Deus Ex is a name that carries with it a certain amount of weight. Of the ‘all-time classic’ variety. Before the release of 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a lot of fans of the 2000 original were left wondering if it would be a watered down Deus Ex-lite. It wasn’t, with many of the core tenants of the original, from being able to choose how and when to engage in a combat situation, through to deciding which skills you should develop, carrying over to Eidos Montreal’s surprise hit.
So when the end credits began to roll on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, listing off the number of people it takes to bring together a high profile game release, being awarded with an achievement that more or less congratulated me for completing the entire game without killing a single person felt pretty good. Actually, it felt great. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it also wasn’t devoid of any violent behaviour from my version of the protagonist, Adam Jensen. There were a number of electrocutions. From stun guns through to bolts of electricity fired directly from an artificial arm. Dark Jedi style. Not to mention the tranquiliser darts to the back of unsuspecting heads. Shot from a distance, elevated and hidden within some ducting. Plus, more body slams, gut punches and head cracks than I’d care to mention. Don’t worry though, they all lived.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided picks up where Human Revolution left off, not only in terms of story but in the freedom it gives you to tackle each mission how you see fit, which Augmentations or abilities you should unlock, and deciding when and if lethal force is an acceptable compromise. Any first-person game that explicitly gives you the choice of whether or not you should kill, without taking sides, is one worth looking intro. And in this regard Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is truly impressive. From a stealth perspective alone, there’s countless ways you can engage or avoid detection. Go invisible, crawl through ducts, avoid engagement almost entirely. Or play the role of silent assassin and take everyone out. From police, to thugs, and private security officers. And all without being seen.
On the other hand, with the right Augmentations, like the new visually impressive body-covering Titan armour, you can go in guns blazing with a combat rifle and all sorts of ammo, moving from cover to cover. Like with Human Revolution, upgrades come in the form of unlocking Augmentation abilities within Adam Jensen’s mostly-mechanical body. This time with the added bonus of finding hidden experimental augmentations, like the aforementioned Titan armour, and stuff like being able to slow down time, dash across the room in an instant and even shoot projectile blades from your arm that can pin people to walls. Does this mean that you could treat the world as an elaborate art exhibition, made up of bodies hanging all over Prague like you’re the villain in the next season of True Detective? It’s a disturbing way to even contemplate playing the game. But given the level of freedom, it probably could be done.
Even though it shouldn't.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided features a game within the game called Breach. Accessed via the main menu and given its own sub-section, in it you take control of a hacker, or Ripper, and are tasked with infiltrating corporate servers to steal Terabytes of data. Via fancy virtual encounters that look like a cross between the main game, Tron, and Portal. Breach features a separate levelling system, an inventory made up of cards, leaderboards, and microtransactions. Adding an arcade-like social element to the core game.
In this way there’s something old-school about Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and how you’re presented with a destination and then instead of being given a shiny glowing yellow light to follow are given an environment. One that you can explore, discover, and then decide which path to take.
Taking place almost exclusively in Prague, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided begins a few years after ‘the incident’ that occurred during the closing moments of Human Revolution. An event that was basically that part in the dystopian futuristic tale where the robots go bad and attack their masters. In a simultaneous and global, violent outburst. But in the world of Deus Ex it was everyone with a mechanical augmentation, an aug, attacking anyone without an augmentation. An, err, non-aug. Although it has been just about five years since the release of Human Revolution, Mankind Divided is quick to re-introduce familiar faces, situations, and relationships, without skipping a beat. And for those that might be a little foggy on the details there's a handy summary of the last game that you can watch before diving in. One that reminds you that Human Revolution featured a very real Illuminati that was in control of worldwide events. And that most people were just pawns in the grand scheme of the Illuminati's grand plan.
Which was, something. Money?
Since the incident, tensions between augs and non-augs have deteriorated to the point where segregation and discrimination occurs at a grand scale. The allusions to modern-day and 20th century racism and apartheid are pretty clear. In fact, it became the focal point for most of the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided marketing leading up its release. And for the most part the story we get in Mankind Divided deals with a number of political and social issues, even presenting players with some pretty tough choices throughout its main story and numerous side missions. The only real problem with it all is that it suffers the same thing that makes the game stuff work so well. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided won’t judge you based on how you decide to play. Whether that’s trying to be a pacifist, an assassin, or a super soldier. The choice is yours. But when it comes to working for Interpol, interacting with the Augmented Rights Movement, or secretly helping out a group of freedom fighters and activists, there’s a sense of 'Eh, do what you want. We'll stay out of it." from developer Eidos Montreal.
And by that token the story itself never positions itself politically, ethically, or morally in either direction. Which robs some of the deeper themes of their power. By trying to appeal to everyone, the end result is an unfulfilling narrative that ends up in that all too familiar position of a rogue terrorist organisation that may or may not have had good intentions at one point or another attempting to blow up something or someone. With the only good cop left in the world able to stop them. You!
Actually, Adam Jensen.
Where Mankind Divided’s narrative does shine is with the various side missions you can find throughout exploring the city of Prague. Make no mistake this isn’t the case of a large open world with NPC’s doubling as quest dispensers. No, the Prague of 2029 is more akin to something like City 17 from Half-Life 2. A small, compartmentalised section of a large city where the same level of environmental freedom you can find in the various missions are presented for you to do with what you will. Although optional, the side missions in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided often provide detailed and wonderful character pieces that not only add to your understanding of the situation in Prague, but also the narrative as a whole. One side mission in particular has you investigating a pair of augs on the eve of being shipped out to a ghetto. It’s a lengthy, touching part of the game where you’re directly in control of a number of different outcomes. None of which are ideal.
As to whether or not a big budget game can or should have a message, or present a particular world-view that you may or may not agree with, is an interesting question. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is not that game. In many ways it could have been, but it never really follows through. Perhaps the real problem with the narrative is how it kind of ends abruptly. Not in the unexpected sense, the action and pacing picks up considerably in the later stages of the game and you can feel and ending coming on. But in the way it leaves the story and underlying conspiracy in roughly the same place as the beginning. Names and places that feel like revelations never eventuate, and even relationships and key questions that are presented in the early parts of the game are left unanswered. For something that took five years to develop, the 15-20-hour length stings just a little bit once the end credits begin to roll.
On the other hand, the replay value is incredible, thanks to the sheer abundance of ways in which you can play and react to each situation. Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait another five years to find out what happens next.