Just a little guy.
Adam Jensen’s in a rough spot. He’s hiding in a vent, planning his next moves. Up ahead lie three enemies and a camera, each unmoving, each blocking the way to his objective. Thinking quickly, he hobbles together some cartridges out of tech scraps in his bag and loads them into his mechanical arms. Sliding ahead slowly and deliberately, he raises his fist and lets loose a few bolts, incapacitating all four aspects of the once threatening roadblock. As he hacks through to the next door he sees his prize on a table in front of him- a data drive. Picking it up, he sends out a voice call to his partner; “I’ve got it Alex,” he says. “This is the key to helping us figure out exactly who’s behind this.” I sat in front of my screen, and sighed in exasperation. This was not the first time Adam had said this, and I had a sinking feeling it wasn’t going to be the last.
When Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was announced, I had a feeling of trepidation. I loved 2011’s Human Revolution, so I should’ve been excited! Seeing familiar gameplay touched up, and hearing the goofy gravelly tones of Adam Jensen again both checked off large boxes in my heart-list, and the story was looking to be the standard conspiracy-driven intrigue Deus Ex is usually about. That’s when the developers came out of the woodwork to share their grand plans for a deeper story, with an overarching theme of “Mechanical Apartheid.” Even ignoring the terminology used, I was cringing, as Eidos Montreal is not known for their nuance. The idea of them making a game about organized racism was a scary thought. Between things like “Aug Lives Matter” posters, or concept art of mechanical ghettos, the game seemed to be handling their themes with the elegance of a hammer to an anvil. Shockingly, having now finished Mankind Divided, I’m more surprised by how insubstantially these themes are actually explored.
Backing up, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is very much a sequel to Human Revolution. You reprise your role as Adam Jensen two years after the events of the last entry. Just as before, your general goals are to fight and sneak your way through a variety of heavily guarded areas in search of the truth™. Any normal person might struggle when faced with the security threats you’re up against, but luckily Adam Jensen’s heavily augmented super body allows him to do practically anything he needs to. Want to shoot lightning from your fist? You can do that. Want to become invisible to both eyes and ears? You can do that! Do you want to turn your arms into swords and run in stabbing dudes willy-nilly? Guess what! You can do that too. Augments provide great diversity in how you can approach any given scenario without feeling obligatory, letting you choose whichever sound good to you without making the game that much harder.
“Mankind Divided also introduces “Experimental Augments” which let you do more complex things like mid-air dashing or long-range hacking, at the cost of energy. The odd thing about those augments is they’re deliberately tuned to be much stronger than average augments, so the game presents them in such a way as to imply using too many of them will overclock your system. To counteract this, a system is introduced to disable your other augs in favor of the new fancy experimental ones, but the risks are so low, like being unable to see parts of your HUD for a couple seconds, that there’s no reason to even bother disabling anything.
This leads into one of the problems with Mankind Divided: Adam Jensen is an unstoppable hurricane. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a strong protagonist, but while Adam has evolved, the enemies that you go up against have not. This means a bunch of average dudes and the occasional robot have to deal with this perfect cyborg man designed for any situation. Other games solve these types of problems by either ramping up the difficulty or changing how enemy AI works based on your strategies. A great example of this is Metal Gear Solid V, where enemies will start,for example,wearing helmets if your playstyle focuses heavily on headshots. When you start getting lots of headshots in Deus Ex, however, security forces are unfazed, as if it’s simply their fate. Though the places Adam Jensen finds himself in are both unrelated and far apart, Deus Ex has a world where everyone is connected through Illuminati conspiracy; it’s hard to believe that the people behind it all wouldn’t invest in better security. Even a theoretically harder pacifist run does nothing to ease these issues, as Adam still hits any challenge in his way like a truck. This makes non-pacifist runs feel like a nonstop roller coaster rampage, and while those can be fun, you won’t run into any real challenges unless you make them for yourself.
Despite the ease of it all, fighting through each new area is still a lot of fun. Executing your strategies in-mission is immensely satisfying, and the amount of options you have really lets you accomplish what you want. There were countless times where I thought I was being incredibly clever, only to realize how much I had missed. Once, I snuck through a dangerous camera-filled hallway around a laser grid, only to discover a vent behind a cabinet I could’ve used to get past that. Another time I’d thrown an exercise ball across the room as a distraction, only to draw a nearby soldier to look where it’d had been thrown from. Situations like these always surprised me, and while I was frustrated with myself for not thinking of these possibilities, I was more impressed by how successful I’d actually been. The game taking place in a small open world means the choices you’re presented with in normal mission gameplay are extended to general traversal as well. There are plenty of buildings and sewers that can be explored in interesting ways, but with the sheer amount of gameplay choice you’re given, the mundane story feels much more disappointing.
As I mentioned earlier, the story in Mankind Divided doesn’t feel like it amounts to anything. One of the issues when designing prequel entries in a series is raising believable stakes for the player. While Human Revolution handled this by working with a much lower-key contemporary story within the universe, Mankind Divided is more focused on presenting an elaborate moral dilemma. At multiple points in the storyline you’re asked to make decisions about the rights of augmented people, primarily on an act that would segregate humanity further. The issue with examining this is that we know when the original Deus Ex happens, augmentation isn’t a focus of segregation, making every major player choice I was faced with feel meaningless. Mankind Divided also manages to run into most of the major issues with making a direct sequel, too. Between the removal of every major character from Human Revolution (barring a single cameo) and a failure to answer any of the questions of the first game, Mankind Divided hardly feels like a sequel at all, making the decision to bring Adam Jensen back in the lead role baffling.
NPC interactions being as stiff and immersion-breaking as they are certainly doesn’t help matters.
Adam is dead-set on finding the truth about who was behind the finale of Human Revolution, which resulted in the worldwide stigma against augmented people. However, nothing in Mankind Divided furthers his discoveries.When the credits roll, Adam is still saying the same thing he did at the start: “We’re one step closer to the truth.” But it doesn’t feel like he is. The marketing and set dressing of the game lead you believe that it’s presenting a tale of segregation and the “mechanical apartheid,” but the narrative just revolves around the same type of situation as Human Revolution. Ultimately, it’s a case of X organization is controlling Y organization from the shadows, and Z antagonist is working with them. It’s a fine setup, but it makes you wonder why Mankind Divided tried to sell itself so hard on being a story about race.
Every actual representation of segregation is presented environmentally, which ends up feeling strange. The closest the game comes to presenting bigotry through its story (outside of every NPC calling you a “clank”) is the sheer amount of times Adam is stopped by police for being augmented. While this is a decent way of showing the differences between societal classes, it still feels hollow, since the cops always back off at Adam’s documentation. This means that you yourself, despite existing as a member of a group being discriminated against, don’t actually have to deal with any of the ramifications presented in the game. Ultimately, the “mechanical apartheid” angle just feels unnecessary. The entire plot of the game could’ve been about something completely different if they just changed a few words, something different, something better and something a lot less offensive.
Luckily the side content handles itself much better than the main missions, providing interesting one-offs that unravel over the course of the game, rather than being done a couple dozen minutes after they start. There’s also “Jensen’s Stories”, which place you in short isolated campaigns with their own missions, though with each of them being paid, launch-day DLC, it’s hard not to wonder how much of that content was cut from the game proper. Out of all the side content, though, the new “Breach” mode is definitely the most substantial.
Breach, by and large, cuts out the story in favor of presenting you polygonal puzzle rooms full of different and unique challenges. Despite the lightness of story content in this mode, there is still an expository setup of you being an anti-corporate style hacker. As a “ripper”, you’ll be going through node after node of a corporation’s security firewall, trying to dig up data and other dirt to sell for credits. You can use these credits to unlock different level modifiers, items, and weapons, as well as ammunition to keep those weapons stocked. Since this is a game released in 2016, you can also use real money to buy premium credits that give the player access to golden guns and the like. Credits can also be used in four unique text-based side stories that were surprisingly interesting, albeit short.
The first story I played had me digging into the cover-up of a young girl’s death by a large corporation. The credits I had let me hire “resources,” people experienced in things like medicine or the military who could provide context for the clues I was digging up. These side stories also have their own levels to explore and usually end in a short boss fight. While I’ve never been too interested in leaderboard style games, there are plenty of ways to experiment within Breach mode to get higher scores. If that’s your type of game, and you enjoy how Mankind Divided proper plays, then Breach will be your bread and butter.
Ultimately, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a fun experience hampered by a poor story. If this were a different game, I’d be more inclined to let it off the hook, but one of the defining aspects of the original Deus Ex was the unique depth of its story: how it managed to discuss issues of class and government/corporate powers in a way that felt smart instead of shallow. It’s depressing at best to see one of its successors so poorly written in a time where deep stories are considered near-essential. If you’re willing to look past some slightly offensive talking points, uninteresting characters, and an anti-climactic story, then Mankind Divided will be an incredibly fun stealth action experience. If you’re looking for the type of game Mankind Divided bills itself as, however, where player choice matters and deeper thoughts are being discussed, you’ll be disappointed.