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Wot I Think: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Bigger, better, but overly familiar

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Adam Jensen has blades sheathed inside his wrists, skin that lets him turn invisible, and robotic thigh muscles that enable him to walk in an almost permanent crouch. It’s surprising that his real superpower then is the ability to turn on a visual overlay which reveals the locations of vents in the environment.

Deus Ex Mankind Divided is the sequel to Human Revolution, set two years after the events of that game caused the world’s augs – humans who have had machines implanted in their bodies and brains – to momentarily lapse into a violent mania. Now distrust of augs has caused mass panic and various secretive groups are working to either heal society’s divisions, incite further panic, or oppress the augmented further. It’s your job as Jensen to pick your way through those secretive groups – via a lot of crouching through vents.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Although it’s set in a cyberpunk future dripping with conspiracies, Deus Ex is much more simply a game about making your own path through an urban environment. You’re given a city, in this case Prague, which acts as a hub for your missions. Depending on how you choose to play, those missions might involve fighting a lot of goons – police, mobsters, cultists – and if that’s your goal then the game will support you with powerful, customisable and creative weapons and a natty cover system. But where a lot of games have a stealth option that can feel as if you’re missing out on parts of the game – Blinking across entire levels of Dishonored, for example – here it’s the combat that leaves you feeling as if you’re missing out.

Walk through any street or building in the game and turn on that overlay. The walls will become transparent and parts of it will glow with opportunity. You could continue down the path you’re on and through the door in front of you, but there’s almost always other options. A wall to your left which Jensen can punch his way through; a second door, to your right, this one locked unless you can hack its access panel or discover the keycode; a vent, hidden behind some boxes, which takes you up into the rafters above your target. Choose to explore and you’ll be rewarded with extra story and with shortcuts to your target, but also with the great sense of satisfaction that comes from fully revealing a space and bending it to your needs.

On one particular mission, I had to retrieve some technology from a Russian gangster who had it locked up inside his casino. I bundled in through the front door to talk to him, but it went badly; I didn’t have the social augs installed that might have given me hints as to his temperament, and when I said the wrong thing his henchmen chased me out the door with bullets. I could have fought back, but I had a better idea: there was a back door, locked with an access panel. The problem was that I hadn’t leveled my hacking ability enough yet, either.

This too can be overcome, using a Multi-Tool to hack the panel without needing to steer through the usual mini-game – which is mostly unchanged from Human Revolution. The problem was that I needed 120 ‘crafting parts’ in order to create one myself, or to find a vendor from whom I could buy one. So off I went, breaking and entering all across Prague in search of the goods I needed.

An hour later I returned, having broken into my boss’s apartment and those of half the people living in Prague, revealed more parts of a global conspiracy, and more importantly armed with the crafting parts I needed. Crafting is straightforward: a single resource that can be collected and turned into useful items at the push of a button, letting you replenish your supply of grenades and mines and more without relying on scavenging or finding a shop. I crafted the Multi-Tool I’d worked for, let myself in the back door of the casino and snuck around, knocking people out as necessary. Eventually I alerted an enemy to my presence and, determined not to load a save or abandon my no-killing policy, committed to knocking every enemy in the building out with my tranquilizer darts and robot fists. Eventually, flitting between floors via vents and routes I created for myself with punching, I had rendered everyone silent.

As I cracked a safe and retrieved the item I was there to find, I noticed another vent I hadn’t yet opened. I clambered inside, crawled round a few turns, and dropped down… into the area back outside the front door. I could have entered this way all along, if only I had noticed it, and retrieved the item without using the front door, the back door, or needing to confront a single person.

This was just a side mission, but this swiss cheese world of air ducts, elevator shafts, and maintenance tunnels created space for me to conceive of and execute my own plan. It compelled me to engage more with the story, uncovered via hacked emails, collected pocket secretaries and environment detail, as well as with Jensen’s abilities, which are as before unlocked and leveled up using ‘Praxis kits’. It made me think of myself as a kind of robot John McClane.

Soon enough you’ll approach every mission the same way, and with a front door directly ahead you’ll turn, find some dumpsters you can stack on top of one another, and clamber atop towards a more satisfying, self-sought adventure.

Your new abilities help in the pursuit of that adventure. Upgraded appropriately, Jensen’s wrist-chisels can now be launched to skewer or distract enemies; he can now dash short distances in an instant; he can activate a shiny shield mesh, and a few others. Initially activating one of these new abilities requires permanently locking off another, which adds some much needed consequences and limitations to the levelling system, but it’s sadly shortlived.

Otherwise, the template for Mankind Divided is almost exactly the same as Human Revolution: breaking into apartments, hacking computers, snooping through emails, exploring sewers, finding weapons in storage units, navigating high-stakes dialogue trees… Almost everything Mankind Divided does, Human Revolution did first.

Here the old formula is given a boost by a new engine which allows for larger spaces. Where Human Revolution’s Detroit was really just two streets, a couple of backalleys, and a few locations cordoned off behind long elevator rides, Prague is four large hubs connected by level loads disguised as subway rides. Any one of those four hubs feels larger than all of Detroit, in part because they’re contiguous spaces. For example, when breaking into apartments to look for crafting parts, I stumbled through an open door to realise I was in Adam Jensen’s flat. I hadn’t realised I was in his building because I’d never seen the front door before – the first time I was there, I exited via a window. That wasn’t always possible in Human Revolution and the feeling of freedom is consequently greater here.

Mankind Divided is also regularly gorgeous. Human Revolution already had the best ceilings in gaming and Mankind Divided expands its architectural vocabulary with more dramatic lighting, striking wall art, and a fabulous array of stairwells. Prague proves a great canvas for a cyberpunk makeover, as new buildings smother the old and old buildings are twisted towards strange new purposes. There are other, smaller locations to visit too, including Golem City, which was built to house augmented workers and which looks like an awesome piece of science fiction concept art. The game’s themes are always best expressed through its locations.

Those themes of social oppression, individual freedom, and corporate greed, as expressed so haphazardly in marketing via phrases such as “mechanical apartheid” and “aug lives matter”, are less jarring in the game itself. They exist mainly as motivation for the various organisations you’re investigating, while Jensen’s own motivations are unclear and your ability to choose sides as the player is limited. To its credit, you do however make choices throughout the game rather than solely in its closing moments, and there’s at least the impression of branching based on some of your successes or failures.

At the very least, the story is not offensive, and its shaky metaphors for real world injustices mostly stay out of the way. Its biggest crime is simply that it feels like well-worn fare, both for Deus Ex and for near-future science fiction in general.

This is true of much of the game. I loved Human Revolution and am thrilled to finally have more of it, but it’s still a knock against Mankind Divided that it never surprises. Last time out, people were anxious that Square Enix might meddle with the series at a time when there weren’t many (or any) games like Deus Ex around. Now I would have appreciated a little more meddling. There’s nothing here which messes with your expectations of the world, either, in the way Human Revolution did when dragging your feet at the start caused a hostage situation to go bad before you’d even arrived.

Deus Ex is a series about circumventing (pun intended) obstacles with exploration and ingenuity, and it’s always been at its best in moments where you try something and think, “Wow, I didn’t think it’d let me do that!” That no longer happens, as you already know exactly what the game will allow and notice. Mankind Divided also does nothing to solve old problems such as failing to acknowledge when you’ve been to a location long before the story requires you to.

Yet it has a structure that works at pulling you through the game. I was simultaneously bored by the big-picture machinations of the umpteen shadow organisations vying for global power, and unable to stop playing because there was always another story objective or side mission on the verge of completion. That’s partly because Jensen’s role as an on-the-ground investigator gives him access to the smaller, more interesting stories of this world, but also just the magnetic draw of a quest marker. This is a big game, and one that can easily take you 40+ hours to complete if you’re committed to digging at its corners.

Mankind Divided is a new version of one of my favourite games of all time and free from the execution problems that hampered that last iteration. The levels are bigger and prettier. There are no dumb boss fights. It gives you slightly more agency over its story. The new abilities are nice, even if they don’t dramatically alter the flow of the game. There still aren’t that many games like Deus Ex around and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is an excellent game like Deus Ex.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is out on August 23rd for Windows via Steam and Humble for £40/$60/€50.

Editor’s Note: We weren’t allowed to publish our own screenshots ahead of the game’s release, which means those accompanying this review are press shots provided by the publisher. We’ll have a gallery up with the game’s release next Tuesday so you can see what the game actually looks like.

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Graham Smith

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Graham is to blame for all this.

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