Deus Ex: Mankind Divided challenges us to think about what it means to be human against a surreal vision of the not-too-distant future. What happens when technology outstrips its creators' abilities to control it? Who deserves such advances in human evolution? How will society deal with the interpersonal challenges brought on by such change? Like its predecessor, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mankind Divided lays on these thought-provoking questions pretty thick, only to give players unsatisfying answers. Though its stealth action gameplay has improved from the previous game, Mankind Divided's shallow politics and story conclusions betray a genuinely interesting premise.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One, PC)
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Genre: First-Person Stealth Action
Released: August 23, 2016
Played: Completed single player campaign in 25 hours, played first tier of Breach mode and first Jensen Stories episode
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was reviewed using a final retail copy purchased by the reviewer.
As in Human Revolution, you play the role of Adam Jensen, the augmented half-man half-machine protagonist who seems to be the only plot device moving things forward in the Deus Ex world. If you didn't play the last game or, like most players, forgot its labyrinthine story, the game presents an optional 12-minute video summary of the events of Human Revolution that's helpful in catching you up to speed. To summarize, Jensen made a choice at the end of Human Revolution that resulted in the "Incident," an episode that caused augmented people to go berserk and attack those around them. This seminal event led to unenhanced humans fearing and resenting augs, which then caused some worldwide policy and societal changes, namely trying to keep the augs in check with old-fashioned hostile racism and classism. Trying to find his place in a world affected by his decision two years later, Jensen joins an Interpol-led task force, but quickly finds himself working with an organized hacker group called the Juggernaut Collective, spying on his own team to uncover the unseen hands trying to shape the world.
The plot of the game keeps things moving, but doesn't really explain who the real enemies are at any time. The game takes place in Prague, more or less the epicenter of the racial tension between augs and naturals in the year 2029, with various factions finding themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Over the course of my 25-hour playthrough, I worked with the Russian mob, solved a shady murder investigation by the police, leaked corporate secrets to an underground newspaper, and stopped a document forging ring, to name a few. This is a game that trades in who the bad guys are at any given moment, enough to make you wonder if any of it really matters. Is it all due to "the Illuminati?" Or is the answer more complicated, that all factions are to blame for the troubles of this complex life?
Your enjoyment of Mankind Divided will depend on whether you feel comfortable or sick and tired of hearing Jensen's cynical opinions during every main story mission and side quest. Some of Jensen's interactions, particularly during the side quests, are genuinely interesting reflections on our real world in 2016, but never goes beyond "Hey, this societal issue might be problematic...maybe?" At one point, I actually wondered whether or not this game's story could be better told as a typical Law and Order TV episode. Worse, the game's ending presents itself as a TV news broadcast and slideshow reviewing the choices you made, and the stinger at the end of the credits is an obvious, empty setup for the next Deus Ex game.
Mankind Divided's shallow plot would be easier to forgive if the gameplay itself was challenging or satisfying. In Mankind Divided, you start with Jensen being stripped of his supernatural abilities so you can climb the augmentation skill tree all over again, which includes some new experimental augmentations. The Deus Ex franchise is known for giving you lots of gameplay options to overcome obstacles, with upgrades and abilities like a super jump, lungs to get through poison gas, or subtle social manipulation through talking, but the only essential upgrade in Mankind Divided feels like the invisibility cloak. There's no good reason to do anything but to take down enemies stealthily. You could technically spec your character to lean heavily on combat enhancements, but none of the game's encounters demand action.
Mankind Divided has only one final boss encounter which you can resolve with a one-hit knockout at least two different ways, or you can brute force your way through the fight. Even if situations force combat on you unexpectedly, the game's gunplay and movement feel clumsy, which probably encourages most players to avoid action altogether in favor of a stealth-only playthrough. By the time I got halfway through the game's main story, I had too many Praxis points to spend on upgrades I would never use. Believe it or not, I never fired a single bullet, nor touched the gun crafting system. In the same light, I'm not sure I would recommend replaying the game on an easier or harder difficulty because the experience seems to favor the stealth option overwhelmingly.
There are a few control options to choose from, one of which is curiously tailored for speedrunners. If you mainline the game this way, you can complete it in five to six hours by skipping side quests and cutscenes. I'm not sure why the developers would encourage this from the start, however, because the amount of detail and world building in Prague and other environments you find is staggeringly impressive. The settings look great, even on the console versions of the game, though you will have to sit through some very long loading times. You can even hack your way into reading nearly every NPC's background in the game. You'll be shocked to find out how much dirty laundry the characters air out over email and pocket secretaries, strewn about like, well, actual dirty laundry.
Besides the single-player campaign, there is also Breach mode, a score-based VR-style side game that simulates hacking into a bank's corporate database. Breach mode has a separate progression from the main campaign, but Breach feels like an even emptier inclusion that exposes more gameplay weaknesses. On top of it, there are card pack-style microtransactions for this inessential, extra leaderboard mode - why?
There are also DLC placeholders for "Jensen Stories" that are meant to bridge unexplained time gaps between the main campaign's major plot points. The first one included with purchase, called Desperate Measures, covers a story beat towards the middle of the game where you play as a mid-grade Jensen with some points to spend. It's standalone DLC, so you can play it before starting the main campaign, though it does warn you that playing through it will spoil some story. But why wasn't Desperate Measures just included as a side quest in the main campaign? It felt like cut content slapped in as a bonus in an incomplete package.
Despite all my qualms, however, I found myself immersed in Mankind Divided's universe. I enjoy stories about government conspiracies, the military industrial complex, and future technology. If you enjoy all that, Mankind Divided has plenty of flavor to steep yourself in. Like Jensen, I also have a healthy skepticism towards institutions, but even I found his dour libertarian attitudes grating after awhile, and his hollow warrior-monk philosophy doesn't reflect the actual depth of Deus Ex's intriguing world. Mankind Divided has more interesting ideas than its pre-release marketing campaign led us to believe, if only suffering through its average gameplay gave us actual insights. You might want to ask for those answers in the probable sequel.