The world can be cruel and unfair. If left unchecked, injustices pile up with discontent and anger at systemic failures not far behind. Sometimes these frustrations fester and become redirected at entire groups of people who have nothing to do with the root problem, creating cycles of irrational discrimination. Those perpetuating cycles can be seen in societies struggling with change across the globe today. It’s a relevant, powerful force in our world. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided attempts to tap into that power to fuel a narrative that focuses squarely on discrimination, allowing players to navigate tricky social situations through the eyes of Adam Jensen, a near-future special agent with an impressive array of mechanical augmentations.
Set two years after the events of Deus Ex: Human Revolution in the far-flung year of 2029, Jensen finds himself miraculously fine after the catastrophic conclusion of the previous game that saw our protagonist buried in the middle of the ocean amid the ruins of the gigantic superstructure Panchaea as mechanically augmented people around the world were sent into murderous frenzies by a nefarious signal sent from the structure. Non-augmented humans have developed a deep fear and distrust for their augmented friends and family following the “Aug Incident” and governments around the world have begun segregating their people. One powerful corporation has even built towering ghettos to isolate and restrain augmented citizens.
Let’s tackle the elephant in the room: Eidos Montreal clearly intended to draw parallels between the unrest and tensions between their fictional "augs vs. naturals” storyline and recent racial tensions in the United States and abroad with the refugee crisis in Europe. There were numerous advertisements prior to release that made use of altered slogans, notably an image with a protester holding a banner that said “Aug Lives Matter.” There’s a part of me that wants to commend Eidos for having the courage to tackle real, controversial, and possibly incendiary topics. I think we need more of that in video games – at the very least because it leads to more meaningful and interesting stories.
Unfortunately, the parallels Mankind Divided wants to draw are just very flawed. The fundamental differences between someone limited by their natural abilities and someone who goes beyond those limitations using technology might lead to resentment, sure, or fear after a worldwide incident. However, who would discriminate against someone who needed a pacemaker to live? Who would hold it against someone to have a fully functional leg after a freak accident? Or begrudge a soldier returning from war a brand new hand? The world of Deus Ex isn’t that different from our own, but the people living there seem more than willing to send people to concentration camps for having life-saving technology in their bodies. It strikes me as the equivalent of having worldwide discrimination against people who use antibiotics – it just doesn’t make any sense. The connection Eidos Montreal wants to draw between the injustices of a police state and discrimination against groups of people falls apart once you think about it in terms of brain implants that help with mental disorders or eyes to help the blind see or cochlear implants to help the deaf hear.
All of that being said, the breathtaking environments Eidos Montreal created visually tell the story of oppression and discrimination (even if the themes themselves don’t quite work as intended). Walking the streets of Prague yields sights of random police stops, armored checkpoints, roving surveillance drones, and hurried graffiti both criticizing the deplorable conditions and calling for the deportation of augmented citizens. The near-future version of Prague constantly reminds the player that they aren’t one of the “natural” humans. Police frequently stop Jensen to check his papers (several side-missions revolve around panicked augmented citizens being unable to obtain the correct, ever changing papers for their synthetic limbs or organs) or take him aside to yell at him if he used one of the “non-aug” trains to travel around the city.
Even though the environments are incredibly designed, the technical aspects of the visuals are a bit harder to pin down. Eidos Montreal created Mankind Divided for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 before ported it over to PC. The results are less than stellar. Despite a wide array of visual options, it ran horribly even on an incredibly beefy PC. I experienced numerous crashes, graphical glitches, and stark differences between how characters looked from moment to moment, even on maximum settings. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the technical achievements of last year’s Witcher 3, but in particular almost every characters' hair looked jarringly wrong. Not only that, but while the core characters all have well realized faces and animations, some of the background characters look far less refined. Again, Eidos Montreal passionately created the environments on display in Mankind Divided. Numerous scenes pop with style or have an interesting flair that keeps things novel, but I’m not sure if that’s enough to forgive the technical sins present in the PC port.
If you are playing on console or can overcome an hour of fiddling to get the settings just right on PC, the core gameplay feels fantastic. Players can tackle the scenarios throughout Mankind Divided with stealth, guns-blazing, or some mix of the two that uses an array of lethal and non-lethal weapons and skills - at least in theory. There exists a definite satisfaction to sneaking through missions undetected, taking out enemies silently while playing cat-and-mouse with unaware guards on patrol.
Mankind Divided wants players to adopt the stealthy playstyle – mechanics that are undeniably fun and fleshed out. Unfortunately, very few augmentations support different playstyles, even the straight forward assault that always seems to be the hypothetical alternative is only bolstered with some redundant weapons, an armored plating option, and standard health upgrades. A bull-headed rush into danger only nets a hailstorm of bullets, forcing players into traditional cover-based shooting they've seen countless times. While Mankind Divided pays lip service to “play however you want” gameplay, the reality is that stealth or straightforward assault are the only two real options for the vast majority of the game. Compare that with the original Deus Ex where players were presented with a sweeping variety of solutions for each problem.
Early on, players have access to a full complement of Adam Jensen’s abilities, but the game quickly strips those powers and allows the player to reallocate a limited number of praxis points into their augments to suit their playstyle. It becomes apparent at that moment that there are a limited number of useful upgrades. There are some which feel essential that allow for easier infiltration or open up hidden areas, like the ability to lift heavy objects or punch through weak walls. Aside from those necessities, a number of augmentations are highly situational to the point where they can only usefully be deployed once in the entire game. Did you think it would be useful to tag 50 enemies on your HUD? Because only one mission would actually even come close to making that useful. Did you take invisibility? That’s neat, but there are so many hiding places and ventilation ducts that being invisible seems pointless. Have a cool tesla augment? Putting points into shooting electricity seems redundant when stun gun ammo that instantly incapacitates enemies just as effectively litters nearly every level.
The presence of an in-game store to sell items and upgrade points to players for real money makes me uneasy. Thankfully, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was almost certainly balanced without the store in mind. Some players might not even notice that it exists in the menus. On the one hand, I can see how some players might just want the convenience of dropping a wad of cash and playing through the game as an overpowered cyber-god. On the other, including that option takes away from the work that goes into balancing the difficulty and progression. It both devalues what the developers have put into Mankind Divided and cheapens the experience of the player. Not only that, but balancing issues could lead to abuses in game design that subtly compel players to make micro-purchases in future implementations of similar in-game RPG stores. Oh, and guess what? If you make a purchase through the store for in-game items they are only given to that single save file. If you start a new game or go back to a save that was before the purchase, you will not have those items.
RPGs live and die on the strength of their stories. Mankind Divided might have a lot of issues, but the narrative can hold its head high. Adam Jensen, despite being a charisma black hole, manages to entangle himself in a number of mysteries that are genuinely interesting. True, a shockingly large number of the side missions don’t go anywhere or end ambiguously, but they’re undeniably thought-provoking. One side-quest puts players on the case of an accused murderer (who may or may not be a serial killer) and how players manage to piece together the evidence determines the outcome of the investigation. The main storyline deals with tensions between the pro-augmented protesters and the anti-augmented government of the Czech Republic. Over the course of Mankind Divided, the player is asked to empathize and understand both sides while trying to uncover the plot that set off an explosion in a Prague train station early in the game. The narrative demands a lot from players in a way that feels important and applicable to current world affairs.
The narrative has interesting mechanical aspects, too, leading to missions that have different outcomes depending on how players approach the game. This manifests in some instances like an invisible morality system that watches to determine if the player kills enemies, uses non-lethal takedowns, or even if an enemy raises an alert. I was chewed out after one mission that involved police because I had been spotted while trying to infiltrate a crime scene.
The finale of Mankind Divided in particular uses storytelling mechanics very effectively. Depending on what players decide at certain points throughout the game, certain elements of the finale will be different and new opportunities will present themselves. The game presents a choice between saving people and confronting the main villain, but if players can complete their initial choice quickly enough or with the right gear, they can actually accomplish both objectives. Not only that, but it rewards players who are thorough. As an example, while investigating a base earlier in the game, I had actually found a device capable of instantly killing the main villain. Players can pull it out during the final encounter to either use it as leverage during a negotiation or to simply neutralize the bad guy. I’m not even going into all the permutations of the finale, those are just indicative of Eidos Montreal’s commitment to creating a malleable, intriguing scenario.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has a lot of problems. Putting aside the technical issues if you want to play it on the PC port, the core themes are muddled, though well-intentioned. The in-game store is a naked cash grab that does a disservice to the core game Eidos Montreal has made. The game itself, while surprisingly short and leaving a number of loose ends, presents an enjoyable, satisfying core gameplay experience, provided players aren’t looking for classic Deus Ex levels of freedom to play in more creative ways. If you can set aside Adam Jensen’s Dementor-like ability to suck emotion from a room, the narrative feels original and brave, if more than a little bumbling, in its willingness to tackle volatile topics. Give it a shot when the price comes down a bit, but don’t bother giving the in-game store a single cent after you’ve already paid for the game.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was reviewed on PC and is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC