When I was a kid my parents took me to a park. While this, in itself, isn’t a special – let alone unique – childhood experience, this particular park absolutely blew my four-year-old mind. It was tucked away in a remote suburb, enveloped by foliage and forest. There was just something about that place, the trees, the broken-machinery and the rustic playground. And since then, that park became one of my most cherished memories. When I eventually went back, almost two decades later, they’d replaced the wooden play set and felled some of the trees. And while there were some improvements, the ‘soul’ of the place just wasn’t there. I was let down beyond words. And when I left, I hoped I’d never feel like that again.
But after playing Mankind Divided, I’m right back there. See, like that park, Deus Ex Human Revolution holds a special spot in my (gaming) memories. So, I’m sure you can imagine my joy when August 23rd came about. Now I want you to imagine my horror when Mankind Divided fell drastically short.
Set two years after the events of Human Revolution, Mankind Divided throws players, once again into the shoes of Adam Jensen, and throws Adam Jensen into a world warped in the wake of the Aug Incident. The schism between Augs – the moniker for any cybernetically enhanced persons – and naturals has grown larger than ever. Extremists, from both factions, spout prejudice and propaganda. And a series of terrorist attacks have sent the world into panic. The concept is an interesting one, and through it Mankind Divided aims to tackle questions of class, race and personal identity. But, rather than providing some poignant social commentary, the game trivialises these themes. It engages with them only in passing and often through offhanded remarks or unessential dialogue. When it does muster the courage to overtly tackle questions of prejudice, instead of being edgy and astute, Mankind Divided comes across as an insensitive parody to current, real-world issues. The ‘Aug-lives matter’ posters are one such instance. And the train-station bombing is another; the should-have-been emotional scene where Jensen fails to rescue a child’s mother, totally fails due to the almost farcical lack of emotional-foundation.
Rather than building upon the tension instigated by Human Revolution, Mankind Divided sets about telling a simple, familiar story in the most convoluted way. There’s nothing here, in terms of allegory or plot, that even comes close to the standard of the Aug Incident. The grand plan in Mankind Divided seemed like a minor scheme in comparison. The Aug Incident was evil, clever and, more importantly, unique. The ‘bomb some buildings and poison the politicians’ scheme is a familiar stop on a beaten path. The scope of Human Revolution was massive; its take on conspiracy and corruption was shrewd and wide reaching. After the first few missions of Mankind Divided I was ready and waiting for an equally cunning turn of events. And I was still waiting when the end credits rolled.
As a character, Victor Marchenko is weak. From the first time you see him, you’ll know he’s a villain. And from the first time you hear him talk, you’ll be expecting someone to be hiding behind him because Marchenko is so obvious. The dude’s basically got ‘evil’ tattooed across his forehead. There’s no denying that he’s physically intimidating, at least at first. But when I remembered that, in this world, cybernetic augmentations allow anyone to do anything, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the muscle-bound–boss archetype was a bit redundant. Marchenko would have worked well as a brief nemesis or henchman. But as a main-villain and the main Illuminati presence in the game, he falls terribly short. He’s predictable and two-dimensional, and in a series that has historically pushed boundaries and broken the villain archetype, the Ukrainian Militant Marchenko feels like a shortcut – and a cardboard cut out one at that.
Still, Mankind Divided is home to some amazing concepts: Golem City is one such triumph. Rife with oppression and corruption, Golem City is a ghetto that houses any non-documented augs. There, police restrict neuropozine and people are dying from aug-rejection sickness. The city has fallen into a state of disease and gang lords have risen to power. The dense ghetto perfectly played into the Deus Ex cyberpunk aesthetic. But while Golem City was sensationally designed, it was also criminally underexplored. Most of the game takes place in the streets of Prague, which offers an insight into how the naturals and more privileged augs live. It was, from a storytelling perspective, a good move to show both sides of this proverbial coin. Still, I think the developers should have shown a little more love to Golem City. Even so, Prague isn’t without its merits. The elaborate detail of the traditional city is fused with futuristic sculptures and technology. The Red Light District’s ultramodern sleaze really stood out. But a buggy waypoint system and ridiculous to-and-fro missions do a good job of destroying the novelty.
On the topic of bugs, the game is riddled with technical issues. Frame rate drops are frequent and jarring, detracting from the level design. The waypoint system, which I briefly mentioned, seems intent on wasting your time. It’s designed in a way that your larger journey is broken down into smaller waypoints. Except half the time, the game doesn’t detect that you’ve made these smaller steps. So you’re left to fend for yourself, relegated to checking the mini-map, while some bleeping yellow hexagon tells you to walk 50 metres backwards. There are also more than a few crashes – I counted eight. And receiving Mankind Divided like this after a sizeable delay, begs the question, what state was it in six months ago? All in all, the bugs are inconvenient but with a little effort they can be over looked. Still, I can’t help but see the irony when a game about massive technological advancement doesn’t work like it should.
On the other hand, the combat system works perfectly. Everything you’ve ever adored about Deus Ex combat is here. Aside from an improved cover system and a decrease in boss battles (thank God), there isn’t anything new to say about Mankind Divided’s combat. The avenues are there for you to tackle levels with blazing gun madness. However, the incentive is definitely for stealth. And the game is much more fun if you oblige. Stealth playthroughs both challenge and reward the player. And rather than brainlessly attacking enemies, you’ll be scouring the map for detours and alternative routes that may allow you to dodge conflict entirely. Air vents, anyone?
However, certain missions send you back and forth over a map, typically through similar routes. And these almost defeat the point of stealth. I remember the police-curfew missions being a distinct low point. You’d sneak past some ungodly amount of officers to get to a certain objective, then you’d be sent to another district on the other side of the map, then back to your home and then straight back again to where you came from. Not only was this profoundly annoying – I ended up just killing all the police officers to reduce my travel time – it’s a blatant time sink. Sure, the campaign’s length left a lot to be desired, but packing the holes with crap like this doesn’t fool anyone. I’m sure I speak for us all when I say that I’d rather have a mini-Snickers than a big chocolate bar filled with dirt.
The same goes for the augmentations. There are so many of these things that you couldn’t plausibly unlock them all in one playthrough. Admittedly, Mankind Divided does feature a New Game Plus mode – and I assume that unlocking the copious amounts of augs is meant to be incentive for replay. However, you don’t have to be a savant to realise that half of the augs are useless (leg silencers that consume energy when you can already move silently crouched?!). And the half that aren’t useless are useless until they’re fully upgraded. Each aug costs two Praxis points to unlock plus more, again, to fully upgrade. This was one of the few issues with Human Revolution, and it’s worse again now. It’s filler footage and I don’t like it. But on a positive note, once they were unlocked, remote hacking and titan armour were delightful additions. And I wonder now, how I played through Human Revolution without them.
The game also features two separate modes: Breach, and Jensen’s Stories. Jensen’s Stories is obviously where DLC slots in. And I only had a brief stint with Breach mode, but essentially, it’s a multiplayer mode that features its own inventory, character and levelling systems. It all works quite well, but it’s not really what we’re after in a Deus Ex game.
This year we’ve seen some amazing additions to already amazing franchises. Doom and Dark Souls III shone so brightly and carried their respective legacies to new heights. I was really hoping to add Deus Ex: Mankind Divided to that list.
But the two-dimensional villain and an underdeveloped plot are far cries from the invigorating story telling we’ve come to expect from the franchise. The buggy gameplay and ridiculous missions made Adam Jensen seem more like an errand boy than a hero. And though the level design was astounding, Mankind Divided lacked soul and it lacked brains. It just wasn’t the same sort of genius that we’ve come to expect from this previously brilliant series.
Yes, I’m heartbroken. But I haven’t lost faith. When measured on its own virtue, Mankind Divided isn’t all that bad. But if we take into account that Human Revolution was exceptional – and, in fact, almost perfect – then the latest instalment in the Deus Ex franchise is frustratingly underwhelming. We’d heard talk of an amazing world, changed and diversified in the wake of the Aug. incident. And what we got was some juvenile name-calling, unexplored conflict and a few inconveniences. The doors were open here and all Square Enix/Eidos did was nudge them and laugh when they squeaked.