Originally published on Trevor Trove on September 20, 2016
TL; DR(eview) – Great gameplay that allows for a wide variety of play styles set against a shamelessly apparent allegory for the western world’s ongoing racial tensions, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided provides a fun and engaging campaign with a message, but might not make the cut come Game of the Year discussions.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided continues the story of Adam Jensen from the 2011 Deus Ex: Human Revolution reboot of the series, picking up two years following the end of the last game. If, like me, you haven’t played the previous installment (or if you just don’t quite remember what happened), Mankind Divided offers you an eleven-minute recap video outlining the crucial details from that game which will affect the narrative of this one.
As the title suggests, there is a pretty harsh split between natural humans and augmented ones. Naturals distrust augs due to “The Incident,” a climactic moment in the previous title where all augmented humans temporarily went berserk. This moment shaped the world around it and is the driving factor for the racial allegory driving a lot of the game’s narrative stakes.*
* Obviously it’s not a perfect allegory as most people chose to be augmented and people don’t exactly choose to be black and augmented people were not in control of their actions as the Incident was caused by the last game’s antagonist. But the end result of subways featuring natural- and aug-only queues or shops refusing service to Adam based on his augments certainly harkens back to pre-integrated America.
Jensen spent most of the two years since the Incident out of action in a mysterious recovery facility with little memory of why or how he got there. But, since that will be addressed throughout some of the game’s side quests, he doesn’t dwell on it too much. Instead he focuses on his role as the only active-duty augment of Interpol’s Task Force 29, while also doubling as a sleeper agent for the Juggernaut Collective. Meanwhile, the Illuminati, Augmented Rights Coalition, local police force in Prague, and the Dvali crime family all weigh in on your actions, giving the game faction fatigue as loyalties become a bit of a tangled web.
When a terrorist bombing strikes Prague, Jensen sets out to identify the bomber and bring them to justice, with his allegiances toward TF29 and the Juggernaut Collective left mostly in the player’s hands. For the most part, you’ll wind up going on all of the same missions regardless of who you side with but the dialogue and sometimes the interactions within those missions will be different based on what you’ve said and to whom or how you handled a given scenario.
As with previous installments, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided thrives in presenting the player with a challenge and a myriad of possible ways to achieve the objective. An task as simple as “break into this apartment” winds up with a variety of options. You can brute force your way in, lifting heavy objects out of the path and punching through a weak wall if you’ve allotted the appropriate skill points. You could invest in some super leg augments and remote hacking to extend an awning that you can jump onto and then jump up to the window and get in that way. Or you can hack a nearby storage locker and sneak through the gas-filled vents if you put your points into those abilities.
When dealing with combat, you can use a combination of traditional lethal and non-lethal firearms, grenades, and mines, as well as Jensen’s augmented abilities. This again affords a wide variety of options. I often found myself utilizing a healthy mix of my tranquilizer rifle and stun gun in the early game where I could usually pick off enemies one and a time and drag them to a hidden away alcove to prevent the bodies from being spotted. Then in later parts of the game where cameras, lasers, and turrets were added to the mix alongside dozens more enemies to maneuver through, I would do my best to cloak and invisibly seek out the security terminal, hack it to deactivate what security measures I could, and then recloak and just sneakily bypass entire patrols of enemies.
Of course, just as I often would in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I was always sure to have a healthy stockpile of grenades, weapons, and ammunition on hand in case I did find myself embroiled in a firefight when I slipped up. For the most part, the game’s AI is pretty competent at tracking your movements and being able to hunt you down relentlessly if you stay out in the open. This necessitates a pretty healthy sense of awareness in the world in order to duck behind some cover and cloak or escape into a nearby vent. Fortunately, I never felt like I was automatically doomed if I was discovered, but I would often reload an earlier checkpoint on the notion that “I could have done that better.”
Giving the player so much freedom and choice in gameplay seems to have left a bit to be desired when it comes to optimizing the game’s performances. Graphically, the game routinely suffered slowdown and choppy frame rates on my PlayStation 4. Never to the extent that it drastically hindered the gameplay but there were plenty of times where I found myself running away from some pursuers, only for the game to lag a bit as half of the Prague police force tried to track me down.
The acting performances are, for the most part, well-realized. Elias Toufexis continues his portrayal of Jensen here as a grounded, somewhat stoic hero. He’s continually adjusting what he knows to be true as his adventures twists and turns throughout the story’s revelations. In my initial playthrough, I tended to select benevolent, non-confrontational dialogue options. But as I progressed through the game again in New Game Plus, I made my Jensen a bit more of a jerk and Toufexis seemed to thrive in both versions. Pretty much all of the secondary characters fare just as well, with Vernon Wells’ Jim Miller getting to dress down Jensen’s insubordination and James A. Woods’ villainous Marchenko serving as a couple of notable highlights.
The animation to go along with a lot of these performances is a bit less laudable. Lip syncing was all over the place, even in the slightly more polished cut-scenes, likely as a result of the game being localized to multiple different languages. And it’s a small thing, but I often got annoyed when I would interact with a vendor, buy items from their shop, and then they’d tell me to “fuck off” as if I hadn’t just made them a ton of cash buying out their stock of health packs and ammunition, especially because getting into and out of the store interfaces themselves often felt clunky and seemed to take longer than necessary.
The world of the game has a ton of great detail and hidden side stories within it. I loved those moments where I’d sneak into an apartment off the beaten path and hack into their computer, only to discover that it belonged to someone who was tracking my movements or an angry former bank employee who planned on breaking in (thereby providing me with a new potential route and the passwords needed to bypass some security. These extra details, as well as all of the mundane conversations found on various computer terminals or pocket secretaries, go a long way to making the world feel lived-in.
Conversely, a lot of the apartments and store layouts feel a bit too same-y at times. Likely a necessity to pack in so much content and allow for the rest of the level design to feel so diverse, but when so many of the game’s little side locations blend in with one another, it detracts a bit from the destinations that do feel unique. And another little nitpick I found myself irrationally frustrated by: if you’re going to have mirrors in a Triple-A game in this day and age, they should behave like mirrors and not just a flat unchanging textures. I find I’m way less inclined to find fault in a game where mirrors don’t exist then I am to find one where they do but they don’t act remotely like mirrors.
Nitpicking aside, I had a lot of fun with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. It’s not often these days that I finish a 20-30 hour experience and immediately dive back in for another playthrough but that’s what I did here. The game hit at just the right time where I could spend entire weekends slowly and methodically working through a section undetected or saying “screw it” and going in guns (and augmentations) blazing.
The game definitely feels like it’s setting up for a much bigger universe, to be explored in DLC and sequels no doubt, with a lot of narrative loose ends left open following the final mission (even with a mid-credits curve ball scene thrown in a la a Marvel movie). But there is at the very least enough there to justify the title as a standalone offering, providing a narrative beginning, middle, and end. The game does a lot of things well but probably doesn’t have any particularly standout moments and falls short on just enough of the details that I can easily seeing it getting nominated for a lot of Game of the Year awards but probably not winning too many over some of the year’s stiffer competition.
As a final sidebar, the game surely came out much better than it would have if the game had released in February as originally planned (alongside its stupid “augment your pre-order” campaign), adding yet another example to the ever-growing list of games that are in fact better because they got delayed. Yes, getting excited for something and then being told you have to wait for it sucks. But getting it early and it being a broken, unplayable mess would suck way more.