This article contains some gameplay and minor story spoilers for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the latest in the popular stealth/action RPG (with some cool cyerpunk elements), which follows augmented human and Interpol agent Adam Jensen. His main job in Mankind Divided is to capture a terrorist sect of his fellow augs, but off the books he’s working with hackers to take down the Illuminati—and he discovers a conspiracy along the way.
The game is enjoyable, at most 40 hours of play time, with a focus on stealth and hacking and some great locations that gave it an open-world feel. Here are three elements I thought it nailed.
I’m of the mind that Mankind Divided‘s character design leaves something to be desired. When I booted up the game, I had a strange moment of wondering when it was produced. While some games go for realism (I’m looking at you, Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops III), Deus Ex seems reticent to cross the uncanny valley. On my PS4, Jensen looks like he was rendered on an early PS3 game, and NPC movement frequently looks awkward.
But when looking at the complexity and scale of other aspects of the game, the lack of refinement in character models is even more stark. There are so many things to explore, from the alleys of Prague to abandoned luxury hotels to entire apartment complexes. I spent hours scaling various buildings, climbing around vents, and generally sneaking from place to place. The locations are well rendered; many of them are half-destroyed and covered in trash, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call them beautiful.
With such an emphasis on stealth, it makes sense that the game would feature complex, dynamic environments for players to explore and use as part of combat. Was the less sophisticated rendering of NPCs a cost of funneling so many resources to such a hugely scaled world? Or did they just assume we’d be so busy exploring Prague that we wouldn’t care what people’s faces looked like?
One of my favorite features in RPGs is the ability to affect outcomes with my dialog choices. If I’m playing Mass Effect as a Paragon, I know how people will respond and what kind of outcomes to expect. The Deus Ex franchise takes this several steps further with the ability to monitor the reactions of other characters during conversations. Not only is it a nifty feature on its own as a sort of armchair psychology (revealing the better and worse sides of someone’s nature, or what kind of rhetoric they’re susceptible to), but carefully selecting responses means that you can finesse situations to your benefit.
Not every situation calls for threats, and Deus Ex understands that. If you want to make your way through the story with guns drawn, sure, you’re totally able to. But if you’re fond of sneaking around and resolving things with a minimum of bloodshed—or if you’re just fond of manipulating people to get what you want—the game’s got you covered.
Limited Opportunities to Complete Side Quests
As someone naturally inclined to skip side quests (I’m a plot hound, and I get impatient), the game quickly proved to be unforgiving. Leave an area to proceed with the plot? Say goodbye to several, if not the majority, of side quests in that area. Once you’ve made a decision, you’re stuck with it. If you want all that bonus XP and world building (so much world building! Seriously, the writing is great), be methodical about finishing side quests—and talking to everyone you can just to make sure you didn’t miss one.
It raises the stakes significantly to know that, unlike in many RPGs, you can’t just go back to tie up loose threads. Despite my impatience, I came to appreciate the game’s commitment to realistic consequences.
The Praxis Ability Tree
For me, the ability to customize Jensen’s abilities was what made the game enjoyable. Choosing to focus on improving my hacking ability or buffing my health rather than sticking with a default play style was crucial. I’m not wonderful at stealth games, so I put a lot of Praxis points toward health and durability. If I hadn’t been able to curate my own experience in that way, I probably would have given up on the game out of frustration. (As it was, I still ended up seeing the loading screen far too many times.)
You also have special unstable abilities you can activate and deactivate at will, which is especially useful for coming up against challenges. Finding the right Praxis settings may take some fine tuning, but it’s what players need to do in order to adapt Jensen’s style to their own.
While I found some elements of the game effective and intriguing, it wasn’t without its flaws. Below are three elements I wish had been reconsidered before launch:
The Breach/Virtual Reality
The Breach mode is an arcade-style VR mode that can be accessed from the main game. There’s also a substantial chunk of the main game wherein Jensen infiltrates a virtual reality landscape for plot purposes, and I found that a strange tonal and mechanic shift, but other people might like it. While I could have done without that sequence, I’m even more perplexed by Breach.
You play as a hacker who infiltrates VR to gain information. It’s not just stealth missions; you face combat, and players can climb score leaderboards. On paper, adding a speed mode with a competition element sounds fun, but for me it fell short. The mechanics were clunky and difficult, the sequences by nature repetitive, and the mode doesn’t augment the main story.
You could play the whole game without once stepping into Breach, so why does it exist in the first place? It doesn’t have the complexity of co-op or true multiplayer; to me, it feels like the developers were looking for a way to capitalize on the popularity of speed runs, and they hastily created Breach.
For fairness’ sake, I watched both endings (the “good” and “bad” ending). Neither of them felt particularly satisfying, as I was left with more questions than answers. On one hand, that’s incentive for players to buy the next in the series (or the upcoming DLC), but on the other, I don’t want to feel like I’ve put in 20-40 hours only to be left hanging. I didn’t feel intrigued; I felt grumpy.
I wouldn’t call any part of the game leisurely, exactly, but I did notice the abrupt acceleration as I neared the end. The many threads uncovered in the copious side missions don’t so much dangle as completely disappear. As an editor, I appreciate conflict acceleration, but things happened so quickly that I felt like the ending had been dumped on my head.
And for a game very much presented as the unraveling of a conspiracy, we sure don’t spend much time learning what said conspiracy is.
The Racism Allegory
Deus Ex does a great job of showing the painful reality of living in a combat zone. Jensen is on the ground for bombings, encounters a heavy police state (and is not saved from their suspicion and dislike even though he’s ostensibly in a position of power), and he sees misery everywhere around him, from petty crime to homelessness to even more senseless violence. As an augmented character, the audience is asked to see the world through his eyes and to weigh the unfair treatment he receives.
Sci-fi has always been a lense for examining real-world problems in a fantastical context, and Deus Ex is part of that legacy.
However, the game made me uncomfortable with its chosen rhetoric, because it feels like appropriation for entertainment. The augs vs normals conflict harkens back to the Civil Rights movement and to the continuing protests and movements of today: there’s a dominate police force, dissension within the movement as to nonviolent protest vs violent protest, segregation (augs aren’t allowed in certain bathrooms or have to use a different line to get on the subway), and general themes of violence and discrimination. You don’t even need to squint to see the parallel.
Even more uncomfortably, some of the language Square Enix used during publicity for the game included the phrase “mechanical apartheid.” Apartheid is a word I don’t hear bandied about casually, and for good reason: it’s an Afrikaans word referring to the brutal regime that ruled South Africa and enforced racial segregation from 1948 through the 1990s. It’s not a word that should be repurposed for other circumstances. When criticized for the word use, Deus Ex developers responded in a way I found tone deaf.
I think telling a story about transhuman discrimination without any real-life context or reference is impossible. I find it believable that there would be some kind of segregation and ostracization for augs in this universe. Still, co-opting specific terms about very real brutality is several steps too far. I hope that, for future games in the Deux Ex world, the developers sincerely consider what they’re drawing inspiration from and if it’s appropriate to do so.