If you’re familiar with the Deus Ex game series, then Deus Ex: Mankind Divided isn’t going to shock you with innovations or dramatic changes to the formula. It’s hardly by-the-numbers, but the series has always been known for its first-person stealth-action gameplay, with a nice dose of superhuman abilities thrown into the mix, courtesy of the protagonist’s cybernetic augmentations. Mankind Divided throws in a few new toys for gravely-voiced protagonist Adam Jensen to play around with, but for the most part, it sticks to its guns and does what the series does best: establish environmental puzzles with a “point A” and a “point B”, and challenge players to explore the level and figure out a way to traverse the environment in the most efficient manner possible. It’s a fun gameplay cycle that has yet to show its age, and while Mankind Divided‘s story may fall short of its predecessors, its gorgeously-designed levels and a large breadth of side-missions hold it up as one of the stronger entries in the series.
Mankind Divided takes place two years after “the Incident”, wherein all cybernetically augmented individuals across the globe were driven insane by their implants. In those two years, the world of Deus Ex has changed quite a bit from the world of Human Revolution. The optimistic future showcased in that “golden age” is all but gone in Prague of 2029, where the majority of the game is set. Now, augmented individuals are feared by the general public, ostracized and treated like second-class citizens. It doesn’t matter if their cybernetic limbs are simply prostheses or military-grade arms that can deploy taser darts or blades; all augmented individuals are considered a potential threat. It’s an interesting setup for a game that I feel is enormously wasted thanks to some painfully heavy-handed parallels to modern racism. There is no subtext to be seen in Prague; subways segregate people into “Naturals” and “Augs”, park benches are adorned with “Naturals Only”, and developer Eidos Montreal went so far as to describe the events as “mechanical apartheid”.
The reason I’m going so into detail about this is because this segregation seen in Mankind Divided is all aggressively front-loaded; every single conflict in the story stems from how “naturals” and “augs” are divided up. It’s frustrating, because the way it’s played up initially, it seems like this supposed “mechanical apartheid” might actually turn into an interesting conflict for the narrative to work with. But there’s no subtlety to it; the writing pulls so few punches that the attempts at drawing real-world parallels are about as subtle as an episode of Star Trek. For lack of a better word, it all feels very artificial.
On the bright side, the narrative doesn’t hamper the gameplay one bit. From the very first mission, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided demonstrates the classic Deus Ex stealth-action formula, refined to a mirror sheen. Jensen still has every augmented ability available to him that he did in Human Revolution, along with several new “experimental augs” that offer some pretty incredible powers, albeit at a cost. Activating an experimental augment, such as the incredibly helpful “remote hacking” (which allowed me to do things like disable tripmines, laser grids, and security cameras) requires the player to permanently disable another augment that has not been activated. For example, when I activated the “Tesla” augment, which let me deploy several tasers that would lock onto multiple targets and wind around cover to knock them out, I chose to deactivate the “Titan” augment; a defensive aug that would have allowed me to deploy a magnetic neodymium fluid to repel projectiles. It’s a very flashy and effective power, but seeing as I was successfully sneaking through much of the game, Titan wasn’t going to be necessary.
Amusingly, the lack of downsides to the experimental augments (and the fact that they’re available within the first hour) means I was feeling really powerful almost immediately after the tutorial was over. It was almost comical, really; being able to deploy Tesla darts to down three targets around a corner isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I set Mankind Divided to its hardest difficulty, but there I was, clearing out levels with ease. When I spoke to a friend who had also been going through the game, he discussed self-imposed challenges, such as playing through the game without using the cloaking augment to easily bypass encounters. Once I did set some boundaries for myself, namely “no guns” and “no stockpiling absurd amounts of ammunition for my Tesla augment”, Mankind Divided became a far more interesting stealth game, with me pacing the use of my augments and figuring out which enemy patrols would be the most practical to quietly eliminate. Considering prior to that I’d been mowing through rooms with just takedowns, my tranquilizer rifle, and the Tesla, imposing some rules for myself made the game challenging. Without them, it’s a bit too easy.
Where Mankind Divided succeeds most is in its presentation. Trading in the aggressively yellow color palette of Human Revolution, Mandkind Divided is predominantly set in Prague, with a more natural color palette (albeit with some futuristic aesthetics). Prague as it’s depicted in the year 2029, is a gorgeous and expansive city hub, full of details both big and small. While it’s unfortunate that there’s only one real hub city in the game, it’s clear that by focusing on Prague as the sort of focal point for Human Revolution, the level designers were able to really flesh out the city and make it feel alive, and not just a static background setting for side missions. Lots of side activities begin purely through exploration of the city, instead of Adam being called over by a generic NPC to begin a by-the-numbers mission. Instead of feeling like a parking lot with a bunch of NPCs with exclamation marks over their heads, Prague feels like a city that’s designed in a cohesive manner to allow navigation through landmarks just as effectively as a minimap.
Around the middle of the game, there’s a visit to “Golem City”, a massive complex of interweaved buildings that acts as a sort of prison city for augmented people. The tone of Golem City is far different from that of Prague, but its aesthetic evokes a futuristic slum in some really amazing and disturbing ways. Ultimately, it’s not a very long visit, but the time spent there is certainly memorable for how dramatically it stands out. Voice actors also lend some fairly decent performances, with Elias Toufexis once again providing the best impression of tires on gravel that I’ve ever heard. Lip synching is unfortunately pretty poor, but the performances are convincing enough that I was never too annoyed by it. That said, it’s rather disappointing that such little work seemed to go into facial motion capture. Characters have a limited selection of facial expressions, none of which are terribly convincing.
Speaking of side missions, Mankind Divided has some of my favorites in the entire series. While the main narrative is disappointingly bland, its side missions offer up some truly incredible stories and levels to explore. One particular mission has Jensen investigating a potential serial killer who harvests the augmented limbs of his victims. As the mission begins, it initially seems like a fairly innocuous side mission, but by successfully uncovering crucial intel for the case, a bigger picture begins to form. I won’t spoil how it turns out, but if you come across it, it’s absolutely worth seeing to the end.
I wasn’t terribly sure of what kind of game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is trying to be. Eidos Montreal is clearly well aware of how to make a Deus Ex game that plays well, but I wasn’t ever gripped by the story. Not once did I feel any urgency or interest in the plot as it unfolded, and the stakes never really felt like they were increasing. Every story mission simply felt like another checklist with some dialogue exchanges in-between, with every other mission providing an interesting level to explore extensively. The addition of experimental augments also adds a new layer of stuff for players to tinker with, though they can unbalance the game in unexpected (or obvious) ways. Overall, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a great entry in the series; it’s not going to blow longtime fans out of the water with a revolutionary story, but if you keep your expectations in check, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Note: Stack-Up was provided a copy of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided for review.