Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review

Gadgets, conspiracies, and gruff protagonists - sure, these words describe quite a few games out there, but none better than the Deus Ex series. The original game, released in 2000, took on topics like terrorism, the overreach of a federal policing organization, and corporate control over government. Few games even attempt to address these issues, but even today they're quite relevant. Since the original game's release, the series has had its ups and downs, the most notable detractor being a hastily-created sequel. With the death of original developer ION Storm, publisher Eidos made a new team to deliver Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a thought-provoking prequel that not only started on origin stories of several characters in the original game, but it was a fine effort on its own. Despite a few glaring missteps, the creators' eye for art and design, adherence to that very iconic first-person action/stealth/RPG mix that made the original so great, and ability to move out from under the original game's shadow by injecting the idea of transcending human limitations by way of technological augmentations to the human mind and body - these are the things that made Human Revolution a success.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided attempts to play on that success by delivering a direct sequel to the story with returning protagonist Adam Jensen at the helm again. Jensen's origin, that of badass who became even more powerful after nearly dying and being forced to get a full suite of amazing augmentations just to survive, was compelling. Jensen dreamed of being Icarus, flying too high and burning his wings - a visual that is particularly relevant considering his arms and legs had been amputated in favor of metal replacements.

The World and the Plot

The setting is a bleak future where a collapse is imminent and millions of augmented people are now being herded into camps or marginalized by the majority "natural" population. Legislation looms to make this happen worldwide as powers consolidate to globalize many laws regarding augmented people. Through all this, Jensen finds himself sneaking or blasting his way through missions regarding events that are on the periphery of the big global conspiracy that must be present to make a good Deus Ex game, but here we simply never actually get involved in it to any sizable degree.

Mankind Divided stumbles by making the world stage the focus of the conflict but doing very little with it. No real substitute is provided, like a whole new sinister conspiracy regarding something aside from the augmented-versus-naturals conflict, nor is there a smaller or more personal one as the plot doesn't attempt to address or even bring up new questions regarding Adam's past or future. Instead, he simply runs through a pedestrian plot with a few admittedly interesting characters, but no real resolution for any of the happenings in the world. The game is not short on content in any way, but it almost feels like it was written as the boring, world-establishing part one of a trilogy, where this is all set-up and the good stuff happens in the rest of the series. What's frustrating is that Human Revolution already did this work. And yes, multiple plot threads from this game and Human Revolution are mostly either glossed over or left abandoned in a way that's entirely unsatisfying.

The one thing I can't fault Eidos Montreal on is their art and design. Mankind Divided is chock full of excellent visuals, with lush environments, great special effects generating a ton of atmosphere, and an eye for design and architecture that no one else in the world of video games is really even getting close to matching. Ok, a game can't live on these things alone, but I did find myself motivated to move on because of the sheer quality of the art when I felt like the game's story was not doing its job of keeping me engaged.

I want to stop for a second and just commend Eidos for putting so much effort into showing us an amazing look at a futuristic rendition of the city of Prague, the game's major hub for Jensen's operations and the home where most side missions happen. The city is split up into multiple districts with tons of interiors to explore and possibly loot, and the atmosphere we get here is just wonderful. While I did miss having multiple hub cities like we had in Human Revolution, the focus on showing us one hugely detailed city pays off.

Ugly mouths

I've got one visual nitpick - lip sync. Mankind Divided's is horrible. I am just not sure I understand how a developer can so lavishly detail their environments with amazing architecture and special effects and then give their characters lip sync that looks so terrible for the actual voice work being done. OK, I know that getting technology like this right is hard and in the past decade we now need lips, teeth, and tongues to all move properly in order to maintain the illusion, but in this game, whole words are spoken in voiced dialogue while the character's on-screen mouth is completely closed. It's one of those things that seems like it'd be very much worth the investment in full performance capture, or if nothing else, better algorithms to make automated mouth movements for spoken dialogue. It's just a huge eyesore in an otherwise amazing-looking game. Eidos, call up Naughty Dog and steal whatever they're using. Or if you want to go even bigger, call up David Cage and Quantic Dream.

Actually Playing

Of course, I've been speaking of plot and design so much, and while that's a really important part of playing these games - largely because so few big-budget titles even attempt including plot with this degree of choice and intrigue - we should spend some time talking about how DX:MD actually plays. In that right, we get all the boxes checked, but the developers have made a game that plays similarly to Human Revolution - we aren't getting any huge surprises or other big innovations. Jensen's got some new weapons and augmentation toys to play with, but overall, you'll be stealthily sneaking by or quietly knocking out enemies, or going guns blazing in FPS style - just like the past games, yes, but most notably almost exactly the same way as in Eidos' previous effort. That is still a pretty impressively fun formula, however - there are many ways to reach Jensen goals, both through things to do and in paths to take, and that goes along way. Admittedly, though, it is disappointing how often the level designers rely on using the same pristine-looking air ducts and vents as Jensen's stealth-based movement through a map. I feel like level designs should have included a little more diversity in creating alternate paths - not everything needs to be an air vent. Sure, the past games certainly had their fair share of them, but by the end of the game, every level is just littered with vents that move you between rooms without getting guards' or cameras' attention.

With that said, I think any veteran Deus Ex player will tell you that these games are generally intended to be played stealthily, and completing each entry in the series as non-lethally as one can is not only a way to play that very few blockbuster games support, but this playstyle also gives us the most insight into the world-building that Eidos Montreal has done. It often also leads us into some of the most interesting subplots and little visual storytelling that many blockbuster games lack. I'm happy to report that Mankind Divided can be completed entirely stealthily with bonuses and achievements granted for taking out people non-lethally, getting noticed by no hostiles, and tripping no alarms.

Villains

Eidos' approach towards boss battles this time around is probably the best implementation of the entire series, as the game avoids forced fights entirely. Instead, you'll actually talk to your enemies before optionally getting into a fight with them. This allows for some much needed understanding of the villains' motivations and challenges.

This is one of those things that's sorely missing in many of today's games and movies - villains that can reasonably believe they're actually doing the right thing (even when they're not) and with reasons for doing them that may be twisted or otherwise come from some outside view, but that still make at least some sense. Good villainization is very hard in movies and TV, and it's even tougher in games. Deus Ex generally has done this mostly right from the start, and Mankind Divided is right up there with the rest of the series. Plus, it's just refreshing for a game like this to even allow players to sling words as their weapons, considering how many other games will just resort to another bloody, bullet-riddled boss fight. And hey, I grew up with Doom so you know I certainly enjoy games like that, but it's not something I want every single time.

It's difficult to speak of the issues with DX:MD's plot without spoiling things, but I am reminded quite a bit of Dragon Age II and its small-minded plot that largely revolved around a single city. The characters were excellent, but the big baddies just weren't big enough. I saved the world in the last game, and now I'm worrying about some half-baked conflict between Paladins and Templars? The side-straddling Jensen does here between Naturals and Augs starts to feel the same as it did there. When making a sequel to a game where the world was truly threatened and big heroes had to come in and save it, making a simple story about a much less-impactful thing just won't seem right to many gamers, and that definitely feels like that's what's happening here.

Success and Failure

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a product of a team that's got some industry-leading strengths and they are maximizing those well, but they seem to not realize what their weaknesses are. Without seeing the problem, they won't be able to solve it. This game plays quite well and the augmentations and weapons are a blast to use, but the plot just goes nowhere and while Adam Jensen was an intriguing character in Human Revolution, he's flat and dry here with basically no personal growth. The gameplay is good but a little too familiar, and while I love having a game with multiple paths and lots of secrets to explore, a few too many of them come at the end of yet another air vent. (Seriously, you explore more vents in this game than Ezra does in the Star Wars Rebels TV show). It's a fine gameplay experience, but I believe fans of the entire Deus Ex franchise should rightly expect more from Eidos. And if resolution of my issues (especially the ones related to the plot) is coming via DLC, then at least the Season Pass is a somewhat-reasonable $30.

I recommend Deus Ex: Mankind Divided for anyone who wants to play a big-budget action game in a way that doesn't involve shooting everything that moves, but long-time fans of the series should find out see what happens with the coming DLC before jumping in at full price. Otherwise, you may find yourself disappointed with where the game takes us.

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