Cyberpunk settings – a common theme in the early 2000s – haven’t been strongly embraced in modern video games. Is it because developers don't believe the subject to be interesting or are they afraid to compete with another Deus Ex game?
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has finally been released after enduring a bit of pre-order controversy and a significant delay. Its predecessor, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, was an innovative experience from 2011 that set a standard for action RPGs. Many different gameplay elements were combined so masterfully that the player could truly choose exactly how they wanted to play. Mankind Divided takes this concept further by retaining these elements of freedom and expanding on them further. This is a sequel that has little need to truly innovate, because its foundation was already so thorough and creative. The biggest issue with Human Revolution was the somewhat clunky gameplay – which has been thoroughly remedied. Gunplay feels far smoother and more intuitive, while the cover system has been revamped to allow for more flexibility of movement. In addition, the game offers a short video summary of the previous game for the uninitiated.
Mankind Divided tells the continued story of Adam Jensen, but is no longer centered on his internal struggle of being forcibly augmented. Instead, the plot revolves around the divide between augmented humans and natural humans, reflecting the same kind of prejudice that has been ever-present in history. For all intents and purposes, “mechanical apartheid” is this game’s racism with a different coat of paint, but it runs parallel with the same – very human – reactions to those that are different. It works as relatable material and the situations presented have strong implications without being too heavy-handed.
Jensen works alongside an Interpol anti-terrorist task force in Prague while simultaneously spying on them for the Juggernaut Collective, a hacker group. Overall, the game doesn’t do a great job of balancing how you’re supposed to feel about these respective factions. In doing missions for particular groups, you’re going to become more attached to them; however, Interpol members are interacted with significantly more often over the course of the game. This naturally warms you up to Interpol as opposed to the secretive Juggernaut Collective, making the conflict of being a double agent less impactful. The villains are well-established, as this game actually involves the Illuminati as central antagonists. In contrast, most other characters fall into the category of genuine people who simply make questionable decisions.
Regrettably, there is little mention of characters from the previous game. I would have liked to see the scientist ex-girlfriend Megan who just wanted Jensen's DNA – and not in the fun way – or the support character Pritchard who was an irritating but ultimately trustworthy partner. The two made an interesting juxtaposition in a world where the damsel in distress is a traitor and the obvious stab in the back from a co-worker never happens. For whatever reason, both are given just a single sentence of explanation in this game and play no role at all. David Sarif returns briefly to be suspiciously helpful, but ultimately doesn’t have much of a presence. It is something of a positive that Mankind Divided can tell a story separated from the previous game, but it’s also unfortunate that the new characters are uninteresting by comparison.
At its core, this is an action RPG that encourages the use of many different playstyles. If the player wants to complete the game with no one ever knowing they were there, they can do that. If they want to punch through walls and riddle people with enough bullets to make Rambo blush, they can do that too. It’s a game which grants viability to all playstyles, so the experience is ultimately what you make of it. The characters within the world will also comment on how you have decided to conduct yourself and the conversations continue to be a joy due to solid writing and tense situations.
The augmentations in the game consist of both old and new abilities, and their applications are multitudinous. From conversational upgrades, to cloaking, to HUD enhancements, to the ability to fire blades from your wrists, there are many upgrades available to specialize in. These options are made better by strong level design which includes many open areas and complicated enemy pathways. Exploration and creativity are not only encouraged, but greatly rewarded in a tangible way. There are countless secret passageways, flanking routes and areas that can be circumvented entirely if you take the time to really look around. From a technical perspective, Mankind Divided looks good and runs well. Despite the occasional hitch, the framerate is solid and minor bugs can be fixed with a reload. Load times are particularly long but only occur during story sequences, reloading saves and traveling between locations.
Breach is the secondary mode of Mankind Divided and offers an arcade-like experience that uses the same controls as the main game. Players travel between levels (represented by the nodes in the hacking mini-game) and must reach data towers while fighting enemies and completing objectives in an attempt to get better times, which are recorded with online leaderboards. There is also some longevity in how the mode offers card packs as you continue to play. These are essentially sets of weapons and upgrades with varying degrees of rarity. It’s a nice distraction, but ultimately takes a backseat to the main story campaign.
After playing for about 11 hours, Mankind Divided felt like an absolute slam dunk and game of the year contender. That is, until the screen suddenly faded to black and informed me that it was over. I was stunned – in fact, I still am. Multiple story threads are left unresolved and relationships with characters are unclear. Said characters drift in and out of the story organically, but at the end of the day, they really don’t matter. By the time the game ended, it felt like more characters should have had an arc to establishing them so they would be more endearing. Many start out simplistically likeable, but by the end of the game, you still know next to nothing about any of them. Side characters get more development than many in the main cast, and this makes the lack of returning characters even more of a missed opportunity.
Now, even the most content-rich games can feel underwhelming if the player actively ignores what it offers and rushes through, but this was not the case. I took a purely non-lethal and stealthy approach throughout the entire story, and reloaded my game whenever I made a minor mistake and got seen by an enemy. If I had no such concerns and actually took an offensive approach, the game could be over in a fraction of the time. Moreover, I did every side mission that was made readily available to me. Upon starting a second playthrough, I noticed about four missed side missions, but there was nothing significant enough to extend the game to any great degree. Different endings and a few alternate missions are available, but these don’t solve the core issue. Luckily, the game is well-suited for multiple playthroughs; however, whether we look at this from a narrative or gameplay perspective, the abrupt ending and general sense of progression is poorly realized.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a superb experience from start-to-finish that cuts itself short long before it feels appropriate to do so. There’s a stinger twist ending that sets up an inevitable sequel, but it’s difficult to be excited when it feels like I should still be playing. DLC may expand on this, but no game should rely on additional paid content simply to conclude the story it tells.