Video Games Review: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PS4, 2016)

I honestly don’t know what Deus Ex fans would have done without Eidos Montreal. After a debut outing that became a modern classic, a poorly-received sequel in Deus Ex: Invisible War and whatever the hell Project: Snowblind was supposed to be, the series languished until Eidos Montreal came along to rescue it in 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Now, with that experience guiding them forward, Eidos Montreal returns to the world of Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

 

Eidos Montreal came at the Deus Ex franchise with fresh eyes. They took a good, long look at the more console-based evolution that Invisible War had been going for and sought to polish it. In doing this, they created a game in Human Revolution that was rather dazzling in its crazy story and futurist scope, but fell short in other respects — its lack of choice, its rather boxed in mission designs.

In the five years since, it seems the developer have been aggressively tackling everything they felt didn’t measure up. The good news is, in many senses, they have succeeded. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is almost as much about player agency the original game was. It presents the player with a series of ever more complex problems, hands them any number of tools and routes to solve them and then steps back, arms folded, saying “Figure it out.”

Mankind Divided kicks off some two years following The Incident, an event that saw a purposeful, planetwide triggering of every last cybernetically augmented human being, causing them to attack those around them. It was a brutal, bloody slaughter and when it was over the world found itself with a newfound and fathoms-deep mistrust of the surviving augs.

You once again play as Adam Jensen, himself an aug, a former Detroit cop turned government operative and proud owner of the world’s raspiest voice. (Why they don’t have an aug for that? I can make my eyes see through walls and my arms strong enough to throw a car, but I can’t make myself sound like Travis Willingham? Bogus as.) As you progress through the game, completing main quests and side missions alike, you will earn experience points to upgrade and unlock Jensen’s augmented abilities.

This, unfortunately, is where one of a few problems I have with the game comes into play. At the end of Human Revolution, Jensen was, plainly put, a beast. Whatever upgrade path you’d taken him down, he was fully powered up and next-to-unstoppable. So how do you deal with that at the beginning of a new game? Easy, you just pull out the old Metroid trope and strip you of your rad powers fifteen minutes into the game, forcing you build them back up again over the course of play. The way the devs pull this off does make sense in the larger story, and it isn’t that big of a deal pulling all of those sweet augs back down through the XP chain, but it left me a little annoyed that we’re still relying on this trope after so many years.

On the other hand, what this skill reset means is that you now have a chance to rebuild Jensen in a different way than he was when you played him in Human Revolution. You can create a build from three distinct schools — combat, hacking and stealth. Create an unstoppable killing machine, a Ghost in the Shell level hacker, a sneaky future-rogue or a mixture of all three.

You can upgrade just about every part of Jensen’s biology — from his leg muscles, allowing him to jump higher, to his innate reflexes, allowing for better targeting and movement. The upgrade tables aren’t as ludicrously in-depth as we’ve seen in another RPGs of this type, but its more than enough to create interesting and diverse builds without getting locked into a single upgrade path.

This is because the last thing Mankind Divided wants you to do is pour all your points into a single skill tree. Every last skill on offer, across every tree, will allow you solve a single, very specific problem when it arises. The thing is, every level is a complex warren of intermingled problems. You’re never going to have every skill or aug you need (at least not until the very late-game if you feel you’d like to push that hard), but you can prepare a nice, even spread.

I typically go for stealth and hacking, but found that in order to scurry through the ducts unseen I had upgrade my strength augs. The reason for this departure from my usual upgrade path was that I was finding a lot of vents were being blocked by heavy machinery — to my mind, the most straightforward way to solve this problem was to simply pick these objects up, quietly put them down elsewhere and go on my sneaky way. You may have come up with a different plan.

This is one of the hundreds of ways the game will push you to branch out, and it’s the second time I felt like Eidos Montreal were cribbing from the Metroid series. Deep exploration? Entire areas locked off until you can unlock a specific upgrade that will grant access? Familiar! The difference is that you don’t have to nose about in every nook and cranny to find these upgrades, you can pick them up at any time, provided you have the XP.

You’ll never find yourself having to grind long for XP  either, the game hands it out for even the most minute of actions. And therein lies the real hook of the upgrade system — you will meet with success or your own annihilation depending upon the augs you take and how you choose to use them. But even if you don’t have the one you need, you may have enough XP to pick it up then and there, adapting your play style on the fly.

And, sure, there’s going to be a select group of players who simply turn Jensen into Robocop and go on a cheerful, take-no-prisoners, Crysis-esque rampage — the game certainly won’t stop you from doing just that, and the combat has been beefed up considerably since the previous installment. Indeed, Eidos Montreal have added extra options for combat, so all that stands between you and going completely apeshit is your own sense of self control.

That said, not every player is looking for the roflstomp, Call of Duty version of Deus Ex. Being a fan of stealth games in general, I tend to take the silent, non-lethal approach wherever possible. I actually found myself being rewarded for this style of play — the game seeming to nod and smile approvingly, providing me with greater and more efficient options for exploration that involved not killing anyone.

This, again, is what the Metroid games used to do so well — positively reinforcing any exploration and learning you did on your own, urging you to keep it up.

Another facet of the game that leapt out at me was the strength of its writing. Video games are historically very weak in the story department, providing only the barest of incentives to send the protagonist barreling towards a boss fight. Mankind Divided works hard to provide a well-crafted, believable vision of the future, in the small moments as well as the big ones. There’s world-building information everywhere, and not all of it pertinent to your current mission. It’s tucked away in lockers and cabinets, locked behind various doors. It’s lucky I was good at picking locks, because all of this hidden away ancillary information was like nectar to me. I hunger for it, even now.

The bulk of the game’s quests take place in Prague, and you’re able to wander its neighbourhoods seamlessly. It feels a bit like what Assassin’s Creed Unity was going for — a whole city, indoors and out. You can wander into stores or the bank, your base or anywhere else without triggering a single loading screen. You couldn’t quite call it an open world, it simply isn’t large enough, but it did feel nice to be able to go wherever I wanted without interruption. That said, if you ever have to reload a save then put the kettle on and crack a book, because you’ll be in for the night.

This attention to detail in the writing means that everything you do carries a sense of importance. The game will, from time to time, have characters buzz you and give you the hurry on, but it’s just chatter — you are free to do what you want, whenever you want and the game will not stop you.

When it comes time to make important decisions, Eidos Montreal don’t seem to care about your desire to turn Jensen into your Paragon Shepard from Mass Effect. A lot of the time, you’ll have to really think about your choices because the knock-on effect can be disastrous. There’s often no catch-all answer, no Make Everybody Happy button. You just make the best call you can and roll with it and I love it.

The consequences of not only my choices, but also my in-game actions came back to bite me in ways that felt quite natural as well. As I said, my go-to strategy is most often the non-lethal route, in which, if pressed, I quickly incapacitate guards before they know I’m there. I learned quickly that there is an important but subtle difference between non-lethal runs and non-violent ones. I had one meek worker engage me in conversation back at the base and quiz me about why I felt the desire to brutalise these people. It caught me off-guard — I’ve rarely had a game put me on the spot like that. I didn’t have a good answer for them, even IRL. I didn’t quite feel like they were shaming me for it, they just wanted to understand my rationale and it surprised me to realise that I didn’t really have one.

 

Having said all those nice things about the writing, I will now complain a little about where it lets itself down some. The promise of a longform exploration of the shadowy global conspiracy surrounding just what the Illuminati have in store for the Augs is there, as is the promise of a look at what Jensen got up to in those two years of missing time. They don’t really end up getting into it, though.

Herein lies the biggest difference between Mankind Divided and its predecessor. While Human Revolution didn’t have as much to offer in terms of choice and exploration, it made up for it with a great story that went all over the jointMankind Divided feels as though it is attempting the opposite — more choice, and a story that exists on a slightly smaller scale. What really bummed me out, though, was how the game simply screeches to a dead stop at the end.
It’s clear that Eidos Montreal have a third Deus Ex title up their sleeves, but the notion of having to wait another half a decade for them to release it is rather deflating. I wanted to explore more of the conspiracy, and it just doesn’t go there. I wanted to wrap up any number of story threads that I’d become invested in during some 35 hours of play, but the game drops them like a bag of potatoes in favour of a boss battle that felt halfbaked at best. I want to see how and why the world became as dystopic and weird as it was in the original Deus Ex, but it hasn’t even really begun planting those seeds just yet.
All told, this is one of those cases where I hope that the devs have a huge array of post-launch story DLC to kick on with because I feel like we’re only just getting started with the base game. What is here is fantastic and I liked it very much — the trouble is it leaves you not simply hungry for more, but ravenous. The world of Deus Ex remains one of the most vibrant, imaginative and interesting of any in the world of games today — I don’t want to wait five years to come back again.
Score: 8.5/10
Highlights: A natural evolution of the Action-RPG genre; Dat Metroid flavour; The breadth of choice and agency
Lowlights: The ending; That’s … kind of it, really. This is a damned good game.
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: August 23, 2016
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PCReviewed on PlayStation 4.