Deus Ex has rarely shied away from controversy. The original 2000 game was a milestone for many, and spoke in a manner that still resonates today. It foresaw the rise of the Patriot Act, the growth of constitutional liberalism and the repercussions of a state turned to paranoia.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the serialization of these concepts, a game willing to evoke contention without a desire to act on it. The whole of Mankind Divided is a truncated version of the series, an entertaining romp instead of an introspective experience.
Throughout my time with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, I couldn’t help but think back on Patrick Lindsey’s statement that sequels should be interpretive rather than mimetic endeavors. In so many ways, Mankind Divided seeks to fill the quota of Deus Ex proper. The game opens in medias res, with stoic protagonist Adam Jensen about to drop into a high-tension mission in a foreign land. He’s a lone operative, a specialist called on for the most sensitive tasks, able to cut through the bureaucracy and get results.
Of course, the mission goes awry. A mysterious third party gets involved, and a conspiracy is born. A visual cut to a group of men in a room, plotting a course for the world and acting as the invisible hand that shifts Atlas’ posture beneath the Earth when it so chooses. This is one focal point: the men who lurk in shadows, who pull the strings, the Real Evil of this world.
The other focal point is the tension between the Augmented and “naturals.” After the events of Human Revolution, now referred to as The Incident, the world progressed rapidly towards segregation and xenophobia. Most of your time in Mankind Divided will be set in Prague, the first city to implement “anti-Aug” legislation. Trains are segregated, citizens harassed, housing limited. Just outside Prague is Golem City, a clever name for a ghetto built to contain certain Augs—those disruptive, unbending, or simply passing by the wrong officer on the wrong day.
If the game’s marketing using terms like “Augs Lives Matter” made you wary, those concerns won’t be quieted by the game itself. There’s a tepid balance of introspection and ignorance that Mankind Divided teeters on. In some moments, it shines clearly, through a passionate speech from an NPC or the increasing militarization of the police force throughout the length of the game. In others, it stumbles and contradicts itself. It’s possible using “Augs Lives Matters” in the promotional artwork was coincidental, but when posters emblazoned with “All Human Lives Matter” populate a city and TV spokespeople espouse the hypocrisy of “social justice warriors” on in-game broadcasts, it’s harder to feign ignorance.
The Adam Jensen of Mankind Divided is weary, and I don’t blame him. It speaks loudly when common phrases of the day are used in this world. There’s no cultural context for these idioms in Deus Ex, no greater truth wrought by implementing them. The game gains nothing but attention by stoking the fire, and then moves along. Jensen is tired of seeing the same touch-and-go attitude; he wants to start thinking about real change, but the game seems disinterested in spending too much time on these thoughts. The segregation and Augmented tension ultimately serves as a catalyst for action and the plans of the Illuminati, a reason for the player to get involved in covert operations and little else.
Any solace for storytelling comes in the side missions, often laid just slightly off the path of the main quest and fleshing out an otherwise empty hub-world. Prague is beautiful, but it’s small and constrictive. Unlike previous Deus Ex titles, your only haunt is Prague, with occasional flights out and back from one-off mission areas. The city is filled with interesting characters, from the core cast to matriarchs and jaded pilots, but the only time you spend with them is in specific side missions that offer extra rewards. These little deviations from the critical path don’t just offer distraction, but some of the best parts of the game.
A murder mystery that started about midway through the game managed to captivate my interest the most. Investigating blood stains and evidence, I was given a chance to assist in finding a serial killer that many had thought dead for years. Rather than using guns or tech, it was an intellectual puzzle—intuition and charisma were the best tools for the job. I had to interview suspects and examine evidence, rather than hack or shoot my way through. It took turns, developed a full arc, even touched on mental health issues in a way that resonated with me.
These moments are memorable due to the rote nature of the game proper. The blueprint is still the same for Mankind Divided; stealth and platforming are the standard, unless you enjoy turning a pretty solid stealth game into a barebones cover-shooter by going loud. New augmentations are found within Jensen’s circuits, an anomaly that practically screams Game Design Choice. Although options like Remote Hacking and Tesla charges seem appealing, there are precious few opportunities to choose them over the same upgrades you probably used in Human Revolution. Despite my attempt to access and utilize these new powers, I still fell back on maxing out my hacking, social skills and cloaking, the most reliable and efficient tools for the job.
It’s here where interpretation gives way to mimicry. The game seems more interested in repeating the best parts of Human Revolution, without building anything new. Most of your time with Mankind Divided will be spent sneaking through air vents and hacking computers. There’s still an annoying limit on takedowns metered by your energy bar, an option to go lethal or nonlethal, plenty of collectibles and a backpack to sort, though the item-management Tetris puzzle has been mostly automated here.
None of this is particularly a bad thing; in fact, the constant loop of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is still fulfilling, and the aforementioned side quests do a good job of putting your skills to use in unconventional ways. Finding multiple paths to an objective, combining the developer routes and your own designs into a fluid, if not graceful, stealth ballet through a level is just as satisfying as it has been in the past.
A later mission in the game tasked me with eliminating guards at a crowded gala, giving me new appreciation for the breadth of tools and approaches the game offered to me. For one guard, I could simply take him out behind a shrimp platter. With others, I had to time routes, deactivating the security cameras so I could snipe them with my tranquilizer gun out of the guests’ eyesight. One poor soul decided to head to a secluded room, standing in front of a particularly weak wall; I forgave the obvious design of it, due to the incredible animation of Jensen literally punching through a wall to knock him out.
The single-player campaign, despite its by-the-numbers nature, manages it all very well. None of that same clever design is found in the Breach, a multiplayer mode that translates the gameplay of Deus Ex into a time-trial challenge inside a virtual reality hacking interface. It’s riddled with booster packs, containers and buyables that reduce the game to a series of bars and progression meters, while competing with your friends for the fastest times. It’s messy and unwieldy compared to the main game, a sloppy dissection of the Deus Ex model. Augmentations are limited or transplanted in basic forms, and modifiers can be bought or earned to give special boosts to your performance, removing individual skill from the equation. Even the presentation falls flat, as the pristine-white corridors and polygonal figures of the VR world make it hard to discern objects or paths within each area.
But then again, most of the game feels similarly truncated. There is a host of stories touched upon and dropped, and many characters from Human Revolution have become simple, singular conversation points. Story threads are left with disappointing cliffhangers, and decisions lack any real division within the narrative. I could often see the exact points where the diverging threads of the story would realign, and seeing the cogs turn so often, it was hard to shake the notion that I had no agency in this story.
And that’s the ultimate struggle of Mankind Divided. By the credit roll, it’s clear this game is intended to spark a series. Not only does it end on a dull, anticlimactic There’s A War Coming scene, but it follows itself up with a mid-credits stinger, an opaque twist that I’m surprised wasn’t followed by “Adam Jensen will return.” New faces are given so little breathing room or exposition that it’s hard to care, and most of the story seems to have been tossed into pocket secretaries and computers, relegated to plain text files. Every time Mankind Divided verged on breaching that message, on having a discussion, the narrative quickly changes topics and moves along. The eyes are drifting, the phones are lighting up, and we can’t lose the audience’s attention.
In a way, Mankind Divided speaks to its own issues. That dull, cynical, uninterested tone is one I’m familiar with, having heard it so many times growing up in suburban Texas. It speaks to the “real world,” views all activism and civil rights issues with glossy eyes. Jensen might care now, because it’s between him and an objective, or because the Illuminati are behind it. But he moves along, and with him, the audience. There’s little interest in Mankind Divided to stay on one subject point for long. It has a universe to build, a sequel to set up, a Big Bad to introduce and then ignore until it’s time for him to die in a heroic battle with Jensen, David v. Goliath-style.
You can certainly find enjoyment in Mankind Divided, for the short runtime it offers. You can explore its Breach, fraught with microtransactions and even more segmented progression. There are always Praxis Points to unlock, collectibles to uncover, story beats to find. Mankind Divided is always pushing you forward, though, afraid of any stagnation. It feels the need to address real-world issues, but in a way that’s fast and cursory and only pretends at depth while trying hard not to make anybody unhappy. Deus Ex cares enough to sit on the sidelines and play topical for show before moving on to the next attraction. It’s become more 24 than Blade Runner, and while it still entertains, it’s also lost much of the luster that set the series apart from the serialized masses.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was developed by Eidos Montreal and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for PC and Xbox One.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.