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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review
Times are tough in Prague. Two years after the catastrophic events of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, mankind has turned against human augmentation technology, and augmented people, or “Augs” are viewed with suspicion, fear and outright hatred. Tensions are rising between the increasingly militarized police and the Augmented Rights Coalition, while politicians, corporations and conspiracies manipulate events from the shadows. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a game that makes you think, in both story and gameplay, and one of the smartest games you’re likely to play this year.
As you’ve probably realised by now, Mankind Divided contains social commentary, and lots of it. Once again donning the stylish coat and imposing facial hair of cyborg supercop Adam Jensen, you’ll be immersed in a world facing a lot of familiar problems, all interpreted through the lens of near-future cyberpunk. Racism, discrimination, and terrorism are the major themes, represented by the conflict between Augs and naturals, but just about every hot-button topic you can think of is in here somewhere: Police militarization, media disinformation, corporate power, one side quest even briefly touches on the issue of drug legalization.
This could all be very tedious and preachy, but fortunately Mankind Divided delivers its commentary with a light touch, presenting its messages in a natural fashion that rarely comes across as forced. Rather than simply delivering monologues on the oppression of minorities, it integrates the theme into gameplay, with guards frequently stopping Jensen to check his ID papers while hurling anti-aug slurs. Instead of sermons filled with black and white moral messages, Mankind Divided presents complex situations, forcing players to really think and make their own judgments. When you can only save one person, who do you chose? When a violent people trafficking ring is the only way for an Aug to escape the slums, do you let it continue? When, if ever, is violence an acceptable response to oppression? Whatever you choose or believe, Mankind Divided neither praises nor condemns: It’s more interested in asking difficult questions than providing easy answers.
The emphasis in choice carries through into the gameplay, which is mostly unchanged from Human Revolution. Every problem in Mankind Divided has multiple solutions. Straightforward or impatient players can treat the game as a cover shooter, using their array of weapons and cybernetic enhancements to lay waste to their foes, while players of a stealthier bent can creep through the game’s complex environments picking of enemies one by one with Jensen’s deadly arm blades. If neither option appeals, enough imagination and the right tools can allow you to avoid many enemies altogether, or secure an advantageous position to attack from. Hacking security systems, leaping over walls, distracting guards with thrown objects, and other methods can all provide a vital edge when the chips are down.
Jensens suite of augmentations also makes a return, offering largely the same choices as in the previous game: Sub-dermal armour and recoil reducing arms to turn you into a combat monster; invisibility, noise dampening, and enhanced radar to help you avoid notice; hacking software, jump boosts, and wall penetrating vision to open up the environment for exploration. A few new, experimental, augs are also available, so if you’ve ever wanted to take out enemies from a distance by launching you arm blades or encase yourself in an impenetrable shell of nanotechnology, now’s your chance. Augmentations are unlocked by spending praxis points, which are earned by completing missions, killing enemies, exploring, and various other methods. You have free reign to spend praxis on whatever you want, so over time you can build Jensen into an unstoppable force perfectly customized to your play style. While some augments are better than others, few are truly useless, and praxis points are plentiful enough that you probably won’t accidentally cripple yourself with an unorthodox build. That said, there are some that you really should pick up (you’ll miss out on a lot of content if you don’t upgrade your hacking ability, for example) and the game could do a better job of making that clear.
Of course, there’s more to Deus Ex than just finding ever more inventive ways to kill hapless guards. Mankind Divided is a game of two halves: much of your time will be spent exploring the city of Prague, and these are definitely the most immersive segments. You’ll talk to NPC’s, complete side missions, and do quite a bit of sneaking and shooting, all in a highly free-form environment. The city is full of buildings and areas that there’s no real reason to go to, but that nonetheless are filled with little details that make it feel like a real place. Hacking computers and grabbing PDAs reveals all sorts of notes and messages, some of them containing useful information, some contributing to the game’s world, and some simply giving a glimpse into the life of ordinary citizens in a tumultuous time. Combats in this part of the game are usually brief and intense, giving you wide scope to use the environment to your advantage. Encounter a room with a few armed thugs within, and you might choose to sneak in through a window for a surprise attack, leap onto a ledge for a strategic advantage, or simply lob in a few knockout gas grenades to neutralize the whole group before they can react. These fights are a lot of fun, giving you the opportunity to outsmart both the enemies and the game developers themselves.
The games other half is less great, though still fun: after some time in Prague, you’ll be called up to perform a mission elsewhere, and these away missions are substantially longer and more difficult than those you’ll find in the city. You can expect to face well defended areas crawling with heavily armed guards, and you have a lot less freedom in how you deal with them. While the level design does give you choices, they feel a lot more constrained: hack this door or kill these guards, shoot out this camera or sneak through this vent, take this route or take that route. There’s a lot less scope for imagination, but the more restrictive design does allow for more challenging missions. You’ll need to think quickly and make good use of both your stealth and combat skills to overcome the odds, but blasting, slicing, and sneaking your way through whole squads of enemies can be a lot of fun. Ultimately, these missions are much less interesting than the more free-form ones, but they do add some variety to the game and are effectively used to switch up the pacing.
The big missions are generally tied to big story events, but sadly the story isn’t quite as great as it could be. It’s mostly fairly standard cyberpunk fare: Having been foiled in their previous efforts, the Illuminati have returned with a new plan to exploit society’s fear of Augs in order to increase their power. Standing in their way is Adam Jensen, now living a double life as both an elite Interpol agent and a member of a mysterious hacker group known as the Juggernaut collective. Leading the collective is an equally mysterious individual known as Janus, who plans…something. There’s a year long gap in Adam’s memories, during which his experimental augs were installed by… someone. In untangling all these mysteries, you’ll encounter terrorist groups, evil corporations, machine cults, and all the other stock cyberpunks villains, but what you won’t find is much in the way of a definitive conclusion. There are a lot of unanswered questions in this story, and a some of the most interesting plot threads are never properly tied up. The story doesn’t really end so much as it just stops, leaving a clear sequel hook and a highly unsatisfying finish. The plot certainly isn’t bad: it moves forward at a decent pace, and has some interesting twists and turns, but it’s a shame the storytelling couldn’t live up to the standards set by the world-building.
Lacklustre though it may be, the plot does give you a reason to explore the games truly stunning environments.From bland corporate offices to dingy back alleys, from the neat desks of the Palisade Bank to the sleazy clubs of the red light district, and from modern apartments to the nightmarish hell of the aug ghetto, every location in Mankind Divided is detailed and atmospheric, contributing to the feeling of exploring a real place. The character and enemy designs are also good, with all the major characters having realistic but distinct appearances, and the minor characters looking detailed and location-appropriate. The police of officers are particularly good, with imposing full body armour and ominous face covering helmets, which really adds to the tense atmosphere of the city.
The sound design is equally good, with lots of tense action music, most of which also has a distinct techno/cyberpunk feel. It usually fits well with the action, though occasionally confused sound cues result in some strange music choices (there were a few times while playing that dramatic firefight music would spring up out of nowhere while I walked down an empty street). The voice acting is less positive. While the main cast, particularly Jensen, are well acted, minor characters often sound stiff, with a couple of really lifeless performances. It’s usually not enough to detract much from the experience, but it does kill the mood of a couple of scenes.
There are only two really major issues with the game that need to be addressed. Firstly, the loading times: These are often painfully long, sometimes stretching to several minutes, though it must be said that the game loads areas in a single huge chunk, so you won’t have to put up with too many loading screens. The second issue is the much-criticised micro-transactions. Yes, they are present, and yes, it’s terrible that a full priced game would try to milk you out of more money this way, but fortunately they are completely unnecessary. The game appears to be balanced around not using them, and I was able to complete the story without spending a single penny.
Microtransactions and load times aside, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a great game. It’s free-form stealth gameplay is something rarely seen in a triple-A game, and it’s thought provoking themes and social commentary are even rarer. Combine that with great graphics, atmospheric world building, and an interesting if somewhat generic and inconclusive plot, and you have a serious contender for Game of the Year.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was played on Xbox One.