The Deus Ex series of games have been revered for their freedom of approach, attention to detail and impressive depth of story telling. Square Enix Montreal brings us the latest instalment with Mankind Divided – a continuation of the globe trotting adventures of an Interpol super agent and his impressive augmentations. Whilst the last game wasn’t perfect, gaining much criticism for the boss battles in particular, will jumping into the servo-activated limbs of the man with the gruffest voice in video games again be return to form, or did we not ask for this?
Taking place two years after the events of Human Revolution, and set in a period where humans and augs are hugely mistrustful of each other, you’re still playing the part of the uniquely modded man – Adam Jensen – who’s spent the last year recovering in Alaska from the fallout of his actions. Heavily augmented with a whole host of gadgets and skills, you’re one in a million… literally. Jensen is one of the very few whose body doesn’t naturally reject the upgrades and isn’t dependent on the drug Neuroprozyne to stabilise his system; unlike the downtrodden inhabitants of Prague that you encounter as soon as you step out into their world. Mankind Divided tells a dark and depressing tale of segregation and subjugation where augs are second class citizens, left to suffer at the hands of the media and political agendas of the corporations that run the world. Seeing any parallels anywhere?
Things kick off in Dubai with Jensen and his TF29 team intercepting and preventing the illegal trading of mechanical body parts, but things go badly wrong when augmented mercs turn up and steal the show. Making the trip back to Europe, you’re quickly caught up in a train station bombing pinned on the Augmented Rights Coalition, ARC – a movement that wants equal rights for augs and humans alike – and tasked with tracking down the perpetrators. There’s now two major events to look into, one that you’re tasked with (the station), and one that you want to follow up but have been expressly told to leave alone (arms sale); setting up a conflict in Adam’s priorities. It gets more complicated when a routine maintenance fix finds hidden abilities deep inside his firmware, which blatantly isn’t a setup for offering up new gameplay progression whatsoever. No, that would never be a reason for putting in a mysterious storyline that doesn’t get resolved at any point…
…or does it? That’s the thing with Deus Ex, there might well be an answer to everything that happens in the game, but you have to go and find it. Aside from the tutorials and main missions, this is not the type of game to tell you what to do or when to do it. Within the core story you’re led from one mission to another, making a decision here or there for which path you want to follow. Side missions they only pop up as and when you interact or get near the right people, places or objects. It builds a wonderfully fluid experience that both delights when you stumble across a situation that feels organic, and makes it feel like your discovery; and frustrates when you realise you’ve totally missed out on something that might explain more backstory or even the mysterious hidden augmentations in your body. At least, that’s what I hope, given I got to the end being no clearer on where they came from, who put them there, or why *cough* sequel *cough* dlc *cough.
Choice is paramount in a Deus Ex game, from how you build your abilities and where you put your development, through to how you tackle the objectives and in what order. Prague is your hub world and open for full exploration from the beginning, with nothing really locked off from you when you’ve bought a couple of choice upgrades or found the right type of key. Spinning off from Prague are three key mission areas that you’ll visit once each,which doesn’t sound like much, but are deceptively absorbing. Prague in itself consists of 3 districts, most of which have rooftops and sewers to explore, as well as a large amount of shops and apartments to break into and loot. Making your way from one waypoint to another can take a long time if you’re easily distracted. Each of the additional areas are suitably large and intricate, with the impressive Golem City being a highlight as you work your way through narrow alleys and living quarters to get to your target. Again, it’s easy to get distracted as well, especially when you’re getting sidetracked with additional favours for the NPCs you’ve met. There’s a cohesive feel to the world that draws you in and makes you feel part of the movement that’s happening around you. Whether that’s seeing first hand the results of Neuroprozyne deprivation, or being funnelled through specific aug entrances in the subways, you can’t help but get in character.
Adam Jensen is a badass. Plain and simple. From the start you’ve all the abilities from the last game, all maxed out too. However, this is a new game so that means you’ll have to lose a lot of them and decide which you want to reinvest in, as well as get the chance to buy impressive new ones that come with a power penalty price. Overclocking Jensen with these new abilities means that whilst there’s some amazing new things to get into like slowing time or having superior dermal armour, you run the risk of them failing at the most inopportune points if you don’t manage the power consumption by disabling other augmentations. It’s a nice balancing act that lets you decide if you want to invest in the new stuff early on and forgo some of the established perks, or stay safe and max out what you know is good. Neither is the right option, and it’s perfectly possible to complete the game without going for the more powerful elements – I didn’t start until well after 75% of the game and I’d got something that fixed and stabilised all the abilities. Be aware though, upgrades are powered by Praxis points and they’re metered out at a steady if slightly stingy rate. Maybe this is because you can buy them as one-off use DLC, it does feel like the game forces you this way. Full disclosure, I bought 10 Praxis from the PlayStation store after finding out that Deus Ex Go doesn’t work with the PS4.
Levels and environments are designed in a way that means you’re never at a disadvantage regardless of your update path. Stealth, hacking and non-lethal gameplay are rewarded in the same way as overt assault and lethal force is. With multiple paths and opportunities to play it your way, it makes the levels feel much larger than they really are, and there’s a verticality in play that keeps on expanding the areas even when you think you’ve reached the limits. If there’s a criticism of the design it’s that there’s a heavy reliance on electrical ducts and vents for moving around, which at least makes you feel like John McClane. Avoiding these usually means putting your hacking skills to use in opening door locks, and it’s good to see the same simple minigame return. Based in an isometric grid, you move along a path taking over nodes before an alarm sounds and locks you out for good – back out in time though and you can usually retry at least once. Upping your hacking skills will let you get past harder locks, and is extremely useful for getting into the multiple laptops dotted around which might just contain passcodes, useful information, or even remote access to certain things in the environment. Again though, you don’t need the skills to hand, you could always craft a multi-tool to do it for you.
Yes, crafting makes an appearance in the game, though it’s crafting-lite here. Pick up non-specific “parts” and you can use them to create new power cells, health regen, multi-tools, or even upgrade your weapons. There’s definitely a widespread use for them, though like the Praxis you never have enough to really do everything you want, and if you’re playing stealthily there’s almost no point spending them on weapons outside increasing magazine size. You’ve also got collectables for both the Breach mode and the mobile app, items that appear for selling only, customisable weapons that range from stun guns to automatic shotguns, and a host of easter eggs hidden away for you to discover if you’re an explorer. Sat over the top of all of this is the XP system that rewards for just about every action and levels you up by giving you a new Praxis kit. It is still strange that given how ready the game is to throw XP and bonuses around, actual unlocking progress of the abilities takes a very long time to get where you want. Fortunately there’s a new game plus to start again with, making use of everything from your first playthrough. Assuming you make it through the final boss sections that is.
At a couple of points in the game there are choices to be made, and they’re black and white – take one path and the other is locked out, so that promotes replay value. In some conversations it might appear there’s choice, but it’s limited to only a couple that it’s possible to fail/win. One decision comes with the final mission, and here is about the only time I felt the game was a little unbalanced, and I wondered if I’d made the wrong upgrade decisions. It was possible to maintain a stealthy takedown, but not without multiple reloads as I was torn apart time after time. If I’d encountered that type of trial and error gameplay throughout it wouldn’t have been such an abrupt and steep difficulty curve. Going against the ethos of the game, trying to do what should work (5 tranquiliser darts to an uncovered head), had pretty much no impact other than a short stagger animation. Bear in mind that you can take out guys hidden behind metal masks at 100 yards with the tranq rifle in every other section of the game. It smacked of the boss battles from Human Revolution, and could have been handled a little better than it was. Maybe I should have picked the other option.
Once you’re done with the roughly 15 hours of main game, there’s the Breach mode to tackle which takes its inspiration from one of the levels in the story. It isn’t bad, and it lets you loose with the weaponry as well as having no requirement for you to be conservative because you’re not impacting on the wider world. Breach does feel like more of a Metal Gear Solid VR mode, and a time trial one at that, which might put you off after a few goes, though I’d recommend giving it a fair chance before dismissing it entirely. You’ll also get a “Jensen Story” as well which is a self contained adventure which I strongly suspect will be filled with DLC missions in the future. Again, a nice bonus, but something that might have be pinched from MGS, and could simply have been in the main game. This heralds the start of some of the letdown aspects of Mankind Divided, because despite the positives so far there are some fairly intrusive problems as well. Frame rate is poor – chugging worse than a frat boy 2 kegs in; and it appears mostly when you’re wandering around outside in Prague. It gets worse when the rain comes down in the last act too. Cutscenes are nicely rendered with a soft filter applied, and some really pertinent dialogue… if you can hear it. Whoever decided that the best way to manage the incidental music was to crank it up and drown out the conversations needs some aural augs of their own. Lastly, and a personal gripe, is that no matter how much you sell and spend with vendors, they always act like you’ve not bought anything and are wasting their time. That nearly broke my pacifist playstyle the first time it happened.
On the whole, the issues in Deus Ex Mankind Divided are small, and do not stop it being enjoyable. There’s a fully fleshed out sci-fi world with consequence and meaning littered all over the place, and one where you feel like you’re having an impact too. It’s blatantly a middle game in a trilogy, and that’s not really bad, but it does leave you with an unresolved feeling that might not lean towards wanting more straightaway. Jensen is by far the most interesting character in the game, with many others just being one dimensional stereotypes, even if there are ones well voice acted by Peter Serafinowicz, who kindly called me a “bell-end” in the first mission. As openings go, that’s quite hard to top. If you were into Human Revolution this is more of the same with some nice tweaks, if you’re new then there’s a 12 minute catch up that covers the history well, so you’re not alienated from the off. Either way, it’s worth getting under the skin of and losing yourself to the murky not too distant future.
A PS4 review copy of Deus Ex Mankind Divided was provided by the Square Enix PR team, and the game is available now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.