Review – Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a first-person infiltration game. In most missions, and certainly in the game’s best missions, you’re given a target such as a file or a person and told to make your way into a secure area to get at it. It’s not a stealth game in a strict sense, since the remarkable thing about it is the amount of freedom you have to approach problems. Most people will likely avoid detection and silently eliminate guards, thugs and other enemies as necessary, but it’s equally viable to go loud and wipe out the whole security staff. Much like its predecessor, Human Revolution, you decide your playstyle by choosing which augmentations to invest in as you progress through the game. Stealthy players might want to run silently or visualise enemies’ fields of view, and more action-y players might want to turn their skin into armour or stabilise their weapons. Whatever combination of the twenty or so augmentations you invest in and upgrade, you’ll have to use them inventively to infiltrate facilities from huge corporate banks to small-time criminal warehouses. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a great game and a great sequel. It rectifies many of the problems with Human Revolution, which was already among my favourite games, and builds on its considerable strengths.

Mankind Divided is a direct sequel to Human Revolution and both games are prequels to the original Deus Ex. All three are cyberpunk games set in the near future, but they differ greatly in tone and content. In both recent Deus Ex games (Human Revolution and Mankind Divided) you play as Adam Jensen, who in Human Revolution works as the head of security for Sarif Industries, a company developing mechanical augmentation technology in 2027. Jensen is severely injured at the start of the game, and he’s given a suite of robotic limbs, organs and accessories to survive. The game’s main plot involves investigating the attack which nearly killed Jensen, conveniently accomplished by infiltrating a series of increasingly complex factories, studios, tenements and military bases. Much as the subject matter of the game is dark and violent, however it has a tone which is basically optimistic. Augmentation technology is rapidly advancing and becoming more accessible, even if Jensen personally struggles to adjust to his new life. The game frequently draws parallels between 2027 and the Renaissance through characters’ fashion and the world’s architecture and furnishings.

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Mankind Divided takes place two years later in the wake of a cataclysmic event after which augmented people are treated with suspicion and fear. Jensen works as an agent for a UN agency investigating augmented terrorists in Prague, apparently motivated by increasing discrimination against the augmented. The game goes to great lengths to establish a much darker tone: augmented people are rounded up and moved to ghettos, they’re treated brutally by the police and their augmentations fail and become cruder without maintenance. The Renaissance architecture and fashion has vanished along with the soaring rhetoric about human progress. Instead humans live in increasingly segregated societies, managed by authoritarian governments and corporations. Mankind Divided is a more traditional cyberpunk game. The same themes of corporate greed and oppression which have been a hallmark of the genre in videogames and elsewhere forever were, of course, present in Human Revolution, but they were complicated both by the extremely atypical ‘cyber-Renassiance’ style and since, as Jensen, you were a corporate agent.

The absence of an interesting style or tone really hurts Mankind Divided, since it makes the meagre substance of the plot the focus. In short, Jensen works for the UN as part of an elite taskforce where everyone is extremely confrontational and obnoxious except Jensen who is only mildly confrontation and obnoxious. He’s tasked with investigating a terror attack which is apparently the work of a militant augmented group. It’s apparent from the beginning that there’s something fishy about Jensen’s agency and that there’s more to the attack than they’re letting on. Jensen is also secretly working with a hacker collective dedicated to aug rights which is good, if only because his contact Alex Vega is either the only person in Prague who likes Jensen or the only person who doesn’t need to constantly vocalise her dislike. It’s not clear why Jensen himself is doing any of this since, unlike Human Revolution, he has no personal connection to anyone he’s working with and he doesn’t even appear to have any firm objections to the way augs are treated in Prague. In general he drifts from conversation to conversation rarely contributing an opinion and grudgingly assenting to every task he’s given.

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It’s a real mess of a plot which manages to fall well below the low standards of both Human Revolution and the original Deus Ex. In the case of the former, of course, it lacks the unique style and tone which made the plot feel fresher than it might’ve been if we were simply reading scripts. Moreover, Jensen himself had a character arc which began and satisfactorily concluded in Human Revolution, and the same can’t be said of Mankind Divided. The plot is closer to Deus Ex, as you gradually begin to suspect the agency you’re working for is corrupt. Likewise, the tone and style is much closer to the original Deus Ex, which is to be expected since there’s less separating them in the series’ timeline. However, where Deus Ex is a very funny game with a very dry sense of humour Mankind Divided is almost completely serious without managing to be either believable or interesting.

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Mankind Divided’s plot does not, luckily, constitute the whole story. Like Human Revolution, where you were given a hub area to explore and side missions to find, in Mankind Divided you have the freedom to wander Prague and take on missions around the city. Prague is pretty vast and detailed, with loading screens disguised as subway rides separating its various districts. As well as areas relevant to missions and side missions, there are whole buildings to visit, explore and rob which aren’t part of any mission. Jensen, for instance, occupies a penthouse apartment in in a run-down apartment building, and it’s possible to break into every other apartment in the place to pick up money, ammo, supplies and bits of lore. Hacking computers in homes or offices usually gives you access to the owner’s emails which do a better job of illuminating the world of Mankind Divided than the game’s main plot. Furthermore, the side missions are often more interestingly written than the main plot and a few, like those about the independent newspaper Samizdat, are actually funny.

In general, however, Mankind Divided’s writing mainly serves to set up the next infiltration target and it’s here that the game really excels. Mankind Divided doesn’t have levels, exactly, since you can roam around Prague but the mission critical areas are very deliberately designed to make infiltration interesting, however you choose to approach them. In one early mission, you’ve got to infiltrate a flooded train station in order to retrieve some evidence critical to your investigation. The level is relatively uncomplicated by the game’s exacting standards, but there’s still a multitude of ways to approach the problem.

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On my first playthough, I had just then unlocked a temporary cloaking ability, so I was able to slip past the outer guards before I ran out of power. Most Mankind Divided levels are awash with vents to creep through, and the station is no exception. By crawling through the vents and using my high jump aug, I was able to slip on to a rafter overlooking the destroyed platform and crawl past most of the security. When I dropped down I distracted the last few guards by throwing an object and got the evidence. The really tense moment came just as I was sneaking away: I intended to play Mankind Divided without killing anyone, but just as I was climbing back on to the rafters I was spotted by a guard in shallow water. Without really thinking about it, I hit a breaker switch next to me which electrified the water and killed the guard. It was tense enough and fun enough that I didn’t reload.

As the game progresses you’re led through increasingly novel and intricate spaces, though in most cases there’s little strictly preventing you from entering them from the moment the game begins. Palisade Bank, for instance, is the largest structure in Prague and fascinating to break into, even before you have to. It has four floors, all with different security levels and you can access through regular elevators or a combination of maintenance areas and ventilation shafts. The publicly accessible area contains the individual vaults, which are difficult to rob without first getting to the security room which monitors them and disabling the cameras, lasers and turrets. The office area has more people and more armed guards but less electronic security. The whole building is a joy to explore since you’re gradually coming to understand a very complex system by reading emails, listening to conversations and just creeping around.

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Incidentally, while Mankind Divided has a less unified aesthetic than Human Revolution (that is, it can’t be adequately summarised by a phrase like ‘cyber-Renaissance’) it’s worth mentioning that the bank is a beautiful area, as is most of the rest of the game. Corporate areas, like those of the bank, most closely resemble Human Revolution’s interiors, with very smooth, clean designs interspersed with abstract art. Prague itself resembles City 17, with a very deliberate clash between finely decorated historic buildings and futuristic oppressive-looking blank facades. Prague is a novel setting for a videogame, and Mankind Divided excels at exploiting that. Streets are winding, buildings have fewer stories but their facades are both more colourful and more detailed and many of the NPCs actually speak Czech.

Level design is likely Mankind Divided’s greatest strength, but without the game’s interesting RPG aspects it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. In Mankind Divided, you gain experience for most actions, from hacking computers and killing enemies to making it through an area without setting off an alarm. When you level up, you get a praxis point you can spent to buy or upgrade an augmentation. Some of these have been carried over from Human Revolution and some are new. Many are passive bonuses which increase your radar range, reduce your recoil or increase your jump height but there are also active abilities. Temporary cloaking is an obvious pick-up for stealthy players while the ability to punch through weak walls reveals new paths through levels. Apparently paying homage to Dishonored, which shares some DNA with the recent Deus Ex games, Corvo’s blink even appears as an option which some shaky science to explain why it works. The augmentations become really interesting when you start to see synergies between them: the upgrade for your eyesight which lets you see electronic devices through walls works well with remote hacking. You can disable cameras around corners or turrets before making contact. It’s also possible to find praxis kits, which award a praxis point each, hidden in the world. Since these upgrades are permanent and extremely significant, the choice to scatter them around the world really incentivizes exploration, which is great. In fact, it’s just a shame you don’t get a greater proportion of your praxis points from the kits in the world.

So far, I’ve been hesitant to engage in comparison between the original Deus Ex and Mankind Divided. Mainly, that’s because they’re very different. The original Deus Ex leans heavily on sandbox design where you have a vast array of options in every mission. When I first played Deus Ex, I remember being enthralled by the fact that I could stack boxes and skip whole chunks of the missions and that I could shoot central characters dead without being forced to restart. Neither of the two recent Deus Ex games have much in the way of sandbox design, and their freeform approach which is so liberating comparted to other recent FPSs or stealth games is actually extremely restrictive by comparison to the original Deus Ex. Neither is as good as Deus Ex, but they’re also not the same kind of game. Mankind Divided gets slightly closer by virtue of the sprawling, complex levels but it’s still ultimately a much more directed experience which is nevertheless extremely enjoyable.

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In most ways, Mankind Divided improves on Human Revolution. The levels are more complex, and areas like the bank and one later mission in Switzerland are among the best in the whole series. The range of augmentations available to you is greater and most of the new additions have a dramatic effect on how you play. Prague itself is beautiful, even if lakes the unified aesthetic I personally valued in Human Revolution. The plot is awful, of course, but that’s a less serious transgression in a series like Deus Ex which has never had exceptional storytelling.

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