JENSEN’S BACK AND EDGIER THAN EVER BAYBAAAAAAAY!
Five years after his previous adventure, Adam Jensen is back and ready for more whacky conspiracy-laden mechano shenanigans, and everyone’s favorite bastard offspring of Neo and Tony Stark has never looked better. Still saddled with the endless task of filling the massive shoes of the original Deus Ex, often hailed as one of the best games of all times by many, is Mankind Divided a worthy continuation of the franchise, or is it joining Invisible War as another disappointing entry?
Following on from the events of Human Revolution, Mankind Divided takes place two years after the catastrophic events of HR’s finale, wherein an implanted chip caused augmented people all over the world to go bananas. This has since become known as “The Aug Incident” and has bought forth a tidal wave of oppression against augmented people; both socially enforced and government-mandated. Once again donning the sweet trench-coat and shades combo of Adam Jensen, who now finds himself working for both global anti-terror unit Task Force 29 and an underground “hacktivist” group known as the Juggernaut Collective, players are once again charged with unraveling a deep-running conspiracy that is targeting augmented people and painting them as responsible for a bevy of terror attacks around the globe.
If there were one particular word I would use to describe Mankind Divided, it would be “refinement”. MD takes all the element of its previous entry and improves on them in pretty much every regard, and it makes for a far smoother experience overall. Shooting mechanics feel much tighter and more responsive than they did in HR, where oftentimes shooting would feel clunky or unwieldy. The game’s cover system has also seen some welcome adjustments, which makes it much easier to get around. When taking cover now, players can direct Jensen from cover to cover, which makes it much easier to chain together a number of smooth movements and cheeky stealth antics. That being said, while shooting and cover mechanics have been smoothed out, inventory management is still clunky as ever. While there are a number of quick inventory and quick switch functions or changing weapons and equipment on the fly, the standard control mapping for them is hardly intuitive, and with my time with the game, I was often frustrated by the awkward and unwieldy nature of these quick-switch functions, which I found rarely practical in high-pressure situations. Another new aspect that a little hit-or-miss is the new additions to the weapon upgrading system; as well as weapon mods returning form HR, there is now a crafting system with which players can use crafting components to upgrade weapons as well as creating consumable items. While the crafting stuff can be handy at times, this really just felt like a feature that was pushed in to keep with the current trend of mainstream AAA games having crafting systems, and much like many other crafting system included for that purpose, it ends up just feeling like it there without being well-integrated into the game enough to make a vital or really useful feature. In my time with the game, I barely touched it and had little trouble with the missions I tackled, and I would imagine most other players could do the same.
Another great aspect of MD refining its formula is in gameplay options for the player. HR prided itself on providing a variety of ways for players to approach situations and missions, but this would oftentimes prove to not exactly be the case when applied, especially when it came to HR’s obligatory and frustratingly arbitrary boss battles, which pretty much screwed over anyone doing a non-lethal/stealth run. MD has wisely done away with such restrictive elements, and has overall provided much more open missions areas that actually do provide a variety of options. Generally speaking, every location you approach will always have multiple points of ingress, and offers a variety of ways to achieve your goals. Whether you prefer sneaking around, the guns blazing approach, or something a little more unorthodox, MD’s level and environment design will provide for all tastes.
As an extension of this, Adam’s augmentations have also seen an overhaul: while all the old favorites return, there are a few new additions, the most intriguing of which are the “experimental augmentations”. Unwittingly installed into Adam, the experimental augmentations can be exceedingly powerful and indispensable, but carry a price. Activating them causes “overclocking” in Adam’s system, introducing performance-impeding glitches and other such irritants. The overclocking effect can be mitigated, but only by permanently deactivating other augmentations, at least initially. This introduces an interesting element of risk vs. reward to upgrading Adam’s augments: do you sacrifice a lesser, but more practical augment for a far more powerful, but highly situational augment? It’s a small touch, but it does add a layer of thought to augmentation upgrades that makes the process slightly more brainless.
Continuing on with the theme of refining and improving, MD also benefits from the added “oomph” of the current generation of consoles in the visuals department, and as a result it looks vastly better than its predecessor. Gone are the terrible, blocky character models that populated HR’s world, instead replaced with models that look like actual human beings instead of weird animated plastic mannequins. The world itself also looks vastly improved as well; free of the ugly washed-out palette the defined HR, replaced with a still muted, but significantly richer, palette that is vastly more appealing. The yellow color motif returns, but is significantly reeled in so that it doesn’t permeate every single aspect of the world, freeing it of the ungainly urine-yellow tinge that highlighted just about everything in HR. While the characters models are vastly improved, they still move with a level of distracting jankiness: Jensen and his conversation partners with often gesticulate with oftentimes bizarre movements that just come off as stilted or out-of-place, like Edios just threw them in for the sake of making extended dialogue scenes more visually interesting. Its unfortunate since the rest of the game looks fantastic, so these minor imperfections spring out all the more for it.
Also, for the first time in Deus Ex, MD introduces multiplayer, or rather quasi-multiplayer, in the form of Breach Mode. Taking place in a parallel storyline that sees you cast as a particular brand of hacker known as a “Ripper”, players infiltrate the servers of powerful mega-corps and global conglomerates and steal data from them, in the form of weird virtual-world equivalents of the main game’s missions. In other words, Breach is essentially just an arcade mode version of MD’s main game missions wherein your scores and performance are recorded and uploaded to the web for everyone to see. While I didn’t get much time with this part of the game, what I did get did not impress me greatly: while the story aspects of the mode were kind of neat, it otherwise just seemed like an arcade mode tacked on for the sake of giving MD some kind of multiplayer element, which harkening back to the crafting system is another hallmark of AAA game design these days.
Beyond the visual and mechanical enhancements, MD also brings back the delightful moral ambiguity and veiled political statements of its predecessor in its story. Anyone whose followed anything of MD’s marketing and promotion will know that the game’s story and world seeks to tackle a lot of the socio-political tensions that have defined much of modern discourse of late, and for the most part it does this fairly well. While you could question how appropriate or tactful a lot of MD’s marketing was in relation to the sensitivity of these issues, or how appropriate it to turn mechano men and women into thinly veiled avatars for a lot of modern minority groups, I’m not going to knock MD for making an honest effort to try and reflect these issues and comment on them in its world and story. Of course, this unfortunately leads to an opening sequence that was groan inducing: fighting Middle-Eastern terrorists in Dubai, it quickly opens up and reveals itself to be more nuanced than the intro might suggest. MD has a lot of really great incidental details and world building that make its world feel much more credible and lived-in. Just in the game’s main hub of Prague, for example, there are police roaming the streets freely, often tossing aug-related racial slurs your way, or shaking down augs on the street for seemingly no reason. There are posters everywhere for in-game films that are blatantly politically charged, stories that empower or demonize augs in turn. People often talk in hushed whispers or heated shouts of the issues of “mechanical apartheid”, as it has so been deemed, as well as more naturalistic and benign conversations. People will sometimes even hurl racial slurs at you, with one lady muttering “clank” under her breath as I walked by. My personal favorite is the police who will constantly stop you at subway stations, demanding ID, and often astounded that Jensen’s permits check out. All of it adds up to make a world that feels like it’s on a hair-trigger and waiting to explode, and the way the game goes to great lengths to make you feel the nature of life as an aug in MD’s world only heightens the sense of immersion and lends credibility to the nature of its socio-political divides. Its refreshing to play a triple-A title that’s approach to critiquing current politics is as intelligent- or at least trying to be as intelligent- as MD strives for, and is a welcome change from a market that often strives for empty a-politicism, even if it does come across at times as heavy-handed or awkward in its execution.
Of course, that’s all themes, subtext, and world building, and not the meat that is the plot. This aspect of MD is, by contrast, a tad disappointing. Much like HR before it, MD once again concerns itself the shadowy world of deep, and often convoluted conspiracies. While its hardly surprising from a Deus Ex game to be all about grand and elaborate talk of conspiracies and shadow-enshrouded men and women controlling the world from board-rooms, the constant hurling of information, characters, and plot elements your way can at times prove exhausting and difficult to keep track of, and there were at least of few times during my time with the game where I was genuinely confused or had completely missed the point of why I was doing what I was doing. That said, however, MD’s approach to unfolding its story and plot points is compelling in its own right, with most of the main missions and side missions having a strong and enjoyable investigative bent to them. The side missions especially proved to be highly satisfying with their depth, with some of them being in-depth enough hat they could easily be major plots in their own right instead of just little side missions in a Deus Ex game. So in that sense, MD succeeds in balancing out its more confusing or convoluted elements with reasonably compelling means of telling its story and keeping the player involved. The story of MD is also propped up by a slew of interesting and compelling characters. While Adam Jensen continues to be his usual gravel-voiced self, he’s surrounded by a cast of interesting characters who often have a lot of surprising hidden depths that can only be revealed through investigation and digging around. It just adds to a world that’s already delightfully dripping in detail.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is exactly the kind of game you want out of a sequel. MD takes all of the best elements of HR and refines and upgrades them to make them even better, all while wrapping itself in a fascinating and beautifully detailed world that’s endlessly fascinating to explore and discover every nook and cranny of. Combine that with its compelling plot and characters, and MD’s minor missteps can be easily overlooked for everything it does right. Whether you’re a long-time fan of Deus Ex or a newcomer to the franchise, you’ll have a great time with Mankind Divided.