2016’s been a rough year for video games! It’s been one hard-hitting disappointment after another, most recently with space tedium and hype backlash simulator No Man’s Sky. I’d never get disillusioned in this industry; to me, it’s like a kitten that’s scratched up the couch – you can’t blame it for doing bad things when it doesn’t know any better and can’t be taught otherwise.
Like that kitten, my friends, sometimes the games industry does something good like fetching a ball or doing its business in the box, and that’s how I’m going to compare Deus Ex: Mankind Divided to a kitten using its litter box correctly. Good kitty, Square Enix! Good kitty!
Right, so: two years after the events of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, our robo-hero Adam Jensen is eking out an existence in Prague. The Aug Incident that concluded the previous game, where mechanically augmented individuals worldwide were incited to mindless killing via a backdoor in their implants, has led society to shun augmentations and those who use them. There’s also no shortage of pro-and-anti-aug terrorist activity; that’s where Jensen comes in, and we follow his work as an anti-terrorist operative and double agent.
As in Human Revolution, you’re able to get a leg up over your opponents by upgrading Jensen’s mechanical augmentations using skill points earned through in-game activities. These provide both passive abilities, like increased inventory space, greater jump height and immunity to fall damage, and active abilities, like a micro-grenade launcher embedded in Jensen’s upper body. The degree to which you can customize these has been increased, though; for instance, that grenade launcher can now be customized to fire non-lethal gas grenades, so players who aren’t quite so homicidal still have a reason to check it out. You’re able to customize your loadout to your liking.
More noticeably, though, early in the story Jensen discovers that he’s a little more augmented then we realized at first. Turns out there’s now an additional set of experimental augmentations to choose from on top of the basic set; these are even more powerful than the original augs, including a liquid metal shield that renders Jensen invincible and the ability to fire Jensen’s signature arm blades at enemies like a super-sized crossbow. The super-speed Icarus Dash is a personal favorite, since it allows you to rapidly reposition in combat without worrying about coming under fire.
All this new power comes with a catch, though. Activating these new augs places strain on Jensen’s system, causing him to overheat, so to keep from spontaneously combusting you’ll have to reduce that heat level by deactivating other augs. For some players this might mean some hard choices! For others, it’ll be as easy as deciding that you really never cared about the social enhancement function after all because the best form of social enhancement is a huge, scary gun. Either way, it’s a great addition to the game and perhaps to the entire “skill tree” concept as a whole.
Running around and using those augs in gameplay is largely similar to the kind of stuff we saw in Human Revolution. You’ve generally got several ways to approach any given problem; sneaking past foes works, taking them out works, often you can talk your way past problems and so on. Pretty much every area has plenty of vents and hidden passages to sneak through to get a leg up on your opponents, so some degree of stealth is almost always useful. As before, there seems to be a slight tilt toward non-lethal and stealthy solutions being the most rewarding options in terms of experience and money, but the degree to which run-and-gunners will fall behind is fairly minimal. There’s certainly no shortage of tools for any playstyle, so even if shooty types get slightly less experience here and there, they won’t mind because they’re carrying giant armor-piercing rifles that shred enemies.
It’s interesting to see that many of the quests and NPCs will react to the decisions you make, though this can be a little hamfisted at times. For instance, in the opening quest you’re able to make a detour to disable a communications booster and maintain a deep cover agent’s disguise. The fact that this matters to future events is mentioned no less than ten times by multiple NPCs over the following hour. We got it, guys, we’re playing a video game, thanks for the reminder. I complain, but it’s largely empty, since a lot of games don’t even do this; it’s a nice touch and, along with the many possible aug builds, encourages replaying the game or even particular sections.
Speaking of hamfisted, while Mankind Divided’s plot is typical conspiracy-filled Deus Ex fare, the entire “mechanical apartheid” concept that the game runs on stumbles a bit. The idea that Jensen, a white and traditionally masculine action hero, is a member of an oppressed class here is touchy at best, and Mankind Divided handles it with the sort of grace and class we’ve come to expect from video games. By that I mean that this is, in fact, still a video game, and video games are still extremely immature in terms of their ability to present controversial or intellectual content. This is oppression viewed through the Saturday morning cartoon eyes of the games industry.
It’s almost brave that some buildings have “aug-only” entrances, for instance, or that the police will demand your papers and get in your face for walking around on the street, or that there are “AUGMENTED LIVES MATTER” posters strewn throughout the game…almost, except you’re still playing a badass cyber-soldier with superpowers, dozens of weapons, powerful allies and the ability to reload the game when things doesn’t go his way. Oh, and he’s still a straight white guy who’s entirely capable of solving his problems with a broken system by shooting everyone he doesn’t like. That’s not really what the discussion today is about, guys.
People get upset about this because a video game just doesn’t have the delicate touch needed to approach this kind of thing; certainly no game thus far has been able to manage it. To many gamers, the most powerful video game message of last year was Undertale’s “hey, maybe you don’t have to mindlessly kill everyone who’s different from you!” That’s not a bad moral, but if it’s the best we’ve got, we’re still some distance away from talking about serious issues in any serious sense.
I can’t say I’d prefer the Tumblr-style Social Justice 101 that infests some other parts of the games industry, but the obvious attempt to Start A Conversation feels almost as awkward, forced and condescending. That’s not the end of the world for Mankind Divided and it remains a superlative game…but it remains a game, not a step forward for video-games-as-social-commentary. I’d rather have a good game that sorta-kinda tries to be socially aware than a bad one that strains for it to the detriment of gameplay, so there you go.
What if you’d rather cut the social commentary a bit? You can get a bit of a break in Breach, a secondary game mode that’s playable alongside Mankind Divided’s story. This is a separate story where you play as a Ripper, a next-generation hacker that infiltrates a bank via virtual reality to try and find valuable data and uncover conspiracies. It plays much like the main game, though it’s divided up into shorter, more compressed stages; Breach focuses on completing these stages quickly and efficiently, offering gear rewards and a spot on the leaderboards to the fastest speedrunners and the most skilled players.
There’s a surprising amount of extra content here that offers a different flavor from the usual Deus Ex fare, so it’s a nice addition. There’s plenty of customization here as in the main story, including the ability to choose augs and a variety of weapons and equipment to find and purchase for your gear loadouts. If even Breach isn’t enough to sate your lust for Deus Ex, you’ve also got the Jensen Stories set of postgame bonus missions on top of that, essentially a set of extra episodes of Jensen’s adventures starring ol’ Never Asked For This himself. There’s plenty to do in Mankind Divided.
When it comes to the game’s presentation on the graphical front, you might be happy to hear that Human Revolution’s omnipresent yellow/orange filter has taken a hike! Everything’s nice and gritty now, just as you’d expect from a game that’s all about an idealistic dream falling apart. Mankind Divided’s graphical presentation is generally impressive, though there’s the odd questionable texture here and there, like a shop in Prague having a backdrop that appears to have been made in MSPaint. Aside from these hiccups the game looks great where it counts, particularly when it comes to combat environments, and you’ll want to have a higher-end video card to take full advantage of the graphical splendor at a decent framerate. Breach, meanwhile, goes for a more low-fi stylized look that’s great in its own right, offering simple polygonal characters and weapons to populate the geometric environments. Voice acting and sound design are also generally solid, though like Human Revolution characters’ lip synching can be pretty iffy.
In a year where disappointment has been so readily available, it’s nice to see a game come out that delivers pretty much exactly what we thought it would. Fans of Human Revolution are going to be delighted to find more of that experience, fans of the original Deus Ex shouldn’t be disappointed with the amount of intrigue and variety and fans of Invisible War don’t exist so we’re not really worried about them. Maybe snack on the excellent Deus Ex GO to get you primed, but Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is worth the price, especially if you’ve got some hardcore hardware to make the game shine.