It’s a really good thing for Mankind Divided that Invisible War exists. Otherwise its claim to the title of “Worst Deus Ex game”1 would be completely undisputed, and I think that’d be kind of a shame given how much it tries to improve on Human Revolution.
It would be fair to say I enjoyed Human Revolution very much at the time it was released. Despite a fairly protracted development period it felt like a game that did a decent job of blending the incredible freeform style of the original Deus Ex with the dominant console FPS gameplay of the period. It would be equally fair to say that Human Revolution is a game that has not aged well at all; both attempts I’ve made to replay it since its original release have ground to a halt just a few hours in, and this is despite my love of HR’s world, visual design and general atmosphere. It had that in common with the first game, in that it adequately captured something of the prevailing cultural zeitgeist at the time it was released (“It is a time of great innovation…” indeed). Unfortunately the gaming landscape almost immediately started to shift under Human Revolution’s feet with titles like Dishonored demonstrating a far better mechanical grasp of how to execute on the concept of freeform first-person gameplay. It got worse when the new console generation enabled a rapid evolution of what it was possible to achieve on console tech, and when you put it up against modern heavy hitters such as The Witcher, MGS V, and even slightly more unusual fare such as Alien Isolation it feels like a game that’s a good five years older than it actually is. HR’s world remained vibrant and interesting to me, but many of the mechanics and the underlying technology comes across as extremely decrepit.
This creates both problems and opportunities for Mankind Divided, since it’s built using technology that, if not a direct descendent of HR’s, then at least is driven by much the same philosophy. This approach provides many, many opportunities to iteratively improve on the worst mechanics from Human Revolution. To its credit Mankind Divided takes advantage of nearly all of them; there’s a huge number of snarls that have been either eliminated completely or streamlined away into something much better. A lot of this consists of basic things that had a disproportionate impact on how Human Revolution played, such as nu-Deus Ex protagonist Adam Jensen (a man with a beard so pointy that were this game set in another age he’d be a shoe-in for Grand Vizier) getting from point A to point B by sprinting and jumping. In HR he could sprint for a whole 2.5 seconds (upgradable to a generous 7.5 seconds if you invested valuable upgrade points) and reached about knee-height with his jumps, making you feel less like a mechanically-augmented post-human superman than an asthmatic OAP crossing the road. By contrast in Mankind Divided he can sprint indefinitely with no upgrades required, and while his regular jumping height isn’t much improved he can at least mount ledges and fall more than half a storey without shattering every bone in his body.
The bog-standard, unaugmented version of Adam Jensen is a lot more fun to play with this time around, and this goes double when you start tossing augmentations into the mix. Since Jensen already maxed out his upgrades in Human Revolution you do start with a fair chunk of them already activated in the tutorial so the game can show them off; however this does mean that Mankind Divided predictably has to put him through a Samus Aran-esque mishap just afterwards where they all fall off and he has to start over again from close to zero. While cliched, this turn of events is at least unusually well-handled with one of the lengthier side missions having you chase down the reason why all your augs went on the fritz, and why you now have access to some completely new experimental ones. The existing augs are hardly unchanged from Human Revolution, however; most of them have been pushed in a direction that makes them more powerful and hence more satisfying to use. Smart vision is probably the standout here since it ties into gameplay in a number of very subtle ways when upgraded and combined with other augs — it’ll let you spot enemies through walls, examine their equipment and any augs they have, mark them on the HUD with a Battlefield-style arrow so that you know their position, and target their weak points with armour-piercing rounds. Other returning augs include Punch Through Walls, Lift Heavy Things, Breathe Poison Gas and Cloaking, and they’re all more or less the same – however, I found myself using them far more than I did in Human Revolution thanks to the overhauled energy mechanic.
Human Revolution’s ridiculous chocolate-fuelled energy bar was probably my most-hated thing about the game; the fact that only a sliver of the energy bar recharged for free once drained basically encouraged the player to hoard chocolate bars and never make full use of their augs except on very special occasions. Not only did it strike me as terribly-designed at the time, but it was really shown up a year later by Dishonored’s far more generous system where using a power would grey out a chunk of your energy bar which would then start recharging after a short delay; using another power before it had fully recharged would deplete any un-recharged energy for good and necessitate Corvo glugging down a mana potion to refill it. This struck a really nice balance between making prolonged use of your powers have a cost while ensuring that you still felt free to use them to overcome isolated obstacles without wasting anything, and so it’s no surprise that Mankind Divided has pretty much stolen it wholesale. It’s a little bit more punitive in that all aug use has an upfront cost in energy which is drained permanently, and then any energy which is drained while the aug is switched on will eventually be recharged. However the permanent energy cost for most augs is so small that you don’t feel like you have to be restrained; the notable exceptions here are the takedowns, which still cost a fair chunk of non-refundable energy2, but I kind of understand why that’s the case since the game really wants to encourage you to make use of the hundred other options you have for neutralising or bypassing bad guys. Anyway, the game vomits so many biocells at you (yes, the chocolate bars and jars of Nutella have met an unfortunate demise) that you’ll still never run short unless you’re really abusing your superpowers.
Thanks to this nearly-new energy system the simple act of using augs in Mankind Divided feels way better than it ever did in Human Revolution. There’s so many ways to get around obstacles now, from the fairly humdrum hacking minigame (largely unchanged from HR, and whose major flaw is that it is invoked approximately 200 times in the course of the game and so gets really old really fast) to the series staple of the vent shafts hidden behind some boxes, to the Klipspringer jumping aug that allows you to leap moderately tall objects in a single bound, to the Remote Hacking aug which is (thankfully) a different minigame to the main hacking one and which opens up so many additional paths that it should be purchased ASAP. It moves Mankind Divided back towards the series ideal: the main choice you’re faced with is which route you’re going to take, standing in stark contrast to the more miserly decision space of whether or not you can afford to. The augs themselves aren’t locked behind any sort of progression tree and you can buy them in any order you want — individual augs have mini-trees where you upgrade their functionality and power efficiency, but actually unlocking the thing can be done at any time as long as you have the skill points. There’s lots of tools for stealth, lots of tools for non-lethal and lots of tools for murdering the entire population of Prague in as loud and conspicuous a fashion as possible and using any or all of them is entirely up to you. This makes the player feel doubly powerful, not only because the improved augs finally transform you into the mechanical marvel you should have been in Human Revolution, but also because the freedom to choose is an inherently powerful thing.
This degree of choice is usually more than supported by the level design. I will admit to being extremely down on Mankind Divided’s level design on my first stealthy runthrough; the hub area of Prague had a fair amount of hidden areas in it but it all seemed to be small, inconsequential standalone stuff whose presence didn’t really bolster the game at all. As you progress through the plot you explore most of the map (but by no means all of it) and you see the various set-piece areas it has to offer, most notable of which are a theatre and a bank. I thought that these areas didn’t fully unlock until you triggered the relevant piece of plot that required you to go there, but before suplexing Mankind Divided through a table I thought it’d be a good idea to do a second anything-goes run where I deliberately tested the game’s limits – and I was very pleasantly surprised, because it turns out you can go pretty much everywhere in Prague from the moment you get out of the tutorial as long as you have the right augs. You can also kill a lot of plot-relevant people and the game will adapt: on my first runthrough I got a hint as to the next location for the plot by eavesdropping on a conversation between a mob boss and his lieutenant. This was towards the end of the story, so one of the first things I did on playthrough two was to shoot my way into the mob boss’s compound and shove a nanoblade through his chest. I was impressed that the game let me do this at all — I thought he’d be some sort of special NPC that’d only spawn when I had the relevant mission active — and when I had to go there for plot later he remained dead and I instead got the information out of his computer. It’s a comparatively small adjustment, true, but I like the fact that it’s so organic; I’m so used to games making it very explicit what I can and cannot do that even this relatively minor side-character existing in the game long before the story required him to without the protection of the bulletproof glass so beloved of most AAA titles was still a very refreshing experience.
The bank is another example of how freeform Mankind Divided can get, and probably the best one. All the time you’re wandering around Prague you’re picking up information about the bank and codes for various safes in the vault, and so you’re naturally wondering when the plot is going to ask you to pay it a visit; the interesting thing here, though, is that you can complete the game without ever breaking into it at all. This is surprising considering it’s possibly the signature location in Prague, with multiple floors, multiple vaults, plenty of security to crack and plenty of secret routes to find. The other interesting thing about it is that if you do decide to break into it the amount you get out of it will directly correlate to how much time you’ve spent exploring wider Prague. There’s two main vault areas in the bank: the executive safes, which are simple containers that can be broken into easily if you have a fully-upgraded hacking skill (although getting into the vault that houses them without alerting security is pretty tricky), and the corporate vaults. As you’d expect in a dystopian future where corporations wield increasing amounts of power, the corporate vaults are where the real goodies are to be found – but they can’t be broken into. Instead you need to find the keycard for each individual vault somewhere in Prague, and since three out of the four vaults are not (to my knowledge) part of any plot or side mission you’re going to have to get your exploring on if you want to walk away from it with a full haul.
Prague itself I have mixed feelings about. It’s a very depressing hub area in which to set a game compared to the glowing streets of Detroit, and it doesn’t do itself any favours by apparently ripping off Half Life 2’s City 17 in terms of both look and feel. I get that this is intentional: the golden age of Human Revolution is over and Prague is the game’s main method of communicating that, with constant evidence of discrimination against the augmented and an ever-increasing police presence. In a way it captures the prevailing cultural zeitgeist just as well as HR or the original Deus Ex did, it’s just that the current zeitgeist is “Everything’s a bit shit, really” and that’s hardly a compelling atmospheric hook on which to hang your environment design. There’s certain bits and pieces — like the bank and everything surrounding it — that really stand out, but they only do so when you take a step back and consider how it all fits together, and that’s something that very much went over my head the during my first playthrough as I had the tunnel vision common to all players exploring an environment for the first time. Most games use this to their advantage to make their environments seem larger and more detailed than they really are, but Mankind Divided has the opposite problem: if you don’t have the post facto perspective granted by hours of exploration then Prague initially comes across as a collection of recycled apartments, recycled tiny shops with tiny basements, and recycled storage containers with secret entrances. They’re not particularly fun to visit on their own, and it’s only when you understand how they tie into the wider environment that their point becomes clear.
Probably the worst sin committed by Prague, though, is the division of the city into two halves: the aug ghetto and the somewhat nicer commercial district. Getting from one to the other requires you to sit through a fairly lengthy loading screen. I accept that loading screens are a fact of life and am usually prepared to put up with them; however Mankind Divided takes the piss slightly by having its missions constantly ask you to travel from one environment to the other and then back again for no real reason. There’s one particularly good one towards the end where Jensen infiltrates the red light district to get an update on the main story and asks his confidante to meet him back at his apartment; cue one lengthy loading screen for the payoff of a minute-long conversation. To get to the piece of the story immediately after this Jensen then has to meet his pilot at the helipad – which is right next to the sodding red light district he just came from. Basically there’s a method of structuring your missions/quests so that you can minimise a player’s exposure to loading screens, and you could use Mankind Divided as a case study for how not to go about doing this.
That’s the good and the ugly out of the way, which means that it is now rather unfortunately time for the bad news: mechanically speaking this Deus Ex is a triumph and probably the best the series has ever been, but narratively it is an absolute clusterfuck. For starters it does the one thing AAA RPGs should never, ever do, which is to assume that the person playing it will have played all of the other games in the series (including the shitty phone ones) and/or read all of the terrible tie-in fiction and that it’s perfectly fine to introduce characters and groups from these games with little to no explanation of who they are. Mankind Divided doesn’t quite reach the nadir that Mass Effect 3 did (I still shudder whenever I think of that Mary-Sue space ninja) but it’s this attitude that it doesn’t have to waste time filling the player in on missing backstory that contributes to much of the main plotline’s general feel of incoherence. It’s a problem exacerbated by the generally mismatched nature of the game; outside of Prague (and in more than a few locations within it) Mankind Divided strikes me as a game that suffered some development troubles. The missions are bolted together in a jumbled, ad-hoc way that’s usually a classic symptom of the developers being forced to a deadline and having to assemble the story out of whatever they had lying around at the time. It doesn’t flow at all. For all its flaws Human Revolution at least managed a story with a distinct beginning, middle and somewhat wonky end, whereas in Mankind Divided the story is just a thing that happens until it doesn’t.
That last part isn’t just a figure of speech. The most infuriating thing about Mankind Divided is that towards the end of the game it does slowly seem to be drawing towards some sort of point. The first two-thirds are really rocky, but it’s finally managed to establish its characters, their motivations and who the bad guys are and what they intend, and it looks like it’s going to set up a fairly decent final act where all of these hanging plot points are going to be resolved. It is just at this point where the story is getting its shit together, and you feel like the general incoherence is starting to give way to genuine mystery, that the game ends. The story doesn’t, I should hasten to add; Mankind Divided just throws an end boss at you and calls it a day about five to ten hours before the story wraps up. They might as well have just replaced Adam’s growly introspectiveness in the end cutscene with a splash screen saying “Buy the DLC! Coming soon!” since that’s clearly where all of these hanging plot threads are actually going to be tied off3.
It’s not all bad, I suppose. There’s still some surprisingly good and subtle storytelling in here if you know roughly where to look and are prepared to do some digging (like Task Force Director Miller’s backstory and motivations) but almost none of it relates to the actual main plotline. Meanwhile the rest of the narrative reeks of a rush job – there are “major” characters who show up once in the tutorial and then vanish again until the very final mission, locations which are very heavily lampshaded but which you never get to visit, and locations which aren’t lampshaded at all and where you do nothing plot-related outside of the opening cutscene, and which seem to have been thrown in to extend the game’s running time more than anything else. I’m going to give Eidos Montreal the benefit of the doubt and assume that this mismatched structure wasn’t intentional, and that they simply didn’t have enough time or resources to finish the game properly; either way the effect is the same, though, and that’s to ensure that the story concludes in just as unsatisfying a manner as it begins.
It ends so badly, in fact, that my original verdict on Mankind Divided was that for all the mechanical improvements it made over Human Revolution it was almost worse than Invisible War; having a crap story is the absolute kiss of death for an RPG no matter how well the rest of it is designed. It was only once I tested the game’s limits on the second playthrough that my opinion of it mellowed somewhat; there is much to recommend it if you’re willing to take your time and fully explore the Prague environment, but on the other hand I really wouldn’t blame anyone for not putting in the effort since it’s not immediately obvious there’s going to be any sort of payoff. It doesn’t have the immediate story hooks to drag you in that Human Revolution did — or story hooks of any kind, really — and to get the most out of Mankind Divided you have to be interested in doing things for their own sake rather than because they’ll have any significant payoff plot-wise. Fortunately for Mankind Divided you’re probably already that kind of person if you’re playing Deus Ex in the first place, and so my third place ranking of it is more a function of my high opinion of the original DE and HR than it is Mankind Divided’s own numerous flaws. While it might not be a great or even a good Deus Ex game, it is at least still recognisably Deus Ex. Just don’t play it for the story.