Deus Ex: Human Revolution wasn’t exactly a polished piece of digital art. It had visual glitches galore, the controls could be a pain at times and the less said about those boss fights the better. But if you had to look beyond that, you’d find yourself jamming an undeniably ballsy title that not only tied in perfectly to the history of the original Deus Ex games, it reinvented their history with a prequel that refined a global conspiracy with utterly breath-taking Renaissance-inspired cyberpunk art direction.
Five years later, and series star Adam Jensen is once again forced into a game of cat and mouse on a worldwide scale that he didn’t ask for. In many ways, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided makes up for the shortcomings of its predecessors, opting to create a leaner yet still engaging experience that is very much still feeling the ramifications of Human Revolution’s massive third act.
It’s just a pity that it just never goes far enough with some of its heavy political ideas, while making a few missteps along the way as well.
It’s been two years since “The Incident”, an event that isn’t referring to one of the oddest Mitchell and Webb sketches ever devised. The world is still devastated after an event where every augmented human turned into a raving and psychotic embodiment of the YouTube comments sections on a video about feminism, and there’s a healthy distrust circulating around the globe for Augs, clanks or various other oddly derogatory terms for people who have replaced a few limbs with a shiny piece of mechanical engineering at its finest.
So much so in fact, that most of the planet has conveniently forgotten just how much of a blinding human rights cock-up Apartheid was in South Africa and decided to start all-new forms of segregation for the mechanically-advanced lest another Incident occur. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided drives that idea home hard and fast. Everywhere you go in Prague, you’ll find trigger-happy cops and checkpoints as the aug population is harassed or corralled to go live out the remainder of their lives in makeshift cities for them.
It’s very much on the nose, with Jensen himself regularly stopped by hostile law enforcers and forced to show his papers or risk deportation. In a way it works. Seeing blatant human rights abuses and being told to stay away from the norms is a very sobering experience, especially when you’re old enough to remember living in a country where this very sort of thing actually happened.
At the same time, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is only paying lip service to its mechanical Apartheid marketing. Jensen has an attitude that would get anyone of a darker skin tone shot if they dared tried mouthing off to the cops, with the player feeling more slightly annoyed than genuinely outraged at being treated like a third-class living organism with minimal rights. It’s more a mild annoyance than the genuine subjugation of Apartheid. You could call it wired privilege.
Now to be fair, taking things a step further would have the effort of derailing gameplay somewhat. But for a game that is so overtly political as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, focusing on politics that don’t involve the by now clichéd Middle East wars, it feels like a missed opportunity. To take an idea like Apartheid, South Africa’s greatest sin and something that we as a nation are still healing from and failing at ourselves, and throwing an indifferent protagonist into the mix where consequences are all but an afterthought, feels more like a gimmick than a compelling piece of parallel history.
On the plus side, the rest of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s narrative is utterly superb.
Jensen may have less emotion than the 2014 reboot of Robocop, but his isolation at least juxtaposes itself brilliantly in an ocean of fascinating side missions, colourful characters and a plot that borrows heavily from the greatest conspiracy theories of the last century. It’s all building up towards the eventual rise of JC Denton and the first Deus Ex, offering hard choices as you make your way through Prague and various other world locations. Mind you, the end result reeks of an anti-climatic finish, but the overall theme of conspiracies is still solid stuff.
But more than that, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided rewards exploration. Various side-quests, interactions with bit characters or eavesdropping on a conversation add to the overall lore as Jensen races towards the climax of a game five years in the making. Said climax can easily be done within 8-10 hours, but its those various sidequests that at least offer many hours of meat on the bone.
So how does it play then? Make no mistake, Deus Ex veterans are going to see some familiar gears in motion here. Jensen still has access to a wide array of built-in features like some sort of Swiss Army Knife if Victorinox had an unlimited budget. It’s not too long before the obligatory reset kicks in and you’re forced to start from square one, but at least Mankind Divided does so in a tactful way that makes sense and paves the way for all new augmentations to tinker around with.
And just like Human Revolution, Mankind Divided prides itself on choice. Jensen may be a one-mech army with magic pockets, but going in guns blazing isn’t exactly advised. Jensen works better as a stealth operative, using his augmentations to work his way around enemies, incapacitate them and slip out without ever setting off the alarm.
Hacking anything with an electrical pulse, knocking out targets with new gadgets and straight up seeing if augmentations can survive a shotgun blast to the face are all valid options here that work splendidly and independently of each other. Trying to combine them into a cohesive whole however? That’s a whole other story. It’s either stealth or combat, a choice that becomes infuriatingly obvious when you realise that Deus Ex: Mankind requires finger gymnastics to operate these ideas at peak efficiency.
It’s very much a different story on PC where those players can easily optimise the experience for themselves on a keyboard, but on console? This is how you break fingers. There’s some utterly baffling ideas here, across an entire trio of control schemes that really nail home the limitation of a console controller. The end result is a system of inputs which favours one style of play over the other, but doesn’t complement its counterpart in the slightest.
Meanwhile, the visual side of Deus Ex:Mankind Divided is another mixed bag of ideas. Character models look barely current-gen, animated to look like marionettes on crack cocaine and voiced with the care of a Shaw Brothers kung-fu movie dub. It’s the art direction however, where Mankind Divided shines. Prague may be cracking down on augmented humans, but it feels alive and dangerous, a hub city with next-gen advertising and style.
Jensen and the rest of Mankind Divided are still keeping the idea of a new Renaissance alive, mixing fine art with a cyberpunk influence and the reflection of a darker time to live in. No other game can boast having a sense of style so singularly focused as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided can. It’s a visual signature that speaks volumes about the artistic strength of this title, amplified by locations such as Golem City which feature all manner of shanty-town design influences in a modern age.
Levels themselves take advantage of this strength, with developer Eidos Montreal having opted to create smaller yet more detailed areas for players to infiltrate and explore. Meanwhile, the Breach mode augments Mankind Divided further, offering extra hours with logic puzzles as you hack away until the sun rises. It’s an interesting, albeit hardly necessary, addition.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided feels like another unpolished gem, an interesting blend of story and stealth that doesn’t quite manage to hit the same notes as its predecessor but is still an intriguing game that values your choices. And yet, despite these many flaws, it’s somehow still magnificent. It’s a game where the main story might falter but the side missions flesh it out properly. Where controls may require you to break your fingers to adeptly switch between genres, but serves either play-style adequately.
It’s addictive, gorgeous where it counts and worth not just a play but several more as well, as the world of Adam Jensen is a terrifyingly interesting time to be alive in.
Last Updated: August 29, 2016