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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided REVIEW – A bigger game on a smaller scale

I always have a tough time at the beginning of games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided telling if I like the game or not. It’s sensory overload. I’m awash in abilities, game mechanics, tutorials, characters, and new sights and sounds, and it’s overwhelming. It took me a while to warm up to Mankind Divided, but I did finally get there.

I was pretty confident I would; I loved Human Revolution when that hit in 2011, and I was happy to see the game getting a direct sequel after the series being dead silent for eight years. The wait for Mankind Divided was almost as long at five years.

It’s easier and perhaps more necessary to compare Mankind Divided to its predecessor than it was to look at Human Revolution in relation to the original Deus Ex and its follow-up, Deus Ex: Invisible War. Characters and storylines carry over. The world has a similar feel that links it to the previous game, including the yellow triangles that pervaded Human Revolution. Mechanics have evolved, but are still basically the same.

While your save from one won’t affect the other, the events of Human Revolution are the catalyst for the conditions present in Mankind Divided.

In Human Revolution, protagonist Adam Jensen did everything in his power to stop a plot to turn the cybernetic augmentations so many people have in Deus Ex‘s world, set in the late 2020s, against them. Jensen ultimately stopped the attack, but it began before he could do anything. Anyone with a cybernetic augmentation flew into a blind rage, attacking those around them. With billions of augmented people on the planet, many died in the incident, and it changed the way the world looks at augmented citizens. That brings us up to Mankind Divided..

Set two years after the incident, the unaugmented live in fear of the augmented. Many augmentation corporations have failed, including the one Jensen worked for. Jensen now lives in Prague in the Czech Republic, working for Interpol. Here we see images reminiscent of America and Europe’s pasts with officially sanctioned discrimination. Armed state police asking for identification. Separate lines for “augs” and “naturals.” Politicians using the issue to gain notoriety or to further their own agendas. It sets a grim and believable tone for the sequel, giving us an all-too plausible reason for why people of the world have gone from aug-wild to trying to strip people of the very arms and legs that get them through daily life.

With a new world and a new, grittier take on cyberpunk, can Mankind Divided live up to its predecessor?

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A whisper or a bang

I played the game the way I usually play Deus Ex games (not to mention Splinter Cell and Metal Gear) – full stealth with a side of talking. All my decisions regarding augmentation choice and equipment zeroed in on anything that would let me get into more places and talk my way through more situations.

That has a few consequences.

By not killing people and even avoiding knocking them out when possible, I was able to talk to more characters and get results from more of my conversations, which is arguably one of the best parts of this series.

The dialogue system in Mankind Divided seems to have mixed in some DNA from the Mass Effect series, but because there aren’t as many conversations as in those epic-length games, it’s a bit more nuanced. If you pick up the augmentation meant to influence conversations, you’ll get clues as to which conversation options will work better on certain characters and you’ll also get opportunities to interrupt and prompt your conversation partner. A few times, I loaded up a save and went back through a conversation with different choices to see what would happen, even though I liked the result I’d ended up with, and generally I found something just as interesting down the other path.

When playing stealth, though, between those conversations, you end up spending a lot of time in the back alleys of the game, behind the window dressing. In the first half of the game, augmentations are somewhat limited, as are credits and equipment. Your battery drains quickly and charges slowly, and the Biocell item necessary to add charge to your battery isn’t plentiful enough to use it thoughtlessly. Turning on your invisibility augmentation simply isn’t a viable option toward the beginning.

And so I saw lots of ventilation systems and maintenance rooms. I still was able to see many of the sights Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has on offer, I just had to go through a less interesting path to get to them.

The other place I spent a lot of time was with the hacking minigame. This hasn’t really changed much from Human Revolution.

The hacking game is simultaneously boring and stressful. It’s the same screens with the same icons, and it quickly becomes repetitive.

With regard to the moment to moment interaction with Mankind Divided, this is probably my biggest disappointment. If you’re not pulling codes from computers you’ve hacked into, you’re hacking into the locked doors themselves to unlock them. Unless you’re knocking out or killing every guard, gangster, and officer in the game, hacking is one of the most used mechanics. To think that it’s barely changed in 5 years is frustrating. It’s admittedly one of the better hacking minigames out there, but something to add more variety would’ve been nice.

While I did concentrate specifically on stealth and non-lethal options, though, there was a huge swath of augmentations I never touched. If I play through a second time, I’ll go full army-of-one and make sure everyone who opposes me ends up on the floor. Augmentations for armor, gun-handling, and general durability were never necessary for my playstyle, but everything is there to support it.

What makes all of this work is that the game hands out experience points for just about everything you do. A takedown will net you separate points for doing it silently and non-lethally. Hacking through something on the first try and picking up a few extra data stores along the way will pull in points that going back in and out a few times wouldn’t. Finishing a mission with all the loose ends tied up and everyone alive will result in a different set of points than if you’d tried to speed-run through the mission with a trail of corpses in your wake. No matter how you play, you’re progressing not only the story, but Adam Jensen himself.

With that said, treating the game like a mid-80s Arnold Schwarzenegger film does, from my playthrough, seem like it would cut off a lot of options. Many of the things that ended up helping me later would’ve been cut off. I don’t think a lethal playthrough is by any means impossible, but I did get the impression that the game designers leaned toward a non-lethal style as their preferred one.

Because this is Deus Ex, though, we have to talk about bosses. One of the most frequently brought-up issues with the previous Deus Ex game was the way the game encouraged stealth and non-lethal approaches except during boss fights, which left many players under-armed and using shooting mechanics they’d barely touched.

That issue, it’s safe to say, has been resolved. It’s clear all the major encounters in the game were handled by the same people making the rest of the game this time, as they fit in aesthetically and mechanically with the rest of the story. What few major battles there were in my playthrough played out believably. They didn’t feel like tacked on video game segments intended to give the player a sense of accomplishment like the boss battles in the last game did. They worked within the story and my play style.

This is just Part 1

The biggest problem with Mankind Divided seems to have resulted from meddling by the publisher, Square Enix, rather than shortcomings from the developer, Eidos Montreal.

At every corner it feels like Mankind Divided was intended to be a bigger game. While Human Revolution has you leaping across the globe to different hub areas, a huge portion of Mankind Divided takes place in a small district in Prague. There are a few missions that take you away from the Czech Republic, but by and large you’ll be spending most of your time in the streets, sewers, and back alleys of future-Prague.

Mankind Divided felt smaller as a result – but more cramped than cozy. I don’t even know if a bigger map would’ve helped so much as more places to see (and a wider variety of European accents, maybe).

Worse, though, is that it feels like the story was meant to be a bigger one as well.

Sequels and franchises are an expected and mostly accepted part of the gaming landscape these days, and to some extent that’s a good thing, but it’s a rare game that’s as obvious about it as Mankind Divided.

The game sets up a whole rope’s worth of story threads, including the main “A” story and the “B” story backing that, and a bunch of side missions that feel like they’re supposed to be consequential in the game’s later chapters.

Except that the only the simplest and most obvious of those threads is resolved – “who bombed the train station?”

The other threads are almost all left hanging, with the only reasoning behind them being “because conspiracies are cool.” Questions about Jensen himself, about some of the game’s main characters, about characters from Human Revolution and more are left out there. Some are left incomplete while others have a much more “cliffhanger” feel to them. Either the story was meant to be bigger, or it was planned to span multiple games.

The latter is fine – I like sequels – but these unanswered questions prey on our curiosity the way recent shows’ season finales do, setting up questions to which there is no answer that will satisfy all the anticipation the cliffhangers setup.

Loading…

Finally, I want to call out the amount of loading time present in Mankind Divided. Whether you play the same way I do or not, it’s a pretty egregious problem, at least on PlayStation 4.

The section of Prague within which the game takes place is split up into two sections, separated by a train/loading sequence, and many of the missions and sub-missions have you traveling from one district to the other. One segment of the game had a series of three or four missions that wouldn’t trigger until I was at a point across the map, forcing me to backtrack over and over and sit through a bunch of loading screens.

At one point, you end up walking between those districts instead of using the train, but it’s still a loading screen. It becomes apparent here that the team either underestimated how much loading there would be or simply didn’t account for it, as the short loading sequence of Adam Jensen walking and flexing his cybernetic fingers would repeat every few seconds with a jarring audio transition between each playthrough of the video.

Even walking through the city, which was usually smooth, still had its share of frame stutters and audio cut-outs as the game engine tried its darndest to keep up with me.

On top of that, if you play like I do, you’ll see quite a few loading screens as you reload your save over and over to get the sequence of events you’re hoping for. For me, playing through each section is somewhat of a performance, where I’m trying to play the Adam Jensen I envision. That Adam Jensen doesn’t get caught, doesn’t kill, and isn’t seen. Getting caught is an instant reload.

If you like to roll with the punches, you’ll have a better time in that regard.

If you can play this on a PC with a Solid State Disk drive, you’re going to have an overall better experience.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided™_20160906173656

Overall, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is an excellent game. It’s fun to play, and it provides a variety of approaches to the situations it puts you in as Adam Jensen. You can truly play how you feel best fits your style, I think, and come out with a fun experience.

The shockingly sudden ending and loose story threads are a frustrating way to finish out such a fun game with so many interesting and nuanced characters and such a compelling game world. What felt like a real place suddenly feels like a video game again as you’re left wondering if pieces were just forgotten about or if we’re being hooked into an ongoing story.

What’s there is stellar, but it feels like a bigger game within a smaller experience.

With that said, it’s definitely still worth your time.

Buy

Disclaimer: We received a copy of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided for the PlayStation 4 from the publisher on release day. We completed the campaign before writing this review.


Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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