Big video game sequels don’t often receive five years of development time, and yet here we are in 2016 with the release of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The follow-up to 2011’s Human Revolution adheres to the core Deus Ex formula: player freedom in a politically complex world. Mankind Divided sacrifices originality for polish, but the five-year wait diverts attention away from its reliance on familiar mechanics. It allows players to focus on a gameplay system that rewards creativity, a defining characteristic of the Deus Ex franchise. It’s a lot easier to overlook a convoluted narrative and uninspired setting when the emphasis on player freedom is as strong as ever.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided takes place two years after the events of Human Revolution. The violent outbursts from augmented humans in the previous game creates a schism in society in which “augs” face scorn and ridicule on a daily basis. In fact, at one point protagonist Adam Jensen infiltrates a ghetto for augmented individuals, a location that further illustrates the fragmentation of the world. The premise lays the groundwork for a narrative with a meaningful message, but Mankind Divided fails to reach beyond the surface. It’s a game in which its marketing materials use the phrase “mechanical apartheid”, and yet the writing fails to instill strong emotions associated with such phraseology. Instead, the needlessly complex plot gets in the way of the game and struggles to present clear resolutions by the time that the credits roll.
Much of that narrative complexity stems from information overload. The game attempts to explain the various factions’ political motivations at a rapid pace and thus creates a jumbled mess. Even Adam Jensen’s new role as an agent for Interpol remains unclear for most of the game. It’s a stark contrast to the gameplay complexity of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, perhaps its greatest strength.
The entire Deus Ex franchise gives players numerous tools to tackle a variety of obstacles in unique and inventive ways. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is no exception, and the tools are as robust as ever. Players can become invisible, conceal footsteps, electrocute enemies, hack locked doors — the list goes on and on. The abilities cater to individuals who prefer to sneak around just as much as those who take the “shoot first, ask questions later” approach. Folks with a silver tongue can even talk their way through missions in an effort to avoid bloodshed. All of this speaks to the promotion of player choice and freedom. Human Revolution touted the same philosophy, but small gameplay tweaks put Mankind Divided just a cut above its predecessor.
That’s not to say the most recent entry in the series fails to deliver anything new. Mankind Divided introduces a handful of extra powerful augments in Adam Jensen’s system. They range from an explosive typhoon blast to a focus enhancer that slows down time considerably. There’s a catch though — only so many can be equipped at once, otherwise Jensen’s system becomes overclocked. Thus, players must consider which augments to enable or disable. Eventually it becomes less of a concern, but the first half of the game in particular forces players to make careful decisions. Once again, the emphasis on player choice stands front and center.
Unfortunately, Mankind Divided fails to establish the same sense of freedom in its world design. Human Revolution was a globetrotting adventure, but most of Mankind Divided takes place in Prague. The game features a few story missions in which Jensen hops on a chopper to travel to different countries, but each of those locations is far more restrictive than the main hub world. The subway allows players to visit different zones in Prague, and while they all look visually impressive, they lack environmental variety. Aside from specific buildings, one zone looks just like the next.
Side missions ensure players see all of Prague, though, and most of them eclipse the main missions that progress the story. The most memorable characters and moments in Mankind Divided come from these side missions, and they actually tackle the societal themes only hinted at in the central narrative. One in particular — a murder mystery — addresses the value of policemen and their duty to the citizens and/or country. It presents a morally gray issue and lets players draw their only conclusions. Other side missions examine the pathos of Deus Ex and its world, a place in which individuals are treated unfairly on a constant basis. It’s a shame the main story doesn’t feature the same quality writing because the side missions illustrate the potential for a far more compelling narrative.
Despite some missteps with its story and environmental design, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided still manages to deliver a quintessential Deus Ex experience. More specifically, it focuses on what matters most: player choice. Each mission is like its own little sandbox, and the game provides players with the tools to get the job done. The rest boils down to player creativity. Let’s just say thinking outside of the box in a game like Mankind Divided goes a long way.