sense of reward you get from simply debating with an NPC and reasoning with them is uniquely gratifying. You’ll feel like Rust Cohle once you’re done using your logic and conviction to persuade your opponent into surrendering to you reasoning, or see things from your perspective. For however bombastic the action may get, or however consummate you are regarding stealth, the debate sections are absolutely the most intense segments of Mankind Divided, and well worth the price of admission. Fallout and Mass Effect may have had similar dialogue-oriented systems, but with Adam jensen’s superb voice acting empowering each expertly-written line of dialogue, Mankind Divided simply does it better. As an aside, the awkward relationship the story of Mankind Divided has with the conclusion of it’s predecessor Human Revolution is simply annoying. Key characters’ from the previous game are relegated to side missions, and the climax of the first game is aggravatingly side-stepped. Even the protagonist himself cannot competently testify about the outcome of his exploits in Panchea without sounding nauseatingly aloof and mysterious. Thankfully, Mankind Divided’s story is complex enough as it is, so a scholarly knowledge of the previous game is not required.
Quite possibly the best single-player experience available on console at the moment, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a cyber-punk novella, rich with intrigue, investigation and immersion. From sub-plots to the grand conspiracy that forms the core of the Deus Ex narrative, those looking for a break from the context-less, playing-the-game-for-the-game’s-sake, indie-calibre garbage that gamers’ have had to wade through recently need look no further. For a game boasting such impressive, free-form gameplay and a taut, deliberate story, the inclusion of the ‘Breach’ game mode might seem odd. Breach: the exact way Mankind Divided should not be played, this game mode sees players step into the shoes of a characterless, personality-devoid avatar who must break into corporate severs because the corporations are evil… because they just are… Wholly side-stepping the narrative profundity of the campaign, Breach is simply simple regarding its ‘story’. If this contemporary – to the point of being cliché – narrative doesn’t send you back to the main game, then the gameplay of Breach just might. You enter clinically white environments, speed-running your way through maps while hitting ‘data stores’. Think the hacking in the main game, but played out in a virtual reality minigame, as opposed to a regular minigame. Basically: your lifeless avatar goes through lifeless maps hacking stuff because [insert cliché, millennial paranoia surrounding any successful multinational corporation].
What your avatar lacks in terms of Jensen’s trademark charisma and existential brooding, he also lacks in terms of Jensen’s style and augmented prowess. When initiating a hack, players will be transported to a virtual reality space wherein they can physically make their way to data stores. In order to do this, avatars can be augmented in order to help them navigate the maze-like maps on offer. Augmentations are woefully limited, making your Breach character feel like a Nokia 3210 compared to Adam ‘Iphone 6 S+’ Jensen. Besides being technologically inferior to Jensen, your avatar falls short of A-Jens in terms of fashion sense too. The Breach avatar cannot be customised, leaving you with the visual equivalent of several Ferrero Rocher wrappers scrunched together. Once you’ve trundled through the tutorial segment of Breach, the pitch begins! You need to complete levels as fast as you can, with as high a score as possible. How you do this is up to you, but once you complete a level, you get credits and XP that levels you up for no reason other than to supply you with that oh so valuable ‘warm fuzzy’ that Overwatch had the gall to charge you £60 for. Once that precious thermal sensation has passed, you might want to sustain that feeling – quite possibly because your parents never told you they loved you or something. If that’s the case, you can use the credits you earn to buy booster packs that contain loot (Hang on…) that can improve your chances of success, or make the game harder resulting in higher scores being achieved upon completion of levels. Booster packs vary in rarity, and the loot you get is random (Wait a minute…), but if you want to get that slight edge over the other Breach players (oh no, he’s gonna drop the ‘MT’ bomb!?), then you can buy special currency that can be used to purchase even better booster packs that sorta-kinda-maybe promise you better loot (Quickly, into the lifeboats! Wallets and children first!?!?)
They did it. After the whole ‘Hitman episodic release’ decision that put fans off the aforementioned title (superb as it may be), after the Deus Ex ‘augment your preorder’ shambles, even after the pointless inclusion of microtransactions in Rise of the Tomb Raider: Square Enix just had to put microtransactions into Mankind Divided, and they lumped them into the relatively uninspired Breach game mode. This inclusion is nothing short of disappointing, especially given the fact that the stuff you can buy is worthless as far as gameplay in Breach is concerned. The mode is about speed-running, yet the player is constantly reminded of how much better they’d do if they had better guns, or better modifiers at work. Isn’t the whole point of speed running a game supposed to be showing off your skills with the minimal amount of aid from a game? Buying your way to a better score defeats the entire purpose of a speed run. Plus, the narrative of Breach fails to justify the fiscal dimension of the game mode. You’re supposed to be hacking into an evil, corporate organisation engaged in a multinational capitalist conspiracy, so why on earth would you buy your way to success rather than stand by your pseudo-ethical code and not dance to the capitalists’ tune? In fact, why do you even get paid in this game mode? Aren’t you supposed to be some sort of cyber-Assange type of moral hacktivist? Seriously, when do ever see Adam Jensen collect a pay check while he’s trying to save the world? Breach is simply an unwelcome sign of the times, and has no place on the game disk. If you want to give it a go, then by all means do, but without the narrative complexity and depth of gameplay that the real game offers, you’ll be left wanting – and no amount of retail therapy within the in-game store will allay your boredom after a few minutes.
And with Breach out of the way, lets get back to the main event. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a theatre built upon weathered foundations. Character animations are stocky, item manipulation mechanics are like something out of a Garry’s Mod, and characters’ are as stiff and socially awkward as they were in the Xbox 360 entry into the series. Yes – this game is not a technological marvel, and frankly is under par considering the time that was spent on it. That being said, the heart of Mankind Divided – its gameplay and its plot – is resoundingly in the right place. At the best of times, this game is equal parts love letter and apology to those let down by the failures that gaming has had to endure recently. Mankind Divided takes stealth, action and narrative complexity and merges them together to present gamers with a performance worthy of an Oscar – or at the very least a Game of the Year nomination. With detective gameplay that shames Batman, a story that humiliates Big Boss, and a believable, breathable world that makes No Man’s Sky look like an over-priced plasticine orgy, Adam Jensen’s return to the console stage is every bit as stylish and sophisticated as I’d have hoped. Eidos’s ‘Renaissance Man’ of a game is exactly that: a multi-faceted, multi-talented must-buy.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a worthy sequel that may not be worthy of the hardware, it is a unique experience that truly caters to a wide audience, without pandering to the contemporary need for vacuousness. Strap in for a Sartre-meets-sci-fi story that will engage you mentally and morally, with plenty of goons to gun down or sneak around along the way.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
- Compelling story, with a brilliant lead character and supporting cast
- The best vision of a sandbox experience I've played in a long time
- Debating sections are wonderfully paced and scripted
- Multiple improvements made to the core mechanics of Deus Ex gameplay are hugely appreciated
- Attention to detail is impressive
- Technical issues that betray the overall sophistication of the package, ranging from the benign to the absurd
- Inconsistent A.I
- Shameless shoehorning of microtransactions all but ruins what could have been a fun game mode in the form of Breach
- Certain mechanics have remained virtually untouched during the transition from the first game to this one, resulting in an experience that feels ill-suited to more aggresive gameplay