Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a strong release surrounded by little irritations. On a mechanical and level design basis this is possibly the best that Deus Ex has ever been, but in many other ways it’s hard not to feel that Mankind Divided is a bit lacking, holding far too much back for a sequel or, worse, DLC.
Mankind Divided takes place a couple of years after Human Revolution, with our reluctant augmented hero Adam Jensen now working for Interpol in Prague. However, he is a double agent, also working for the hacker group known as The Juggernaut Collective who seek to expose the Illuminati Jensen discovered in Human Revolution. The Incident of two years before, where every augmented person in the world was thrown into a murderous rage by a force beyond their control, has left a world deeply distrustful of augs, with Prague being among the most repressive places, descending into a police state. A run in with a mysterious group of mercenaries in Dubai and a terrorist attack on a train station sees Jensen thrown back into the fray, with the future of all augmented people at stake.
I’ll say this for Mankind Divided’s story; it is ambitious. Much has been made of this games politics and the controversial adoption of the language of Black Lives Matter and apartheid, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong in using science fiction to hold a mirror up to the world; arguably that’s what sci-fi is for. That said, Deus Ex pretty much completely bungles its lofty aims. There is a clear attempt to make the player understand what it means to be an oppressed person; as you wander the streets you’ll suffer many slights such as abuse in the street, police harassment and ‘aug only’ train carriages. The latter is really interestingly handled because your HUD always leads you onto these carriages, although you can just choose to get onto the ‘normal’ carriages anyway. Having the actual HUD conspire in the oppression is really interesting, but the clever handling of this situation pretty much begins and ends there. The big problem is Jensen himself. I’m a straight white male living in the West, I don’t know what oppression feels like. I can hazard a guess however that it doesn’t feel like being a heavily armed cyborg killing machine. Deus Ex plays into being a power fantasy; getting stronger and stronger as Jensen is very satisfying, but this runs directly counter to the feeling of oppression we’re clearly meant to experience. This makes the whole thing seem shallow and very surface level. However, before I lay into this game too much I do want to say that I like that they tried to do more with the AAA narrative, a space which seems determined to be as apolitical as possible even whilst pumping out extremely political games like Call of Duty.
Unfortunately, the narrative problems with Mankind Divided don’t end there. Put simply, this game doesn’t really have an ending. A conspiracy is hinted at but very little is revealed. There are several plot threads which just drop off, either for a sequel or for DLC. There is nothing wrong with teasing a sequel, but the story presented must in itself be satisfying. Serialised storytelling works for TV shows where you have a new episode every week, but for games which may have a 2-4 year gap between them it just doesn’t work. The consequences of your choices are handled in an almost hilariously poor fashion, with a TV presenter literally talking to the camera for five minutes explaining all of your choices and then a cut to credits. I could not believe it. There is good stuff here, particularly in some interesting side quests, but Mankind Divided is left feeling like a transitioning story between the globetrotting grandeur of Human Revolution and a larger scale sequel in the future, but not memorable in its own right.
Thankfully, the actual minute to minute gameplay of Mankind Divided is superb. Although I’m sure it’s possible to play this game as a guns blazing killing machine, I played as a stealthy hacker type and this remains hugely satisfying. Jensen feels comfortable to control in a way he didn’t in Human Revolution. The augmentations from the previous game return; you have the classic Mega Man/Metroid problem of losing all your upgrades at the beginning, but for whatever reason it didn’t feel too irritating to me. You also have a whole load of new augmentations, a lot of which are aggressive and murder-y and so didn’t really suit my playstyle. I really only used remote hacking, which is really useful and a paralysing laser beam thing which suited my non-lethal ways. The dreaded outsourced boss fights from the last game are thankfully gone. In fact, Mankind Divided only contains one boss fight which is hilariously easy. I don’t think this is a series which needs boss fights at all; if given the option I always talked myself out of any situation anyway.
Mankind Divided is a much more focused game than its predecessors, which generally featured a couple of hubs. Prague is the sole hub setting in Mankind Divided, although you will make three jaunts off to more linear areas outside. The first of these areas, an augmented city/concentration camp, is fascinating and compelling; I could have played a whole game set there, but the following two aren’t quite as interesting. Prague itself is a great hub, with three phases throughout the story; day, night and curfew lockdown, the latter of which is deeply irritating as you have to sneak around to get anywhere, even travelling between side quests. Oh, and those side quests! While they’ve always been present in previous games, it was always the main story which stuck in my head, but the side quests in Mankind Divided are excellent, arguably the best part of the game. Don’t miss a single one. Overall, this is actually quite a short game, definitely the shortest in the series. I don’t really think this is a problem, if not for the fact that it’s hard to shake the feeling that things are being held back for DLC. I got an extra mission as a Day 1 purchase reward thing, which in the end felt quite substantial from both a gameplay and a story perspective. IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN PART OF THE MAIN GAME. The missions that are there are superbly designed, with a genuinely open structure. If you only ever follow the HUD markers, you’ll miss stuff and often get lesser outcomes in the missions. Ignoring the HUD and experimenting often pays off in a way which is quite rare in open world games. Even in games I adore like The Witcher 3, each mission plays out in a linear fashion with little real choice from the player, but in Mankind Divided you can really get quite clever with the immaculately designed environments.
The environments in Mankind Divided are beautiful. Prague is the best hub in the series, with a wonderful combination of classic architecture and over the top sci-fi silliness. Exploring the city streets is hugely atmospheric and the general visual design is very strong. The same cannot be said for the character animations, which are stiff and awkward. The voice acting is a mixed bag too; there’s some good work here, but also some irritatingly bad accents, particularly some awful grating English ones. The original Deus Ex had some shocking voice acting too, but at least there it was hilariously bad (I’ll never forget that Australian bartender) but here it’s just annoying. The music is a bit of a let-down too; Deus Ex has one of the best themes in gaming so bloody use it! The moody electronica is gone and replaced with nothing memorable. I hope that in the inevitable follow up the same attention to detail is given to the other elements that was given to the environments.
Mankind Divided reminds me a bit of Metal Gear Solid V; a really good game with rock solid mechanics which just ends up feeling…lacking. I appreciate what’s there, but it’s difficult not to feel like it needs a bit more. Hopefully next time Square Enix divert resources away from microtransactions and pointless free to play game modes and put everything into making the best Deus Ex game they possibly can. I wouldn’t count on it though.