Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Deus Ex Mankind Divided shows the price of success. When Human Revolution was made, the team and budget was moderately large, which allowed them to take risks. Following the original Deus Ex as a template, they made a new story that followed every beat of the original, creating the perfect entry point for new players, while still retaining everything older fans enjoyed. It was better than I dared hope. But this success caused the budget for Mankind Divided to balloon. Early on they announced the team for the sequel would be 4x the size of the last game, which made me nervous. A bigger budget means more executive meddling. And that’s exactly what happened here.
The biggest problem with Mankind Divided is how it was mandated to be “the second part of a trilogy”. We don’t know at what part of development Square Enix came into the Eidos Montreal offices and made this decision for them, but it’s clear the developers weren’t up to the task of making a great middle part of a story. Like Mass Effect 2, it’s all setup, and no payoff. It makes the whole game feel pointless. Even though I had a great time playing it, the sense that it wasn’t leading to anything has a huge impact on the perceived value of the time spent here. It’s easily the longest Deus Ex game, taking me 10 hours longer to finish than Human Revolution, but it’s the least efficient in its use of time. And despite all this, I still feel like recommending the game!
For all the structural flaws on display here, it also shows they were genuinely trying to one-up the last game in every way they could. Taking place mostly in a single city hub this time, it takes notes from The Witcher in how consequences of side quests return to haunt you in later parts of the game. It adds to a sense of cohesion. The level design is also accommodating to your whims, as there’s alternative paths and solutions all over the place. You almost can’t take a wrong turn, as areas in latter parts of the game feel a bit like swiss cheese with how there’s doors, windows and vents all over. To some this might be a negative, as it makes it easier. But I found it pleasant to have more solutions than I knew what to do with.
The thing I enjoyed most in the game is how cohesively it blends sneaking, exploration and dialog. Like the original Deus Ex, the game tries to create story consequence from all your controller inputs, whether they be movement, action or picking dialog options. It isn’t wholly successful at it, but the attempt goes a long way to making the game have a sense of meaning to everything that happens. You’re not “taken out of the game” whenever a dialog scene occurs, as it’s so tightly integrated into everything else that the thought never occurs that it shouldn’t be there. The “social boss fights” return in this game, and the way they’re integrated into dialog scenes is more ambitious than the last game. Here half a scene can play out like a normal RPG dialog scene, and then the characters break out into an argument, and the scene shifts to the social boss battle system. There’s more sequences like this than I expected, and the way they’re integrated into the whole feels natural. This cohesion extends to how levels are designed, as the game can often give you progression options that utilize any of the tools available. It’s no doubt living up to the idea of what a Deus Ex game should be. It isn’t like other RPGs. This is a kind of blend of elements that you can’t get anywhere else.
At the same time you can’t escape the feeling it’s only doing certain things half way, like the concept of a mechanical apartheid. Augmented humans aren’t trusted in this world, and the government tries to limit contact between augmented and non-augmented as much as it can. You have park benches with “naturals only” written on them, and separate lines in subway stations. Playing as an augmented human, you’re harassed by police if you walk through the human lines in the subway. But beyond that there isn’t much else the game does to remind you of your oppression during normal play. In dialog people might be dicks to you, but if you enter establishments for naturals only, nobody bats an eye. To some extent I can see why they limited the harassment you experience, as it would’ve been a pain in the ass to play. But at the same time that would’ve communicated the story of the world much more powerfully. Instead it’s a bit unclear just how distrusting the world really is, as you can go hours without feeling the sting of discrimination, in a game where it’s the most prominent theme of the story.
The side quests are the highlight of the game. There aren’t a lot of them, but because of that they’re all very high quality, and provide the greatest variety in the game. Here’s where the themes of discrimination are most clearly communicated, as you come across political scandals involving augmentations, people whose expired visas might send them to a mechanical ghetto, and so on. There’s even a quest where Adam Jensen gets to do traditional police work. This is something I found particularly delightful as even the very first Deus Ex reminded you at points that you’re actually supposed to be a cop, but circumstances in the games have always been so extraordinary that you never got to act like one, until now. If you’re going to play the game, absolutely try to do every side quest you can, as they’re the highlight of the game. They’re also the only stories in the game that are self contained, with proper conclusions to their arcs.
If you enjoyed any of the previous Deus Ex games, Mankind Divided is an easy recommendation. It feels odd to have a game where I could list things it did wrong for ages, but still have a generally favorable opinion. When playing I often found myself wishing other big budget games would be more like this. They had a full writing staff working on the game from the start together with the rest of the development team, so every action you take in the game feels like it “belongs” in the game in a way it rarely does in other high budget titles. As much as I liked Uncharted 4 or The Witcher 3 Blood and Wine, they were just the same thing again, except with a new story. Deus Ex Mankind Divided feels like progress. It might have more game modes than necessary, and a story that goes nowhere, but it also takes steps forward in areas where it counts. Here’s hoping they manage to fight off the nervous executives more effectively for the next game.